Monday, September 30, 2013

Staying buried, or seeking the light?

If we begin to think about what "fruit" might just be present in our lives, one of the first ones which may come to mind is "love".  I had to "Google" how many times "love" appeared in the Bible, figuring it was probably somewhere in the thousands, right?  You might be surprised to know that the King James Bible has the word "love" printed only 314 times - a whole 594 times if you throw in a smattering of lovest, loveth, loving, and lovingkindness.  As important as this "fruit" is, I thought it would likely be far more "cited" in the scriptures.  Yet, love is probably the most significant of the fruit we can bear in life - as all the rest of the fruit which may become apparent are really founded on the basis of love. Don't believe me?  Try being long-suffering if you have no foundation of love in the relationship.  Try finding joy in difficult circumstances if love is not the basis of what holds your head up and gives you hope.  The other fruit simply are built upon this foundation of love.

Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”  (Matthew 27:37-40 MSG)

Love is the outflow of the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Apart from the Holy Spirit's activity in my life, the choices I'd make would be pretty self-centered and self-seeking.  Let him into the mix and the choices I make are tempered by his presence - they tend to shift from what pleases just me and they take into consideration what might affect another.  Love gives evidence of the Holy Spirit's presence in our lives - it is the outflow of his having taken up residence!  We can do a whole lot of things to "appear" to have this thing called "love" evident in our lives, but when it is the "real deal", worked into the fibers of our being by the presence of the Holy Spirit, there is nothing which speaks louder, nor clearer to those around us of God's activity within.

The sad part of life comes in realizing how many "places" people go to look for "love".  In society today, people seek love in relationships - many failing to find what they pursue because no man or woman is meant to bring this "fruit" into our lives.  People think loves come from parents - so if we don't feel "loved", it must be our parent's fault.  Yeah, they have a responsibility to be good role models for us, but parents are just people like us - they get things wrong, have some pretty mixed up priorities, and sometimes just don't get this thing we call "love" very well connected in families.  Truth is - we all fall way short of "love" until the Holy Spirit begins to bring forth the fruit of love in our lives.  No one has it all together apart from his action within - plain and simple.

Over the past couple of days, I have spoken much about what takes root in our lives.  If we don't look at the root, we cannot impact the fruit.  Things which get rooted sometimes don't belong.  It is the work of the Holy Spirit to begin this uprooting process, but it is also his work to begin to lay down the seed which will take root into the "fruit" we call love.  Does the sprout of a seed look for all it needs to its growth "under the soil" or inward?  No, it sends a shoot to the surface, to break free of the confines of the darkness of the soil into the light of day.  Why?  Light brings resources it did not have when it remained buried under the soil.  Love is kind of like this in our lives, too.  It is planted there as a tiny seed by the Holy Spirit.  It begins to germinate within, changing into something which no longer resembles the seed - sending out roots and this little shoot.  The shoot of love seeks light - when it finds it, it begins the growth of exponential magnitude.  Love is meant to be brought into the light - so it can grow and multiply.

Love is first of all "self-seeking".  Let me explain.  We don't embrace what we don't think will benefit us in some way - even the bad stuff we embrace in life we think has some benefit to us, right?  We "seek" love because we have a space in our lives where love belongs.  We have an emptiness which yearns to be filled.  Seek it in the right place and your "love tank" will be filled with the best love possible - the love of God.  Seek it in all the wrong places, and your tank will constantly return to empty!  God doesn't mind that our need to love is a little self-seeking at first.  He makes us this way so we will desire to be filled with all which produces life and godliness.  He just hopes we will use this desire to be "filled" to turn to him for the filling!  But...God doesn't want us to remain "self-seeking" forever - he wants us to begin to allow his love to grow within, breaking through into the light of his grace and presence, until we one day begin to recognize what he is "growing within" is meant to touch the world around us.  

Love is really an important "fruit" with the capacity to "fill us up" and to "spill over" into the lives of many we touch.  Maybe it is time for us to begin to ask ourselves if there is evidence of the Holy Spirit's activity in our lives.  If not, it may just be time to allow a little uprooting, replanting, and "light-seeking" to encourage the growth of love from your life.  Just sayin!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Getting rid of the "bad seed"

We began to explore a little about "fruit-bearing" yesterday.  As you may recall, we need to both recognize what seed is being planted and have the knowledge to know whether it is good or not.  Today, let's go a little deeper into this idea of "fruit-bearing" - keeping in mind that fruit is "grown", not just magically "given" in our lives.  We can use all kinds of excuses for any "bad fruit" we want to - truth be told, it grew there because of the seed which was planted.  On occasion, we have explored the concept of "character" being formed in our lives - a process requiring a period of time with a series of adjustments this way and that until there is evidence of God's character shining through in a pretty consistent manner.  I don't think you can consider "fruit-bearing" apart from this concept of character formation.  In fact, as fruit is becoming evident, it is only because of the "character" of the thing it is "attached" to from which it draws its very source of life.  This is why we cannot expect grapes from a thistle bush, or oranges from a grape vine.  It takes the vine to produce the grape, the tree to produce the orange, and the weed to produce the thistle!

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.  (Galations 5:22-23 MSG)

I think it is important to remember growth as a "participatory" process and not something which is "forced" upon us.  Sometimes one prepares the soil, another sows the seed, and still another tends the seed until it has taken root.  It may be another who actually reaps the harvest and thousands who enjoy the increase of that one seed.  Many benefit from the actions of a few, but all participated in the process.  In the same way, when a seed is sown into our lives, we either participate with the process or we don't.  

If the soil of our heart is too hard, the seed may fall, but we will reject it because we would not yield to the preparation of the soil to receive it.  We participate with the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Most importantly, we recognize the importance of the process - participating in it fully.  This means we allow the preparation of the soil, often uncovering hidden things we might not have known were there, and breaking up fallow soil, previously pretty barren in our lives.  We also embrace the seed, allowing it to take root.  As it takes root, we also need to be aware of the passage of time between root and fruit.  In this time, we are not "stagnant", but participating in the process of growth - taking in what will bring forth the most precious of fruit.

When we begin to "live God's way", we are beginning to participate with him in the daily transformation of our lives.  Unwholesome seed and its root is exposed - what we do with it in that moment of exposure is what determines if we are truly willing to live God's way or choosing to live our own.  It is pretty easy to recognize seed and root which bears good fruit - but we often resist the attempts of the Holy Spirit to expose the seed and root which will not.  It isn't that we don't see the unwholesome seed, it is more that we don't want to go to the effort of seeing the field of our lives turned over enough to get rid of ALL the seed and its root.  

Until we are willing to uncover ALL the unwholesome seed, there will always be some which takes root.  As you may imagine, getting to the place of "cooperating with" and "participating in" this whole "fruit-inspection" process is a little harder than we thought at first blush.  For most of us, we don't have the power we need to change the stuff we need to change.  The reason the seed grows is because we don't know how to get rid of it, cannot see where it has taken root, and don't realize how much it has multiplied within us.  

We need the Holy Spirit's power to actually expose and remove it.  You may not realize the power of the Word of God.  Take even a little of it into the soil of your hearts each day and see just how much it changes the "character" of the soil!  The regular turning over of the soil provided by the intake of the Word is what brings exposure.  Exposure leads to removal.  Removal promotes readiness.  Readiness results in planting of the good stuff.  Good seed produces good fruit.  A little intake has a huge potential!  Just sayin!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Short-cut to fruit-bearing

If you have ever had something begin to grow in your garden and then wondered what it might be, you may have left it grow a little longer because you think it resembles a flower or perhaps a plant which will produce some type of "fruit".  As it grows, you can begin to tell if it is what you thought it might be or not.  When it no longer resembles what you thought it was, you pluck it up because you now recognize it as not being the "fruit-bearing" plant you imagined.  I feed birds - this produces a variety of "undergrowth" in my flowerbeds because they fling seed everywhere.  I have seen one-eyed susan, an occasional sunflower, and a lot of tall blades of grass as a result of this "seed flinging".  There is also a whole lot of stuff in there I don't recognize.  I just pluck those out right away because I have no idea what they will produce. A whole lot of "seed" gets "flung" in life, doesn't it?  Much of it can begin to grow wherever it is "planted" - but not all of it is beneficial.  Some of the fruit produced may not be as helpful or beautiful as others.  

You will know these people because of what they do. Good things don’t come from people who are bad, just as grapes don’t come from thornbushes, and figs don’t come from thorny weeds. In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit.  (Matthew 7:16-18 ERV)

What I am doing when I first take notice of these little sprouts in the garden is something you might label as being an "inspector".  I am looking for evidence of two things - I have to recognize what it is, and I have to know if it is beneficial to leave where it is planted.  These are two very important points for us to keep in mind in our own lives as these two principles can guide us in relationships, spiritual pursuits, and emotionally charged times. We need to be able to recognize the "seeds" for what they will produce, and we have to know if what is produced will actually be of any value to us in the long run.  Some call this being "inspectors" - I call it being wise.

Much of what is offered to us today in life is in the form of "short-cuts".  We have all kinds of ways to produce something which "resembles" the "real deal", but it really falls short of the original.  For example, we have instant mashed potatoes.  Add water or a little milk, heat in the microwave, and we have mashed potatoes, right?  Nope, we have reconstituted powdered potato flakes. They look similar to the real deal, and even taste a little like fresh mashed potatoes, but they lack something in the consistency and appearance. What we have produced is "close" to the original, but truthfully, it is only a substitute for the original produced through a series of short-cuts.

Things produced in life are a result of what takes root.  Fruit comes because there was first a root.  You cannot have one without the other.  These things which sprout up quickly in my garden take root easily.  They are flung on the surface and don't need much depth to take root.  A word of caution - when something doesn't need much depth to take root, it usually is a weed and the "fruit" produced will oftentimes give you more headache than heart-peace! Things which matter - producing luscious fruit - are things which take a little longer to root and are almost always planted more "purposefully".  Short-cut "fruit" is rarely as rewarding or satisfying as that which is "purposefully" produced by being planted, nurtured, and harvested in season.

As you may well imagine, fruit is often a key indicator of what has been taking root.  I don't make my own mustard, so a tiny mustard seed taking over my garden with one sprouting plant may look nice for a little while, but it will soon crowd out the rest of what I have growing there.  The birds may like it, but it produces nothing I can actually "use" in my life.  What we allow into the garden of our hearts and minds begins to take root in our inner man.  How do we begin to analyze what has taken root.  Oftentimes, the "behavior" is the evidence of what has taken root on the inside.  Some behavior is to be trusted at "face value" while other behavior is a cleverly produced "imitation" of what we think is going to produce good fruit.  Becoming clear on what is "good fruit" and what is not will help us accurately judge what might be at the root of the behavior we are producing.

Remembering what I proposed earlier, we have to both recognize what is planted and know whether it is good for us or not.  Recognition comes with a little help from some tools we have at our disposal - the Word to guide us into truth, the Holy Spirit to prompt us when "truth" isn't accurate, and our conscience to assist us in weighing the "truth" in response to the values God is working into our hearts.  Knowing if something will actually produce worthwhile fruit takes a little practice.  The instant mashed potatoes will put dinner on the table quickly, but they don't provide nearly the nutrients as the ones I peel, boil, and mash with milk and butter.  They aren't as rich in flavor and they aren't as satisfying to the palate.  Sometimes I have to taste a little of the fruit to really become aware of what has been produced!  This is a little sad really because some of the fruit produced in my life has been a little bitter!  Yet, when I get a good taste of the bitter fruit, I know it doesn't belong and I seek to get it out.  

I think all God wants for us is to become a little more proficient at recognizing the fruit of what is taking root.  Remember, shallow roots may produce fast growth, but will it be lasting and fruitful?  Not too likely.  So, do more than just accept the "fast growing" and begin to allow the "purposeful planting" of what God knows will produce "good fruit".  It isn't in the "short cuts" we produce our "best" fruit - it is in the tender-loving care of his watchful eye. Just sayin!

Friday, September 27, 2013

My filing cabinet

Memory is a powerful tool - learning how to use it to our advantage is probably one of the most difficult tasks we can undertake, for we remember what we'd be best to let go of and we don't remember some of the most awesome moments God provides for our growth and restoration.  If you have ever caught yourself bemoaning where you ARE, you have probably forgotten where you came FROM.  We have selective memories, at best.  Focusing too intently on one thing keeps us from seeing the things we might just need to hold a little closer to our hearts.

God makes everything come out right; he puts victims back on their feet... God is sheer mercy and grace; not easily angered, he’s rich in love. He doesn’t endlessly nag and scold, nor hold grudges forever. He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve, nor pay us back in full for our wrongs. As high as heaven is over the earth, so strong is his love to those who fear him. And as far as sunrise is from sunset, he has separated us from our sins. As parents feel for their children, God feels for those who fear him. He knows us inside and out, keeps in mind that we’re made of mud. Men and women don’t live very long; like wildflowers they spring up and blossom, but a storm snuffs them out just as quickly, leaving nothing to show they were here. God’s love, though, is ever and always, eternally present to all who fear him, making everything right for them and their children as they follow his Covenant ways and remember to do whatever he said.  (Psalm 103:6-18 MSG)

I think we are all a little guilty of yearning for the "good old days", aren't we? We want things to be the way they used to be - not because things were all that much better, but our memories paint the picture of those bygone times being way cooler or better than our present circumstance.  One thing I have learned to do when I am hit with a sudden bought of "good old day" yearning is to run things through my memory again, but through a different "filter".  I ask the Holy Spirit to make clear what it is I recall - not relying upon my "translation" of what I recall as the real way it was.  Even the "good old days" were riddled with some pretty heavy stuff and challenges I almost thought would break me.  I just choose to remember the good stuff and shut out the bad and I don't believe I am alone in this "memory" issue.

So, what does asking the Holy Spirit do for our "memory" which we cannot do for ourselves?  Perhaps it is best stated this way - he helps put into perspective the things we went through to get where we are.  In essence, he helps us remember things from our past which we've "worked through" which we'd probably rather not go through again.  We recall the "good stuff" - he helps us remember the "hard stuff".  I honestly believe remembering the "hard stuff" helps keep us from repeating mistakes, making unwise choices, and having to "relearn" lessons.  Another thing the Holy Spirit does by focusing our "remembrance" of events is help us define who we are - God's kids, cared for by his hand, and made right because he has watched over us through all of life's circumstances.  We might just miss that otherwise!

Probably one of the most significant ways the Holy Spirit helps us is in how he helps us "process" events.  As we go through stuff in life, he is there to help us process "through" them, keeping us from muddling through by our own efforts.  We sometimes forget this important "companion" we have on our journey - thinking we have to make it through on our own because in our mind we think we ought to be able to handle stuff.  We often formulate this belief of having to "handle stuff" we go through because it is kind of familiar to us - like we have been through something similar in the past.  If there is one thing I know for sure, the thing which seems vaguely familiar to me may look and sound a lot like something I have walked through before, but there are all different players, I am at a different point in my life, and the event is only "similar", it is not the "same".  We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to show us the similarities, but to also help us see the uniqueness in the circumstance.

The important thing to keep in mind is the work of the Holy Spirit in helping us with our "filing system".  You see, he is a "master filer" - he knows what will be needed again and what is okay to just "shred"!  If you are anything like me, you have a pile on the top of your desk right now of the mail from the past week.  Some is clearly junk mail and just needs to be discarded, but since it might be an offer for a credit card or the like, you probably stack them up until you have a couple to shred.  Other things in the pile are important, but really, once you read them, you don't need to save them - they will go in the shred pile, too.  A very few of the items in the pile actually need to make it to the filing cabinet - because they need to be saved for future reference. The Holy Spirit is attuned to the "right stuff" to save for "future reference". He can guide us in "shredding" the stuff which is just junk and the stuff which really doesn't matter once processed.  Then he leaves us with the things which really need to be "filed away" for future reference.

Since the work of the Holy Spirit is to both help us remember correctly and to file away what really matters, isn't it important to consult him when we might just be experiencing a little "recall" problem?  When we allow him to help us with recall, we often get a different perspective on the matter.  I went back to the home where I spent the first seven years of my life one day, but experienced extreme disappointment by what I saw.  I was disappointed because what I had "filed away" about the house made it out to be this palatial mansion, with a huge yard, and gigantic trees ready for the climbing.  When I saw the house, it was run down, no bigger than most subdivision homes of the day, and the trees had all been trimmed down to nubby miniatures.  My "memory" did not match "reality".  This is a perfect example of how we "file away" things which don't always "translate" into reality in quite the same manner!  

So, the next time we get a little too focused on wishing for the "good old days", we might just do well to ask the Holy Spirit to help us recall the "truth" about what we filed away!  He will help us see the work of God in our lives a little clearer and keep us on track.  We only need to ask.  Just sayin!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How good are you at putting on your gas mask?

Does it ever amaze you how our brain works?  Probably one of the most stunning displays of our brains comes anytime we "work through" something we just haven't been grasping, right?  When we finally "get it", we just stand there all excited and celebrating our moment of success.  More important than the stuff we finally "get" is the times when we try to justify what we are saying or doing through some warped impression we might just be holding onto.  It is like the times when we outright act one way, all the while knowing we are being asked by God to act an entirely different way.  We somehow tell ourselves it is okay because God is gracious, or it is going to work out well for us in the end because God has everything in control.  Truth is - God does have everything in control, but the thing we are pursuing may be the furthest from what God intends for us!  What we need more than anything else in our lives is for God to do the intensive "straightening out" of our lives, because we just keep making a mess of things!

But if our wrongdoing only underlines and confirms God’s rightdoing, shouldn’t we be commended for helping out? Since our bad words don’t even make a dent in his good words, isn’t it wrong of God to back us to the wall and hold us to our word? These questions come up. The answer to such questions is no, a most emphatic No! How else would things ever get straightened out if God didn’t do the straightening?  (Romans 3:5-6 MSG)

Yesterday, we explored the "toxin" of bad character - "caustic" relationships which just keep getting worse instead of better.  Today, let's dig a little deeper into this subject.  When the caustic individual and frequency of contact with that person can be limited, we often find we can "take it" a little better than when we have frequent contact with the individual, right?  Be in a situation where you have to be face-to-face with this "caustic" individual all the time and you almost find the "essence" of what they produce to be just overwhelming to your emotional "senses", don't you?  You just want to get a breath of fresh air, but there is none to be found!  Most of us just cannot pick up and move to a new work environment at the drop of a hat, or we cannot just choose to ignore our family and choose another.  We must make the best of what we consider to be a "bad situation", right?  These individuals are totally "stuck" in their way of seeing life and we have to figure out how to deal with them right where we are at.

First and foremost, let me begin by getting agreement on this important truth: The only one who can control YOUR behavior is you.  The other guy cannot control YOU - they "influence" you a little, but the control thing is entirely yours.  Now, those are tough words, I know.  It is much easier to just say "he made me do it" than it is to take responsibility for your own actions.  It is much more difficult to see how YOU respond to the toxicity of a caustic relationship as YOUR problem, not the other guy's.  This little sticking point makes all the difference if we are to "deal" with the caustic relationships we encounter in this world.  We all have "limits", don't we?  We have that mystical point of no return where the other guy just pushes us a little too far, igniting some kind of response we all want to avoid, but which escapes quicker than hot lava from a volcano, right?  Our first thought is that the other guy just pushed us past our limits, isn't it?  We want to point the finger - because they acted a certain way, or said enough of a certain thing which triggered some response from us.  Nope, we focused on the action or words, and then we let them get under our skin.  Toxins are only effective when they make contact with the tissue they have designs on destroying!  

In my military career, we practiced what it was like to be "gassed" by caustic gasses.  Why?  So we would be ready to responds appropriately at the first hint of the caustic stuff!  We practiced holding our breath until we could don our gas mask, securing it over our heads and ensuring a tight seal.  Until we got this right, our eyes would water like crazy and our lungs were assaulted with all kinds of painful toxins.  We had to act quickly, or we'd be overcome. Now, the same is true in our relationships with others.  We have to act quickly and with practiced precision in order to not "react" to their caustic toxins.  It sometimes takes a whole lot of practice to get it right.  Until we see our ability to control how much of the toxin we actually ingest, allowing it to affect the inner parts of us, we won't be making much progress toward learning to manage those exposures!  Toxic relationships actually take a whole lot of practice to deal with successfully - so we minimize the damage to our inner man.  How did I learn about chemical warfare in the military?  It was because I had a good instructor.  My Drill Sergeant was concerned about us learning both the dangers of the toxic substances and the counter-measures to assure us minimal exposure to these substances.  His instructions was not enough, though.  I needed the proper equipment, as well.  Without a well fitting, properly performing gas mask, I would soon succumb to the toxicity around me.  We need both good instruction and the proper equipment to deal with toxic relationships.

Something I'd like to challenge you with is the idea of needing to extend forgiveness to another who has been caustic in the relationship.  The fact of the matter is, they probably don't even know they have been caustic.  The offense you have taken is really just that - something you have "taken on", but which the other person has no awareness of.  Most offenses are really because we sensed something (a slight of some kind) and the other person has no idea we experienced it the way we did!  Hold onto the offense long enough and you will begin to formulate your own set of toxins!  Forgiveness is something WE do - we let go, we choose not to hold onto the offense, and we choose not to let it damage our inner man.  If we were to realize not every offense needs to be a matter of "dialogue" between the "offender" and the "offended", but just something we choose to let go of, we'd be a lot better off.  Offenses from a truly caustic person are best forgiven quickly and then we move on.  To try to "talk about it" with the caustic person is fruitless.  The offense is something YOU sensed, not something they even care about.  Let it go and move on.  Don't carry the toxin - breathe it out and let it go.  

One other thing to keep in mind - when we have the right instruction, we know the right way to go, but when we have the right "gear" to deal with the toxins, we know the right way to respond!  Just sayin!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Know anyone who is a little "caustic"?

We all have those relationships where we would rather wring their necks sometimes instead of dealing with just one more of their temper tantrums, cries for our attention, or demanding moments.  People get on each other's nerves at times - making this whole business of relationship so much more work than we want it to be!  Face it - - - even you act like the one someone else wants to do a little neck wringing on at times!  In some social circles, especially those of the "politically correct", these types of relationships are called "difficult" or "high maintenance".  In my social circle, they are called "get over yourself" relationship moments!  Sometimes people have "toxic" moments - other times they LIVE toxic lives.  The first is okay - we can deal with it and move on.  The latter is not - it lingers, eats away at us, and drains us of all we have to give and more.  Toxins are poisons - they affect what they touch because of their potential to harm.  Bleach in a bottle is of little harm to us, but break the bottle and clothes may be ruined, lungs may bear the assault of caustic fumes, and we will have a huge mess on our hands. One thing is for certain - toxic people have a way of letting their toxins out of their "bottle". 

Do everything without complaining or arguing so that you will be blameless and pure, children of God without any fault. But you are living with evil people all around you, who have lost their sense of what is right. Among those people you shine like lights in a dark world, and you offer them the teaching that gives life.  (Philippians 2:14-16 ERV)

Bleach in a bottle has a purpose.  When poured into our laundry water, at the right dilution rate, it actually makes our clothes brighter and removes grungy dirt.  Bleach diluted in a ten part solution will provide adequate germicidal benefits when cleaning surfaces.  Yet, at its full strength, it has a corrosive, caustic, and poisonous impact.  "Caustic" people in our lives don't usually come at us with a ten part solution - they come at us full-strength!  Their overflow of whatever is making them this "toxic" is actually enough to burn, corrode, and even destroy healthy relationships.  So, learning how to both recognize the caustic effects of others (and sometimes even ourselves), along with learning to avoid their harm is paramount to keeping ourselves (and others) safe from their effects.

Most of what I have observed in the lives of "caustic" or "toxic" people is their tendency to be "caustic" when they have an area of weakness which is about to be exposed (or perhaps has already been exposed).  This is much like the bottle which contains the bleach - as long as it remains "in tact", there is no harm to those around it.  As long as the one who has a tendency to become "toxic" or "caustic" in a relationship doesn't feel threatened, they are fine. Threaten them in anyway and it is like dropping the bottle of bleach - they unload all kinds of harm on you.  Much of what we'd do well to recognize is the cause of the "toxin" affecting another.  Usually an individual who becomes "toxic" at some point is this way because of what they have "bottled up".  The bottling up is done because they have an area of weakness which they don't want exposed.  If they keep it "under wraps", then they feel secure and non-threatened.  If they begin to feel their "bottle's" integrity threatened, they are quick to release the toxins within.

You have probably heard it said:  Hurting people hurt people.  It's true.  You cannot bottle up the hurt forever - it will spill out at some point.  "Bottled hurt" has a way of becoming more damaging than the original "hurt" was in the first place.  It also has a way of affecting more people than you might imagine.  I used to love to go to the river or lake with my dad while he fished. I wasn't much of a fisherman, but loved to collect stuff I could take home - things like shiny, smooth rocks and driftwood.  If I was particularly lucky, I could perhaps find something "living" such as a tadpole, crawdad, or maybe even a little toad.  In their own habitat, they flourished.  After a day or two in my bucket or empty margarine container and they didn't do so well any longer. Why?  They were cut off from the fresh water supply they needed.  Sure, they had some supply of their "natural" habitat because I always added it to the container - but they needed it to be renewed in order for it to support their growth.  In time, whatever I had captured would die because it lacked the nourishment and the conditions which would sustain their life.  Dead tadpoles and crawdads don't smell too good - let me assure you of that!  It doesn't take long for the "toxins" of death to produce a pretty offensive odor.

The same is true in our own lives.  Take what needs constant renewal out of the place where renewal can occur and you produce death.  Relationships are meant to stay in the place of connection to that which renews.  Bottle up any relationship issues long enough and the toxic effect will overwhelm you. Relationships are best when they are in a flourishing, continually renewed place.  They get a little caustic when the supply of what brings this renewal is shut off by any cause.  When we see "caustic" people as shut off from that which brings them life, we begin to see their "toxin" a little differently.  We understand they are just producing what they know how to produce in their "decaying" condition.  What they need is an infusion of life - what you offer is the very thing they need.  We can become offended by their "caustic" overflow, or we can begin to wash over them with the freshness of our God's grace, love, and peace.  Just sayin!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What's in your "heart-vault"?

Crowds have a way of pressing in on us, being a little unwieldy, and just plain rude, don't they?  Give people enough to "gawk" at and they will congregate quicker than ants on honey.  I call them "looky-loos" - they are they for the "show", not for much else.  They come to see, certainly not to participate. They come interested in what they might get, not in what they might give away.  What draws a crowd?  Isn't it the spectacular, the unexpected, and the unusual?  Jesus was all of these things.  Spectacular - dramatically daring as he went against the Pharisees and dared to challenge their "religious-ness". Unexpected - surprising those who least expected his touch or care with the deepest expressions of his love.  Unusual - shocking them with the extraordinary and the uncommon display of power, grace, and wisdom.  He was a crowd "gatherer", but he was also a crowd "divider".  The same things which drew many to him also set many against him.  It was these spectacular, unexpected, and unusual things Jesus said and did which got the dander of the Pharisees up.  On the other hand, his disciples may have been drawn in by the same things, but in time, they came to understand him as those in the crowd did not and this was Jesus' greatest joy - someone looking past the spectacular, unexpected and unusual to connect with his heart.

By this time the crowd, unwieldy and stepping on each other’s toes, numbered into the thousands. But Jesus’ primary concern was his disciples. He said to them, “Watch yourselves carefully so you don’t get contaminated with Pharisee yeast, Pharisee phoniness. You can’t keep your true self hidden forever; before long you’ll be exposed. You can’t hide behind a religious mask forever; sooner or later the mask will slip and your true face will be known. You can’t whisper one thing in private and preach the opposite in public; the day’s coming when those whispers will be repeated all over town.  (Luke 12:1-3 MSG)

Although the Pharisees were ever-present in the crowd, their intent was not to find the truth in what Jesus was saying, or to support the work he was doing. Their intent was to discredit, taking the attention away from the "good" he was doing and bringing some type of dishonor to him.  Their main concern was the amount of attention he was getting and the little bit of attention they themselves were now attracting.  To this end, Jesus calls the attention of his disciples to their actions - not so much because they were a real hindrance to his work, but because he wanted to protect the disciples from their "phoniness".  The Pharisees saw themselves as so spiritually mature - above the crowd in their pursuit of all things holy.  Jesus knew the shallowness of their "holiness" and his point in calling attention to them on this day was to simply point out the foolishness of trying to "appear" mature when you really are anything but mature.

I guess we could all kind of admit we have done this on occasion - trying to make ourselves look a little more "all together" and "spiritually mature" than we really are on the inside.  It is best done by putting forward some type of "rule-keeping" facade.  Yet, this type of "religious phoniness" is not going to get us anywhere in God's kingdom.  I think this is why Jesus had such great concern for his disciples recognizing this up front.  It would have been easy for them to get a little confused - seeing the example of the Pharisees as the "ultimate" experience when it comes to religion.  Indeed, it is just that - the ultimate experience when it comes to "religion", but not as it applies to relationship.  Jesus' primary concern was, and always will be, for our relationship with him and his heavenly Father.  

In looking closely, we might just find there are those who actually practice as modern day "Pharisees" - their lives are pretty shallow under the facades of religion they sport with such pride.  You can watch hours and hours of every teacher and preacher on the Christian television stations, but still be shallow. You can read author after author, ingesting all kinds of spiritual self-help books, but be devoid of any real learning.  You can speak with all kinds of eloquence and still say nothing.  The image is there, but the heart vault is empty.  Relationship is the only thing which fills the heart vault!

If we really examine what scripture warns about the Pharisees, we see pretty much the same things over and over again.  The warning is against the preoccupation with title, regulations, rules, and rituals.  Sometimes we "sport" the title of "Christian" as though it gave us some special privilege or "import" to the world around us, all the while with empty "heart vaults".  The heart vault is only filled through deep, lasting, and intimate relationship with the one who helps us move beyond the rules, focusing less on the rituals and more on the genuine sharing of heart with him.  You have probably heard the term "legalism" used in modern day churches.  If so, what is being described is the modern day practice of Phariseeism.  The pursuit of all the rules, but the lack of focus on the heart.

The crowds are drawn by the "show".  The Pharisee delights in putting on the "show".  The disciple delights in the "connection" created when you get past the "show".  Jesus warns against being more concerned with the "show" and what you "know" than in what it is you "experience" while nuzzled right up to his heart.  Our heart vault is only filled when we nuzzle!  You know what it means to "nuzzle"?  Animals "nuzzle" while rooting for food.  They have to push through a whole lot of inedible stuff before they get to the sweetness of what lies just beneath the surface.  I think Jesus had this in mind when he was speaking with his disciples - getting past the stuff which hides the sweetness he desires for us to experience.  I don't know about you, but I am think I'd rather engage in a little nuzzling to find the sweetness he has prepared than spend a whole lot of time protecting the image I "prepare" for the world.  I am in pursuit of that which fills the vault of my heart.  Maybe we'd all do a little better if we "nuzzled" more and "masked" less.  Just sayin!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Attracting the right attention?

Commitment has a way of drawing attention at times, doesn't it?  Get "into" something with all your heart and you will find there are others who will find fault in your pursuit!  If you haven't figure it out by now, God is interested in how we will respond when we are criticized, put down, or when others try to "undo" something we are in the process of doing.  Most of their interference and resistance is really without cause, so a response of telling them they don't know what THEY are doing, or THEY are being unfair seems pretty logical to me.  God's desire is for us to respond differently.  In fact, scripture tells us we are to "put up with" being treated badly, even when there is no good reason for the way we are being treated (I Peter 2).  Our response matters.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:10 NIV)

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.  (Matthew 5:10 MSG)

Our values often differ from the values of others.  Get your values in alignment with what scripture teaches and they will likely differ a great deal from what the mindset of the majority would dictate.  This is what causes us to have a little more of a "target" painted on our chest, isn't it?  We "stand out" because we "stand up".  Anytime you are willing to stand up for whatever it is you value and the values you have chosen to adhere to, there will be others who will try to get at you by their differing opinion or outright resistance to what it is you stand for.  If you have ever tried to live according to the "opinions" of others, you probably have known the frustration of trying to hit a moving target.  Opinions change, don't they?  So, if we are trying to live by what another chooses for us, we are certain to be living a life which is up and down, here and there, and without any real stability at all.  

I think there is merit in understanding how Jesus wants us to really live.  We find this out in our review of scripture, allowing the Holy Spirit to teach us truths which will release us from those things which only serve to keep us in mindsets (and heart-sets) which will give us challenges and pain.  We also find this out in our listening to the right voices - not the loudest opinions.  If you haven't picked up on this by now, the softest voices are sometimes the clearest and closest.  The loudest are demanding, but they may not give that much clarity!  We have to do both - allow our minds and hearts to be made right AND learn to hear the right voices.

As I came through Bible College back in the early 80's, my professor spoke some words I penned into the pages of my Bible and have often referred to over the years.  His advice:  Live in such a way that no one can accuse you - even so as to not give the appearance of any wrongdoing in your life. A pretty loft goal, right?  The context of where he shared these words was in a discussion of morality.  He was speaking particularly to those circumstances when you find yourselves totally innocent in what it is you are doing, but where another may "interpret" what you are doing as something less than innocent (because of the "appearance" which is portrayed).  His example was that of a man and woman having lunch together at a local cafe.  One is married, the other not.  To the outsider who knows this fact, the "lunch" may not appear as "innocent" as it really is.  Living in such a way so as to avoid even the appearance of evil is really tough business, but it gives those who want to find fault with your actions one less thing to grab onto!

Here's one thing I have discovered over the years:  Those who want to persecute us don't point out our good points!  They point out our areas of weakness, don't they?  They zero in on the one thing they know about us which is a small area of weakness and use it to magnify they view of what it is they want to focus on.  Most of life's "persecuting" moments are really centered about pointing out our weaknesses, not our strengths.  So, maybe this is why we work so hard to "cover up" our weaknesses!  We somehow figure if no one can "see" them, they cannot use them against us!  Ha!  Now that's a good one!  Try as we might, our weaknesses are visible even behind the best of facades!  They may not be as they appear to us, but they are evident, nonetheless.  A masked weakness is still a weakness - it makes us a target, maybe just not for the right reason!

One thing for certain - God doesn't make perfect Christians.  He embraces sinners, complete with all their imperfections.  It is sometimes those very imperfections which get the attention of those who want to point them out and zero in on us for their attack.  All we can do is allow God to take our imperfections clearly into his care and cover them with his grace.  When we are attacked for them, we just need to allow his grace to shine through.  God knows these issues already and is at work in us to change those things he has in mind to change within us.  Our enemies and those with differing opinions will point them out so as to discredit the work of Christ in our lives.  We need to stand on the knowledge of God's grace being at work in those areas - despite the evidence others may see which shows we are not yet perfect!

There is something God wants of us:  Follow him close enough so others see a little bit of him in us.  They may not see ALL of him in us yet, but if they at least catch a glimpse of him in us, we are following as we should.  We may attract some negative attention because we still haven't had all the "rough edges" smoothed out in our lives, but when others can see enough of Jesus to know he is at work "smoothing us out", we are living as we ought.  Just sayin!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

You a peacemaker or a peace taker?

A peacemaker is one who works toward reconciliation between two parties who disagree, find themselves quarreling a lot, or just plain like to mix it up a little.  Some of us avoid conflict like it was the plague.  We do everything in our power to not be in the position where we will have to be involved in situations where conflict is inevitable.  To someone who actually likes to be in the thick of it, they might interpret this "avoidance" behavior as a little bit of cowardice or wimpiness.  There are actually tests out there you can take to tell you your "conflict style".  I took one once, and guess what....I was a conflict avoider!  It did not show I never took the bull by the horns, I just take a little time to "process" the conflict.  To the outsider, this appears as though I am avoiding the conflict, retreating, or just plain don't want to "mix it up". To me, it looks like a "safety mechanism" to keep me from putting my foot in my mouth, saying things I should not have said, and even ruining the potential for another to see their way out of the conflict themselves!

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  (Matthew 5:8 NIV)

You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. (Matthew 5:8 MSG)

Ever since Adam and Eve, I think conflict has been there.  At some point, the opportunity for conflict rears its ugly head!  Problems happen - life gets lived and stuff just doesn't work out the way someone planned it.  In the end, conflict is the outcome!  What then?  Sometimes we just need to "mix it up" so it gets all out in the open and we can move on!  Other times, we can overlook it and move on without another thought.  At some point down the road, you and I will come to a place where conflict is inevitable - the "mixing it up" is just gonna happen.  When we do, we need to understand how to get through it without damaging relationships in the process.  Most of the time, the conflict has to get a lot worse than it started out being before it gets to the place of resolution.  I want us to consider two things - peace and a "cease fire".  One is a whole lot different than the other.  One is time limited - the other is more permanent.  One requires a whole lot of understanding - give and take as it were - the other requires just a little understanding and a moment or two of willingness to give it a rest!

All of scripture points us toward keeping current in our relationships and not harboring any kind of bitterness or unforgiveness toward another.  Keeping current is a big task and one which many of us struggle with.  If you follow scripture's thoughts on this matter, you will find anytime we don't remain current, we get an increase in conflict.  The conflict may be inter-personally -between you and another; or it may be inner-personally - within you and bugging the stuffing out of YOU.  Conflict can be a hindrance to our growth in a whole lot of ways, so figuring out how to deal with it biblically is to our advantage.  

The first thing I'd like us to consider is OUR role in peace-making.  We are the ones responsible to MAKE peace.  In other words, we have to take the first step.  Anytime we sit back, stubbornly digging in and determining we will not be the first one to do anything about the matter, we are not acting as God would have us act.  That may be a hard thing to swallow this morning, but it is true nonetheless.  WE are the ones to take the first step - not the other guy.  One other thing we try to do is just ignore it and hope it goes away. Guess what?  Whatever gets ignored long enough brings greater issues and more "costly" fixes!  Ignore the dwindling tread on your tire and the blowout will cost you much more than taking the time to replace the worn tire in the first place!  Blowouts cost us dearly!  There is "body" damage.  There is possible "overturn" of the vehicle.  There is also potential "exponential" damage of others in the process.  This is true in our relationship conflicts, as well.  It affects our body, overturns our lives causing all kinds of upheaval, and it has a way of not just being contained to our lives!

The second important part of being a peacemaker is being able to see things from the perspective of the other guy.  I know this seems a little hard at first, but maybe this is why I am labeled as a "conflict avoider" - I step back because I want to see things from your perspective!  If I just jump right in, I only see my viewpoint and never stop long enough to consider another's.  In essence, I compound the conflict by limiting my focus!  This is probably a lot harder than most would assume.  Seeing the other guy's issue from their perspective takes a great deal of work.  You have to be willing to really listen, exploring the issue a little deeper, and then not just brushing off their interpretation of the matter.  We all see things differently - so getting another's perspective is important - it helps us get balance.  It is human nature to hold onto one's own opinion as the best and most valid viewpoint on a matter.  It is "divine" nature within you which helps you see the viewpoint of another!

Last, we have to keep our focus straight.  We are not called to bring every conflict to a place of permanent and lasting "resolution".  Not every conflict will have a "perfect" answer.  Sometimes we will agree to differ.  Is that okay? I think it is.  What God asks of his kids is to be in the business of reconciliation.  Reconciliation is the process of bringing two opposing forces into agreement or harmony - it is not the process of getting the "perfect" answer.  Reconciliation is hard work - it requires an investment on our parts which begins with the first step, goes beyond our own viewpoint on the matter, and keeps in mind we may never have the perfect solution to the issue at hand.  If we are to be peacemakers, we have to keep this in mind. Just sayin!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A truly "plumb" heart

Nothing is more elusive than the approval of man.  Try as we might, we often fall short of what another expects of us - leaving us feeling like we haven't measured up and them experiencing disappointment.  Since it is so elusive, why do we spend so much time trying to "measure up" to some other man or woman's approval?  The approval of another is kind of like a well disguised snare in the path - we get caught up in it without even noticing we were headed in that direction!   The pathway to man's approval is pretty demanding, though.  It demands our time - often time we don't have to give. It demands our attention - often attention which is diverted from something which also requires our attention, but which will go without while we pursue something completely opposite.  It demands our energies - sucking us dry of that which really would be best utilized on a task designed by God for us.

To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.  (Psalm 18:25-26 NIV)

Most of the time, we can regroup from our time being squandered, our attentions a little distracted, or our energies a little depleted.  What we have a greater difficulty with is when our desire to please others begins to change our morals, or shape our convictions of heart to theirs.  Given enough time, the demands of others in our lives will do just this if we aren't "wise" to the "warping" of our convictions.  Wood doesn't warp overnight - as it dries, it curls right up and looses its straight or even surface.  The same is true with our heart convictions - they don't just change overnight because someone makes demands of us - they change little by little until we one day recognize they are no longer "plumb".

God is at work in our lives - all circumstances and encounters are an opportunity for him to shine through us.  Even the demands of another can be his tools to clarify our desires, focus our attention, and determine the course of our heart.  If you haven't figured this out yet, then here's the truth about how God works - he looks for our willingness, then he "checks" it with our choices.  He allows circumstances and people in our lives which will help us to clarify our choices.  If we are constantly following the whim and fancy of the one who makes the external demands of us, we are missing out on the opportunities to do what God requests of us.  God is gracious - others demand, he requests.  He is looking for willingness - then he works on our choices.

Yesterday, we spoke about a pure heart - one which is free of all the clutter that gets in the way of pursuing what God intends.  Now, think about that in light of what we read today.  A pure heart is aware that God is at work in their lives - even through the demanding people!  The kingdom of God (the dominion of his power) is within us.  It affects those around us when we remain true to that "reign".  A pure heart is not affected by the multitude of demands people are making - it remains consistently at ease and resists the pull to be twisted out of "plumb".  When we get our minds out of the muddle of the demands of another, we can begin to wrap our hearts around the settled peace of the reign of Christ within.

A word of caution:  Purity of heart is maintained easiest when we are partnered with those of similar heart desire.  What we fail to recognize many times is the distance between what our heart tells us and what our spirit requires of us.  Heart may aim to please all people - sending us into a spiral of frenzied task-driven performance.  A pure heart aims to please just one - Christ alone.  What we find in this pursuit is the ability to balance what we "do" for others with what God asks us to "be" in him.  "Treasure" is a matter of choice.  I saw this in the antique shops I visited recently.  The price tag on many items was out of this world and definitely not "reasonable" in my mind. Yet, many will pay the price because they have defined the item as a "treasure" they will pay any amount to attain.  Truthfully, there is but one treasure which impacts our heart, purifies our motives, and settles our minds - it is the treasure of drawing near to the heart of Christ.

If you are caught up in the frenzy of pleasing others, finding yourself pulled a little "out of plumb", and just circling in a holding pattern as it comes to your ability to move on, maybe it is time to do a little "detachment" from the demands which have pulled you this direction.  Just sayin!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Feeling a little "cluttered" lately?

If you have ever stopped to consider things long enough to actually get a clear perspective on things, you will probably realize there is that moment in time when you finally realize the reality of something - it comes as one of those "AHA!" experiences.  For the first time, you see things as they are - you really understand them.  In our spiritual lives, this happens, too.  We get to the place where we finally have that "AHA!" moment and then we sit and revel in what it is we finally see so clearly.  What happened to get us to this point? Simply put, we got enough of God into the places in our heart and mind where we had all the muddle previously!  As he got into those places, he sorted out the muddle and let us see him and our circumstances in clarity!

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  (Matthew 5:8 NIV)

You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.  (Matthew 5:8 MSG)

What kept us from seeing clearly in the first place?  Wasn't it the condition of our heart and mind?  We get too much "clutter" in there, listening to all the rattling the clutter causes, and then we lose perspective.  If you get to know me, you will realize I "retreat" when this "clutter" gets a little too loud.  I have to get away to "settle" the clutter - sorting things out.  It may not take me long - sometimes only a matter of minutes - but when I recenter my attention on Christ, allowing him to get past the clutter inside my mind and heart, I begin to realize the true perspective of the things which are causing all this "rattling".  There is much to be said about allowing God to get inside where it is we have all this "clutter" - but most importantly, we need to recognize he is the only one who can actually see ABOVE all the clutter!  So, settling comes when we allow someone with a better perspective than we possess to actually get INSIDE our world and take us OUTSIDE of our clutter.

There are a lot of things which really cause a lot of clutter inside our minds and hearts.  The top two which come to mind first are the things which make us anxious and the things which we see as necessary to somehow allow our ambitions to be realized.  Actually, these are closely related - for one feeds into the other.  Anxiety causes unnecessary "clutter" and a whole lot of "racket" in our minds.  Racket is anything which causes a disturbance - especially of the kind which brings confusion.  If you have ever been in a large room with a lot of people and activity galore, you probably have been on sensory overload at some point.  All the racket created by the constant chatter of those individuals and the noise created by the tasks they are performing just puts your senses on overload.  Ignore the "alert" of being on overload, and you will burn a fuse!  We are not made to handle sensory overload for long periods of time - we need to get the racket under control or we will fry!

Our ambitions can also give us some cause for concern only because they drive us forward when we might just need to be still and rest for a while. There is nothing wrong with ambition, but when it consumes us, it becomes something which creates unnecessary clutter and racket in our lives!  Goals are good - without them we drift around aimlessly.  Unrealistic goals - those which another places upon us, but for which we have absolutely no real personal desire to fulfill can cause us great anxiety.  We need to guard against anyone "defining" our goals / ambitions for us besides God himself. He knows what we can handle, what will ignite our passion, and the correct timing for that passion to be stoked.  Sometimes we just need to settle down long enough to evaluate if our ambitions are really the ones God designed for us and designed us for!

If you have ever been consumed by the clutter, you know you no longer look to God to meet your needs.  It isn't because you don't realize you should do this, but because you somehow think you already possess something within the clutter which will meet the need.  Clutter has a way of confusing the issues and making us see things without clear perspective.  When we take time to settle down the racket, allowing God to clean out the clutter, and then get a fresh perspective, we begin to see what it is God designed for us and what he has designed us for.  This issue of a "pure heart" goes way beyond just confessing our sins.  It involves allowing God to be the center of our attention, and dare I say, the "keeper of the clutter".  When we finally give him the clutter to deal with, it is amazing how the things we thought we needed and the noise they created are soon revealed as totally unnecessary in our lives!  Just sayin!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mercy is a great "counter-attack"

Yesterday we began to explore the importance of mercy being an action on our part which connects others with Christ - it connects the "value" of an individual's changed life to the actions of Christ on their behalf.  It is the action of another on the part of one incapable of the same action which puts on display the grace and beauty of Christ.  Today, I'd like to expand upon this idea of how it is we display the mercy of Christ in our lives.  It is a "practice" of real love which displays Christ to others, isn't it?  All the words in the world don't display mercy - they might direct someone to consider mercy - but the action is what makes the connection between the words and the heart.  One of the toughest things for us sometimes is the first step.  The first step toward mercy when it is undeserved is sometimes the hardest one we will ever take.  The first step toward the unloving requires the commitment to love even when love is not returned.  The first step toward the hurting is often in direct opposition to their hurtful actions.  These are pretty big steps, indeed. Yet, we are responsible for these first steps.  Nothing speaks louder than the first display of God's mercy. 

My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves. And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God! We’re able to stretch our hands out and receive what we asked for because we’re doing what he said, doing what pleases him. Again, this is God’s command: to believe in his personally named Son, Jesus Christ. He told us to love each other, in line with the original command. As we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave us.  (I John 3:18-24 MSG)

Probably one of the things which holds us back from taking our first steps is the fear of getting a little "burned" in the process.  Hurtful people have a way of leaving us a little "singed" on the surface, right?  So, taking the first step may be a little fearful at first, but when we realize mercy's ability to touch what others have been afraid to touch for a long time, we just trust God to protect us in the process.  Since the first step is the hardest, it often builds our faith in taking it.  There is not building up of our faith as long as we remain rigidly planted in place - the step toward the hurting is what calls upon our faith and challenges us a little.  I love the part of our passage which declares God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.  Truth is - he knows more about the hurting heart we are stepping toward, as well.  Don't ever think he hasn't placed you directly in their path of pain for a reason!  He placed you there as much for your own growth as for their healing!

Did you ever stop to consider how it is you treat the person you cannot stand the most?  I am always amazed when I read the accounts of the testings of Christ in the wilderness (Matthew 4).  Jesus faced a plethora of emotional and spiritual tests, not to mention the physical ones.  Tired, hungry, alone - these play upon our emotions and physical well-being, don't they?  When I get tired and hungry, I get a little testy!  Bring someone into my path who is out to hurt me and do me wrong, and I can probably go from nice to nasty in about 30 seconds!  Yet, Jesus withstood the urge to "take on" his enemy with hurtful and damaging return of his evil intentions with emotional outbursts, hurtful replies, or destructive actions.  Instead, he was gracious in his responses. Now, this should give us some food for thought - how we treat our enemy in the midst of the worst of times is often the only way others will see the "value" of Christ the clearest.  Mercy-touched people understand the value of being merciful even when the times and tests don't always make it the easiest to be mercy-filled and merciful.

The greatest "counter-attack" to our enemy's attack is mercy - not striking out in more hurtful actions, words, or emotions.  It is probably the clearest indication of a life change when mercy becomes the "norm" for how we treat those who are the least likely to be loved because of their actions toward others.  One of my pastors once said the best way to get rid of an enemy is to turn them into a friend.  Tough one, huh?  For most of us, the repulsiveness of actually being "nice" to an enemy is hindering us from taking the first step toward them in mercy.  When we finally lay down our resistance to the first step, the second, third, and subsequent steps become a little easier in time. If we are all very honest here, we will soon admit we all sin - falling short of some mark at one time or another.  Even forgiven people sin again - it is part of our nature.  When we fall, we want to know it is okay to get back up.  We want to know someone will be modeling what it is we need the most in our circumstance - mercy and grace.  Mercy connects the dots for the fallen - bringing them face to face with the very thing they need to finally free them from the misery of their hurting.

Jesus spoke often and with great passion about the need to live a life of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not an emotional response to another's plea for mercy - it is a continual action of wiping the slate clean, even when we don't feel they deserve it.  Mercy and forgiveness are partners in this walk we are endeavoring to take together.  Mercy moves us toward the one who is hurtful, forgiveness keeps us near them when others would have been repelled by their deeds.  Most of the time, the individual we struggle with the most is the one who has not learned to receive mercy yet - so, we need to continually put it on display, for in the frequency of being extended mercy we often learn how it is we actually receive what it is we deserve the least.  Just sayin!