Thursday, July 31, 2014

Giving God your background

We all have a "background", don't we?  In terms of police work, every case has a background made up of evidence found at the scene of a crime, coming together to form a puzzle of pieces which eventually "fit" into a particular scenario playing out.  Within that scenario there are different players, actions, and "props".  In terms of your health, doctors and nurses seek to discover you medical history, including the history of your immediate family members, because it gives them the background on what may be the issues you will deal with or are dealing with right now.  In terms of solving a particularly tough problem in math class, you have laid up a certain foundation of truth you have come to count on to be consistent with each "equation" you must calculate. This trust in these "formulas" or "principles" form a background by which you formulate your answer to the new math problem before you.  The background of a matter gives us "foundation" upon which to understand the next object or subject in a matter presently before us.  Understanding background is important, but staying anchored to background limits progress forward!

Scripture reassures us, “No one who trusts God like this—heart and soul—will ever regret it.” It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. “Everyone who calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.” (Romans 10:11-13 MSG)

Background is why I so often point us to the "context" of a passage we are considering - it gives us the foundation upon which we can receive the revelation of the present truth being considered.  Equally as important is this idea of staying anchored to just what we know to be the "background" of a particular truth - causing us never to grow into the areas of revelation God wants for us to experience.  Israel and the Jews were struggling with just this very thing as Paul writes to the Roman church in this letter.  He is writing this letter as the last of his writings we have within the New Testament - a letter to a church he neither founded, nor visited.  This almost explains why he takes so much time to establish facts such as who he is, what his credentials are for writing to them, etc.  It may also explain why we don't see the "personal" side of Paul writing to them - because he had never met them and could not assume anything about them.  Yet, he writes to lay a foundation - to give them background they can use to get solidly rooted and grounded in the faith.

Beginning with how the Jews were given the Law of Moses, failing to adhere well to the mandates of the Law, and developing upon the idea that the Law made it almost impossible to actually keep every letter of it, he moves with painstaking steps from their foundation as a nation (a people set apart by God the Father) to the place of Christ's death, burial and resurrection.  In the midst of this unveiling of foundational truth, he sparks this idea of salvation coming to all by the means of faith in Christ Jesus and not in the keeping of rules or performance of works.  In other words, as my pastor so aptly says, we stop working our way TO God and accept the fact he has already worked his way TO us.  To the Jew, they may have been able to accept this idea of salvation coming by faith, but it was hard for them to totally separate from their "background" of all their rule-keeping and work-performance activities. It was part of their life - defining them as a people for so many years.  In essence, they were bound to their background.

Instead of rejecting all their "background" as a people, Paul worked diligently to outline how each of the covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all pointed to Christ and him as their means of salvation.  He encompasses the Law of Moses and all the teachings of their "forefathers" because he knows how anchored Israel was to their "heritage".  Establishing the fact that their heritage by natural birth did not limit, nor give them any advantage with respect to this new "spiritual birth" which was now available through faith in Christ Jesus and his finished work was what the entire letter was about.  We'd do well to remember this important fact - our natural heritage neither gives us superior advantage, nor does it limit our possibilities to experience the awesomeness of personal relationship with Jesus.  

Sometimes people want to take scripture out of context and use a passage such as this to say all "religions" are okay - since it says: It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help.  Don't get me wrong here - God reaches out for all who will call upon his name and receive his gift of salvation, BUT there is but one way to receive this gift - through Christ Jesus and his actions ON OUR BEHALF.  Any other religion which proclaims any other "background" by which we may be made right, achieve some divine status, etc., is nothing more than a philosophy or "religious pursuit" in futility.  Bold words, I know, but truth nonetheless.  The background of the context allows me to make that statement because it establishes the facts as they were outlined and it makes it perfectly clear there is no other means by which a man is saved - no amount of "doing good", "self-help", or "religious rule-keeping".  Nothing but the grace of God makes us right - redeems us and sets us in relationship with him.

We also want to remember the very important teaching of this letter - our background matters, but it isn't everything - it doesn't "define" us and we don't have to be captive to it.  We can allow grace to take the lessons of our background and make them into treasures of our present life.  This is what grace does for us - it helps us take the background and keep it in "context" with what grace is doing in our present moment.  We need this more than we think because all of us has a tendency to hold onto something in our background which anchors us and almost limits us from moving forward. When we are finally free to let go of the background and allow God define us by grace, not our background, we make monumental forward progress. Remember, we don't have to be defined by our background - we are defined by God's grace!  Just sayin!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Feeling downright child-like

Can you recount some of the people who were brought to Jesus for his help? We have the friends willing to peel back the roof of a home, lowering their buddy on a stretcher into the midst of the crowd surrounding Jesus inside that home.  Their determination to get their friend into Jesus' presence was indeed commendable and something I hope we all have in friends in our lives.  We have the nobleman whose son was taken ill.  Although he could not bring his son on the journey, his earnest attempt to connect with Jesus and get Jesus to go with him to his home was also recorded as one of the first miracles of Jesus.  His faith was commended and as the man returned home, servants greeted him with the news that "while he was on his journey home" the child was healed.  Then we have the mother of a girl from the region of Syria Phoenicia who was possessed with an evil spirit.  The earnest plea of this mother on behalf of her daughter was for her to be "free" from the evil which plagued her day and night.  Whether we look at the heart of the parent toward the child, the people of status humbling themselves to seek the help they cannot find anywhere else, or the tenacity of friends willing to lay it all on the line for a friend, we see one common theme - they came, called out, cared enough to lay it on the line.  We need this kind of faith in approaching Jesus, my friends!

One day children were brought to Jesus in the hope that he would lay hands on them and pray over them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus intervened: “Let the children alone, don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.” After laying hands on them, he left. (Matthew 19:13-15 MSG)

Today, we explore this group who were "brought" - not with a specific purpose of healing - but probably more with the intent of the "great teacher" touching and praying over them.  The children were brought to Jesus - for anointing. Perhaps the parents or grandparents brought these children because they hoped for some imparting of miracle power, or maybe even the anointing which would make their child the next great "prophet" for the nation.  We don't know the specifics of what they sought in this "laying on of hands", but this is consistent with the practice of the time.  Those who sought anointing were hopeful for the call of God - to be used by him to save Israel - to bring a fresh word to them from God - or to be the one God used as a "redeemer" from those who persecuted them down through the ages.  Perhaps the parents were merely looking for Jesus to pray a blessing over these children and to see their lives prosper in every regard.  Either way, they were brought to Jesus.

Our first reaction to the actions of these parents might be the same as the disciple's - to discount the importance of the parents' faith and to send he kids away without their "blessing" or "anointing".  Perhaps we might see this as a little bit of an intrusion into the "important work" of the "great teacher". After all, he was a wise teacher, healing those who came to him, and setting his world on fire all around him with the gospel message - would it make sense for children to interrupt this important work?  The other reaction we might have is to become a little concerned about the "enthusiasm" of the kids and attempt to intervene to get them to "settle down" because after all, they ARE in the presence of greatness (much like we think kids have to hold still, sit quietly, and listen intently to the sermon in church).  Don't get me wrong, the sermon is important.  What is more important is that the child gets to see how his parents interact with others who know, serve, and follow Jesus.  They get to see how they worship and lift praises in reverent awe of his presence. They hear the words spoken, but if they don't sit perfectly still, is it a real biggee?  I would have to say, "NO"!

The kids come and bound in with enthusiastic energies most of us adults only remember from our youth.  Their interests are peaked by this or that, but soon wane in search of the next thing which will captivate their attention for just a little while.  Isn't it awesome how a child's mind works?  To be so carefree and uninhibited is certainly a blessing.  It isn't until much later in life, through learned behavior, that the child "curbs" that enthusiasm and becomes the "stale" adult we see before us in so many churches today.  Yes, we want respect for the message and the messenger.  Yes, we want honor in the worship service.  But...nothing thrills me more than to see the wee ones jumping up and down, or clapping their little hands (even though not in time with the music), enjoying themselves immensely in the presence of Jesus. Even the adult who has never progressed beyond the mental age of a child celebrates the presence of Jesus with such joyous interaction.  So, why is it we feel we must "curb" this joy, "settle" this enthusiasm down, or "restrict" this intentional interaction with Jesus?

Jesus was a great story-teller.  We have chapters and chapters of his parables and stories.  He used what connected with those who came to him - because this connection was the most important part of what he came to earth to accomplish.  To the disciples, the children didn't "fit" what they saw as the "mission" of Jesus.  To me, the children "fit" perfectly the mission!  They are enthusiastic, uninhibited, innocent, and eager to crawl right up into his lap. They are attentive to his words, not afraid to ask questions, and creative in their own special ways.  Maybe we can take a lesson from the children around us.  Perhaps we need a little more enthusiasm - something which has been curbed by the "norms" of "church-goers" down through the ages, demanding we worship only this way or that.  Perhaps we need a little more innocence in our approach to Jesus - willing to be vulnerable and open to asking questions which are not "theologically-based", but which will help us understand Jesus and his plan for our lives better.

Over the years, I have been the "stuffy" church-goer, demanding the right amount of "reverence" in church service, almost frowning on those who come with such innocence and enthusiasm.  I have also come around to seeing life from a different perspective - that of the child.  I think the most liberating place to be in life is that of the child - the enthusiastic innocence and exuberant thrill of just coming into the presence of the one who makes "connection" with those who come.  If we look at those who came, or were brought to Jesus, they all came with a purpose - they all came for this "connection" with Jesus.  They wanted to just touch the hem of his garment, to have him lay hands on them, to just have him focus his attention for even a little while upon them and their needs.  This is what Jesus wants of us more than anything else - the deep desire to connect with him.  This is what the children exemplify.  We can learn no greater lesson than to become like a child in the presence of Jesus.  Just sayin!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Plenty, Honor, and a Satisfying Life

A payoff is a culmination of a series of events which leads to a certain outcome.  For some of us, our "payoff" is when we finally get to retire from our daily jobs and pursue other interests we have put off until that time.  We have saved faithfully, hopefully planned well, and look forward to the days ahead once we arrive at that date.  If you are like most of the folks who finally arrive at that transition point, there is something bittersweet in your arrival at that point - for life is about to change and sometimes it leaves a person without a sense of purpose in life.  I think that is why I tell everyone when I retire it will just be from one career into another.  I just cannot imagine getting up in the morning not having a purpose for my day!  It may be to volunteer my time to organizations I support, travel to places I haven't seen yet, and to write until my heart is content, but I will have a purpose! There is a bigger payoff all of us should be concerned about - that of right relationship with God our Father and the outcome that yields!

The payoff for meekness and Fear-of-God is plenty and honor and a satisfying life. (Proverbs 22:4 MSG)

Meekness is an often misunderstood characteristic in this day and age.  For many, when you challenge someone to develop a sense of meekness, they equate it to weakness or an inability to make a decision and stand by it.  For others, they equate it to being timid and shy.  In the most literal sense, meekness is strength in more ways than I can define!  It is the ability to be humbly patient in the face of provocation - even calm, soft, and "forbearing" in response to the mistreatment one may experience coming their way.  It is indeed a strength - not a weakness.

Meekness is not natural - for everything within us either wants to do one of two things - either take flight in the face of provocation, or stand up to it in a fighting stance.  This is best known as our tendency to exhibit the "fight or flight response".  This is the natural response to provocation - not the ability to "forbear" with another who is getting all "up in our grill"!  When one forbears with another, they are using a tremendous amount of restraint - even resisting the urge to use words which may be unkind or able to provoke the other guy.  There is more than an ability to "hold back", but to do it with tender love and deep compassion for the other guy.

We see this repeatedly modeled in the life of Jesus.  He was indeed provoked time and time again - only to respond in meekness to the taunts, teases, and terse comments.  He exhibited patience and something we have come to call "self-control" in the face of all manner of annoyances.  We will do well to learn how it is we "model" this behavior in our own times of "annoyances".  I don't believe meekness is learned overnight, nor do I think it is some "supernatural" gift we just "get" from God.  I think it is learned as we come into a deep, intimate trusting relationship with God.  The closer we get to him, the more of his love and grace is "absorbed" into our character.  In turn, our responses become more and more "self-controlled".  In truth, it isn't us controlling "self" - it is his restraining force within us!

The fear of God is cited as one of the things leading to this "payoff".  To understand this, we must first understand the original intention God had in creating us.  He desired fellowship with others created in his image - created like him.  In turn, we were given a free-will simply because he didn't want robots to fellowship with, but those who would lovingly and passionately choose to have this relationship.  The fear of God is a right placement of God in our lives - to put him at the center and revere him as the Creator of all things, sustainer of all life, and redeemer of all mankind.  In a sense, as we come into a right "understanding" of God, we come into a place where we give him the correct honor he is due.  In turn, we come into a place where it is said we enjoy his presence.  The fear of God is not a trembling, wimpy, submissive stance before God - fearful he might strike us down for some minor infraction. It is the healthy respect for his position as Lord of Lords and King of Kings, and the willingness to submit to his leadership and care.

In turn for a character which embraces meekness in the face of adversity and a healthy respect for the authority of our heavenly Father in our lives, we receive a "payoff", so to speak.  According to our writer, it is that of plenty, honor, and a satisfying life.  Plenty - having abundant supply of all we have need of in this life.  In terms of what is most important, let's focus on grace. If we are truthful, we need an unlimited supply of this - not just a one-time shot at it!  God's promise to us is abundant grace.  Honor - most of us equate this with "status" or some form of "position" in life.  In scriptural terms, it means we come into a state of continually acting honestly, with fairness, and with an "integrity" which reveals our beliefs are exemplified in our actions. In other words, we have a consistency between what we say and do.  A Satisfying Life - if the first two are in place, whatever comes our way, satisfaction is sure to be found - even in the toughest of places.  Just sayin!

Monday, July 28, 2014

You aren't alone in your agony

Ever have one of those mornings when you don't just "pop up" out of bed singing hymns of praise and feeling like you could take on the world?  I have them all the time!  I don't think I am alone in this, either.  In fact, if you wake repeatedly just feeling like you are on top of the world and have this cheery attitude all the time, I need to have you in my life so you can rub off on me!  I can overcome my pain and fatigue, but I have to focus on it - purposefully putting Christ in front of it.  It isn't just "automatically" an attitude of victory that I feel every morning - it is a practiced victory which I walk in and count on to overcome my feelings of being fatigued and slow to move!  The best part of waking up (and going to sleep for that matter) is that I can make a fresh start with God every morning (or night).  I might be feeling terrible - feeling like things couldn't go worse in my life - but I can count on this one fact:  God wants to see me up on my feet again!  So, in being forthright with him about how I feel - he sets me upright once again!

I’m feeling terrible—I couldn’t feel worse! Get me on my feet again. You promised, remember? When I told my story, you responded; train me well in your deep wisdom. Help me understand these things inside and out so I can ponder your miracle-wonders. My sad life’s dilapidated, a falling-down barn; build me up again by your Word. Barricade the road that goes Nowhere; grace me with your clear revelation. I choose the true road to Somewhere, I post your road signs at every curve and corner. I grasp and cling to whatever you tell me; God, don’t let me down! I’ll run the course you lay out for me if you’ll just show me how. (Psalm 119:25-32 MSG)

David often experienced things in his life which just didn't keep him "positively" focused.  He certainly spoke often about feeling "low", "aching in his bones", "afraid", and even "pursued" by his enemies.  In those moments of agonizing "feelings", he is repeatedly found doing one thing - talking to God about how he feels.  I don't think it comes as a surprise to God to hear about how we feel.  In fact, he already knows, but there is something of connection and catharsis which occurs when we come to him with our worries, agonies, and distresses.  It is in the "pouring out" of our heart we become empty enough to be filled with what it is we need to be filled with in the first place!

David's second piece of advice to us is to be trained well in God's deep wisdom.  I have often shared how this walk with Christ is not based on what we "do" to get God's attention or affection.  It is based on what Christ has already "done" for us in bringing us to the place where God's attention is continually upon us and his affection is as near as our next breath.  It isn't about "doing" - it is about "coming into" what God has prepared for us.  There is so much of his wisdom he wishes to impart to us which will actually help us move out of some of the tensions we hold so close and into the regions of peace he has for us.  This wisdom is discovered - learned - and learning requires a little bit of work on our part.  It isn't through osmosis or magical impartation - it is practiced and practiced until we get it down pat!

We are built up by the Word of God - torn down by the words of this world, and sometimes even our own words of negativity and "impossibility".  We need restoration - continual renewal - not just a moment in time touch from God.  How we experience life's journey if often a matter of what we will do when faced with the obstacles in our path.  We can choose to dwell upon the impossibilities of the obstacles, or we can choose to remember the hope Christ gives when we put our focus squarely on him.  What we need to be asking God each opportunity we have to commune with him is to place a "barricade" at the cross-roads in our lives where we could make a wrong turn, causing us to come smack-dab face-to-face with these very obstacles we would much rather avoid!

God's greatest joy is to allow us to have "clear revelation" of what our path holds.  His greatest accomplishment in our lives some days is to just get us past our "feelings" and into his presence.  It isn't because we "get life right" that we avoid the hazards in the road - it is because we get our "focus" right! We only have a change in focus because God is faithful to hear our cries and then he intervenes with a deep sense of his presence and power.  It is as we grasp and cling to what he reveals, faithfully taking each morsel of his wisdom into our lives, and then acting upon what he has revealed that we make strides forward.  Overcomers aren't magically made - they are magnificently transformed by his grace!  Just sayin!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Too many molds to choose from

We all aim at something - sometimes without even knowing that is what we were aiming at!  None of us just gets up in the morning and sets out aimlessly - even that cup of coffee you are drinking is made with purpose - you wanted it!  Purpose is also what we describe as determination - being directed toward a certain point and then doggedly making every effort to get to that point.  As scripture defines it, our "purpose" is to be found in Christ - above all else, his life within us is to give meaning to our steps and a sense of determination to our actions.  Some of us struggle with feeling like we understand our purpose in life - having been shot down a few times when we tried to step out, or having believe what others told us about our actions not mattering or making a difference.  When this is the case, we don't actually need to stay where we are, but we can come to Christ with our feelings of being "aimless" and "purposeless" - asking him to bring clarity, give us direction, and to bolster us for the journey ahead.

Form your purpose by asking for counsel, then carry it out using all the help you can get. (Proverbs 20:18 MSG)

Look what it says about how it is we come to a place of understanding our purpose - it is "formed".  In essence, it is more than just a haphazard pursuit of a goal.  You might liken this to what someone who does ceramics uses in creating the item they desire.  They use "molds" or "forms" into which they pour the "raw stuff" which cannot hold any form apart from being placed into the mold and fired.  The "mold" is a way of bringing the "raw stuff" into a particular "form" which once subject to the heat will become hardened and able to be painted and glazed, in order to be fired once again.  This might just give us a little hint as to how our purpose is "formed" - not all at once, but with repeated steps which make it clearer and clearer until we see the finished product.

We form our purpose by asking for counsel.  Asking is sometimes hard because if might make us appear as though we don't think for ourselves, or that we are "weak" in some particular character trait.  Yet, herein is the "forming" process begun - we have to have something into which our life is molded.  This may not always be clear to us - so wise counsel if important to assist us in knowing how it is we are to be forming our purpose.  We have to beware though of those who might want to make us fit into a mold which we were never intended to fill.  This is where we also need the confirmation of the scripture and Holy Spirit to help us "clarify" any counsel we might receive. The important part of this is that we "ask" for help when we don't actually know what next steps to take.

I took some basic classes in school which allowed me to "experiment" with various forms of pottery and jewelry making.  I don't have much to show for either, but I know my dad used an ashtray I made for him for years.  It was one ugly piece of molded clay, but he used it faithfully.  It wasn't my "best" work, but it was a part of me he wanted to hold onto.  Sometimes our aim in life doesn't come out as we would have liked - but it doesn't make those steps we took toward fulfilling that purpose any less special to our heavenly Father.  He will put on display every faithful step, even when it turns out less than we might have imagined!

Purpose doesn't end with knowing it - it is something which never ends because we are perpetually clarifying and acting upon what we discover.  It is in this action that our purpose often becomes very clear to us.  I know I have "acted upon" some things I thought God may have been directing me toward. I sought counsel from wise friends, read the scriptures, and felt I was moving in the right direction for my life.  In the end, I found I wasn't finding much fulfillment in those pursuits, so I abandoned them.  They weren't the right "fit" for my life.  Was God "mad at me" for having pursued them?  Not at all. In fact, he used even those "flops" as opportunities to clarify my purpose in life.  I "aimed", "missed the mark", and then adjusted my aim a little differently as a result.  This is what we do in life - step out, sometimes stumbling a little in the process - then get up again and step on.  

What makes the difference for us is the counsel we receive all along the way and the help we engage as we are stumbling along.  I used to do this all alone - thinking I had it all together.  Now, I recognize how much my "all together" was really nothing more than pride and arrogance.  We cannot be too caught up in wanting to do things all on our own to actually ask another for help.  When we are, we might "fit a mold", but we might be too blind to know it wasn't the right "mold" for us in the first place.  Just sayin!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Oil rises, but it also obstructs!

All of us experience some form of set-backs in life.  Some are only little ones, others more catastrophic.  When we come up against those things which might seem a little daunting, I wonder what our immediate response might be?  For many of us, it is to immediately begin to "fret" or "worry", rather than immediately take the need to Christ in prayer.  What seems so basic, and easy to understand, is quite different in the heat of the moment.  We almost want to "mull it over" a little before we release it into the hands of the one most capable of helping us see our way around the mess in the first place. We have a running joke with my mother, saying if she had nothing to worry about, she'd worry about not worrying.  This may be closer to the truth for many of us than we might want to admit!

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. (Philippians 4:6-7 MSG)

Instead of worrying - pray.  As I stated, such simple instructions, but way more difficult to "actualize" than we might expect!  To actually let go of our worries, we have to hand them over to another and this is where we struggle. The challenge given is really that of a conditioned response - "INSTEAD" of this, "DO" this.  It is learned - replacing one behavior with another.  When we were little tots, we learned how much more freedom and speed we could actually experience once we got up from all fours and started walking upright. In just a short period of time, we saw the advantages of making this transition from one "learned behavior" to another.  Crawling became a thing of the past and walking soon was replaced with running!  What happened was the willingness on our part to let go of the old and adapt to the new.

In place of worry - pray.  Instead of allowing something to gnaw at your insides - pray.  In place of becoming worn down by the constant thought you give to a matter you cannot control - pray.  Seems simple - but ulcers would be obsolete if our society's stomach juices weren't churning over some of the stuff we tend to hold onto!  What is lacking in the moment of worry is indeed a "sense of wholeness" - for worry is really an admittance that we are out of control at the moment and this causes us undo stress.  Look up worry in the dictionary and you will see one of the very first definitions is the "torment" we bring to one's self by the disturbing thoughts we choose to entertain.  Yep, we actually "torment" ourselves with our thoughts - and we actively choose to entertain those thoughts rather than others!

What "concerns" have you maintained to yourself?  You know the ones I mean! Those thoughts that this or that may not work out as planned, or perhaps the suspicion of a disease process taking over your body.  Those things which come to occupy our thoughts soon occupy our hearts - and what occupies our hearts gets our attention!  Maybe this is why the instruction is to bring those things to Christ - the very one who is to occupy our hearts in the first place!  When we allow worry, we displace Christ from the center.  When we allow tormenting thoughts, we have little focus on worshiping the one who gives us all we need to face each of the challenges we are holding onto!

A sense of wholeness is what is promised - but we somehow latch onto the other part of this statement and proclaim it as the "gospel" we will believe - that everything will work out for "good" and not for "bad" in our lives.  Now, before you throw stones or rotten tomatoes, let me just remind you we all live in a fallen world.  All around us is "bad stuff" we have little to no control over. This past week, hundreds met their death in an instant as a plane was targeted by a missile.  We honestly cannot control some of the "bad stuff" which is a result of sin being such a permeating force in our society.  But...we can experience a sense of "wholeness" and "overwhelming peace" when we bring the "bad stuff" to Christ instead of allowing it to torment our thoughts.

Do something today, will you?  Just a little experiment to show you how Christ can displace tormenting thoughts in your mind.  First of all - you will need a jar, or large glass.  Then some water, food color (any color will do), and some cooking oil.  Now, fill your glass or jar about three quarters way with the water.  Add your food coloring (if you don't have food color, use a little bit of something like molasses or some tea / coffee.  You should have colored water now.  To this, add the oil until you are just about at the top of your container. Now, let this sit for a little bit.  What happens is that although your container was mostly filled with the good stuff (water), the oil mixed and broke apart into smaller pieces in your water.  As it settled in, there was a clear difference between the water and the oil, but the oil still remains.  

This is what worry does to us.  It tries to mix with the good stuff in our lives put there by Christ, but it has a hard time doing so.  But what does happen is this rising to the top of the worry.  It hangs around and blocks the good stuff from being "reachable".  Now, slowly add more water from the top of your container - you need to do this in the sink!  Very slowly, add the water.  What happens?  Doesn't some of the oil begin to escape over the edges of the container?  If you continue to pour slowly, what you will eventually see is that the oil begins to leave the container.  Yes, you may see tell-tale signs it was there, but the majority of it is now out of the container and on its way down the drain.  This is what happens when we turn our worries over to God - he slowly, but surely adds more and more of his peace into us until we become "obstruction free" again!  We can tap into the good stuff at the center of our lives because the "obstructing stuff" is being displaced!

We don't need to hold onto this stuff which obstructs Christ's goodness from being at our access.  Instead of keeping it, pray and allow Christ to displace it!  He may not get it all out in one big rush, but as he slowly pours INTO our lives his presence and peace, we will see it begin to rise off of us and be washed away just like the oil was from our container!  Just sayin!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Don't follow me...I get lost easily!

In this day and age of GPS on your phone, in your cars, or clipped to your backpack when out in the wilds, it is almost impossible to get off-course.  If you want to find your way back from where you came, you just simply push "home" and the little device navigates you through all the twists and turns to get you back from where you started.  If you want to explore the nearest this or that, you simply search, click and then you are off and running.  In so many ways, these little devices are saving us lots of time and effort - even navigating us around traffic and construction delays if we so desire.  They can help in so many ways and have become almost common place now in our lives that most car manufacturers in the U.S. are just figuring out a way to configure them right into the dashboards of the cars so we don't have to have wires, adapters, and external devices hooked up any longer.  This speaks to me about how much it is we want to have things in our lives which give us direction and help to keep us on-course.  I wonder if we were to begin to consider the Word of God (scriptures) as our "GPS" for all things spiritual, emotional, and relationship-based if we might have a little less "getting off-course" and a little more "arriving at your destination"!

You’re blessed when you stay on course, walking steadily on the road revealed by God. You’re blessed when you follow his directions, doing your best to find him. That’s right—you don’t go off on your own; you walk straight along the road he set. You, God, prescribed the right way to live; now you expect us to live it. Oh, that my steps might be steady, keeping to the course you set; then I’d never have any regrets in comparing my life with your counsel. I thank you for speaking straight from your heart; I learn the pattern of your righteous ways. I’m going to do what you tell me to do; don’t ever walk off and leave me. (Psalm 119:1-7 MSG)

The scripture reminds us of the blessing of remaining on-course.  I only have to remind you of the last time you got "lost" on your way to a destination, taking even one wrong turn which landed you in some place your didn't want to be, to see the advantages of "staying the course".  To "stay the course" we have to "know the source" of our "way-finding".  If we can rely upon the "source" then the "course" should be pretty accurate.  On one of my vacations, my BFF and I wanted to explore caverns.  We were in Virginia and you might have heard how magnificent some of their caverns are in that area.  In our GPS unit, there was a set of caverns we had not yet explored and it was nearing the end of our time in that locale.  So, off we went, following dutifully each and every turn the GPS unit directed us to make.  Don't you know, we never did find those caverns.  In fact, we were directed into the heart of a residential district and a pond!  Unless those caverns lay beneath someone's home or under the pond waters, we were totally misdirected!  We thought we could trust the "source" to direct our "course", but alas, it steered us wrong somehow!  We traveled a long way out of our way to be absolutely nowhere we wanted to be!

When our "source" is the Word of God, his Holy Spirit, and solid counsel from others who are connected intimately in relationship with Jesus, we are more likely to be able to "stay the course".  A word of caution, though - don't simply trust "one source" to be your guide.  Nothing does more to direct us safely to our destination than having the "direction" of multiple sources confirming our path.  For example, if we simply trusted the counsel of a friend, never checking it our with what the scriptures have to say, or listening to that "niggling" of the Holy Spirit within, we might think we are on the right path, but find we miss the mark.  We need confirmation, especially when it is the counsel of another we are about to follow.  As well-meaning as we may all be in rendering counsel to one another, we are not consistently "right on" in all we say.  

All God asks of us is for us to give it our best - to follow as though we mean it, listen as though we want to hear, and obey as though obedience is the most important way we can do to show our love for him.  This latter part is the place where we have the hardest time - being obedient - not going off on every little whim or fancy we might pursue.  Therein we find the greatest blessing, but it is exactly where we also find the hardest choices.  It would be so easy if the ONLY turn was to the right - so there was not opportunity to get it wrong.  If this were the case, there would be no choice at all and God doesn't want a bunch of robots - he wants individuals who will choose to love him with their whole hearts and serve him with honoring obedience.

God speaks directly from his heart and those words are aimed directly at ours. He isn't one to "mince words" - when he says "turn right", he means it!  What we choose to do with those words may make all the difference in how long our course will be, and ultimately what "shape" we arrive in once we reach our destination.  Just as clear as the GPS is in our car, directing us to turn right in 500 feet, so is God's directness in our lives.  He may not actually tell us to turn right in 500 feet, but he does give us warning of course change requirements.  Sure, he points out things in the scriptures which might just show us examples of where we have been a little too lax and drifted a little off-course in our spiritual lives, relationships, or the like.  He also gives us early warnings of our "drift" - just like the little GPS unit in the car, letting us know it is "recalculating" because we have taken an exit we thought was the right one, but which might not have been.  Before we get too far from where we desire to be, it warns us of the need for course correction.  So does our heavenly Father!  Our part is to heed the "early warnings" and allow the "recalculation" of our path!  Just sayin!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Acting upon the preliminary reports...

I work in a world where we rely upon preliminary reports all the time.  We don't always have time to wait for the final test results, which can take days, to make decisions about how to begin treatment of a patient.  If we did, we might place the individual in greater danger than if we begin treatment.  The final report may not reveal the same conclusions, but we have a pretty good "impression" of the reality of what it is we are treating based on several things - presenting symptoms, the patient's history, and what we can ascertain in our assessment of the patient (touch, smell, etc.).  Based on these things, we draw certain conclusions - then we act upon those conclusions.  This is the way most of us work in this life - even scientists who seem to deal (at least on the surface) with facts and only facts.  If you get down to the nitty-gritty of it, a scientist is acting upon faith until he or she can confirm their suspicions as fact!  In terms of our walk with Jesus, we often take steps of faith, based upon what we see presented and then we come into a place of fuller and more complete faith as we act upon the things we can wrap our hands around right now (the preliminary reports, so to speak).

The sacred writings contain preliminary reports by the prophets on God’s Son. His descent from David roots him in history; his unique identity as Son of God was shown by the Spirit when Jesus was raised from the dead, setting him apart as the Messiah, our Master. Through him we received both the generous gift of his life and the urgent task of passing it on to others who receive it by entering into obedient trust in Jesus. You are who you are through this gift and call of Jesus Christ! And I greet you now with all the generosity of God our Father and our Master Jesus, the Messiah. (Romans 1:2-7 MSG)

Old Testament scripture may not be the easiest to study, nor the place we'd want to open up and just jump right into as a baby Christian, but it is important for us to understand the purpose of the Old Testament writings. If they were to have "gone away" when Christ came to this earth, no longer to be read or appreciated for their value, then he would have told us to no longer regard them as important.  Instead, he constantly reminded us of how he fulfilled each of the writings of the prophets by the evidence of his birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection.  They were the "preliminary reports" pointing us toward him - without these, all "evidence" we might consider in coming to the conclusions he was the Messiah would be kind of skewed.  We need these "old" writings to point us toward him.

Jesus did not stop at confirming prophecy, though.  His every action on behalf of his kids has and continues to reveal the truth of his identity - the Son of God, come to earth as the Son of Man, and resurrected to glory as Messiah and Savior.  As such, he gave this world the ultimate gift which could not be found by any other source - restored life with God the Father - communion, freedom, and peace.  Now, we are commissioned to pass on what it is we have received - not just in writings, but in lived lives.  The dynamic testimony of a redeemed life "lived out" for the world to see, come the conclusion they can "trust" the "preliminary reports" and act upon them, as well.  Our lives become extensions of the "preliminary reports" of Old Testament scripture - as evidence that the New Testament scripture also bears witness to the validity of the actions of Christ on our behalf.

Most of the time, when we receive a gift, we don't usually think about passing it on.  In fact, it was given to "US", so we hold onto it because it is "OURS". In terms of the gift of restoration (salvation) we have received, we might just want to handle this gift a little differently.  In "passing it on", we are actually realizing an "increase" in the gift we received!  As we see other lives reconciled to right standing with God, we share in the glory of those transformed lives.  In turn, the "gift" grows!  It is multiplied and enjoyed even more than it would be if we held it all to ourselves.  We "share" in the gift another receives when we pass on the gift we have received.  It is like knowledge I might possess.  It is simply my knowledge until I pass it on.  If I can help you understand some of the short-cuts and skills I have learned in using an Excel spreadsheet, then my knowledge is multiplied in you.  I have seen what I possessed become something which others can also "enter into" with a little practice and put to good use in their jobs.  Passing it on ensures it doesn't "die with me", so to speak.

We are who we are because of the gift of Jesus Christ.  Apart from his coming to this earth and fulfilling all the "preliminary reports" of his coming, living, dying, and resurrecting / ruling, we would live eternity apart from God.  This is indeed a gift to celebrate.  It is too good to keep to ourselves.  Indeed, when we take this step of believing the "preliminary reports" and acting upon them, we enter into a life beyond our imagining.  We begin to see the "health" restored to our lives unlike anything we could possibly have done apart from Christ's intervention.  I am incapable of truthfully forgiving another apart from the actions of grace in my life - for in understanding how grace has been extended to me, I am better able to extend grace to another - even when they may not have asked for it in the first place!  Forgiveness was only "part way" before I entered into this "restored life" with Christ - it becomes "all the way" when I embrace grace and allow grace to be "lived out" in my life.  The same is true for you - there are numerous examples of how our "health" is restored "in Christ" - and you "pass them on" as you "live them out" each and every day of your life.

We serve a truly generous God.  We "live out" a truthfully generous life, as a result.  Others may not understand the desire in us to share what we have received, but it doesn't mean we don't share it!  It doesn't take a dramatic sharing of the gospel message to spark a little faith in the heart of a searching soul.  In fact, it takes the reality of a "life lived out" (acting upon what we know to be true) to touch a hurting world.  It isn't the "street corner" witnessing which saves the hurting soul, but the one "living life out" in the cubicle next to you!  Just sayin!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Remembering the journey....

There are times when we all wonder just why it is we are traveling a particular road we are on.  We just cannot put our finger on why it is we are facing the challenging, and sometimes a little treacherous road we must cross.  In those moments, we wonder if we made a wrong turn somewhere, or if this is the way is life us supposed to be - complete with potholes, narrow and sometimes hair-raising switch-backs, and climbs so hard you almost peter out on the way up.  I guess I face those roads a little differently than some.  Instead of wondering why I am on the road, I just ask!  In fact, in time I come to discover something unique about every road I have traveled - I am not traveling it alone!  In truth, I may have made a wrong turn - but I still don't travel alone.  I have Jesus right alongside me no matter what road I am on and this one thing I know - I cannot "bail" - the road will be traveled!

Keep and live out the entire commandment that I’m commanding you today so that you’ll live and prosper and enter and own the land that God promised to your ancestors. Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that he would know what you were made of, whether you would keep his commandments or not. He put you through hard times. He made you go hungry. Then he fed you with manna, something neither you nor your parents knew anything about, so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread only; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth. Your clothes didn’t wear out and your feet didn’t blister those forty years. You learned deep in your heart that God disciplines you in the same ways a father disciplines his child. (Deuteronomy 8:1-5 MSG)

The tougher part of "traveling" so many roads over the course of a lifetime is the "remembering" part.  Most of my journeys on vacations lately have involved exploration of areas I have never been before, or those I'd like to explore again simply because it was so enjoyable to my soul to just travel there for a while.  I don't particularly remember the names of all the places, but there are "imprinted" images of some of the most beautiful spots.  I see things through the eyes of a photographer sometimes - capturing permanent images of a few blades of grass holding on for dear life from the side of a rocky outcropping, or maybe the mossy covering of a log settle on the shoreline of a lazily flowing creek bed.  These are images I recount when I want to remember some of the beauty of these travels - not just in photographs, but in "photo quality memories".

There are also a few traveled roads I'd like to put out of my memory - how about you?  Those were the toughest roads to travel and took the biggest toll on me to boot.  If I were to be honest, those roads seemed to be some of the longest journeys I have taken - and the loneliest!  I have always had great traveling companions when those fond memories were made.  I wonder why I don't remember my traveling companions on those hard roads just the same? Maybe it is because we all have a tendency to want to block those difficult memories - those times of traversing over those roads of regret we all have traveled.  I challenge us today to not forget those travels, though.  I believe even the toughest roads - those riddled with potholes of regret - were never traveled alone and were not without purpose, opportunity, and learning.

Israel traveled 40 years in a desert place, sometimes too caught up in themselves to recognize how long they had been traveling the same piece of ground over and over again.  That is how it is with us sometimes - we get so "inward" focused and cannot even appreciate we are traveling the same piece of ground repeatedly.  I think my pastor calls it being to "me", "me", "me" focused.  It is kind of like not being able to see the tree right in front of us because there is a forest so vast and dense all around us.  When we immerse ourselves in the misery of the moment, we cannot see the exit which may be our ultimate deliverance.  

Keep in mind what Moses was instructing Israel in our passage - don't forget even one step of the journey!  None of those steps were without purpose.  In those times of our toughest challenges, God was showing himself strong on our behalf, allowing us to see a little bit of where our focus was too much "me", "me", "me", and maybe even giving us a little taste of what heaven was like in the end.  We will remember the "heaven" part, but we have a tendency to forget the parts in-between!  Those times when we were pushed to our limits - seemingly tested to the point of breaking - those are the times we want to put behind us, walk away from, and never turn back.  Yet, I believe there is value in remembering the lessons of the journey - capturing even "snip-its" of the moments where we came face-to-face with either ourselves or God (hopefully both). 

Those journeys were not purposeless - they were the very opportunities God used to show us exactly what we are made of and what he wants to do and be on our behalf.  In coming to the place of recognizing what our "make-up" is, we can take heart in knowing God "makes-up" for what we lack.  In learning how he comes to our rescue each and every time we call we have appreciated his ever-present guidance in our lives.  In discovering the depth of our need, we also discover the depth of his love and mercy.  These are indeed "worthy" memories of the journeys we might want to "put behind".  Just sayin!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Yielding to the signs

We are in the midst of monsoon season in Arizona, bringing strong winds, sheeting rains, and all the damage these two create.  Coming home the other night was a little challenging as I found myself dodging downed trees, broken tree limbs, and lots of debris in the roadway.  I had to call the township to report the damage on two of the streets I traveled, hoping all other motorists would be able to navigate past these downed objects before they could get them cleared.  It would soon be dark and the damage was significant all around our area.  There were even downed street signs - some larger than life ones which mark the turn off on the freeways.  Now, that took some mighty strong wind to sheer them off at the base of their posts!  What happened to all those people counting on those signs to let them know they were at an intersection which required them to turn, or take a new path to get safely to their destination?  The signs served a purpose, but they were impeded by the storm.  As long as we have the right "postings" at the intersections of our lives, we are less likely to be confused about the direction we might take.  As soon as the storms disrupt our "postings", all things can go awry!

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. (James 1:19-21 MSG)

There are times when we just need to rely upon what we know as other "landmarks" in our lives - especially when the storms might have disturbed the normal "signs" we would count on to guide us safely to our destination.  In fact, we probably rely upon landmarks on our way to and from most of our destinations more than we think.  I know when I see the cell towers disguised as palm trees on the left of the freeway, I am nearing my turn-off for home. I also know when I see the large sign with a blue heart on it on my way to work, I am at the turn-off to get me to work.  I don't need the street signs to guide me because I have come to trust the landmarks.  If someone were to remove the cell tower or the hospital sign, I wonder what other landmarks might stand out in my memory?  We probably have way more committed to memory than we realize.

This might just be what our writer had in mind when he instructs us to keep these teachings / lessons "posted at all the intersections" of our life.  I don't think he was referring to literal "sign-posts" bearing these words, but the remembrance of these principles as we are challenged by life's ups and downs. The first "sign" we are to "heed" is that of listening.  It is the idea of not always needing to be the one heard, but to be willing to be the one doing the listening.  Not just for the words which might be spoken, but learning to listen with all our senses.  Did you ever stop to consider just how little is said in our words and how much is conveyed in our tone of voice, posture, actions, and the like?  If we solely rely upon what is said, we'd miss so much.  "Lead with your ears" is a change in our "normal" way of responding in life - because we want to lead with our words.  Instead, we are asked to be quiet, taking in what it is we are hearing and then allowing our senses to be in tune with what is being said.

The other night in the storm, the house was very quiet.  As mom prepared for bed, I sat alone in the living room.  Before long, I could hear a little bit of a dripping sound.  To my surprise, I found my windows had leaked!  That faint dripping was an indication the winds had been so strong as to allow water back in behind the vinyl facing and it was making small puddles on the windowsill.  It was only because I used my senses to guide me to the spot of these leaks that I discovered this potentially damaging issue.  They will all be sealed on Friday when the installers come back out to take care of the issue, but I would never have discovered this if I had not been silent long enough to hear.  I wonder what we miss because we lead with our voices rather than our ears?  Voice comes second to hearing - for it is only in hearing that we are able to reliably respond.

If we did a little more listening, a little less speaking, and a whole lot less "reacting" to what we think we heard, I wonder what this world might be like? Maybe there would be less strife in homes and more peace at the dinner table.  Maybe kids wouldn't struggle so with their self-esteem, but would feel loved, appreciated, and valued in their homes, schools, and peer groups. Maybe competing forces would see the needs of the "other side" and find ways to compromise a little here and there so everyone could "win" a little.  There is such potential to these instructions, if we'd just embrace them with our whole hearts.  

To sum it all up, we are reminded the place anger and bitterness is to find in our lives - trailing far, far behind!  Maybe this is possible when we learn to listen first, speak second (and only after a great deal of thought has gone into it), and then reveal by our actions that we have heard what has been said.  In consideration of how it is we might learn to put anger and bitterness in "last place" in our lives, we need to allow the word of God to cultivate the soil of our hearts.  As soil is cultivated, it is turned over.  Sometimes when things within our hearts are finally "turned over" a little, we can see just how much the soil of our hearts needed the cultivating!  There might be all kinds of rocks, acting as stumbling places; perhaps undermining roots, giving us more than a little bit of a strangle-hold; or even just plain old rock-solid hardness, untouched for so long that the coldness just exudes.

Regardless of the soil, God's word has the potential to cultivate it into richness and fruitfulness - but it is only through cultivation that this occurs. If you haven't seen a farmer turn the soil, maybe you should Google it!  It is is a process, to be sure!  One in which the soil doesn't come out looking the same as it did!  One in which large dirt masses soon become smaller, manageable, and yielded soil.  In the process, barren places become "growth-worthy".  Just sayin!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Learning to love deeply

Stop to consider for just a moment how it is we learn to love - how we learn what love actually is.  Isn't it learned in what we see modeled for us?  As we come into this world, those close cuddles, all wrapped warm in little blankets, cozy in the arms of the ones who hold us are probably the earliest memories of love we can possibly understand.  Later on, as we grow up a little, we might associate love with the protection we feel as we are swooped up into caring embrace when we are scared by a frightening noise and the times we are just cuddled up in the lap of one reading us a bedtime story.  Much later in life, we might associate love with the tender things someone does to make us feel appreciated and the warming hugs of a friend.  All of these memories have one thing in common - they are all action-based.  Love is learned in the actions we see and experience - not just in the words we read or hear.  We can learn a lot about God's love in what we read in scripture - we learn more about his love in what we see modeled in his Son and in the lives of those who make the Son of God their center!

I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. (John 15:10 MSG)

As Jesus presents it to us, he wants us to understand he is modeling the love of the Father in his actions among us.  He loved us exactly the way his Father loved him - in turn, we experience not only the love of Christ, but the love of our heavenly Father.  Our part - to make ourselves at home in this love.  In other words, we are to get very, very familiar with his love - through his actions on our behalf.  Many times we think about what it is we "do" for God and all the while he is asking us to just get very familiar with what he has "done" for us.  Love is modeled on our behalf - so we might be embraced by it, affected in the depths of our being, and then model it for others to experience in turn.

So, in order to fulfill this command to make ourselves at home in his love, we need to understand how it is we model what it is we have come to enjoy.  It goes without saying, this is the hardest part of learning - for it is in the modeling of the behavior that we finally make the connection between what we know and what be come to trust.  It probably comes as no surprise to you that Jesus equates love with obedience.  His "modeled" behavior was to do the will of the Father who sent him - to lay down his agenda long enough to do what the Father asked of him on our behalf.  In turn, he asks us to model this same behavior - laying aside our own agendas in order to take up the agenda of the heavenly Father.

Keeping God's commands is more than just "Thou shalt not lie" or "Thou shalt not steal".  It is learning to put God first in all areas of our lives - even those areas where we want to hold out a little of ourselves because obedience in those areas will "cost us" a little too much for our liking.  It is learning to consider the needs of another above our own, for our role-model certainly didn't consider his needs for comfort, acceptance, or status as above our need for a Savior!  It is learning to love without strings attached - reaching out to another even when they don't "deserve" our love.

This is tough stuff - things hard for us to learn.  Yet, we are given the space of our lives to get this right.  As we start each new day, our opportunities to model this obedient love are renewed.  There is a fresh start each new day - so if we didn't do such a good job with this yesterday, we can start again today with a clean slate.  Obedience is learned behavior every bit as much as love is!  We may not take every step today in obedience, but those which are closer to obedience today than they were yesterday are the progress God wants to see!

In understanding where it is obedience is learned, I would have to say our scripture points us to close, intimate relationship with Jesus.  As we see the nature of Jesus role-modeled for us, we come to appreciate the aspects of obedience.  We come to understand the conflicts within which would play a part in each decision to either respond in love, or to reach out in a selfish display of anger, frustration, hurt, and other forms of "not so loving" actions. Jesus continually manifest love actions, even in the face of what most of us would see as taunts, rants, and ridicule.  He maintained these same love actions all the way to the cross - not because he had to - but because he loved his Father so much and each of us equally.  

It is only through intimate relationship with Jesus we learn of his love actions on our behalf.  It is in those times of deepest communion with him where we learn to love as he loves.  Just sayin!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Flash Flood Warnings!

To whom do you run when you face troubles?  I remember awful summer storms in the Arizona desert, lightning flashing across the sky, black clouds rolling in around on all sides, and loud rolls of thunder shaking the very panes in the windows.  It wasn't so bad when I was nestled all secure in the safety of my home, mom close at hand.  It was terrifying when I found myself a couple doors down, caught in the sudden down pour and only fence upon fence separating me from that absolute safety of mom's care!  I would remember hearing her calling for me and before long, her arms would come over the fence, lifting me to "safety" in those loving arms of hers.  She'd rush me inside and then all would be well.  You know, God is kind of like my mom - he has big enough arms to reach over obstacles in my path; a loud enough voice to be heard over the cacophony of noise in my world; and a tender, enveloping embrace which makes me feel at peace once I enter into it!

I run to you, God; I run for dear life.  Don’t let me down!  Take me seriously this time!  Get down on my level and listen, and please—no procrastination! Your granite cave a hiding place, your high cliff aerie a place of safety. You’re my cave to hide in, my cliff to climb. Be my safe leader, be my true mountain guide.  Free me from hidden traps; I want to hide in you.  I’ve put my life in your hands.  You won’t drop me, you’ll never let me down.  (Psalm 31:1-5 MSG)

When those summer storms hit, my greatest fears were the tremendous "energy" which seemed to be generated in the midst of them.  The winds were horrendous - gusts in excess of 50 miles per hour sometimes.  The dust billowing in around seemed to almost occlude the visibility.  The tremendous lightning show would take down trees, light up the sky, and put the fear of being fried to a frizzle into almost all of us.  Then there came the down pour of rain, with sudden force and the gully-washers of flash-floods.  Dry washes would fill with muddied waters flowing at tremendous force, making passage across them impossible. To be caught on the opposite side of where you needed to be almost ensured you were riding out the storm right where you were!  

There are times in our lives when the same sudden force and fury of chaotic frenzy comes in upon us in ways we cannot imagine possible.  We face the fear of the moment with almost the same response:  "Daddy - rescue me!"  It might sound like "God I need your help here" when you say it, but it all means the same thing!  As our heavenly Father, he delights in hearing our cries for help and he is quick to reach over those obstacles of life with his big arms, lifting us safely into his embrace!  

As our writer aptly puts it, God "gets down on our level and listens to our needs".  His response is to meet us right where we are, but not to leave us there - he lifts us up to a new level - one which we could not see because of the obstacles in our midst.  He becomes the granite cave we hide within and the high cliff from which we can see above the "storm".  I have flown in airplanes, knowing full-well all manner of snow, wind, rain, hail, etc., was going on below me.  From up above the storm, it doesn't look as ominous, does it?  In fact, it kind of pales in comparison to the vastness of the blue sky spread out on all sides of us!  I think this is what God does for us when we cannot see the vastness of his love and care because of the horror of the storms billowing.  

Most importantly, we can rest in this fact - God never fails to see the storm long before it comes our way.  He prepares for the very help we will need when the winds blow and the noise almost overwhelms us.  To this day, my daughter is scared of thunder and lightning.  It wasn't because I didn't rescue her the way my mom did, but because she just is.  But...she isn't when I am around, or she can call me to just talk, or when she is safely buttoned up in the comfort of her home.  Why?  As long as she is sheltered and she hears the familiar voice, she is safe!  Guess what?  As long as we know we are able to run into his shelter and hear his familiar voice, we will not fear the storm either!  Just sayin!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

You applying yourself?

I think we have a lot to learn about how to answer "temptation's" call in our lives - like how to actually say "no" and how not to be "duped" by how intelligent "temptation's" call can actually be!  Truth be told, we all probably listen to "temptation's" call a little too frequently simply because we don't recognize the voice of God very well, or because we aren't familiar with his teachings well enough to recognize a lie when we hear it.  The one and only way to actually get to know God's voice is to listen for it - the only way to get to know his teachings is to actually study them.  Therein is the rub - listening and learning.  Two challenges we all face - some better than others - but nonetheless two common struggles for all humans.

Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” (Matthew 4:4 MSG)

The above passage is the first response of Jesus in the wilderness when faced with "temptation's" call.  His first answer is quite telling about how each of us should be able to answer "temptation's" call when we are faced with it.  As he says, "It takes a steady stream of words from God's mouth", in order to stay alive and - may I take a little liberty here - to stay upright, moving forward, and avoid the pitfalls of temptation.  There are lots and lots of ways to get God's word "into" us, but there are only a few ways to get it to "stick".  I am not a huge fan of Christian TV, although I catch a program here and there, especially when I am shut in for any period of time and just want to connect with some good teaching.  I don't believe every word I hear though - because not ALL the teaching is solid, not ALL the teaching is "right on".  What I don't do is make Christian TV my "steady diet" of how I allow God's words to get into me.  In fact, I think there are principles taught of studying to show one self approved - something we do not only by hearing, but by intently looking into scripture ourselves.

As a child, I had a ravenous hunger for figuring out what was in the Bible.  I don't believe this was by accident.  I had praying family members who were praying me "into" my relationship with Jesus - something which didn't come until I was entering my teen years.  May I also say, it never really "took hold" of me until I was in my early twenties - I "knew" Jesus in my youth, but really got "into" relationship with him, locked into getting to know him, not just about him, in my young adult life.  Up until that point, I had focused on calling myself a Christian, even reading the Bible and doing Bible studies, but I had never really come into a place of getting to "know" Jesus.  In retrospect, all the time in the scripture helped give me a foundation, but it didn't "cement" my faith until much later.

Not all of us have this "ravenous hunger" for the Word.  Sometimes it is downright hard to actually "get into it" because we find it hard to understand, or we just don't see the value in the time spent pursuing such endeavors. When we can so readily be "spoon-fed" the Word, such as when we can just turn to a TV minister for teaching, we don't actually have to dust off the cover of our Bibles and get into discovering the truths contained within ourselves. The danger in this is in not knowing when we are being "duped" or only receiving part of the truth.  In fact, this is why you often find me saying things like let's look at the "context" of the passage (what preceded it, who the audience is, etc.).  I will agree with you when you tell me scripture can be hard to understand at times, and even that it doesn't clearly speak to some of the detailed questions our minds can form.  There are times when all we have are "inferences" by which to form an opinion on a subject, and most of us who live by the "black and white" of a matter find this a little disconcerting.

Yet, if we are disciplined in our study, we will not be disappointed in our learning.  If we want to learn - we have to apply ourselves.  Application is more than passive listening.  We hear many a sermon in our lives if we are church-going people, but I have to ask us - how much of what we hear do we actually put into practice in our lives?  This is why it is most important for us to study the Word ourselves - to get into it, making the investment of time and energies to find out for ourselves what is contained in its pages.  Therein we find the voice of God - therein we learn the truths which will give us anchor when "temptation's" call wants to set us adrift.  We don't see Jesus saying the most important thing is to "hear" the Word of God, but to "live" the Word of God.  What is implied in Jesus' words above is this idea of letting those words sink in - becoming a ready source of comfort, guidance, trust, etc. When we have to apply ourselves to learning something, we are more likely to retain what we are applying ourselves to.  Just sayin!

Friday, July 18, 2014

How many times do I have to be told?

Did you ever stop to consider the "skill" of listening?  If we are to really understand what listening is and is not, we must probably understand what listening "is not" first.  This will help us to "carve out" what listening really is. The idea of listening is not just "hearing" words said.  It is not being intermittently engaged in conversation.  It is not double-tasking - doing one thing while allegedly listening.  I have tried all these things - "hearing", engaging half-heartedly, and double-tasking.  What happens is that my attention is not directed as it should be, my heart isn't into it, and I just plain miss stuff!  We can either develop a "habit" of being good listeners, or the one of not listening as we should.  The latter is a bad habit!  There is probably no habit quite so difficult to break - no skill so difficult to learn.

I have a lot more to say about this, but it is hard to get it across to you since you’ve picked up this bad habit of not listening. By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one—baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.  (Hebrews 5:11-14 MSG)

The most telling part of not being in the habit of listening as we should is that we don't do as we hear.  In hearing, we just merely allow the words to bounce around in our brains for a while and then somehow they escape.  It is like we "leak"!  We don't hold onto what we hear - allowing it to affect our thought, reasoning, intellect, etc.  When we allow stuff to "leak out", we are constantly in the place of having to "relearn" the information over-and-over again.  I remember having my first locker at school.  I had literal bad dreams for a couple of weeks before school ever began because I was so afraid I'd forget the combination to the lock on my gym locker!  Once I received my locker assignment, I practiced and re-practiced opening that lock, rehearsing those series of numbers until I thought I'd have it down pat. Don't ya know...I forgot the lock combination on one of my first days at school and nearly had a panic attack!  For the life of me I could not put those numbers together and there I stood - having just minutes to change out for physical education and no idea how to access my shorts and T-Shirt from the gym locker!  I had "leaked"!

To make matters worse, I would have to admit to my gym teacher that I had forgotten the precious combination.  To make matters worse, the gym teacher had given us this big lecture about us being responsible to remember the combination and she wasn't our mothers.  So when I forgot that combination, do you think I wanted to go to her and admit my failing?  Not a chance.  I stood there in panic, holding back tears, retrying every series of numbers that seemed feasible in my mind.  As if to make matters worse, more and more of the girls in my class began to leave the locker room, making it obvious that I was not going to make the class bell!  I was mortified because they would ALL soon know how silly I had been to forget that combination.  You and I all have the same tendencies to hold onto stuff we might have done well to not allow to clutter up our brain space and then we allow stuff to slip away which we should have been guarding with our lives!  In respect to our spiritual lives, whenever we allow the teachings of God to be merely heard and not embraced, we are allowing this "leakage" of what is heard.  When we do, we have but one recourse - learn it all over again!

Yes, I did eventually have to admit to my teacher my failure to remember the combination she had given to me just a few days before.  Yes, I did remember it the rest of the year and can even recite it now at age 56!  It wasn't even a hard one!  32-15-30 - go figure! that moment of time, it was gone! Why?  I only half-heartedly set my attention toward learning what I'd heard. We all find ourselves in those positions at times, but we should not allow this to become the dominant way we treat what it is we hear.  As a matter of fact, some of us are "relearning" lessons taught long ago simply because we have this bad habit of not listening.  Relearning the basics is not the original plan - it is the contingency!  The plan was for us to hear, embrace, and obey.  The lack of attention we paid toward the teaching in the first place actually resulted in us having to "relearn" the lesson sometimes multiple times! Instead of being able to eat meat, we are still having to eat soft foods!

Square one - the place we all begin.  Square two - the next step in the progression of learning.  How many times do we try to circumvent the natural progression of learning?  It is like we want to take two stairs at once, making the climb much quicker, but then we wonder why we are winded, have muscle pains the next day, and forgot what we were to learn by taking each step with intention!  When the step builder placed each of those steps in their natural upward progression, he never intended us to skip any one of them!  In fact, he built them at the perfect "rise" so we wouldn't have undo strain or stress in making the climb.  When we learn to listen, forsaking our bad habit of not listening, it is as though we are learning to take each step in progression. We often avoid some of the issues we experience with not listening when we do. Just sayin!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

All I want for Christmas is....

Having raised two children and seeing the grandchildren moving up the grades in school, I am well familiar with the tendency to heart those words "I want" more than I care to have heard them.  Most parents deal with this "I want" phase of childhood by trying to sculpt their children's desires into realistic and meaningful ones rather than indulging each and every "I want" as though it was an immediate need which required being met.  If we did meet every one of their "I want" demands, we probably raised pretty spoiled children!  More importantly, we never helped them realize the world isn't all about them! There are times when our "wants" are really demands and they are all based in this belief of us being the most important one in the picture at the moment.  There are probably very few of our "wants" which actually equate to "needs" in our life - but isn't it amazing how loudly our "wants" proclaim themselves?  

You’re all I want in heaven! You’re all I want on earth! When my skin sags and my bones get brittle, God is rock-firm and faithful. Look! Those who left you are falling apart! Deserters, they’ll never be heard from again. But I’m in the very presence of God—oh, how refreshing it is! I’ve made Lord God my home. God, I’m telling the world what you do! (Psalm 73:25-28 MSG)

There is one definite "need" in life which actually is a truthful need - the desire to know God on a deeply personal level.  Unfortunately, some don't ever see this as a need, content to just "know of" God, but never really coming to "know" God.  I think this might be related to how we perceive our needs in life - if the needs we have are all about what is in it for us, we miss the important point that this is a two-way relationship between us and God. As with all other relationships, one-way relating does not go very far toward developing intimacy and true communication.  If all we do is tell God all our "wants" and never allow him to refine them into what we actually "need" versus what will bring us immediate pleasure or satisfaction, we are truly missing the boat.

When God has the "authority" to filter our "wants", we are actually saying we give God permission to show us where we are still in the control of our lives. This may not seem like much at first, but if we allow another to help us clarify what it is we "need" vs. "want", we are really saying we trust that person to help us make decisions which will affect our lives.  This is the first step toward deep intimacy in relationship - being open and honest enough with another to be "vulnerable" in what is shared and in what may come back to you in the form of feedback.  Sometimes what we don't see in our "wants" is the very thing which keeps us in bondage to something or someone.  At other times, our "wants" are just about us - there is no foundation of considering the needs or wants of another, it is all about us.  Either way, we have much to learn at the feet of Jesus when it comes to deferring to his help on refining our "wants" and showing us what are actually our true "needs".

As David pens this prayer to God, he is finding himself caught off-guard again by how easily he can get distracted in life.  He opens with the idea of almost missing out on God's movement in his life because he was looking the other way.  Now, when we are so focused on our "wants", it is easy to get our focus totally misdirected.  He found himself envying what others had, did, and enjoyed.  He got his focus on the other guy - comparing what they had, how easily it came into their lives, what they could do because they had what they did, etc.  Sound familiar?  This is the basis of almost all advertisement on the TV these days - showing us what we don't have, creating in us a desire to get it, and then telling us how "fulfilled" we will be if we get it!  It doesn't matter if it is the potato chip which proclaims we cannot eat just one, or if it is the automobile commercial which makes all driving of their sleek automobile look like an Indy 500 race.  You can count on this - the schemes of Satan's heart are designed to get our eyes off of what God wants for our lives and onto what it is we can be duped into by his schemes as "needs" and "wants" promising immediate fulfillment.

Most of us recognize the futility of getting our eyes on anything other than Christ, but how many of us actually recognize how much "drift" we allow in our focus.  If you have ever sat still for a moment, looking at something in front of you, then found yourself gradually looking all around at the stuff around what it was you were looking at, you understand this idea of drift.  Our eyes were designed to pick up in the periphery - we see stuff that isn't even in our direct visual path.  This makes focus more difficult to maintain sometimes. We actually have to concentrate to stay focused!  This is why I actually make a list before I go to the grocery store!  If I don't want to spend way over my budget for groceries, I need the list!  Why?  I get caught up in what my eye beholds!  Before long, my cart holds what my eye beholds!  Drift has occurred. There is this same thing which occurs in relationship - when we aren't focused on living with intent, we allow for drift!

Our psalmist describes this whole battle within which is pretty much what all of us deal with - we see what we want, start to go after it without really thinking if it is what we need, and then when we get a little ways into the pursuit of it, we might just have a little remorse about the pursuit.  In the end, we find ourselves appealing to God to get us out of the mess our "wants" have lured us into.  He even describes the sheer "headache" of trying to figure out the difference between what he was envying and what he really needed to be pursuing in life.  I appreciate the honesty of David's heart to tell us how much it actually "hurts" to make unwise decisions!  There is a whole lot of "headache" and "heartache" with drift!  Where is it he finds clarity and gets hold of how much he has drifted?  In the sanctuary of God!  Nothing brings clarity quicker than to come into the presence of God and just sit quietly before him in worshipful thought.  All those "wants" become clear to us as either false promises, or as luring temptations.  In his presence, we get focus again.

Sometimes the toughest part of our Christian walk is just maintaining focus. The single-most difficult thing to do "independently" is live righteously!  We need each other, the Holy Spirit, and the Word to help us with focus and to bring us into revelation about what we truthfully "need" in this life.  "Wants" are innumerable - but as we finally get centered on our "need" for deep relationship with Jesus, our "wants" begin to pale in comparison to this single "need"!  When HE becomes the center of our focus - he becomes all we "want" in this life!  Just sayin!