“Seek 1st to Understand”


Prior to worship yesterday, I lay on my face in the church sanctuary praying for insight, for wisdom, for stability.  It was a desperate prayer because I feel like a man adrift on a rudderless ship; life defies understanding right now. The actions of my government confound me. The inability to find common ground on just about any issue is frustrating. The civil unrest which includes violence and destruction continuing across the nation makes little sense to me. It is my nature to quickly propose solutions so that life can get ‘back to normal.’  In these days I hear God’s Spirit asking me to listen. It is hard to do, I confess.  I want to shout.

In my worst moments, I let myself rant, blaming, arguing, blustering – all clear evidence that I am feeling stress, anger, and confusion. And God asks me to rest on Him, to secure my mind and heart in His promise, and to listen – to Him, to others, that I might learn.

The citizens of ancient Jerusalem were confused by the words of the prophet that told them of a coming day of destruction at the hands of the Assyrians. “No way,” they said, “that cannot be. We are God’s city, the home of God’s Temple.  We’ll find a way to stop this!”  God replied, “Only in returning to me and waiting for me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it. You said, ‘No, we will get our help from Egypt. They will give us swift horses for riding into battle.’ But the only swiftness you are going to see is the swiftness of your enemies chasing you!” (Isaiah 30:15-16, NLT)

Will we listen to Him, to one another?
Will we stop talking long enough to think?
Can we let go of what we think we know long enough to learn things that are true?

Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, lists consideration as habit #5. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  He wisely teaches that most of us “listen” to the words of others but not to really hear them. We listen with the intent to reply. Even while they’re speaking, we are starting to formulate our answer. What inevitably happens in that communication pattern? We get only part of the message before we stop listening, and the other person senses they are not “being heard.”  

Covey also points out that we never really understand others IF we only listen autobiographically. In that kind of ‘listening’ the words that enter our brain are uncritically filtered through our own experiences.  When we assume the speaker thinks from the same framework as we do, that their values and attitudes are the same as ours, no real understanding is possible.

The Spirit is asking me (and you perhaps?) to listen with understanding. It is a basic expression of Christ-like love to care enough about others that we would work at gaining understanding. Only then can we actually address real needs! Jesus said, “Do for others what you would like them to do for you. This is a summary of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NLT) In another context, He said, “…you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31, NLT) Imagine the kind of relationships we would enjoy IF we actually put that into practice consistently?

How would the words you are saying about ‘those other people’ (whomever they may be) change if you learned to listen with open ears and mind?
How would it transform your racial attitudes if you were really empathetic, ‘seeking first to understand, then to be understood?’

In a principle addressed to husbands, but with broad application to our relationships, Peter says to “dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor unto the wife.” (1 Peter 3:7, KJV) The NIV says, “Be considerate.”  The command of the Spirit is to listen and understand, so you can actually address the real needs of the person you love.

Start with prayer that secures you in God. Worship His greatness, quiet before Him in prayer. Meditate on this declaration: “When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?” (Psalm 56:3-4, NIV)  Practice active listening, disciplining the desire to speak, giving wisdom time to mature as you gain insight. Yes, it is hard not to rush to judgment. Lord knows I have done it so many times. Patient listening, waiting on the truth, is evidence of the Spirit’s life in us. It is an act of selflessness that honors the Lord of Life, who loved us while we were still sinners, and took action to meet our greatest need.

Here is a prayer for the day.

“Father God, in a world marked by conflict,
in my country that is torn apart by rage,
I want to hear, to understand, to be willing to let go
of what I think I know to learn.

Help me to love and make peace.
Oh yes, Spirit of God, make me a peace-maker!

Fill me with wisdom and insight. Grant me patient love.
Take away harsh judgment that quickly condemns,
replacing it with the gentle spirit you showed
when confronted with ordinary sinners.
Let me fulfill your royal law by loving others more than I love myself.

In the Name of Jesus, who loved me. Amen.

He Leads, I’ll Follow

In 1977, I read an article in TIME magazine about a town in Wyoming that was booming.  Coal and oil were turning a sleepy cow town into a thriving little city, full of young workers. I was familiar with Gillette, WY. My Dad, before entering ministry, took us there each summer when he was buying lambs for his sheep company.  Reading that article, I sensed the calling of the Spirit to go there. I went to prayer and, after a week or so, I broached the subject of a cross-country move to my wife. Late August found us traveling to Wyoming. We had no job waiting for us, very little money to sustain us, and a big dream pulling us westward!  

The next 12 months were full of HUGE life lessons that helped mature me, growing faith in me. The ripple effect of that decision changed the course of several other lives as well.  Then, one year later we returned to New Jersey where I became an Associate Pastor. Our year in Wyoming looked like a fool’s errand to many but there is no doubt that God led Bev and me to that little town. It was not for the purpose which we thought. God used that place to develop our spiritual maturity.

Do you live in a way that lets God lead?

Christians should be led by the Spirit. Paul says that “those who are led by the Spirit are children of God.” (Galatians 6.14)  Before claiming that God is telling us to go here or there, buy this or that, to make some major life change, we need to recognize the voice of the Lord and understand what discernment means. Too many times Christians claim to be “led by the Spirit” when in reality they are just following a feeling or responding to some emotional impulse. There is no substitute for wise counsel and submission to the revealed Truth of the Word as we walk with God!  In our nation many value feelings over thinking especially when it comes to the practice of faith.  Knowing God for some equates to “having an emotional experience.”   One author points out that letting go of doctrine and accountability leaves us adrift on “the vast sea of subjectivitycarried by the turbulent winds of half-truth blow onto the vicious crags of confusion and mindless spirituality.” – Full Gospel, Fractured Minds? – Zondervan, 2005

In 2020, given the upheavals in our lives brought about by COVID19-  grief over losses, angst about health, coping with government restrictions on our lives and economic losses – the value of knowing that we can be led by God’s Spirit is inestimable. Personal peace and the witness of faith become evident in those whose minds and hearts are guided by the Lord.  Yes, Christian, God speaks today.  He says, “Come now, let us reason together.” Isaiah 1:18 (NIV) Spirit-led people live with a deep, life-shaping faith but not a blind one! Paul encourages us to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” Romans 12:1 (NKJV) Note the word, “reasonable.” We need not ‘lose our minds’ to be led by the Spirit.

It is not a lack of faith to examine the claim of that person who says she is being ‘led the Spirit.’ Asking God to give for a discerning mind is not the same as refusing to follow His lead. It is a humble recognition that we are imperfect, that we can get it wrong.  Christian history is replete with stories of charismatic leaders who were given too much credence, who led God’s people into foolish and destructive situations.  John gives us this warning: “do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world.” 1 John 4:1 (NLT)   The passage goes on to say that the primary test to determine who is a genuine ‘prophet’ – that is one who is claiming to hear from God and speak for God- is the way he conducts himself day to day.  Is there clear evidence of submission to Jesus Christ as Lord? Rebellious rogues who recognizes no authority bring disrepute to Christ’s Church.

There is great boldness for the believe to be found in knowing what God says and following His lead!  It’s time for mature disciples to ‘wait on the Lord’ and having heard His voice, to stand courageously as they invite others with Paul’s words – ” Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1, KJV)  Have you heard the Spirit’s call? Are you letting Him lead? People of the Spirit, led by Him into works of faith, make His name glorious and build His kingdom. He leads, I’ll follow.

Here is a word from the Word.  “If you need wisdom—if you want to know what God wants you to do—ask him, and he will gladly tell you. He will not resent your asking.” (James 1:5, NLT)  “So humble yourselves before God. Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw close to God, and God will draw close to you.” (James 4:7-8, NLT)

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He Leadeth Me

He leadeth me O blessed thought
O words with heavenly comfort fraught
Whate’er I do where’er I be
Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me

He leadeth me He leadeth me
By His own hand He leadeth me
His faithful follower I would be
For by His hand He leadeth me

Sometimes ‘mid scenes of deepest gloom
Sometimes where Eden’s bowers bloom
By water’s calm o’er troubled sea
Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me

Lord I would clasp Thy hand in mine
Nor ever murmur nor repine
Content whatever lot I see
Since ’tis my God that leadeth me

And when my task on earth is done
When by Thy grace the victory’s won
E’en death’s cold waves I would not flee
Since Thou through Jordan leadeth me

Joseph Henry Gilmore | William Batchelder Bradbury

© Words: Public Domain

Those empty eyes

This CoffeeBreak is not sweet, nor is it uplifting. The video of a man dying on a Minneapolis street with the knee of another uniformed man pressed into his neck haunts me this morning. I do not know how the man in custody came to be lying there, nor why 4 officers felt a need to restrain him.  What I cannot escape are the empty eyes of the man who let another die under his knee as people pled with him.

He stared back at a crowd which included children, stuck his hand in his pocket in the most casual way, and the man died while people cried. Today my guess is that he rationalizes what he did by saying he was ‘just doing his job.’ It’s a line with a long history. Many of those charged with war atrocities in the 20th century offered the defense of ‘just following orders,’ another way to say ‘just doing my job.’

We like to characterize those who commit terrible acts as monsters, don’t we?  We want to be convinced that they must be horrible and twisted in some way that distinguishes them from us; except that they are not. Acts may be monstrous but they are done by human beings who eat, sleep, breath, have families just like you and me. Evil is real. Apart from God’s redemptive good, it grows like mold, killing us inside out. When we allow ourselves to be dehumanized by a society that turns us into a cog in the machine, evil flourishes. When we let ourselves be convinced that hurting another is just part of our job, we become capable of terrible things.

Evil gives us empty eyes. We cannot see the cost to others in what we do, cannot appreciate the humanity of another, are blinded to the suffering that comes from our words and actions.

Those eyes that are empty of empathy are far more common than we like to admit. Who among us can honestly say we have not demeaned another?
Perhaps it is ‘just a joke’ about someone that makes them less.
Perhaps it is the rage of a spouse that allows him to have his own way in the household.
Perhaps it is the subtle snub of someone we think is lesser in some way.
Perhaps it is the manipulative action of a supervisor that steals the dignity of a laborer.
Perhaps it is the religious intolerance that makes ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ with dogma.

Some men dragged a woman ‘caught in adultery’ to Jesus for judgment. With empty eyes they demanded that He judge her, too, because this was the ‘the Law.’ But Jesus truly saw her, loved her, and asked the same of her accusers. “See yourselves first. Are you without sin?” He asked. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7-8, NIV) Seeing, they slipped away, leaving Him to offer redemption to the woman. 

Ah, those Eyes of Jesus. May we see as He sees.

The wisdom literature of the Word reminds us of a choice to make. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you.” (Proverbs 4:23-25, NIV)  What are you allowing to fill your inner thoughts?  Jesus was clear that what we say is clear evidence of what we think! Listen to your unguarded words and you will get a glimpse of your soul’s content.

Here is where it gets hopeful. We are not helpless before evil. Hearts can be renewed, empty eyes can see again. There is a Savior, a Healer, the Lord of Love and Life.

Of Him, Paul writes “God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and by him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of his blood on the cross. This includes you who were once so far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions, yet now he has brought you back as his friends. He has done this through his death on the cross in his own human body. As a result, he has brought you into the very presence of God, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault.” (Colossians 1:18-22, NLT)  

And when we come to Him and find forgiveness and new life, we then can see. So, “Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.” (Ephesians 5:1-2, The Message)
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The Power Of Your Love

Lord I come to You
Let my heart be changed renewed
Flowing from the grace
That I found in You
And Lord I’ve come to know
The weaknesses I see in me
Will be stripped away
By the pow’r of Your love

Hold me close
Let Your love surround me
Bring me near
Draw me to Your side
And as I wait
I’ll rise up like the eagle
And I will soar with You
Your Spirit leads me on
In the pow’r of Your love

Lord unveil my eyes
Let me see You face to face
The knowledge of Your love
As You live in me
Lord renew my mind
As Your will unfolds in my life
In living ev’ry day
By the pow’r of Your love

Geoff Bullock © 1992 Geoff Bullock Music (Admin. by Music Services, Inc.)

CCLI License # 810055

Do your job!

Bill Belichick, coach of the NE Patriot football team, is known for his team philosophy: “Do your job!” He’s a no-nonsense coach who expects that every man on the squad will perform at the highest level so that the team will benefit. Everyone matters. From the weight room to the practice field, Belichick reminds young often undisciplined players that they are there to win games. That is ‘the’ job. Apparently the coach is onto something. The Pats have an enviable record of wins.

Our Coach, (Parakletos) the Holy Spirit, asks the same of us, Christian.  God saves us and brings us into His Church, the Body of Christ, so we can become an effective, fruitful person, making a difference in our daily lives because we love Him.  We are mistaken if we believe that our faith is confined to an hour’s devotion on Sunday morning to secure our heavenly home for that hopefully distant moment of earthly departure arrives.  Yes, I hear the objections – “Jerry, my relationship with God is based on faith. Are you telling me that I have to earn my place in heaven?”  Our peace with God, the promise of salvation, IS NOT the result of our religious efforts. Let’s go back and underline that. However, we are saved to serve and God is telling us – ‘Do your job!’

Yesterday, considered part of the story of Nehemiah, the rebuilder of Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord. The account inspires us and reveals a deep faith and diligent commitment. Both were important in bringing about the restoration of Jerusalem. Nehemiah heard about the sorry state of the city and his first response was prayer. He knew that ultimate success depended on God.  The godly man also put his own life on the line. He left a job in the king’s court taking up a difficult challenge that involved read hardship.  When the work started, he met each obstacle in the same way – praying and trusting God while making practical plans.  I love one short phrase that perfectly captures the blend of faith and our work. When he was told that enemies were preparing an attack, he “prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.” (Nehemiah 4:9, NIV)

I trust God to complete His work in me and through me but I am not passive nor will I just sit around waiting to be rescued. It is my privilege to become a disciplined part of His work, His Spirit working in me and through me. Paul, who knew God’s saving grace, who trusted completely in Christ Jesus, also says that what God has done for us has a consequence for everyday life. “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed-not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV)

God’s wonderful gift of grace does not exempt us from personal responsibility. Somehow that idea has slipped into the minds of Christians today. We fail to remember that the Word which promises us grace we could never deserve also teaches us the law of the harvest, that the seeds we plant produce the crop we harvest. “The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:8, NIV)

Are you a passive Christian? Have you mistakenly assumed that there is nothing to do except wait for Heaven?  Let’s take the model of Nehemiah, loving God and leaning into His Presence in daily prayer, opening our hearts and minds to His truth and transformation by the practice of the disciplines of the Spirit. Do your job. “Pray and post a guard!”  

Here is a word from the Word.  “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so that we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Ephesians 2:9-10, NLT)  Do your job!

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Jesus calls me, I must follow,
Follow Him today.
When His tender voice is pleading,
How can I delay?

Follow, I will follow Thee, my Lord;
Follow ev’ry passing day.
My tomorrows are all known to Thee,
Thou wilt lead me all the way.

Howard L. Brown | Margaret W. Brown © New Spring (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.)

Come, let’s rebuild!

Many of us were heartened a bit this weekend as America started to return to life. As the restrictions are lifted and we start to slip out of fear’s grip we are ready for friends, for meals together, for worship. However you fix the blame or see the reasons, there is one inescapable conclusion. Life has taken a major hit.  Before we can even think of getting back to ‘normal,’ a major effort focused on rebuilding lies ahead. We must rebuild confidence, trust, a broken economy, church ministries, business … and the list goes on.  Will we get it done?

The city of God, Jerusalem, was destroyed by Assyria, her walls torn down, God’s Temple sacked, the best and brightest taken into captivity.  Most people concluded that life as they had known it was over; except for a tiny remnant of the faith-filled who believed God’s promises.  Are you part of God’s faith-filled, praying for our broken world, praying for more than the old normal, but rather for a true spiritual renewal?

God called a man to lead that remnant, to pull together their efforts. His name?  Nehemiah.  He was a Jewish man, living in exile, the ‘cupbearer’ to the king in Babylon. He got word of the crisis back in the land of his fathers. “They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” (Nehemiah 1:3-4, NIV)  He wept. He grieved. He engaged. He prayed!  THEN, he acted.

What a story it is. (Suggested read – Nehemiah 1 and 2)  I’ll skip some of the intermediate details. When he got to Jerusalem, he took time to survey the project, to gain understanding. Only then did he share God’s vision with others. “Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.” (Nehemiah 2:17-18, NIV)  It was no walk in the park, but he got the job done.  What an inspiration!

How can we become rebuilders in this broken world, even of our own lives that have been left in disarray?

First- GET God’s Vision!

He has a plan for your life. Vision, ‘seeing’ what the future can be, is basic for change. Getting a vision and committing to it makes moving mountains possible. Be sure to prayerfully discern between YOUR dream and GOD’S vision. He is not obligated to fund your dream but He will resource us to complete His vision.

Second- Assess the Challenges!

What seems important to you or me may not be God’s first line concern. He desires more for us than simply restoring our prosperity or letting us become comfortable once again. What is the real challenge that needs to be met? It is not always obvious and the answers are not often easy.

Third- Build your team!

Never underestimate the importance of being part of a group of people who share vision. Nehemiah had many people that he brought into his circle who put the pieces of the vision into place. Take care not to confuse competence with character. Surround yourself with those who truly desire God, who are engaged in ‘seeking first the kingdom of God.’

Fourth- Gather resources!

What has God asked of you?  As you know that, take this Word Truth and live it. “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19, KJV) He has the right people to be on your team. He has the right plan, a rich store of wisdom, and the Spirit’s gift that will keep us going. Will we access those resources or attempt to fulfil the vision on our own? The work of God can only be accomplished in the strength of the Lord.

Fifth- Start!

Today’s opportunities will not return tomorrow.  Are you doing something, making the effort, moving forward in spite of obstacles?  You have to love the pithy wisdom of Proverbs – “A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest— then poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.” (Proverbs 6:10-11, NLT)   Rebuilding will not just happen while we sit around singing. Too many Americans have turned into professional victims waiting for someone to rescue them, to feed them, to soothe their troubled minds. God give us courage to stand up and start.  By the way, Nehemiah was not everybody’s hero!  His efforts were lauded by some but he felt the sting of critics’ words. IF you stand up, someone, perhaps many, will try to shoot you down.

Let’s get serious with God in prayer, inviting the Holy Spirit to show us a new vision – for ourselves, our families, our churches, our nation, our world.  Let’s offer up our lives to serve as re-builders who create beauty for the glory of God.

The word from the Word is a favorite of mine. Let’s take this promise and commit to getting to work.

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21, NIV)

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Still Rolling Stones
(Lauren Daigle inspires!)

Out of the shadows
Bound for the gallows
A dead man walking
‘Til love came calling
Rise up rise up
Six feet under
I thought it was over
An answer to prayer
The voice of a Savior
Rise up rise up

All at once
I came alive
This beating heart
These open eyes
The grave let go
The darkness should have known
You’re still rolling stones
You’re still rolling stones

Now that You saved me
I sing ’cause You gave me
A song of revival
I put it on vinyl
Rise up rise up
I once was blinded
But now I see it
I’ve heard about the power
And now I believe it
Rise up rise up

I thought that I was too far gone
For everything I’ve done wrong
Yeah I’m the one who dug this grave
But You called my name
You called my name
Oh You’re still rolling stones (2X)
You’re still rolling rolling (2X)
You’re still rolling stones

Jason Ingram | Lauren Daigle | Paul Duncan | Paul Mabury © 2018 Centricity Music Publishing (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing) CentricSongs (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing)

CCLI License # 810055

In the hands of Fate?

Someone whose life has been filled with so much pain and disappointment told me, “I’m losing faith.” I get it. If we believe that real faith in God gets us a pass on the suffering in this world, most likely we will discard our belief in God like we once outgrew our belief in the tooth fairy. Genuine faith engages us in a conversation with God that ask to know Him and to live as He desires.  There is a recurring question in my prayer: “What are You doing, Lord?”  Certainly God does not give an account of Himself to me. My question is less about getting an explanation than it is about trying to understand how I can keep myself aligned with His plans. Even as I pray to grasp the ‘why’ of our times, I also often pray this line from Jesus’ prayer – “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven.”

Christians view ‘God’s will’ in two ways that many believe are mutually exclusive. Some focus on the fact that God is the Creator and Source, concluding that whatever happens is His will, the extreme view of this making us puppets without choice.  One does not have to think very long about that without running into some serious moral issues.  Does God will murder or rape?  On the other side of the question there are those who believe that we are responsible for whatever happens to us. This group believes that God has limited His direct involvement in the world, leaving us to work out the difficulties on our own. In the most radical application of the idea of free will, God becomes little more than a remote Advisor, One on Whom we cannot rely.

The Bible teaches us two things that appear to be in conflict:
One is that God is ‘sovereign,‘ meaning that He does as He pleases above all.
The other is that you and I are a ‘free agents’ who enjoy the privilege of choice and the power to change the world.

Yes, both statement are true. God is ‘in charge,’ and I am free to choose to participate in His purposes or to reject His will! What see as an ‘either/or’ situation, the Bible teaches as a ‘both/and’ situation.

Jeremiah, seeing the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, struggles to understand.  As he prays God tells him, “O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand. If I announce that a certain nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, but then that nation renounces its evil ways, I will not destroy it as I had planned. And if I announce that I will build up and plant a certain nation or kingdom, making it strong and great, but then that nation turns to evil and refuses to obey me, I will not bless that nation as I had said I would.” (Jeremiah 18:6-10, NLT) What does Jeremiah learn from the Spirit of God?   He learns that God’s will and human choice are interwoven, that we participate the purposes of the Lord.  

Our choices are important. We are not puppets on a string, helplessly dancing as a God of inscrutable purposes pulls and twists from His throne.  It is important that we respond to Him with the daily choice to align ourselves with His revealed plan, and in that Spirit-empowered choice, we are able to live contentedly, even in the worst of situations.  There is a supernatural serenity (a ‘peace that passes understanding’) found in faithful devotion. If we choose to act as self-willed rebels or angry fools shaking puny fists in His face because of unpleasant circumstances, we cut ourselves off the One who is our life.

Isaiah urges us not to think too highly of ourselves and to submit to the Lord. Using the same imagery as Jeremiah, he writes – “Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, who do their work in darkness and think, “Who sees us? Who will know?” You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “He did not make me”? Can the pot say of the potter, “He knows nothing”?” (Isaiah 29:15-16, NIV)

The practical implications of the twin truths of God’s rule and our freedom of choice is that we can live peacefully in this world. When difficult situations arise in our lives or in the world around us, we run to the One who is unchanging, ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever.‘ We take solace from His promise that He will never leave us, never forsake us. But we do not stop working with Him to bring His rule to this world. We pray for change. We present ourselves to Him, and discipline ourselves so that His purposes are not hindered by our self-will. The Believer’s focus is always on seeking God, even as the Spirit works to strengthen our faith.

Christian, the question that we should ask when confronted with conflict, sickness, and suffering is not best framed as ‘why is this happening?‘ but rather as, ‘what are You asking of me, Lord?
If He wills that we go through the fire to refine our character, we can walk through it with peace.
If He wants to lead us to repentance, it is imperative that we respond quickly!
If His desire is to make us a living example of His grace, then our momentary sufferings become a thing of glory, the pain we experience inconsequential compared to the privilege of being used in His plans.

In all of this, we have repeated invitations from the Spirit to pray about everything, to make our requests known to God, to come boldly to His Throne: with the trust and humility of a child-like faith!

Here is a word from the Word. May the truth encourage us to love Him more.
“Let me hear of your unfailing love to me in the morning, for I am trusting you.
Show me where to walk, for I have come to you in prayer.

Save me from my enemies, Lord; I run to you to hide me.
Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.
May your gracious Spirit lead me forward on a firm footing.”
(Psalm 143:8-10, NLT) Amen

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I Surrender All

All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give
I will ever love and trust Him
In His presence daily live
I surrender all

I surrender all
All to Thee my blessed Savior
I surrender all

All to Jesus I surrender
Make me Savior wholly Thine
Let me feel the Holy Spirit
Truly know that Thou art mine

All to Jesus I surrender
Lord I give myself to Thee
Fill me with Thy love and power
Let Thy blessing fall on me

Judson Wheeler Van DeVenter | Winfield Scott Weeden © Words: Public Domain

The End of Time

Floods, fires, viral pandemics, earthquakes  … shake us up, don’t they? Some are pointing to these things as evidence that the Second Coming must be near at hand. Conspiracy theorists, especially among some Christian groups, insist that a godless one-world government and the Anti-christ of the Apocalypse are waiting to step onto the world’s stage.  Somehow vaccines, 5G cell service, and Bill Gates, join Dr. Fauci in a strange concoction of fantastic ideas about a great conspiracy emerging. The closure of churches and restrictions placed on individuals must be, these people insist, the prelude to an organized attempt to silence Christians in America.  Could we please just STOP with the speculative, often silly, theories?  

We are more easily duped because so few of us trust our news sources, our government, or any institutions these days. “Fake news” is a phrase that has entered our lexicon for good reason. Our media has become so politicized and polar that we all know that much of what we hear is heavily biased or just out-right propaganda. In that environment, the most outlandish and baseless ‘facts’ find ways to take root in the minds of many.

Christian, we must be wise, which is not to be confused with ‘smart.’ We must anchor our minds in the eternal Truth and develop our thoughts with careful, prayerful reflection that is guided by the discernment that the Holy Spirit promises to give to us.  It is possible to be fervent in faith without losing our minds in the process

The world is a rapidly changing place. From where I stand, I see growing hostility toward God and His Word.  Large numbers of people have decided that they have no need of God, Jesus, or personal Deity. They have declared themselves, de facto, their own god (small g intended); throwing off moral restraint, worshipping at the altar of self-fulfillment and technology. 

So, does this indicate that we are now in the “End Times”?  Many will not like my conclusion. The answer?  Yes and no.  

When Christ ascended to heaven, He promised His return. The Church era is the ‘final chapter’ for this world. So, in one sense the end times started 2000 years ago.
We know from the Scripture that we are to expect the imminent return of the Lord so yes, that too, indicates that we are in the end times. 
And, more personally, we are mortal, our lifetime here finite, a sobering thought about our own pending appointment with God.  Jesus could return today, Glorious Day! But, the ‘day and the hour’ are not known to us, which makes Christians who engage in date-setting for ‘the End’ dangerously wrong-headed.

Instead of letting ourselves get worked up in fear, wrapped up in conspiracy theories, and duped by those who want to sell us an over-priced book, we need to take the word of Jesus to heart.  Luke recounts a parable He told about a nobleman traveling to a far country who entrusted his wealth to three of his managers. His parting words were – ‘Operate with this until I return.’ (Luke 19:13, The Message) They were to expect him to return while working to produce a return on his investment.  Jesus expects this of us. We are not to sit around wringing our hands with worry or waiting from a rescue from the sky. We have much Kingdom work to do, even as we hope for the coming of our Lord.

All the while, we have the promises of our Lord Jesus Christ who reminds us that a world in turmoil is reason to remember that time is finite and God will bring about His plan. “And there will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!” (Luke 21:25-28, NLT)

When we start to think that life will go on forever, the truth smacks us in the face and we realize, anew, that we are mortal. When we grow arrogant, the fires, floods, earthquakes, wars, and pandemics remind us that we are not as much in control as we might wish to think we are.  

He is God, I am not.  My times are in His hands.  
Is your life held in His love, secured by His salvation? The declaration of judgment for all is not a terror to me. It gives me even more reason to serve Him, not from fear, but because I know my efforts for His Kingdom will be vindicated in that Day. Perhaps all the current shaking and rattling in the world will settle and a decade from now, peace and prosperity will have found us again. Or it may be that God is writing the epilogue of human history, soon to be published. That is not for us to say.

I leave Jesus’ words as the words from the Word. Own the promise, by faith, even if understanding is incomplete. In the promise there is peace. “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” (Revelation 22:17, NIV) “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” (Revelation 22:12-14, NIV)  

________

Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending

Lo He comes with clouds descending
Once for favored sinners slain
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of His train

Alleluia alleluia alleluia
God appears on earth to reign
Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in glorious majesty

Those who set at naught and sold Him
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree
Deeply wailing
Deeply wailing
Deeply wailing
Shall their true Messiah see

Those dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers
With what rapture
With what rapture
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars

Yea Amen let all adore Thee
High on Thine eternal throne
Savior take the power and glory
Claim the kingdom for Thine own
Come Lord Jesus
Come Lord Jesus
Come Lord Jesus
Everlasting God come down

Charles Wesley
Public Domain

Less? Blessed?

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The last 8 weeks have brought ‘less.’  Roads are not so crowded. Days are not as filled with activities. Weekends leave us with time weighing on our hands. Looking ahead, many are coming to grips that they may have to adjust to living with less as the ripple effect of the virus brings job loss, wage cuts, and reduced staffing. That is, at first thought, not generally something to call a blessing, is it? How can less be blessed?

We like big, don’t we?  We like options. We like shelves full of 28 brands of products that do the same thing! It makes us feel rich. Amazon™ brings more options than the “Mall of America” right into our living room and MasterCard™ rejoices when we browse those digital pages to buy ‘stuff.’  Do we realize that there is stress that goes with having so many options from which to choose? We like the feeling of importance that comes from a crammed calendar. All those things we do helps us to convince ourselves that we are valuable. But, do we understand that when we cannot sleep because our mind continues to race when we lie down we are getting a message that life is too full?

We are trained to be consumers, to be discontent.  We are told that we ‘need’ a new phone, another pair of shoes, more clothing because our economy requires spending. Most products have obsolescence built into them so that we will feel the need to replace them in a couple of years. We think little of creating more debt to get a new house, another car, or to go on a vacation will finally be ‘it.’  But, now a challenging narrative is emerging- one of contentment, one that lets us live with less. Can we accept it? Will we?

Could it be that God is inviting us to a restored sanity?
Might He be asking to ‘consider our ways and be wise?’

One of the choices that Christians make, for God’s sake, is simplicity. What is that? The opposite is complex. God invites us to become people who are transparent, whose motives are clear, whose minds are focused singly on serving Christ Jesus, with a hope that is formed around eternal life.  Simplicity flourishes in us when make God more than the “Bread King” who is supposed to feed our desires, instead allowing Him to help us to learn to be contented with who we are, what we have, and where we are.

As we think about the blessing of less, there are some practical things we can do, God helping us.

We stop comparing! Envy is the great enemy of simplicity.
We refuse to create an ‘image’ that we must then work hard to maintain.
We are generous, breaking the hold of ‘stuff’ by sharing, not just out of our excess, but sacrificially.
We learn to thanks for life, as it is, rather than begging God to make it what we think it should be.
We live today, choosing to let Him judge the past, to prepare us for the future.
We learn that saying ‘no’ is an acceptable response; a no to our own hearts demands as well as a no to cultural pressure to conform.
We live within our means, refusing to pile up debt in a vain attempt to create happiness.

Here’s what Jesus said.  “Your eye is a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is good, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is bad, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is! “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:22-24, NLT)

What’s your vision for life?  If it is a clear vision, fixed on truth, and focused around the goodness of God, you will live freely, soberly, and with contentment. If it is corrupted by materialism, sensuality, celebrity, greed, or other common American ‘values,’ you will descend ever deeper into the confusion of trying to fill the longing for meaning with things that can never satisfy your soul.

Learning new ways to think and live is never easy. I believe that God is inviting us to a new satisfaction, growing out of deep and intimate worship. Right now that isn’t even happening in church buildings but we can worship when we revel in the beauty of a bird’s song, the giggle of a child, the beauty of a sunset – finding the grace He promises ‘for today.’   The choice to become simple will break the chains that keep us enslaved to Self and Satan; serving lesser gods of reputation, things we own, and the things that fill up our days.

Shall we discover the blessing of less?

Spend some time with this word from the Word. These are powerful words that can transform our values.

Yet true religion with contentment is great wealth.
After all, we didn’t bring anything with us when we came into the world,
and we certainly cannot carry anything with us when we die.

So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.
But people who long to be rich fall into temptation
and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires
that plunge them into ruin and destruction.
 

For the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil.
And some people, craving money, have wandered from the faith
and pierced themselves with many sorrows.

But you, Timothy, belong to God; so run from all these evil things,
and follow what is right and good. Pursue a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness.”
  (1 Timothy 6:6-11, NLT)

_________

10,000 Reasons (Bless The Lord)

Bless the Lord O my soul O my soul
Worship His holy name
Sing like never before O my soul
I’ll worship Your holy name

 The sun comes up it’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes

 You’re rich in love and You’re slow to anger
Your name is great and Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find

 And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore

 Worship Your holy name
Lord I’ll worship Your holy name

Jonas Myrin | Matt Redman © 2011 Atlas Mountain Songs (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing) sixsteps Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing) Thankyou Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing) worshiptogether.com songs (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing)

CCLI License # 810055

Representing Jesus!

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A friend of mine told me about wearing a mask to a local store where he encountered a man in the parking lot who mocked him for his cowardice. Another shared about wearing his N95 medical grade mask, one that he’s had in his garage for months, only to be rebuked for not ‘saving’ the medical grade masks for health professionals. These are mild examples of the divided nature of our nation. I, and many other pastors, are sincerely concerned about preserving the unity of our churches in coming weeks as we reopen our buildings to meet for worship. If we Christians bring our strong opinions with us, what will result?

We must practice that kind of love that is always to be the most notable quality of a Christ followerdeep, other-centered love. Paul says it this way – “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” (Romans 12:9-10, NIV)

Balancing the needs of all those who call the church their spiritual home is no easy task. Some think we should open now, even in defiance of the government authorities. Others would keep the building closed until a vaccine and/or treatment is in place, which could be months from now. Some say that masks are unnecessary, others insist we will wear them publicly indefinitely.  Some think that the danger of spreading the contagion means we cannot sing. Others think that singing is a basic part of worship, not to be hindered for any reason.  Must we limit the number in the building?  I know you have opinions. We all do!

Time and again I remind myself of the greater importance of the unity of the Body of Christ. When I feel irritation rising with that person who disagrees with I am sure is ‘the truth,’ I feel the counsel of the Spirit reminding me to listen well.  Faith Discovery Church will open, though no date has been set yet. The process, to date, has been guided by the shared counsel of our leadership team. Even within that small group of 9 persons there are widely divergent opinions about the requirements that will be placed on those who attend. We talk, with respect, with honesty, keeping our focus on honoring Him.  In the end, each one will yield his or her opinion to the wisdom of the whole, and we all pray that our work is directed by Christ, the Head of the Church, as we are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Let’s widen our perspective today to include our individual responses to others in this world. Most of us have strong opinions about the decisions that the government is making to limit our individual liberties and about the way that others are responding to those directives. Some would take to the streets in fierce defense of our cherished American freedom and condemn those who refuse to do so as ‘sheeple,.’ Some believe that limits are in the interest of us all and see those protestors as idiotic and irresponsible.

Tragically, conspiracy theories have flourished like weeds in this soil of unrest, making any reasonable conversation nearly impossible.  Ideas that would be quickly dismissed in any other time seem to find root in people who are otherwise thoughtful.  (Click here to read an excellent article about conspiracy theories among Christians.)

Yes, I confess to my own sin in this. If you know me at all you know I am a person who is generally not reluctant to express an opinion. This is not a time for that! Destructive divisions are tearing us apart in a time of crisis.  We need people who will do the hard of reconciling people to one another. Knowing my tendencies, I have mostly stopped watching media reports because of the reactions that they trigger in me, responses that are far from Christ’s calling.  How about you? Would you get honest with yourself?

Let’s pray to remember this – we are Christ’s first, citizens of God’s kingdom.  Let’s represent Him well in our interactions with all, even as we pray for a loving heart, a gentle spirit.  I believe that there is an opportunity for Christians to lead the way in our time, people who are wise, who act rather than react, who demonstrate faith responsibly, whose lives show the truth that our God is greater even than death itself.

Here is a word from the Word. I have chosen the Message paraphrase for clarity. As we read it, lets invite the Truth to sink deep, convicting and convincing each of us about how we best represent our King before the world.

“Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it!

All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-20, The Message)

__________

Abba, my heart is often in conflict these days.
There are fears that stir anger, anger that can make me blind and deaf.
Secure my soul in You with Your Word and by Your Spirit.
Speak peace. Convince me of the importance of love.

I pray that You will be well represented by those who bear Your Name.
Keep us from weakness even as You teach us meekness.
Preserve us from folly born of presumption, even as You make us fearless in faith.
Help me, Lord Jesus, to bear the beauty of Your Spirit before this world –
In my thoughts, in my words, in my actions. Amen

Work through it with Faith!

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A half-century ago, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross studied how we react to grief. She found that people generally follow this pattern: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Not all people experience every one of those or the the same sequence, but the pattern is generally true and knowing it helps us cope and become proactive. Think about your own emotional experiences in the last 2 months. Even if you have not had friend or family member sick or dying, life has taken a hard hit, hasn’t it? Nothing is quite the same and we are constantly told that it never will be. That is hard to grasp and to fit into our plans for life.

Christian, there is an abundant life of faith in the middle of this mess. So let’s talk about that for a few minutes this Monday morning.

When we were first learning about the pandemic many of us coped by telling ourselves, “It’s not really that bad. It will be over quickly.”
That’s denial.

Then, it dragged on and we wondered why we felt so much irritation, why we found ourselves lashing out at others. Anger showed up!

And so we started figuring out our own response, “Maybe if I do this, or go here, or talk to that person, or …” Yes, we tried making a deal with life and/or God. Bargaining!

But, week 6 came and instead of things changing, we were told to stay home longer, that our job was on hold, that our bank account was rapidly emptying and we wondered why we just wanted to stay in bed or eat junk or worse … that’s depression.

Acceptance is a beautiful thing. It’s not an end point, but an entry to understanding, adjustment, and new reality. Acceptance is that process in which we start to see life as it is, not as we wished it to be. “This really is happening. It is beyond my control. So, how will I respond?”  We must not confuse acceptance with giving up and or resignation. People who ‘give up’ lose their joy, choosing just to survive by killing their emotions. They throw away relationships, deciding that hope is too hard. You know those people. They are cynical, often bitter, mere shells of the person they once were.

It starts with being authentic about what we think and how we are seeing life. Often it requires someone who listens and provides feedback, who lets us empty our heart and soul and sort through our thoughts.  For Christians it must include time of prayer and openness before the Lord. We match our fears with His Word, settling on the foundations of Truth.  The Psalms are an incredible resource for this process, helping us to give form to our feelings, leading us to praise and worship, reminding us of the eternal hope we have in the Lord.

Acceptance does not usually arrive with a flash of insight that brings instantaneous transformation. It is like the coming of Springtime. Remember those days in March when the sun warms your face, when the shoots of green start to appear, followed by buds on the trees? Steadily, but imperceptibly, the earth transforms – winter to summer.  Acceptance comes like that, warm days of hope, frosty mornings reminding you that you are not quite there yet, but hope continues to emerge, as we turn our hearts toward God, the giver of life.

Jesus pours hope into us saying,  “I know all the things you do, and I have opened a door for you that no one can shut. You have little strength, yet you obeyed my word and did not deny me. … Because you have obeyed my command to persevere, I will protect you from the great time of testing that will come upon the whole world to test those who belong to this world. Look, I am coming quickly. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take away your crown. (Revelation 3:8-11, NLT)

Maybe that is a truth that feels like it beyond the edge of your faith this morning.  Don’t be ashamed or fearful. Tell Him that you want to hold on. Adopt the prayer of that distressed Dad in the Gospels whose daughter had died, a man who cried, “Lord, I believe! Help me overcome my doubts!”

We all have days when we just have to just keep going, asking the Lord to lead us along paths, the end of which we cannot see. We will stumble over our sinful nature getting angry, going negative, wandering into self-pity or fear. We will allow ourselves to waste the day in distractions. Does that ever happen to you?  When I have those days I fantasize about a perfect words without battles, without temptation, without suffering, without disappointment.

Real life in the real world is about living our faith, patiently dealing with the sins, the obstacles, the disappointments, the temptations, the tests, the people who provoke… with the help of the Holy Spirit, who will lead us to a richer life in His truth, full of hope.

John Bunyan captured the process with his amazing classic – Pilgrim’s Progress.  Ah, yes, we are on the journey to our home.  If we want to please God, we have to be willing keep walking, trusting the infinite grace of our Savior.  “Patient endurance is what you need now, so you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised.” (Hebrews 10:36, NLT) Keep asking God to move you to acceptance that is shaped by faith. Keep serving others with the gifts that God has given you, even when it seems that nothing is being accomplished.

Here’s a word from the Word. Meditate on it for a few moments right now. Invite the Holy Spirit to use it to strengthen your resolve to remain faithful to Christ.  “Be careful to put into action God’s saving work in your lives, (work out your salvation – NIV) obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him. In everything you do, stay away from complaining and arguing, so that no one can speak a word of blame against you. You are to live clean, innocent lives as children of God in a dark world full of crooked and perverse people. Let your lives shine brightly before them. Hold tightly to the word of life, so that when Christ returns, I will be proud that I did not lose the race and that my work was not useless.” (Philippians 2:12-16, NLT)

________

Way Maker

You are here moving in our midst
I worship You I worship You
You are here working in this place
I worship You I worship You

(You are) Way Maker Miracle Worker Promise Keeper
Light in the darkness my God that is who You are

You are here touching ev’ry heart
I worship You I worship You
You are here healing ev’ry heart
I worship You I worship You

You are here turning lives around
I worship You I worship You
You are here mending ev’ry heart
I worship You yeah I worship You Lord

That is who You are
That is who You are
That is who You are
That is who You are

Even when I don’t see it You’re working
Even when I don’t feel it You’re working
You never stop You never stop working
You never stop You never stop working

Osinachi Kalu Okoro Egbu © 2016 Integrity Music Europe (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing (Integrity Music [DC Cook]))

CCLI License # 810055