A Present Help – My God!

In that little waiting room in the hospital, I sat with my head bowed. With a broken heart and troubled mind I went to prayer – at first not sure even how to pray. A beautiful young woman lay just steps away, holding onto life by a thin thread. “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God” – was all I could manage, at first; but then with the help of the Spirit, I began to thank Him for His beauty, His majesty, His greatness, the love He has shown to us. From that praise came a boldness to ask God to intervene. Nearly an hour slipped quickly by as I prayed in quiet murmuring of petition and silent ponderings of praise. That alcove became a sanctuary! I felt Him come close and touch us!
How do people face life alone, without God? I cannot answer that question, because I have been blessed all my life with the knowledge of His love for me. From the earliest days of my childhood, prayer and the Presence of the Lord have been part of my the world I live in. No, I am not always a perfect saint! I don’t always live close to God, but I’ve always known He is there, sometimes even abusing His mercy and grace in my immaturity and ingratitude. Yet, He loves me. Don’t read this paragraph as indicating that my life has been without disappointment, without moments of doubt or confusion, or even fear. Sometimes, for reasons I cannot know, it seems that God stands aside and I feel like I’m on my own. Sometimes He allows situations to develop for which I can find no purpose and I’m left with the stark option of faith! The truth is that I never walk alone. In the darkest situation, He is there.
David writes –
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.
You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:3-12, NIV)
Even the darkness will not be dark to You! What a wonderful assurance. The Father walks with us and sees the way – even in the dark. He knows our frail nature, our tendency to fall, and loves us anyway.
Do you live in His Presence?
Do you walk with Him?
Is your first inclination in times of joy and trouble to share it with your Friend, Jesus Christ?

If you answer those questions with a ‘yes,’ then you know what I’m writing about. If ‘no,’ then let me urge you to receive Him into your life today! Open your heart and mind to Him. Hand over your life to Him. Sell out – irrevocably! The transaction is one born in faith. It doesn’t require a priest or preacher, just a hungry heart that says, “Jesus save me. Love me. Be my Lord!” Becoming a child of God does not mean that you will be exempt from the trials and tests of living. That’s the nonsense of prosperity preachers imaginations. Those of us who walk with Him continue to live in a world where there is war, pain, suffering, and death. But, we never walk alone!

_____________________________

WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE IN JESUS

What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do no carry
everything to God in prayer

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
Can we find a friend so faithful,
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness.
Take it to the Lord in prayer!

Are we weak and heavy laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our Refuge;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee;
Thou wilt find a solace there.

A God big enough to worship

When was the last time you felt awe – the sweaty palms and tightening gut that results when understanding fails and mystery remains? Most of us are quite uneasy with such a feeling. We do everything we can to destroy mystery, to define boundaries, and to find ourselves a place of comfort. In this we are not unlike the ancient Israelis who were camped around Mt. Sinai awaiting the Lord’s direction. As the mountain quaked and smoked under His Mysterious Presence, they grew fearful. The Bible tells us – “Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”” (Exodus 20:18-19, NKJV) Later in the saga, when Moses went up the mountain again, after a few days they abandoned the Lord, preferring to make a lesser god – one less intimidating. In one of the more tragic episodes of the Exodus, Aaron capitulated to their demands and made them an idol, a golden calf. The result was amazing! “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.” (Exodus 32:25, NIV)

Like those ancient Jews, many of us find ourselves discomfited by the God of the Scripture who defies definition and formulas. We read of His exploits and wonder what it means, asking – Who is He really? In response many of us unconsciously adopt images for Him to which we can relate and, in the process, lose the Majesty. God asks “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Could you ever build me a temple as good as that?’ asks the Lord. ‘Could you build a dwelling place for me?” (Acts 7:48-49, NLT) We must be willing to live with a God of wonder, One who is big enough to worship with our whole hearts.

When we diminish God, when we take away His majesty and make Him over as a tame god, awe disappears.
With the loss of awe comes a loss of moral restraint!

I believe that one of the reasons the Church is so full of sin in our time is that her theology is so impoverished. We sing “Jesus loves me, this I know…” and as precious as that truth is, it is not all there is to know. God, as seen in the face of Jesus Christ, is approachable and that is a treasure for those of us who follow Him. But, God is still the God of Sinai and the God of Whom the prophets thundered. He is the God that John met on the Isle of Patmos who revealed His sweeping plans for the triumph of His kingdom and the destruction of evil. Believer, we need to make a fast from all our pious chatter to ponder the ways of the Most High. In humility we need to admit that God is greater than our understanding and that He always will be! That is not a terrible thing at all. In fact, admitting that God does not live in our back pocket, that He is not exclusively the god of Christian evangelicals or the god of America, will go a long, long way to restoring our love for the world that He loves and serving Him in a way that is holy.

“I am the LORD your God, … “You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”
(Exodus 20:2-4, NIV)
______________________________________

“You are awesome in this place,
Mighty God.
You are awesome in this place,

Abba Father.
You are worthy of all praise,
to You our lives we raise.

You are awesome in this place,
Mighty God.” Amen.
– Dave Billington

I am not God.

Aren’t you glad I cleared that up? Many Americans have a religion that makes it seem as though they are god, with rituals and rules bent to favor their own needs, interests, and prejudice. The glorious statement in the opening chapter of the Bible that reveals God’s Creative purposes, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;…” (Genesis 1:26, NKJV) is rewritten by many so that it reads, “Let us make gods in our image!” We can see the results of this trivialization of God all around us. Christianity ‘lite’ to which about 50-60% of Americans subscribe simply cannot bring about the transformation of character or restraint of self-serving impulses that are required for truly godly lives. Sermons that are little morality lessons wrapped in cute stories about kids don’t bring about conviction of sin. Treating the Bible like a collection of Aesop’s Fables won’t make us godly people.

We need a new revelation of the Transcendent God, the One who stands above the world as the Creator of the Universe, and to Whom each of us will give an account of himself. A person who believes in the God of the Bible, who understands that God is not his peer but his Lord, views all of life through a different lens than the person who sees god only as the Cosmic Buddy, good for making him feel a little better in the tough moments like death. The person who sees God as Creator, as the One who gives divine law and expects those He has created to adhere to that law, begins to grasp that the world is sacramental – that is, it a place where everything reflects God’s holiness and where all actions become means of giving Him glory.

Rod Dreher, author of an excellent little book called Crunchy Cons, (goofy name, great book) writes this – “to see the world sacramentally is to see material things, objects and human actions – as vessels containing or transmitting ideals. To live in a sacramental world is to live in a world pregnant with meaning, a world in which nothing can be taken for granted, and in which no one and nothing is without intrinsic worth. If we live sacramentally, then everything we do and everything we are reflects the things we value.”

Believer, does pondering the truth about God make you shiver? It should!
Does the revelation that – “Nothing in all creation can hide from him. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes. This is the God to whom we must explain all that we have done.” (Hebrews 4:13, NLT) – make you sit up and think about the casual ways in which you’re living? It should!

And, once we have felt that fear which the Bible says is the beginning of wisdom, we are ready to be converted, truly saved. The Cross of Christ which provides atonement (complete forgiveness of our sins) makes little sense if God is an impotent being incapable or unwilling to call us to account. But, if we have felt the icy grip of holy terror, we will run to the Cross, embracing Christ Jesus the Savior, with something very much like desperation. Jesus Himself reminds us that “those who are forgiven much, love much!” What, does He mean some of us are more in need of salvation than others? I think not. He means that some of us see ourselves in the true Light of God and realize just how depraved we are, the depths from which we have been lifted- and that only by the grace of God. It is wonderful to say, “Jesus loves me” and it is true, too. But, apart from the revelation of the Majesty of God, the love of Jesus diminishes into a sappy kind of thing, a romantic notion without life transforming power.

Believer, let me urge you to think again about the God you serve.
Is your theology (that’s not a dirty word!) sound? Do you know who God is, as He is revealed in the Holy Scripture?
If so, then a holy life will follow as you humble yourself before Him, inviting the Spirit to fill you up and to mold you into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

I remain firmly convinced that right living comes from right thinking; and, that right thinking begins only with the revealed Truth of God.

I am not God, nor are you. Of course, even that statement is ridiculous when written out.
But if your daily choices are examined, who would others determine is your God?
_____________________

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art;

And make me love Thee as I ought to love.

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.

Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

Hast Thou not bid me love Thee, God and King?
All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind.
I see Thy cross; there teach my heart to cling:
O let me seek Thee, and O let me find!

Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The kindling of the heaven descended Dove,
My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame. — George Croly

Learning to be Less

“I’m learning to be less.” Now there is one catchy slogan. Not! I don’t see the Army selling itself by advertising that they’ll teach you to submit to authority, to take orders without question during weeks of demanding basic training. How do they advertise? With an appeal to pride: “Be all that you can be … in the Army.” The Marines recruiting posters don’t show pictures of sweating kids pushed to the limits of their endurance, mentally and physically. They play up the elite nature of the corp with this line: “the few, the proud, the Marines!”

Jesus is much more truthful about the cost of being in His service. “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find true life.” (Luke 9:23-24, NLT)

Whatever does He mean, “shoulder your cross?” His first listeners knew all too well. The cross was a slow painful means of execution used by the Romans to keep conquered peoples in line. Outside of major Roman garrisons, there were always crosses alongside the road. They stood like billboards advertising the might and power of the empire, even to the point of death! Jesus borrowed the imagery to talk about subduing our sinful nature, making it responsive to God’s will and ways. We can’t talk ourselves into being good. We can’t educate ourselves into being holy. There is but one way that we can completely serve God. That way? Die to self! Jesus invites us to learn to be less, even to the point of regarding ourselves as dead. The result will be that He can give us real and lasting life, not life that is focused on satisfying the body’s endless demands, but life that is focused on doing God’s will and entering into eternal life right here, right now.

Shouldering the cross need not be some grand gesture, a move to some remote place of service, or a rejection of all creature comforts like the ascetic monks of the Middle Ages. It is a daily decision to be less, to set aside reputation, self-advantage, pride, and our sense of purpose and place in this world in order to sign onto God’s plans and to walk in His purposes. John, the Baptist, the fore-runner of Jesus shows us how. This cousin of Jesus knew early on that he was not the great Messiah, the hope of the godly. He was a powerful preacher and moved great crowds to repentance, to consider God’s demands. But, he always knew that Someone else was coming to be the Savior. He announced Jesus with these amazingly self-effacing words.

“The bride will go where the bridegroom is. A bridegroom’s friend rejoices with him. I am the bridegroom’s friend, and I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less. “He has come from above and is greater than anyone else. I am of the earth, and my understanding is limited to the things of earth, but he has come from heaven.” (John 3:29-31, NLT)

Did John always enjoy his role? We cannot be certain since the Gospels do not tell us much. But we do learn this; when the Kingdom didn’t show up as John had thought that it would with great power and the end of sin on the earth, he grew disillusioned. He sent some of his friends to Jesus to ask Him, “Are you really the One we expected or did we get it wrong?”

Jesus call to service does involve glory. It’s not all blood, sweat, and tears. But times of suffering will certainly come to those who walk the road of life with Him. There will be attacks from the world systems, from the Devil who hates good and God; and even internal struggles with doubt and uncertainty. That when we take hold of what we’ve learned and hang on, literally, for dear life! That’s when raise our eyes to the horizon to catch a glimpse of Heaven, our true home.

Are you willing to reject the spirit of this age which teaches us that the meaning of life is to serve Self?
Are you willing to learn to be less, so that He can become more?

Here’s a word from the Word to ponder.
“… of this gospel I was appointed (by the will of a Sovereign God) a herald and an apostle and a teacher.
That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, (embarrassed by my circumstances) because
I know whom I have believed, and
I am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.
What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.
Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”
(2 Timothy 1:11-14, NIV)

Serving for the Joy?

Jake loves what he does for the Lord. He is skilled, faithful, and humble about his place of service. A few years ago the Lord impressed on him that he was to be # 2 on the team, not because he was less, inferior, or without qualification. It was just the will of God. He accepted that obediently and I have watched him function in that role. He’s willing to take on grunt work, do what isn’t glamorous, and put in sweat time without thanks or recognition. I’m fairly certain that if asked, he’d even step aside from his place without bitterness or rancor. He serves the Lord for the pure joy of serving and it shows. He doesn’t ask for thanks, doesn’t seek glory, and seldom complains.

Recently I was chatting with another woman about her long-time ‘service’ in the various churches she has attended over the years. She complained about how one church after another failed to recognize her abilities, about Pastors who didn’t give her the place she thought her talents deserved, etc., etc! Now, I know she loves the Lord. She’s been a Believer longer than I’ve been alive, but she is missing the point of ministry. Ministry is never about ‘me,’ never about what service does for ‘me.’ True service in God’s work is about Him, about His church, about giving away ourselves without a care or thought of cost, recognition, or reward. The tragedy about this dear soul is that her ministries are unconsciously shaped around gaining affirmation, making her feel valued, about ‘being somebody’ in the big wide world. As a consequence, what she does for the Lord is tainted. It always has a tinge of pride which eventually corrupts the service and makes it less than it might otherwise be.

There is a story in the book of Acts that helps us to understand the importance of forgetting about “me” so we can serve Christ in the most effective ways. It is about a man that the Church nick-named, Barnabas. This man was a learned Christ-following Jew who was very influential in the early years of the development of Christianity. The Bible describes him with these glowing words… “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and strong in faith. ” (Acts 11:24, NLT) This leader heard about a man named Saul who once had been very hostile to Christians, that he had been converted but was finding it hard to find acceptance by Believers who were still frightened by his reputation. So, Barnabas went and found Saul (later renamed Paul) and introduced him to the Church. For the next few years, when people spoke of the team, it was always “Barnabas and Paul.” But, the mentor was soon eclipsed by the gifts of his student. People came to refer to “Paul and Barnabas.” A few years later, Barnabas slipped into obscurity and Paul went on to be known throughout the Church!

What might Christianity be like today if Barnabas had gone to see Paul and recognized the man’s greater gifts and tremendous abilities, only to feel threatened?
What if he saw Paul’s potential to become greater and decided that he didn’t want the ‘competition?’
Thankfully, good ole’ Barney didn’t see his ‘service’ to the Church as a means of building his reputation, feeling good about himself, or gaining a place where he could be recognized in this world.

Let me leave you with this challenging parable that Jesus told about service. Think deeply about it.
If you realize that your service has even a grain of pride, of self-serving, of concern for reputation or reward, ask the Lord for forgiveness and for the Spirit’s help in developing true humility.

“Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, ‘Sit down and eat’? Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I’ve finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper’? Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you.
When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’
” (Luke 17:7-10, The Message)

Bait and switch

It’s an old ploy of unscrupulous marketers- offer a product at a low price to attract attention, but once the interested party is in the store, make the bargain item unavailable and offer another, more expensive item. This week’s car search (see TFTD, 7/19) led us into a classic ‘bait and switch’ situation! Chris’ Internet shopping led her to a car that seemed very desirable, the right year – the right equipment – great price. So, after confirming availability of the car with a phone call; off we went, driving over an hour to the dealer down in the city. The salesman went to bring the car to show us, and the moment it appeared, I knew we’d been ‘had.’ The ‘bargain item’ was dented, dirty, and undesirable – not the cream puff advertised. When we said we were not interested, guess the next line. Yep, that’s right. “Well, we have several other models of this car for a few $thousand more!” I don’t know what made me more disgusted and angry – that I was deceived or the disappointment in my daughter’s eyes. (Happily, our next stop was at an auto dealer of superb reputation and ethics and we closed a deal.)

The Tempter is a pro at ‘bait and switch.’ He dangles opportunities before us that promise all kinds of satisfaction of our desires. He whispers, “you can reach that goal, with just a little compromise of your ethical standards.” Or, “you can make that sense of anxiety go away by indulging yourself in some pornography.” Or, “his wife is so much more desirable than yours, what’s a little fantasy going to hurt?” He plays off of our legitimate needs and heart-felt desires, but the satisfaction he promises through illicit means never lives up to his advertising. His offers are always mostly a lie, with just enough truth to draw us in. The Bible warns us – “Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14, NLT) In the very first story of temptation, he offered ‘knowledge’ without disclosing the high cost of that disobedient choice! What a story it is. Take a look!

Eve said, “It’s only the fruit from the tree at the center of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God says we must not eat it or even touch it, or we will die.”“You won’t die!” the serpent hissed. “God knows that your eyes will be opened when you eat it. You will become just like God, knowing everything, both good and evil.” The woman was convinced. The fruit looked so fresh and delicious, and it would make her so wise! So she ate some of the fruit. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her. Then he ate it, too. At that moment, their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they strung fig leaves together around their hips to cover themselves.” (Genesis 3:3-7, NLT)

Talk about remorse. Yes, the choice to disobey God brings a certain sense of empowerment and gratifies our sinful nature – temporarily. Then come the sense of loss, of alienation from God, of guilty shame. The story of descent into sin repeats itself over and over and over again. Human beings fall for the lie, the ‘bait and switch’ tactics of the one who is the father of lies.
Here’s the good news! You and I do not have to be duped. God, the Holy Spirit, can help us to see past the ploys of the Soul Destroyer. He wants to make you wise! When Chris told me about her on-line find and that the dealer was in the city, I was suspicious. I knew that many of those ‘highway’ dealers operate on a numbers basis, depending on a nearly endless supply of first-time customers rather than a steady relationship with repeat customers, so they don’t care if they rip off people. But, she didn’t have that insight, so she needed a first-hand experience to learn. I am just glad that I was along to guide her through it. God knows Satan’s tactics and He will keep you from deception – if you will trust and obey, as you maintain your walk with Him.

Paul reminds a younger pastor named Timothy – “Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith. They’re as deceived as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there, things can only get worse. But don’t let it faze you. Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers— why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way.” (2 Timothy 3:13-16, The Message)

Be wise. Pray for insight. Live obediently. God’s promises are always ‘Yes and amen,’ that is, trustworthy and true. Sometimes they require delayed gratification, and almost always they involve real faith. But He’s a good God. He never will practice ‘bait and switch’ tactics.
But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy, was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 1:18-20, NIV)
______________________

TFTD will return next week.
I’m taking another short break for some rest and renewal.
Thanks for reading along.

The Father’s provision

Pete and Chris (my son-in-law and daughter) came to visit this week. Their old car is tired, needing replacement so Chris asked me if I’d assist them in the search for a replacement. Yesterday, we spent the late afternoon and well into the evening looking at cars. It was my delight to walk through the process with them; helping them with negotiations, with understanding financing, and just being “Dad.” They thanked me profusely for the assistance, but their thanks was not necessary. That’s what Dad’s are for. It was far more fun for me to be included in their purchase than they realize because it lets me feel useful to them despite their adult independence. The chances to feel needed in that way are fewer all the time!

As I thought about our adventure this morning, the Holy Spirit whispered to me– “that’s how your Heavenly Dad feels about you.” What an amazing fact. God is MY Father and He delights in being part of my life, too. The Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth desires to walk with me, to provide for me; yes, to be my Counselor. The Bible says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you should not be like cowering, fearful slaves. You should behave instead like God’s very own children, adopted into his family—calling him “Father, dear Father.” For his Holy Spirit speaks to us deep in our hearts and tells us that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:14-16, NLT)

Tragically, too many people, even Believers, do not grasp the Father-heart of God. They do not understand that He is their Dad. Yet, it is right and proper to use that familiar term with Him and for Him. Paul does! In that passage where the translators say, “Father, dear Father,” in other translations we read, “Abba.” The term is one that reflects the deep intimacy which God offers to us as His children. It is only sin that causes us to run away from His Presence. It is only the terror of judgment that causes us to hide from Him. But, where sin is taken away by the gracious gift of grace in Jesus Christ, fear is replaced with deep love. To the forgiven God says, “Come boldly to my Throne and find the help you need!” (Hebrews 4.16)

What’s your need today?
What is of concern to you? Take it to Dad! Literally, as you respectfully enter into prayer, address Him as “Dad in Heaven.” I’m not being silly, though you might feel that way when you say it. It is good practice to let God love you in that way, based on sound theology! Yes, He desires the best for you. He won’t always give you what you want, but He’ll provide everything you need.

The number one healing truth in the universe is the ‘love of God!’ Nothing else comes close. I am convinced that is why the world, the sinful nature, and the Devil combine their efforts to keep us at a distance from our Father. If we fail to have a growing understanding of His compassion, His grace, His love – our Christianity will always be skewed. We will live at a distance, robbing ourselves of the rich fellowship He offers. I seldom can talk about the Father’s love without becoming emotionally moved, often to the point of tears. That is how precious His love has become to me. I lived as a dutiful son for far too long. For too many years I was like the elder brother in the story of the Waiting Father. (Read it in Luke 15:11-32. It’s the best story Jesus ever told!) I reminded God of my rigid self-disciplines, my ‘goodness,’ and of my sense that He owed me. What a joke; no worse, an obscenity! I was a sinful wretch and, actually, in all my self-righteousness, treated His love with contempt. Then, His love broke through my pretensions of self-sufficiency and prideful religiosity. Oh, how I thank Him for patiently letting me live long enough to come to the end of myself, so I would experience the amazing grace and love He offers freely to me at His own expense.

“With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:

Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are.
Set the world right; Do what’s best— as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.”

(Matthew 6:9-13, The Message)

Amen.

Keep your edge!

Life is moving quickly, too fast sometimes, around me. I never thought I’d admit that, but somehow living in the 5th decade of life changes things. I thrive on challenges and activity. Today I was wide awake at 4:30 AM, looking forward to getting into the work of the day. But, I wonder if I’m staying sharp, keeping the edge that is necessary for effectiveness? The Bible reminds us – “Since a dull ax requires great strength, sharpen the blade. That’s the value of wisdom; it helps you succeed.” (Ecclesiastes 10:10, NLT) Am I working hard and wisely, or am I just working hard?

More than a few times, I’ve observed people who create quite a cloud of dust around themselves. They charge at this and that, taking on a new project, starting another ministry, trying a new experience. Their lives are a blur, but when you blow away the dust, clearing the air, you don’t find much of substance. They’re hard working, but not wise. By contrast, I see others who seem to be moving effortlessly through life, while leaving finished projects and improved lives in their wake. Something is happening that is out of sight, under the surface, that makes them truly effective. They are sharp, with a edge of effectiveness.

So, how can we keep that edge?

Stephen Covey, who teaches leadership and life skills, observes that we need to practice renewal in four dimensions: the physical, the spiritual, the mental, and the social.

We need to take care of these physical bodies that serve as our earthly houses. The decline of strength with age is inevitable, but too often we hasten the process by foolishly ignoring the simplest tasks of maintenance. (Yes, I know I need to work at this! I probably take better care of my car than my body! Shame on me.) Because God has made our bodies so wonderfully, with amazing recuperative powers, we can go a long, long time eating junk and without regular exercise before we experience a breakdown. However, it is a proven fact that a person who eats a healthy diet and gets regular exercise can expect better health for a longer period of time. We don’t have become neurotic about food or exercise to just have good health practices that help us keep the edge.

The spiritual part of us is the core of our being! Yet, so many of us drop ‘soul maintenance’ low on the list. There are the obvious choices that we make in staying sharp spiritually, things like regularly worshipping with others, practicing spiritual disciplines of prayer and Scripture intake, serving God and others regularly. But there are the less obvious choices that are critically important, too. Living with a forgiving attitude that refuses to drag around resentment and/or bitterness is one of them. Almost nothing saps spiritual vitality from a person like simmering resentment of another person. Jesus urges us to forgive quickly, because He knows it is our choice to do so and that we need to do it. Living with in a generous and loving way is another one of those daily choices that helps to keep the edge. If we remind ourselves of God’s love, accept it for ourselves, we will love others. “First we were loved, now we love. God loved us first.” (1 John 4:19, The Message) When we tend our spiritual dimension, we keep our spiritual hearing acute, our vision sharp. Don’t neglect this dimension of your life.

A mind is an amazing thing. From the mysteries of our brains flow creativity, artistry, problem-solving, – all the creative gifts of God. A mind terrible thing to waste, but it happens so easily. In the evening, the TV beckons us to become passive. I’ve watched two hours of TV more than once and the next morning couldn’t even remember what I saw. My brain simply switched off and let the flickering images and sounds pass through, decreasing my mental acuity in the process. Read books! Listen to good music. Spend some time in conversation about something other than the weather. Learn something new, just for the joy of knowledge. If you do watch TV, be aware of what you’re watching and how much. Just like the physical diet, there’s a time to enjoy some dessert, but not too much, and not all the time!

Social skills are not automatically gained, are they? Some are more blessed than others with natural abilities to ‘connect’ with people around themselves. But all of us can learn to build relationships, if we realize the importance of them. In a strange paradox, we are the most ‘connected’ society on earth in all of recorded history! We are wired with email, carry cell phones everywhere, and enjoy unbelievable communication technology, yet most of us don’t know even our next door neighbors. We live in little cocoons, inside our homes, with media as our company. But, if we not constantly tending to the connections to people around us, especially those key people whose gifts complement ours, we quickly diminish our effectiveness for God.

All this isn’t a new revelation or rocket science, is it? It’s really common sense.
So as you read this in the middle of this Summer when it’s more easy to lose the edge, my prayer is that God will stir you up.
Spend a few moments setting some goals. Commit them to paper. Make them specific. Share them with somebody, maybe even posting your list on the frig for your family, so they can help you stay on task.

Pray that God, the Holy Spirit, will give you insight, too. Ask Him to restore the edge so you won’t just be working hard, but also working effectively.
“Live wisely . . ., and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and effective …” (Colossians 4:5-6, NLT)

Jerry D. Scott, Pastor
Washington Assembly of God
http://www.WashingtonAG.com

The stuff we do

The world watched, first as Hezbollah fighters kidnapped three Israeli soldiers, and then at the inevitable response of Israel’s military. Now, just days later, more than 300 people are dead and $millions of property has been destroyed. Those of us sitting here in America wonder why these people do the things they do. Why would terrorists not realize that taking Israeli soldiers would provoke an attack? Why does Israel use such force in retaliation? It all seems so futile, an escalating cycle of violence that, in the end, accomplishes little or nothing except to deepen the bitterness and stoke the flames of hatred. But that is my American mind talking without all the history and emotion of the people who live there. Hezbollah, (the name means ‘the party of God’) does things that to most of us seem stupid, rather like sticking one’s hand into a grinder! But to some militant Muslims they are heroes, resisting the hated Zionists, even in the face of overwhelming odds. War is not logical. It is a human response that, ultimately, comes from the depravity of human nature.

My point today is not to argue Middle East politics. I want us to think about the things we do. Why do we do act in ways that prove destructive to ourselves and those around us, repeating the same mistakes, again and again? The Bible explains to us that – apart from Christ- we are sinners: that we are deceived by the world systems, by the sinful nature, and by the Devil himself. In Ephesians, we read- “. . . you must no longer live as the Gentiles (godless) do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” (Ephesians 4:17-18, NIV) It isn’t just that people just go ahead and decide to sin despite the consequences. Those without the life of the Spirit do not even realize that they are doing wrong. Wrong often seems so right.

Believer, even in our minds, there can be a genuine disconnect between our actions and the consequences of those choices. If we are not actively seeking God, humbly acknowledging our need of His grace, and renewing our minds with the Holy Word – we will become deceived! We will gradually slip back into darkness. If we would live wholly and holy, we need to faithfully walk with the Spirit, enlightened to the reality by His work in us. As we respond to His leading, pray for His wisdom, we are empowered to make different choices that lead us to a godly and good life. The Bible says, “… in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus…. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully…” (Ephesians 4:22-25, NIV)

Believer, are you living ‘in the truth?’
Are you inviting the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom and insight so that you are continually transformed, first in your thoughts, and then in your actions?
Don’t rely solely on your intuition, your gut, or your conscience in making the moral choices. Proverbs warns, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (16:25, NIV)

Pray, too, for God, the Spirit, to open the eyes of those around you who continue to sabotage their lives with stupid and/or sinful choices. Don’t just judge them, write them off, or turn away from them. Ask the Lord to open their eyes, to give them grace. Realize that those without God stumble around the darkness and then pray that you can become a person who carries the Light of Christ into their darkness.

Here’s a word from the Word. Meditate on it today.

“Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.
Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.
Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.
Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity,
God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
(Romans 12:2, The Message)

Are you a critic?

One of the hazards of leadership is criticism. It doesn’t matter if you’re leading a Little League team or the United States of America. If you’re making decisions, somebody is going to think you made them in the wrong way! Donald Rumsfield, the Defense Secretary who is a primary architect of the war in Iraq and a lightning rod for criticism, said “I am truly saddened by the thought that anyone could have the impression that I or others here are doing anything other than working urgently to see that the lives of the fighting men and women are protected and cared for in everyway humanly possible.” In his public position, he knows that he will be criticized, that people without the same kind of information he has, will form conclusions about the way he carries out his responsibilities.

The fact is that leaders are human. Sometimes they do a better job than other times! Sometimes they disappoint us and sometimes they delight us. Speaking as one who leads, the most frustrating thing about the criticism that comes my way is when it comes from the critic’s own frustration or failure to grasp the full dimension of issues involved. If, as a pastor, I take action that is wrong and someone points out that I’ve made a error in judgment, that is valuable criticism. If, on the other hand, I simply do not or cannot respond to the desires of someone and therefore they choose to become a critic, I find that that kind of criticism much harder to deal with.

Kevin Offner, in the Student Leadership Journal, published by IVP, offers the following advice to those who are ready to become a critic. Let me urge you to read his advice carefully today. It could transform your relationship with someone who you’re about to make into a target of criticism.
_____________________________________
Here are five changes I believe critical people need to make.

First, we must have our spiritual eyes opened to see two truths: the heinous depth of our own sin and the amazing grace of God’s love toward us in Christ. Spiritual sight is not something we can will. God must give it. But we can cry out to Him for it. “Lord, would You open my eyes to see myself soberly and to know Your love more intimately?” We desperately need to feel the weight of our own sin and then to cast ourselves upon God’s grace. No mere head knowledge, here. “Wash your hands, you sinners. . . . Let there be tears for the wrong things you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief” (Jas. 4:8–9, NLT). When King David’s blind eyes were finally opened to his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah, he didn’t merely acknowledge it in some academic, emotionally removed way. He fell on his face and fasted for days (2 Sam. 12:16)!

Second, we must be deeply convinced that we can never know with certainty another person’s motives. Yes, we can see actions, and clearly sinful actions need to be confronted. But we must catch ourselves when we hurriedly, often unconsciously, make that jump from He did this to He is obviously acting from pride (or insecurity or revenge, etc.). There are so many factors beyond our knowledge that motivate another’s actions. Only God sees the heart, and only His judgment will be 100 percent accurate and fair. Now, perceptive people will hear this admonition yet still secretly think, Well, yes, but you see, I really do know why this person does what she does. Sometimes we are right. But we must remember that we may very well be wrong.

Third, when we’re bothered by another’s actions, we must pray fervently for that person and our response to him or her. What would happen if we channeled all our critical energy into a running dialogue with that person’s (and our) Creator?

Fourth, we must learn to be diplomatic and direct in confronting people one on one. No fake smiles, no repression of negative feelings, but instead, direct, tactful communication. Our goal is not to blast people or to inform them of all their hidden character flaws. Rather, our goals are God’s glory and the reconciliation of broken relationships. Recently I talked with the student I described earlier regarding her critical spirit. “I feel I need to tell you something. Yet I’m hesitant to do it for fear of losing your friendship. For the last several times I’ve been with you, you have spoken critically of something either the group or I have done. There’s often much truth in what you say, but I find myself frequently dragged down by your comments. We need encouragement as well as criticism. I value your friendship, and thus I thought I ought to share this with you.” I’ll be honest: she didn’t respond as I’d hoped. But I did feel right about being direct and honest rather than nurturing my own critical spirit.

Finally, we need to be encouragers, genuinely building others up and helping them become all God longs for them to be. I want to get excited about making others successful. I can be an encourager in others’ lives, as Barnabas was to Paul. I can trust God to provide encouragement for me as well. I have watched people melt when given a rightly timed, genuinely motivated word of affirmation or gratitude. And I know how empowered I feel when I’m around a genuine encourager.
_____________________________________

It’s not always wrong to be a critic, but if you must, be a constructive critic. Always aim to build up others, to discover the Kingdom aim in a given situation.We have a BIG job to do, Believer. Let’s not allow sniping at one another to destroy our effectiveness and the joy of working together in His kingdom. Got a ‘beef’ with someone?Figure out if it’s worth discussing. If it’s not, shake it off, and let it go into the “sea of forgetfulness!” If it is, then follow the steps to the best outcome.
_____________________________________

Be in worship on Sunday. Come with a prepared heart and mind, ready to hear, ready to worship, ready to receive!