Serenity!

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Are you confident in God’s love for you, completely assured that you are right with Him?  In my pastoral care, I talk with people who wonder if they have made the cut with God, if an eternal home is really theirs, if He loves them truly.  Sometimes the source of their ‘dis-ease’ is a terrible choice of the past, a regrettable moment of moral failure. Sometimes their faith has been battered by extended suffering or loss. For a few, it is an incomplete knowledge of the Gospel; too much Hellfire preaching leaving out Amazing Grace!

In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes the case for Christ.  Humanity is held captive to sin, subject to judgment, destined to perish – except for the intervention of God. When you get to chapter 5 in his letter, he shifts to the assurance of the Christian. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2, NIV)

No Christian need wonder about his acceptance with God!  Because of Jesus, and through faith, there are two amazing declarations God makes to us.

  1. We are at peace with Him! This is not just about an absence of conflict. This is about a state of being that envelopes our experience, that is greater than our emotions. There is serenity that flows out of what He has done to justify us – to erase the debt of our sin.  Beyond that He says that we are now reconciled to Him! “For since we were restored to friendship with God by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be delivered from eternal punishment by his life.” (Romans 5:10, NLT)
  2. We enjoy access to Heaven’s favor!  The barriers are removed. The judgment is gone. We have access to GRACE.  When things get difficult in some area of life, having someone “on the inside” really can help, right?  The right person can open doors of opportunity for us.  Christ Jesus provides us that kind of ‘insider’ status.

We live in faith that focuses on Christ Jesus, not on ourselves. If we attempt to find assurance by trying harder, peace will elude us. If we measure ourselves against others, we will either fall into false pride or misery of inferiority.  He is our peace. He is our Open Door. What He did on our behalf is complete, totally satisfying the righteous demands of God, and giving us unwavering hope.

Paul anticipated a question that may be forming in your mind – “If God is for me, if I have this status of serenity and access to grace, why is my life filled with pain? Why am I suffering?”  You may not like his answer, but it is truth.  “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:2-5, NIV)  Suffering can have a purpose!  If we meet it with faith in Jesus, we can rejoice that He is developing a new kind of person in us – steady, deep, filled with Jesus, and hopeful.

Suffering does not always mean that there is something wrong with our devotion. It is not a punishment. The penalty for our sins and failures was taken by Christ Jesus. Suffering, when matched with faith, can make us beautiful.  That is not a popular idea, but it is grounded in the revelation of God’s Truth.

Whatever your situation, however you may be feeling today, turn your eyes to Jesus. He is our PEACE! The word from the Word declares the depth of His love for you, for me.  Receive Him and the gift in faith. “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, no one is likely to die for a good person, though someone might be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s judgment.” (Romans 5:6-9, NLT)

What blessed assurance!
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Blessed Assurance

(Elevation Worship invites us to rest)

Blessed assurance Jesus is mine
Oh what a foretaste of glory divine
Heir of salvation purchase of God
Born of His Spirit washed in His blood

This is my story this is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long
This is my story this is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long

Perfect submission perfect delight
Visions of rapture now burst at my sight
Angels descending bring from above
Echoes of mercy whispers of love

Perfect submission all is at rest
I in my Savior am happy and blest
Watching and waiting looking above
Filled with His goodness lost in His love

Fanny Jane Crosby – Public Domain

Responsive?

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I like to see a return on investment, don’t you?  When I put my time and effort into a project, I want to know that something positive will come of it. A friendship that deepens into a partnership is a thing of delight, isn’t it?  When we plant a garden, the best part is when we get to enjoy the produce from that plot of ground that we have sweated over for months.

God is looking for a return from us. Jesus calls that ‘fruitfulness.’  I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” .  . . . My true disciples produce much fruit. This brings great glory to my Father.” (John 15:5,8, NLT) What is this fruit of which He speaks? It is the character and likeness of Christ Jesus in us, the qualities of the Kingdom worked in this world through us by the Spirit; “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  (Galatians 5:22)

Is the Lord pleased with the quality and quantity of the fruit of the Spirit in your life? We cannot be spiritually fruitful apart from the LIFE of the Spirit operating in us, anymore than a dead apple tree can produce apples!  While the Spirit makes the fruit possible, there is a part that we play. Our life must be open to the flow of the Spirit, our daily inclination towards an obedient love of the Father. Jesus spoke of the Father as the Gardener who ‘prunes every branch so that it will be even more fruitful.’  Yes, He uses His Word and our experience to bring us closer to Him, to cut away the things that keep us from the abundant life He desires.  And yet, we know that unlike a tree in an orchard, we have the ability to reject His plan, to resist His work, to become unfruitful by choking off the nourishing work of the Holy Spirit.

I love another story that Jesus told because it reveals the Father’s patience and persistence for us.  Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ”‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9, NIV)

Are there situations that are making you face your need, hard things that are confronting you with a call to change, circumstances greater than you can manage that create a sense of desperation?  These are some of the ways that the Spirit digs around our hearts, opening the ground for nutrients!  He pours on grace; words from the Word that show us the Truth, encouragement from a friend that helps us to turn around, moments of revelation that clearly show us His way. Will we receive His work, letting the fertilizer do what He intends – increase our fruitfulness?

Jesus’ story has another possible ending which we cannot ignore. The tree that does not respond to the digging and fertilizer can be cut down! “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2, NIV)  It is hard to even think of the possibility of being ‘cut off’ because of our refusal to receive the gift of His life, isn’t it?

Is the Spirit making you fruitful in the things of God, increasingly bearing the image of Christ Jesus?  He desires that very thing from us and does all that is necessary for fruit to grow.

Meditate on this word from the Word, prayerfully today.  “As we know Jesus better, his divine power gives us everything we need for living a godly life. He has called us to receive his own glory and goodness! And by that same mighty power, he has given us all of his rich and wonderful promises. He has promised that you will escape the decadence all around you caused by evil desires and that you will share in his divine nature. So make every effort to apply the benefits of these promises to your life. Then your faith will produce a life of moral excellence.” (2 Peter 1:3-5, NLT)

Lord, increase our fruitfulness as we live in You and through You. Amen.

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Your Grace Is Enough

(Matt Maher sings of the work of the grace of God.
Worship along with him today.)

Great is Your faithfulness O God
You wrestle with the sinner’s restless heart
You lead us by still waters into mercy
And nothing can keep us apart

 (So) remember Your people
Remember Your children
Remember Your promise O God 

Your grace is enough
Your grace is enough
Your grace is enough for me

 Great is Your love and justice God of Jacob
You use the weak to lead the strong
You lead us in the song of Your salvation
And all Your people sing along

 Yeah Your grace is enough
Heaven reaches out to us
Your grace is enough for me
God I sing Your grace is enough
I’m covered in Your love
Your grace is enough for me for me

Matt Maher © 2003 Thankyou Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing) spiritandsong.com CCLI License # 810055

Shepherd’s Care

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Endless clamor in our political realm, threats of violence, a world that changes in moments rather than years – all of these things, and more, conspire to create unrelenting anxiety in millions of people today. That emotion, by the way, does not just show up as worry or fear. It can morph into a sense of worthlessness and/or hopelessness.  In those times a lie can take over the mind – “You are just a helpless pawn, caught in the flow of events that will overwhelm, possibly even destroy, you!”

Must those who are anxious just try desperately to endure the inner tumult? Is there a way to change the perception of the world around us?  YES! The mind can be re-directed, thought patterns changed, if we choose to listen to the voice of the Lord, soaking in the counsel of His word, He will lead us out of our fears and into joyful abundance. Faith is both a gift of God and a choice to be made by us.

In the Scripture, God’s people are sometimes called His flock, sheep. Christians are derisively referred to by some as ‘dumb sheep,’ the implication being that they are easily led and manipulated.  It is true that sheep are not among the world’s more intelligent creatures! Eons of being domesticated has made those wooly creatures entirely dependent on their shepherd. They are defenseless, dependent, and content to be led from pen to pasture. Thus, the comparison of people to sheep can be a genuine insult.

God is not insulting us when He calls us His flock! He is reminding us of His great care.  Jesus taught about His Shepherding care for us. “The sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. … Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. … My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” (John 10:3, 9-10, NLT)

Sheep with a good shepherd are not restless, milling about in anxiety.   David says “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. Even when I walk through the dark valley of death, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.” (Psalm 23:1-4, NLT)

Are you struggling with anxiety at some level today?  Do feelings of fear or hopelessness stalk you, perhaps even overwhelm you?  Meditate on those words from the Shepherd’s Psalm. Personalize it by inserting your own name as you read it aloud.  Thank the Lord that He has taken you into His flock, made you one of the sheep of His pasture.

Disciple, are you listening to the Shepherd’s voice?
Are you letting Him lead you to abundant life of His choosing as one of His sheep, or are you more like that independent creature that resists all boundaries, the goat? Jesus says that when “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28, NIV)

This word from the Word comes from Ezekiel. He heard the voice of the Lord in a time when the spiritual leaders of the nations were not caring for the people.  It is a lengthy passage which I encourage you to read slowing, perhaps even aloud, letting the promise settle your soul in the Shepherd’s care.

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search and find my sheep. I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places to which they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day. I will bring them back home to their own land of Israel from among the peoples and nations. I will feed them on the mountains of Israel and by the rivers in all the places where people live.

Yes, I will give them good pastureland on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in pleasant places and feed in lush mountain pastures. I myself will tend my sheep and cause them to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign Lord. I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. But I will destroy those who are fat and powerful. I will feed them, yes—feed them justice!” (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 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

He’s at work

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Inside your body there is a tireless muscle that contracts around 60 times per minute, night and day, when you’re awake or asleep. In your lifetime your heart will pump life-sustaining, oxygen rich blood throughout your body.  It works- very hard – keeping us alive.  We do not think much about it unless someone we love or know dies of a heart attack. Then, for a few days, we are aware of the beating heart in our chest.

This Monday morning I want to remind you that God is at work in your life, much like your heart, all the time, night and day! Unlike your heart, He will not tear or wear out. He is sustaining us, pressing us towards His purposes and working for our good.  Paul was inspired to give us this truth to live by. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:28-29, NIV)  Evil pushes back against His plan.  He gives humanity the freedom to work with Him or to resist Him to their own peril.  But, His work on our behalf is constant!

Joseph, that amazing man whose story is told at the end of Genesis, experienced the tireless working of the Lord. When we read his life story we have the advantage of seeing it all – beginning to end. We are amazed at the ‘coincidences’ that bring him from one critical encounter to the next. He had to live by faith through years of difficulty to reach the place God had planned for him.  God had made a promise to Abraham that his descendants would be a blessing to the whole earth. He also saw that a famine in the land would wipe them out and He prepared a deliverer – Joseph!  The teenage boy had visions of his future, glimpses of the power, but had no clue what those visions meant!

His jealous brothers sold him to slave traders who carried him to Egypt. Potiphar bought him and Joseph’s diligent efforts soon brought him to the management of the household. Potiphar’s wife took an unhealthy interest in him and when he rebuffed her advances, she falsely accused him and he landed in prison. After years there, he met 2 men from the Pharaoh’s service, who were imprisoned. They sought his interpretation of their dreams as he was respected as a man who knew God by that time. What he told them was true. One man was released back to Pharaoh’s service and promptly forgot all about Joe until … the king had a dream he could not understand.  Joe was called and wisely, by the Spirit of God, interpreted the dream.  He became the Prime Minister of Egypt, leading the country to prepare for the terrible famine God revealed in the dream.

Years later, his brothers stood before him in the court to get food for their starving families back in Canaan. After revealing to them that he was the brother they had sold into slavery decades before, Joseph told them this – “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:19-20, NIV)

Two questions for you today –

Will you trust God’s work that continues in your life, all the time?
Will you cooperate with His purposes so that you will be “conformed to the likeness of His Son?”  (become like Jesus!)

There is a place of spiritual rest in the center of the will of God. We find His will best when we choose daily obedience and faith, trusting that He is at work equally when the sun shines and when the storms rage. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Join Paul in this statement of faith today.  He was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. But he was not whining, not condemning himself for some imagined failing, or even doubting the plan of God.  Make his faith your faith.  Here is the word from the Word. “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” (2 Timothy 1:12, NIV)

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Great Is Thy Faithfulness

(The hymn that celebrates God’s wonderful work for us)

Great is Thy faithfulness
O God my Father
There is no shadow
Of turning with Thee
Thou changest not
Thy compassions they fail not
As Thou hast been
Thou forever wilt be

 Great is Thy faithfulness
Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning
New mercies I see
All I have needed
Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness
Lord unto me

 Summer and winter
And springtime and harvest
Sun moon and stars
In their courses above
Join with all nature
In manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness
Mercy and love

 Pardon for sin
And a peace that endureth
Thy own dear presence
To cheer and to guide
Strength for today
And bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine
With ten thousand beside

Thomas Obediah Chisholm | William Marion Runyan © Words: Public Domain

Just done with it?

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Two recent conversations were hard and sad.  In one, a woman described how she decided to end her marriage of 20 years, not for infidelity, not for abuse, but because,  in her words, “I just needed more than he was willing to give me.”  Several years after the bitter divorce she was regretting that decision because of the high cost to herself, her friends, her family. Her now adult children are distant. Many mutual friends were lost. She wondered aloud what could have developed if she had pursued making it better instead of ending it. I listened with compassion because no one can answer her questions, painful as they are.

Another person told me about his friend who suddenly took his own life when he was faced with some very difficult consequences for past actions. He left friends and family reeling with sorrow, full of questions, many angry that he had not called on them for help. Oh what sadness I feel for that man who decided he had no hope for tomorrow and for those left to deal with his actions.

I do not share those stories in judgment, but as examples of the more extreme choices that people can make when they lose hope, when life closes in.  ALL of us have moments when we wonder, “Can I do this for another day?” as we wrestle with difficult situations, don’t we?

Please do not try to carry the weight of life by yourself. Isolated people tend to amplify the desperate thoughts. Share your thoughts with a friend, with a pastor, or with a counselor. “But, Jerry, why? I pray. Isn’t that enough?”  We ought to pray about our struggles. Nobody denies that, however, even prayer needs to be shared. I know it is said so often as to be almost clichéd but it remains true. We need one another. A burden shared is a burden halved. An old proverb reminds us that “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half sorrow.”  Our friend may have no solution readily available, but if they are sensitive to our need, able to listen, and willing to care, we can find hope for a new day.  The Spirit teaches us to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, NIV)

Here is a pointed question for us all.
What about the struggles with commitment to faith, to Christ Himself?
How can we deal with those temptations to walk away, to abandon His Church, even faith in Jesus, because of disappointment, disillusionment, or the failure of someone that we trusted?

Keep talking with others! You are not the first to think the things you do, to feel the way that you feel. You may not hear what you want to hear. Someone you love may reject you, or hand you platitudes. But, keep talking anyway.  Avoiding fellowship with other disciples is usually the first step to leaving the faith.

Keep doing the spiritual disciplines. Journal your prayers even if you feel like they are just echoing in the room when you say them. Open the Scripture, returning to familiar passages. Change up the way you read it, perhaps letting an app in your phone read the words to you, or using a different translation to renew the truth to you. Go to church, even if it just an act of obedience unmatched with enthusiasm. Present yourself to God in worship.

Acknowledge real emotions.  Avoiding what you are feeling because it is unpleasant or unacceptable in your worldview is like refusing to treat a festering wound by just covering it up.  Taking the cap off of the bottle of our emotions can be like putting the top off of a bottle of shaken soda!  Initially, they may explode messily – with tears, with anger, with words we did not think we were capable of saying.  But, when we are honest to God and ourselves, we can begin to work through those emotions and find new peace.  A good friend, a wise counselor, is invaluable to this process, especially if you are in a critical time of life.

Trust God with thanks for the things that are good and right.  Even when life is upside down in one area, there are other places where the sun still shines. Speaking words of true gratitude for those things helps to strengthen the overall foundation of faith.  The Psalmist found himself bitter at injustice, ready to turn from God. But, he made a choice and found renewal. “So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper. But what a difficult task it is! Then one day I went into your sanctuary, O God, and I thought …” (Psalm 73:16-17, NLT)  “My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever.” (Psalm 73:26, NLT)

Is your faith being tested? Are you ready to quit – on some important relationship, at work, on your church, or even on Jesus?  Hit the pause button and reach out today.  Take the counsel offered above.

Here is a word from the Word.  “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” (Hebrews 10:35-36, NIV)  You can stand on that!

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Rescue Story

(Zach Williams sings this great song hope)

There I was empty handed
Crying out from the pit of my despair
There you were in the shadows
Holding out Your hand You met me there

 And now where would I be without You
Where would I be Jesus
You were the voice in the desert
Calling me out in the dead of night
Fighting my battles for me
You are my rescue story
Lifted me up from the ashes
You carried my soul from death to life
Bringing me from glory to glory
You are my rescue story

 You are You are
You are my rescue story
You are You are 

You were writing the pages
Before I had a name
Before I needed grace oh
Singing songs of redemption
‘Cause every time I ran away
You were louder than my shame

 You never gave up on me
You never gave up on me
You are my testimony oh

 You never give up on me
Oh You never give up on me
Oh this is my testimony oh

 You are You are
Oh You never gave up on me
Never gave up on me
You are You are
Yeah You are my rescue story

 Andrew Ripp | Ethan Hulse | Jonathan Smith | Zach Williams © 2019 Anthems of Hope (Admin. by Essential Music Publishing LLC) Be Essential Songs (Admin. by Essential Music Publishing LLC)

 

CCLI License # 810055

I’ve Got Better Things To Do?

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This Sunday, I will be in church as I have been on 99.9% of Sundays for my 64 years of life.  I have attended mega-churches with thousands, little country churches with dozens, churches with organs and choirs and those with a single guitar providing the music. I have been blessed in ornate churches with incense and bells and in little unadorned halls with simple, unstructured worship. I have endured terrible services and enjoyed wonderful ones. I’ve been bored out of my mind and engaged to the very core of my being. And, I remain a person who loves Christ’s Church.

I am now part of a minority in America. The percentage of Americans that ‘go to church’ is falling rapidly and a small percentage of those who do go to church attend regularly each week. There are numerous reasons for this decline. About a third of those born after 1990 in the US no longer identify themselves with any religion. Scandals have rocked the confidence of people in pastors and diminished the value of organized religion. Many other activities compete with church for attention.

But, I believe that many do not make church attendance a high priority because they do not really understand the reason for it. Church has become something of an entertainment venue, though many would not consciously think of it that way. A prime question that shapes the choice of many concerning where, when, and how often they attend church is ‘how does it make me feel?’  The focus has turned completely around from “I go to worship and honor God” to “I go to find something of value for me.”  We should hope to find some benefit, some joy, some inspiration when we gather to worship the Lord BUT that is secondary to making the choice to present ourselves to Him intentionally, in a place of worship, in devotion. Any emotional lift we may find is a bonus!

While people think they go to church for a program, in reality we go for a Person!

Eugene Peterson describes three reasons that being ‘in church’ for worship is important.

  1. Worship gives life a working structure.
  2. Worship nurtures our need for a relationship with God.
  3. Worship centers our attention on the wisdom of God. – Life at Its Best, Zondervan, 2006

When we take a break from the things that consume our attention in daily life, there is an opportunity to regain our perspective- a kind of weekly reset of our understanding about what/who we were created to be. Regardless of the style of our church’s liturgy – from rigidly formal to charismatically chaotic – behind it all is the Spirit reminding us that we are finite and He is infinite, the illusions of our Self set stripped away by an encounter with the Divine!

Worship gives us a language for loving God. The choice to go ‘someplace’ and to gather with others for the purpose of worship says, “I’m reaching out to You.” Worship includes an encounter with mystery – as we take the Cup and Bread in hand – and hear “This is the blood of the Covenant, this is my Body broken for you.”  And, hopefully, there is the renewal of wisdom that comes from hearing the Word of God. One of the tragedies of some churches is the scarcity of the Word, replaced with philosophy, poems, and preacher’s opinions. It is the Word, infused with the revelation of the Holy Spirit, that shapes us into the people of God who live for the purposes of God.

I am told, too often these days, “I have better things to do, Pastor,” by those who see little value in making worship a priority over family gatherings, sports, and sleeping in on Sunday morning.  Let’s hear the invitation of the Spirit to come into God’s Presence.  I know He does not live in church building, but those places give us a place to focus, to be with others who are seeking Him.  The reality is that ‘going to church’ and entering into the worship is an investment of time!  One Sunday will do little to change us. Week by week, engaging in worship, will transform us!

Let me pointedly say this.  We must rid ourselves of the consumer expectations that poison our worship experience. Discard any attention to how you feel, what you think you need, or who spoke kindly to you. Show up and present yourself to God!  Here’s a bit of practical advice – go a few minutes early to sit quietly which will allow your soul catch up with your body. Attend with your heart and mind as well as your body! In other words, pay attention and participate. Sing! Pray! Listen! Respond!

Here is a word from the Word – “And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s people, let us go right into the presence of God, with true hearts fully trusting him. For our evil consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. Without wavering, let us hold tightly to the hope we say we have, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:21-25, NLT)
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Here I Am To Worship

Light of the world You stepped down into darkness,
opened my eyes, let me see;
Beauty that made this heart adore You,
Hope of a life spent with You.

 Here I am to worship! Here I am to bow down!
Here I am to say that You’re my God.
You’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy,
Altogether wonderful to me.

 King of all days, oh so highly exalted.
glorious in Heaven above!
Humbly You came to earth You created,
All for love’s sake became poor.

Tim Hughes © 2000 Kingsway Music CCLI License No. 810055

Enter the blessing

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Are you limiting yourself, dragged down by thoughts that say “I’m not good enough” to apply for that next level job or ask for the promotion?  Are you afraid to approach God openly? Do His promises seem like they only belong to some super-spiritual elite group of Christians?

Perhaps that is because you have received just half of the gospel message, the part that teaches us “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”  I know many believers who only live that part, failing to remember a critical conjunction that finishes the thought. Take a look. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24, NIV)

God has made you right with Him, settled whatever debt hung over you, and written ‘paid in full’ for your sinfulness, through Christ Jesus and you can accept that new status by faith.

In the 4th chapter of Romans, Paul was inspired by the Spirit to take on the mistaken idea that we somehow gain the favor of God after or if we manage to perform enough good deeds or go through enough religious ritual.  He points to the example of Abraham, the father of the faithful, and explains that Abe was made right with God when he trusted the Lord in faith. “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:2-3, NIV)

That is not just some dusty theology! Knowing that we are ‘credited’ with righteousness by God as a gift opens up great possibilities for us as disciples, just as it did for Abraham.

As Paul develops the thought, he goes to the promise that Abraham received because of the gift of righteousness. “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. … Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.” (Romans 4:16, NIV)  God promised Abraham that he would be blessed, that he would bear God’s glory before his world, and that all the world would be blessed through him.  How did he gain this status? Through faith that accepted the gift of being made right with God and entering into the covenant by faith!

And, we can enter into it, too!  By faith, you and I are heirs of Abraham’s promise. We have a glorious destiny of being God’s own people, fully accepted before Heaven’s Throne, with eternal life secured for us, and the blessings of living under the hand of His blessings here and now. You can look at yourself, your failures, your sense of inadequacy and live far below what God intends OR you can, by faith, know that you are fully accepted as His child. That righteousness received by faith lays the foundation for a whole new way of life that is formed in us, progressively, by the work of the Holy Spirit.

The key to a joyful, rich Christian experience is to look higher than our own efforts, to trust Jesus fully for grace and mercy. Let’s do it! Are you living up to the potential that God plans for you, a bright light for Him, a living example of someone who has entered into the ‘abundant’ life Jesus promised?  The promise is not just for somebody you perceive to be better, someone you think has a spiritual heritage, or someone without the baggage you’re carrying from the past.  You can be declared ‘not guilty’ and freed to enter the promisesola gratia (by grace) – sola fide (by faith)!

Here is a word from the Word. “Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was absolutely convinced that God was able to do anything he promised. And because of Abraham’s faith, God declared him to be righteous. Now this wonderful truth—that God declared him to be righteous—wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was for us, too, assuring us that God will also declare us to be righteous if we believe in God, who brought Jesus our Lord back from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised from the dead to make us right with God.” (Romans 4:20-25, NLT)

__________

No Longer Slaves

You unravel me with a melody
You surround me with a song
Of deliverance from my enemies
Till all my fears are gone

 I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God
I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God

 From my Mother’s womb
You have chosen me
Love has called my name
I’ve been born again into Your family
Your blood flows through my veins

 You split the sea so I could walk right through it
My fears were drowned in perfect love
You rescued me so I could stand and sing
I am a child of God

Brian Johnson | Joel Case | Jonathan David Helser © 2014 Bethel Music Publishing

CCLI License # 810055

Too Far Gone?

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The incredible talent of Russ Taff brought him 6 Grammy’s, countless Dove awards, and the praise of thousands. I loved his music. Walls of Glass, Trumpet of Jesus, and We Will Stand are embedded in my memories. Who knew that the man standing there on the stage, looking like a champion, was full of misery? Who knew of the shame he carried from a childhood of an impossible religion preached to him by a dad who finished up Sunday nights by turning into a mean drunk? Who knew of Russ’ own struggle with alcohol that tore him away from his wife and kids, amplifying the emptiness he felt at the core of his being?

In Russ Taff, I Still Believe, he tells the story – without holding back. It’s gritty, painful, and gripping.  (available on Amazon Prime Video) The turning point was when Russ finally surrendered himself to get the help he needed, when he took the hand of the Jesus he had sung about to millions and let Him heal the wounds of shame, replacing it with grace and love that stilled the voices that insisted he was not enough. He found the love of God. Sound like a cliché? It is an old, old story – told millions of times. Yet, I love to hear it again, not for the awful but for the glory!

In this morning’s email, a friend who I watched spiral down into alcoholism and despair wrote to me about his own healing. Adopted at birth, he always felt a sense of loss. An educated, intelligent man he had what seemed to be all the right stuff. But, his professional life fell apart and his health broke. But, Jesus never forgot him! “I just celebrated a year of sobriety on October 10, 2019.  My Lord has done an amazing work in my life over the past year.  I was alone … much of the time and had few distractions, forcing me to face what I had become, how I got there and to whom I needed to turn.  As I submitted myself to the living Jesus (as opposed to the one I had envisioned through my finite prism), I started praying.”  He went to tell me how he had connected with his birth mother and found out so many things that put the missing pieces in place.

I do not know why I feel so compelled to write this blog this morning, but I know the Spirit is speaking to somebody out there who thinks they are too far gone, who has reached the conclusion that dying is better than life. God has not forgotten your name. The One who knows you best, loves you most.  He is the waiting Father of Jesus’ story (Luke 15) about the Prodigal son. That man who had treated his father terribly and wasted his life thought he could no longer be a son. He tried to go home to make a deal to live with the hired hands.  “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20, NIV)  Your Father in heaven is looking for you!

It’s not easy to turn around. Old habits can die hard. Old ways of coping, through destruction, wrap themselves around us like a tattered old blanket that we resist giving up. But, the Spirit of God is ready to meet us when we are at the end of our rope. Are you ready to come home?

In my favorite book of the Bible, the letter to the Ephesians, in which Paul celebrates the grace of God, there is this passage, our word from the Word. I pray as you read it, it becomes a living Word for you, a moment of hope and transformation through the grace of God.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so very much, that even while we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s special favor that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ, and we are seated with him in the heavenly realms—all because we are one with Christ Jesus.

And so God can always point to us as examples of the incredible wealth of his favor and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us through Christ Jesus. God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 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 2:4-10, NLT)

Surrender! Believe! Receive! Live again!

________

Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand

(Russ Taff sings it like nobody can)

Time is filled with swift transition
Naught of earth unmoved can stand
Build your hopes on things eternal
Hold to God’s unchanging hand

 Hold to God’s unchanging hand
Hold to God’s unchanging hand
Build your hopes on things eternal
Hold to God’s unchanging hand

 When your journey is completed
If to God you have been true
Fair and bright the home in glory
Your enraptured soul will view

Franklin Lycurgus Eiland | Jennie Wilson © Words: Public Domain

 

Loved!

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In a conversation with a friend I wondered aloud at the way I have changed over the years in my relationship with those in my pastoral care. Often, when I was a young pastor,  my first inclination was to ‘efficiency’ and I focused on the organization and the programs of the church. I still care that we do our work in the best way possible, but it is the people that I care most deeply about.  I admit that tears readily fill my eyes when I pray for those who are struggling or hurting. My heart is elated at the report of a victory. And, this is right because God’s desire for His Church is, first and foremost, about creating and strengthening relationships- with Himself and with one another.

Paul, in his first letter to the disciples in Thessalonica, writes at length about his concern for the people there that he had introduced to Christ Jesus. He apologizes for not getting back to visit them writing that “out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you” but Satan hindered those attempts repeatedly. He remembers his time among them with these words of deep love. “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, NIV)  The people of God were the reason for Paul’s existence, the source of his joy.  He says, “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20, NIV)

Are you loved and loving in the family of God?

Let me speak honestly to this. I am concerned that we (Christians) spend so little together that it is all but impossible to form and sustain the kind of loving connection that God wants for us. We know that love is to be the singular mark of the disciple, but we frequently confuse the real affection of the brotherhood (sisters, too) with something more like an association or social club.

The best experience of Christianity has a context of a ‘family,’ when people get together regularly, rubbing elbows, sharing life, learning one another’s stories. Does that sound like a lot of work? It is! Will it always be a warm, wonderful, fulfilling experience?  Answer that by thinking about your own family. Families have conflicts. There is always that one who makes things tense, who tells the wrong story, who demands attention … but that’s family and we love each other, sometimes because of our personalities and sometimes in spite of them.  Part of maturity is learning how to love those who are difficult. But, we all recognize that we are richer for the connections.

God’s plan for us is to call us INTO His Body, the Church.  We will come to love those in His family at least as deeply as our own flesh and blood. That well-known passage about the Church teaches us that “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” (1 Corinthians 12:18-21, NIV) That is not just some ideal, far removed from reality.

Our word from the Word is about the key thing that keeps us connected, that overcomes our disappointments, that feels us with the kind of joy of which Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. As you read it, my prayer is that God will call you to raise your commitment to His family, the Church, so that together we can become the remarkable people that He desires.

 “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. Love will last forever, but prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will all disappear.

 Now we know only a little, and even the gift of prophecy reveals little! But when the end comes, these special gifts will all disappear. It’s like this: When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now. There are three things that will endure—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-13, NLT)

________

Father, I am so grateful for Your family.
Teach me to value my relationships in Your church,
To assign a priority to time together.

As You teach me of my spiritual gifts, help me to connect
With others, in a mutually beneficial way that makes
Your love and life visible to our world.

Jesus, thank you for showing me how to love, selflessly and sacrificially.
Give me courage to go beyond my fears,  to forgive those who fail,
To lift up others.

Amen

Truth Works!

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At church yesterday, our guests were women currently living at the Hoving Home in Oxford, NJ. They are there because their lives had fallen apart. Most of them once believed they were broken beyond repair, without worth, beyond love – often as a consequence of abuse and/or rejection. They looked for relief in alcohol or drugs and the pit grew deeper.  Now they are learning God’s truth that they are, no matter their past choices, beloved daughters of the Heavenly Father, women of great worth.

 The truth can be hard when it reveals a need for a change that will require confronting ourselves. The truth can be comforting when we find a foundation of hope beyond our present set of circumstances. What do you believe about the world in which you live, about yourself, about God?  We all live out of our basic structure of beliefs about who we are, why we exist, what gives meaning.  If we are living a lie there will be tragic results!

So where do we find the Truth?  God, the Holy Spirit, speaks to us through the Word. “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, NIV) With diligent study, with prayerfulness that opens our minds, with humility to trust Him with the hard things – we find a foundation for life in the Word.  Jesus is our Living Word, bringing us the revelation of the Father.  Have you received the word of God?

James describes a common issue with the Truth – refusing to let it work to bring about transformation. “Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like. But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.” (James 1:23-25, The Message)

The key to finding the freedom of Truth is OBEDIENCE. People who hear the Word of God but don’t obey it, live in denial.  James says they become people who have no idea who they are.  But, the promise of God is that when we see our true self in God’s mirror and respond to the Truth we find there, are liberated by the Spirit, able to grapple with reality and find God’s sufficiency.

What is God saying to you today?
Is He affirming your worth, your calling, your salvation; asking you to live in His potential?
Is He confronting you with something that needs to be surrendered to Him?

Our word from the Word today is spoken by Jesus. Though you may find it familiar, soak your mind in the passage, prayerfully. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32, NIV) Let’s be compelled by the Truth. As we hear and see it, let’s believe it and receive it. Then, we will do the Father’s will, and find the joy of freedom.

_______

Flawless

(The Truth about how God sees you!)

There’s got to be more
Than going back and forth
From doing right to doing wrong
‘Cause we were taught that’s who we are
Come on get in line right behind me
You along with everybody
Thinking there’s worth in what you do

 Then like a hero who takes the stage when
We’re on the edge of our seats saying it’s too late
Let me introduce you to amazing grace 

No matter the bumps no matter the bruises
No matter the scars still the truth is
The cross has made
The cross has made you flawless

No matter the hurt or how deep the wound is
No matter the pain still the truth is
The cross has made
The cross has made you flawless

 Could it possibly be
That we simply can’t believe
That this unconditional
Kind of love would be enough
To take a filthy wretch like this
And wrap him up in righteousness
But that’s exactly what He did

 Take a breath smile and say
Right here right now I’m ok because
The cross was enough

 Then like a hero who takes the stage when
We’re on the edge of our seats saying it’s too late
Well let me introduce you to grace grace
God’s grace

 No matter what they say
Or what you think you are
The day you called His name
He made you flawless
He made you flawless

 Barry Graul | Bart Millard | Ben Glover | David Garcia | Mike Scheuchzer | Nathan Cochran | Robby Shaffer | Solomon Olds © 2014 D Soul Music (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.)

Universal Music – Brentwood Benson Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.)

9t One Songs (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing)

Ariose Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing)

CCLI License # 810055