Saturday, May 31, 2008

Jesus does it all!

Today’s reading has me back in Psalm 106:5, but this verse needs to be considered in context. The psalmist is asking God to think of him so that he might experience the pluses of being one of God’s people.

Psalm 106:4-5 says, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favor You have toward Your people. Oh, visit me with Your salvation, that I may see the benefit of Your chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the gladness of Your nation, that I may glory with Your inheritance.

An inheritance is money, property or a title left to someone at the death of the original owner. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 is about redemption, but these verses also add identification to this inheritance of God mentioned by the psalmist. It says, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price. . . .”

I’m trying to wrap my mind around the ideas in these two verses. This is the best I can do: I used to belong to the enemy of God, even though I thought I was my own person. Jesus died on the cross to purchase me, to pay the price for my redemption. By His blood, my life belongs to Him. An inheritance requires a death, so when He died, I was presented to God as His inheritance.

That means Psalm 106:5 actually means that when God visits me with salvation, then I am able to glory in God with the people of His inheritance. All those bought with the same price, the blood of Christ, can glory together in what God has done.

We don’t glory in ourselves though. Jeremiah 9:23-24 says, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me.

Paul wrote that salvation is by grace through faith, “the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Galatians 6:14 says, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Our glory is in the one who has bought us to be His own. He alone is worthy “to receive glory and honor and power” (Revelation 4:11).

The devotional reading reminds me that no one can truly glory in the Lord until they are brought to the end of self-glory. I need to see myself always as God sees me, not with an inflated, ego-stroking view, but with His eyes. Even though I am created in His image, that image was marred by sin and I have in me “no good thing” that merits His favor or grace. With Isaiah I say, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).

Yet Isaiah also said, “For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” It is in seeing Jesus, in experiencing that visit from God spoken of by the psalmist, that I know who I am. I see myself in light of the Holy, Almighty God that I serve. This undoes me, yet He lifts me up and enables me to glorify Him by first bringing me to the reality of my own need and lowly state so that I am in a position to be honored by His saving power. By that, and along with God’s inheritance, I am able to glory in the One who does it all.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Death produces life

In years past one of the ways that I structured devotional time was to pick a topic (often based on a need in my life), select several passages related to that topic, and then read each passage every day for three weeks. As I read, I listened to see what God had to say.

The first week was like surface mining. I picked some gems without any digging. The second week was almost boring, probably because my sinful nature resisted going deeper (or maybe I was lazy). The third week was pay dirt. Each passage exploded with richness and meaning for my life. It was incredible and I should use this method more often.

God must think so too, for He has me in the same verses today as in the past few days. The focus this time is on Psalm 106:5. This verse gives His reason for pruning my life. He wants me to gladly seek His ‘visits’ so I can be saved from the power of sin, and so, “that I may see the benefit of Your chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the gladness of Your nation, that I may glory with Your inheritance.

My reading in Ears from Harvested Sheaves asks for a definition of “the gladness of God’s nation.” The author answers this question with grace; I will rejoice because I know that in His infinite mercy and through the sacrificial death and resurrection of His Son, God has done it all for me. My salvation is totally secured, my redemption a done deal. All I need to do is accept His gift and then rejoice in it.

In my mind, this phrase, “rejoice in the gladness of Your nation,” offers even more riches. Without reading it twenty-one times, I first think of “nation” meaning a large group of people. It seems, in the context of the Old Testament that this must be the nation of Israel, yet with only a little digging, I find that this word is usually used for Gentiles!

While the people of the OT may not have realized it, many passages point toward a time when both Jew and Gentile will be called God’s chosen people, His nation. This means that because of Jesus, I’m in that crowd and experiencing the same gladness as thousands, even millions of other believers.

In relation to the past few days, this also reminds me that I’m not the only one who has ever had to give up something that seemed a good thing. I wrote yesterday of Moses who forsook all that he could have had living in the house of Pharaoh. Moses was part of God’s nation.

Today I think of the Lord Himself who lived here only a short time. He could have allowed those who wanted to make Him king put a crown on His head. He could have gone with their main wish to make Him their political Messiah and done something spectacular to conquer the Romans. He could have made heaven on earth with His power to conquer sickness, death, even food shortages. He forsook all of these things.

Jesus explains that even a plant cannot produce anything by concentrating only on its own life and what it can do. In John 12:24-25 He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

A plant by itself is not a bad thing, nor is the seed by itself, but there are no new plants unless the seed falls to the ground and “perishes” in the soil. It is by dying that new life is produced.

Jesus also said something very much like Psalm 106:5. Verse 26 says, “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.

The blessing of being in the nation of God is also being in the presence of His Son, the One who is Lord of that great company of people. Yet if that were not honor enough, He also promises to bless me as I serve Him. Serving Him means not serving myself, no matter how appealing that might be, and letting go of whatever is in my life that He says must be released. By doing this there is gladness, fruitfulness, even honor and new life.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

His Pruning Knife

Reading through the Bible brought me to Job 7 this morning. This godly man had everything taken from him, including his health. In verses 17-18, he asks, “What is man, that You should exalt him, that You should set Your heart on him, that You should visit him every morning, and test him every moment?

In other words, Who am I that God is spending so much attention on me? Why are You bringing so much misery and testing to someone as insignificant as I?

I sometimes ask the same question. What is the point of this continual discipline? My husband likes the illustration of tree pruning. At first God lops off the large diseased branches, the stuff in our lives that is obviously deadly to our well-being. Then He begins working on those branches that are out of place, rubbing against other branches, hanging out in positions that make the tree unsightly.

The third phase of His pruning is with a small sharp knife. With this He goes after the little things, the small branches that spell trouble. To the tree, these seem like healthy shoots, but the Master Gardener knows that the tree will be far better off and produce more fruit without them.

Pruning can be painful. As I read Job’s question, I started to feel sorry for myself. I’d already asked God to confirm today the thoughts of the past couple of days, but this self-pity was not a good way to approach my devotional reading. As I began, the first thing that I noticed was the use of the same Psalm as yesterday. I braced myself for another rebuke, but this time God answered my question:
Remember me, O Lord, with the favor You have toward Your people. Oh, visit me with Your salvation, that I may see the benefit of Your chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the gladness of Your nation, that I may glory with Your inheritance. (Psalm 106:4-5 )
I ask God to visit me. I want His favor and I want to be saved from my sin, but then I say “ouch” when He does it? I asked Him this morning why He bothers with me. Certainly this is His answer. It is so I can see the benefit of being His chosen one, and that I can rejoice in being part of His family, one of His people. It is so I might glory in the wonderful inheritance that He has given me.

I know the good that God has blessed me with and how good it is to be one of His children. I know that being a child of God is better than doing my own thing. I know I also must be tested to see if my faith is absolutely sure of these things.

A verse in Hebrews talks about the faith of Moses who, “when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he looked to the reward” (Hebrews 11:24-26).

Moses decided that it was better to serve the Lord and suffer reproach for it (which he did), than have all the fame and fortune Egypt could offer him. He choose the way of the Lord, which included discipline and the process of being transformed by God into the man God wanted him to be. Moses lost out on some things that the world considers valuable. Some of God’s people might even argue that he could have used all that fame and fortune to better serve God. Yet God knew what was the best for Moses, so Moses got pruned.

I’m not Moses, and I still don’t fully understand why God takes after me with His pruning tools, but I do know that Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.

Branches are supposed to abide in the Vine, not be concerned about what our how much fruit they are producing. Jesus promised that as long as I cling to the One who bears that sharp little knife, I will produce fruit that will bless both Him and others. He wants me to simply trust Him, and not let His pruning knife scare me away, even when pruning hurts or makes no sense. He will show me the benefit of being His child and He will give me joy—and I will glory in what He is doing—not because I can see it right now, but because He said so.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Visits from God

Yesterday I looked up to the mountains that I once loved to reproduce in paintings and gloried in the fact that God is Creator. Today I feel like I don’t have to redo what He has done, nor copy it so I can take it home with me. The majesty of the Rockies is but a reflection of the majesty of God. I can appreciate them, but the compulsion to paint them is no longer in me.

This might seem like an insignificant thing, but for me I’ve experienced a release of something, even though I’m not sure I can define it. I know that it is okay to be a creative being (we are made in His image), but there is a fine line between creating from who I am—and trying to reproduce what God does. For some reason, the first seems like a way to glorify Him and the latter borders dangerously on making graven images.

This brings to mind the controversy over images used in some religious practices. In the early church it was argued that icons were graven images. Finally the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787) declared that “images might lawfully be displayed in churches because they called up memories of their archetypes and so aroused contemplation of God and his gracious condescension to human estate, his love, his providence, and his mercy.” This Council distinguished between true worship (belonging to God alone) and veneration which might properly be accorded images. The honor paid to an image, it was argued, “is in reality directed to its archetype.”

Evangelicals wear crosses as jewelry and not consider them as icons or graven images. The empty cross ought to remind us of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our sins. I’m almost certain that most of the time it does not, but few would call this a sin or even an icon.

My concerns are about painting something that God has made. The Bible says that all creation declares the glory of God. When I look at creation, I often think of God, but I must confess that I usually do not think of Him when I look at a painting, either a landscape or a portrait. Yes, God created the subject matter, but an artist recreated it, and the painting usually makes me think about the artist.

Such a response could be more the viewer’s than the painter’s intention, but could this be a subtle way of robbing God of His glory? Is this what God is trying to tell me?

Looking further, I found that this might be a proper way to look at art. This quote is from a book called Written in Stone.
An idol was something crafted by a tool. Whether it was carved out of wood, chiseled out of stone, or engraved in metal, it was cut and shaped by human hands. It was a man-made representation of some divine being.
This did not mean that the Israelites were forbidden to use tools. Nor did it mean that they were not allowed to produce artwork. Later, when it was time to build the tabernacle, God sent the Israelites his Spirit “to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft” (Exodus 31:4–5). So what the second commandment ruled out was not making things, but making things to serve as objects of worship. This is clarified in the second part of the rule: “You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:5a). The Israelites were strictly forbidden to make images of God to use in worship. Although God appreciates artistry, he will not tolerate idolatry.
The author of this book goes on to say, “This rule is clarified with a list of the kinds of idols God forbids: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). That pretty much covers it: nothing in the sky, nothing on the ground, and nothing in the sea! In other words, the Israelites were not allowed to represent God in the form of anything in all creation.”

From that I understand that it would be idolatry to painting something God created and then let it represent God to me. It seems far better to think of the artist when viewing a painting than letting that painting represent something about God. Then why is God telling me to stop doing this? What is the correct view of art, at least for my Christian life?

More reading and I find that John Calvin said the human heart is “a perpetual factory of idols.” Rather than worshiping God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24), we reshape and remake Him until he is safely under our control.

How does this happen? One way is trying to make God visible, in some way seen by the eyes. In a world where images have such power, this is a temptation even in the church. We tend to think that we need to give people something to see, more powerful visuals, yet God never asks that of us. Instead, He wants us to listen!

After reading an incredible book called The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul, I first realized that a media-driven world makes hearing God more difficult. In fact, my own ears often close to Him the more my eyes are engaged. This is not that I cannot hear sound, but that I do not hear God. This is why we should shut our eyes when we pray—it shuts out the visual distractions.

All this being said, I am curious that this ban from God to me about creativity in painting landscapes does not extend to quilting, even quilting landscapes. What is the difference? I am not sure why, but I know that as I paint a reproduction of what God has done, I am not hearing Him. This is purely visual, but even then, I cannot sense His glory in that painting. When I am working in fabric, the problem is not there. In fact, I can pray while I sew and easily listen to Him—and He comes through loud and clear.

I’m not sure I understand all this. I do know that God wants me to worship Him in the right way and not play around with any images that represent Him to my heart. I didn’t think I was doing that in painting landscapes, but something was not right in my reason for want to preserve what I could see outdoors and hang it on my wall indoors.

I’m certainly willing to worship Him the right way, not with any form of idols or idol making in my own mind. Written in Stone says that the only thing that can save me from any private idolatry is simple: Rather than remaking God into my image, I need to concentrate on being remade into his image. God does that by bringing me into a personal saving relationship with his Son Jesus Christ, and then using all things to shape me and change me into that image.

My devotional reading today is about being visited with God’s salvation. This is about that salvation that happens once to save me from the penalty of sin, then keeps happening as He delivers me from the power of sin. The reading starts with Psalm 106:4-6:
Remember me, O Lord, with the favor You have toward Your people. Oh, visit me with Your salvation, that I may see the benefit of Your chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the gladness of Your nation, that I may glory with Your inheritance. We have sinned with our fathers, we have committed iniquity, we have done wickedly.
When God “visits” me, my life is changed. Yet as the reading says, a person can experience such a visit only when he or she first recognizes His condemnation of sin. Truly, Jesus Christ comes to only those who know they are lost and need saving. As a Christian I also know that Jesus Christ comes to only those who have a sense of being bankrupt in all areas of life, in religion, righteousness, strength, confidence, hope. We must have all that is of the flesh stripped away by the hand of God. Then we are ready for a visit from Him, a visit that brings His saving power.

The reading reminds me that when I realize that I am nothing, have nothing, know nothing, only then will I cry out to God. Then He comes to visit me and as the reading says, “a living soul can be satisfied with nothing short of this.”

If something, anything, takes me away from God, even if it seems a good thing, that thing is not for me. It might not fit the description of a graven image or an idol, but if because of it I am unable to pay attention to the Lord, then this must be confessed as sin and forsaken.

The previous quote, that “a living soul can be satisfied with nothing short of this” was verified to me this past couple of days. In about three hours I painted a lovely little scene, probably the best work I’ve ever done, but I didn’t enjoy even one minute of doing the thing, and was troubled by that, even though the painting looks great.

In contrast, the next morning I spent thirty minutes in prayer and visiting with God. During that, I was happy, refreshed, comforted, peaceful, without burdens and blessed. I may not get the theology of what is going on here, but I do get this much: when God visits me, everything else becomes nothing—and He is Lord of my heart.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Difficult Obedience

I used to paint, first in oils then acrylics. For a few years I made my living selling paintings, usually wildlife in a mountain setting. I can remember starting a picture at lunch and the next thing I knew my family was home wanting supper. My time at the easel flew by and nothing else even came to mind, never mind got done. Yet as the children needed more of my time and our frequent family moves made it difficult to find time to paint, I set it aside.

They say artists express their creativity in many ways and that is true for me. I decorated and redecorated, took up other crafts, and now am making quilts, but those tubes of paint, blank canvases, and paintbrushes still call to me. Every time I am in an art supply store, I feel emotional in the aisles that sell them.

For the past year or so, I’ve been cleaning out all unused, unnecessary items from our house. We will eventually need to downsize and someday perhaps move into something smaller, so I’ve tossed or given away carloads of stuff. However, when it came to my art books and art supplies, I cannot even go through them. I’ve not painted for years and reasoning says if I’m not using them, I might as well not have them, but the paints and brushes and books seem almost sacred, certainly untouchable. This year I finally managed to give away a box of art books, but kept twice as many.

This week in the mountains meant time alone while my husband golfs. (I can golf, but I just drag down his game, so seldom go.) I decided that I would take my art stuff and see what happens. First I wasn’t sure if I even remembered how to do it. Second, I wondered if I would even enjoy myself, or was it just the memory of enjoying it that haunted me? I also realize this seems silly to those who have not experienced anything like it, but I had to find out if this was still a skill and also if it mattered enough to take it up again.

I also prayed. When I gave up painting in the first place, it was after an extended period of using art sales to support a missionary couple. When they retired from the field, it seemed that God was saying to me, This is not for you. You cannot paint for yourself and make an idol out of this. Now I want you to lay it aside. With other important commitments at the time that was not as hard as it might have been.

So here in the Rockies, I painted a small landscape yesterday. I choose something fairly difficult, with buildings, trees, and water in it. A lake is always difficult to paint. It tends to look humped in the middle and the water looks too heavy. I worked from about 11:00 in the morning to about 3:30. When Bob came back from the golf course, we were both amazed at the result.

This painting is likely the most pleasing one I’ve ever done. The perspective, sense of distance and the colors certainly surpass my older works, and the water . . . it is flat, glassy and looks wet, like you could skip a stone on it. I am still startled. I didn’t expect to even remember how to mix my colors, but everything happened almost instinctively. Oh my Lord, now what am I supposed to do?

Now this is the odd part. I didn’t really enjoy doing it. I also thought afterward that now I knew that I could still paint, it would be easy to set the whole thing aside and never bother doing it again. But I still prayed for God’s direction and when I read my Bible reading for today, a different thing happened in my heart.

For a long time, each day that I ask God a direct question, my daily reading gives me a direct answer. This is what I read this morning:
If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it—lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.
The gist of this and that last sentence made me suddenly feel like Abraham at the command of God going up the mountain to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Only instead of the faith Abraham had to believe God would give the lad back to him, I am thinking I must totally forsake this.

Part of my conflict is with the words of my mother. When I was young, she encouraged my artistic endeavors and told me that even the Bible says we must use our talents (referring to Jesus’ parable of the talents where servants were trusted with money, or talents, and commended for increasing what they had or condemned for burying it in the ground). Her application of this parable to my life has made me feel guilty, even pushed me to do many things for which people say I have talent. Getting in over my head and becoming far too busy finally taught me that I am supposed to first ask, What does God say?

God told Abraham to give up the most precious thing in his life, Isaac. We read the story from beginning to end and are encouraged by Abraham’s faith and obedience because we know that God wouldn’t let him kill the boy, but instead provided a substitute. How would we feel if we didn’t know the rest of the story?

That is something like I feel. I know that for Abraham the whole thing was a test. God said to this man, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me. . . . because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son—blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:12, 16-18).

I know this is a test for me too, but it would be much easier if this little painting looked like a garage-sale reject instead of something I can hang on my wall with joy and smile every time I look at it. God wants to know what I love the most and I need to know it too.

I also realize that loving Jesus the most does not mean that He will give my sacrifice back to me like He gave back Isaac. I cannot offer this whole painting thing to Him with that in the back of my mind. Instead, He asks me to simply give it to Him, to do with as He pleases whether that means He will ask me to use it in some way for Him, or He will burn it with fire and ask me to forget all about it.

Sometimes obedience is awfully difficult.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Pulling back for the big picture

Yesterday afternoon we did some sightseeing, looked at a couple of very expensive condos in Canmore, then curled up in our chalet—out of the drizzle-shower-downpour-drizzle that continued all day. My husband rented a couple movies, and I watched them and the last part of a third before going to bed.

The plots sort of blur together. Nothing was outstanding except that the value systems expressed in the lives of the characters were typical of today’s thinking. Power, money, no concern for justice (only revenge and violence to “get even” — their form of justice) and a great deal of me-first thinking. The third movie on television was a science-fiction story about some type of experiment to see if the memory of children could be wiped from the minds of their parents. The experiment didn’t fully succeed, but even with a sort of happy ending, it’s no wonder I had bad dreams.

This morning God brings me back to the big picture. I am reading in Esther as I work my way through the Bible for the year. Haman was introduced and his plot to rid the world of Jews. A footnote in my Bible said, “Haman was being satanically used to target the entire Jewish race in an unsuccessful attempt to change the course of redemptive history and God’s plans for Israel.”

The big picture is simple. God created man to love and serve Him. Man turned his own way and the human race fell into sin and became separated from God. God planned redemption from sin by sending His Son, born of a woman from the line of Abraham and David, who would not only pay our penalty for sin and redeem us, but who would also become God’s perfect Priest and King of kings. If Haman had succeeded in destroying the Jews, this plan would not be fulfilled.

Then my devotional reading took me to Ezekiel 21:26-27. The context is about God’s judgment on His disobedient people. Because of their sin they had failed to be the spiritual leaders that He intended. They also failed to maintain their place in the world, again because of sin. The Davidic line of kings had become corrupt. Their spiritual leaders were also corrupt. For this, God says to the prophet Ezekiel what will happen in Israel: “Remove the turban, and take off the crown; nothing shall remain the same. Exalt the humble, and humble the exalted. Overthrown, overthrown, I will make it overthrown! It shall be no longer, until He comes whose right it is, and I will give it to Him.

From the beginning God had told them that He would bring a King from the line of David who would sit on the throne in righteousness and judgment. This King would be holy and true. The throne would be His right because He alone would be a worthy King.

Not only that, He would also be a priest. The “turban” represents priestly leadership. This and the succession of kings were never fully restored after the captivity of the Jews. Both offices would not be established until God sent His Son who would be that Priest and King that He had promised.

Right now, and for all Christians, Jesus is our priest. We can approach God through Him. He offered Himself as our sacrifice for sin and He ever lives to make intercession for us. Jesus is our King in that He rules our lives and we honor and pay homage to Him.

This is not just for Christians; God’s Son died for the sins of the whole world. He opened the way for all sinners to come to God. He is the everlasting and sinless Priest who did not first have to give an offering for Himself. He earned the right by saying no to sin.

For now, the kingdom of Jesus Christ seems to be mostly about those who submit themselves to Him. We who obey Him are certain that He is the King of Kings. However, “God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

In God’s big picture, Jesus is Lord and King, and someday everyone will not only know it, but bow before Him, whether they want to or not. Today’s value systems of me-first and win at any cost will come to an end and all modern-day Hamans will be brought to their knees. The plan of God will be fulfilled and Jesus Christ will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords, our perfect High Priest forever.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Integrity and Serving God

When the sermon is flat, or the Bible teacher seems without enthusiasm, or the Christian at the homeless shelter is rough instead of gentle, the reasons are seldom what they seem.

Serving Jesus Christ has much to do with priorities and with realizing that everything I do affects my service. I cannot be used by God to bless others if I head off to church Sunday morning with anger in my heart because someone was thoughtless toward me at home. I cannot be a blessing in my home if I am constantly irritated by the constant phone calls from tele-marketers. I cannot be pleasant to the clerks in the supermarket if I’m worried about some issue that I’m trying to solve on my own without consulting God. Often the little things cause big problems, like a tiny burr under my saddle!

Serving the Lord requires keeping short accounts with Him. I cannot be sinless, but I do need to be honest and confess my sin to God as soon as I am aware of it. I cannot be aware if I do not spend time with Him in prayer and in His Word. If I neglect spiritual disciplines, my selfish nature will assume control of my attitudes and actions. Even if this is only one annoying area of life (such as ‘Who left those dirty dishes in the living room?’) my attitude toward it will affect all other areas.

Paul knew that. He wrote to the church in Corinth because his own ministry was under scrutiny. He wanted them to know the priority he had for serving the Lord and what that meant in his life. He endured much just so he could serve them.
We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything (2 Corinthians 6:3-10).
In this section, commend means “to introduce with the connotation of proving oneself.” Paul wanted them to know that whatever was thrown at him, good or bad, his ministry to them was more important than giving up, defending himself, protecting himself, or taking care of his own needs first. He refused to become self-focused because he knew that if he did, his ministry would not only suffer but be discredited. That does not mean covering up all that bothered him, but dealing with it honestly, then moving forward.

Another thing I realize about keeping my life in harmony with the will of God is that I’m less apt to hear Him speak because I’m too busy listening to my own grumbling, complaining, and reasons for not being happy with life. Or I might be so caught up in the pleasures of life so much that I’m not listening to God. Either way, how can He direct what I do for others if I am not even thinking about Him or others?

These verses are the context of today’s devotional reading, but the two verses before them also speak to my heart: “We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

Salvation is a once-for-all experience, and yet it is not once for all. I’m to be saved from sin every day of my life. The reading in Ears from Harvested Sheaves says this:
Though we die, and die daily, yet, behold, we live; and in a sense, the more we die, the more we live. The more we die to self, the more we die to sin; the more we die to pride and self-righteousness, the more we die to creature strength; and the more we die to nature, the more we live to grace. And this runs all the way through the life and experience of a Christian.
He also adds that “weeds must be plucked up, that the crop may grow; the flesh be starved, that the spirit may be fed; the old man put off, that the new man may be put on; the deeds of the body be mortified, that the soul may live unto God.”

The more I die to my own strength, the more I live to Christ’s strength. The more I die to my own hopes and dreams, to my own righteousness, and to the world, the more I live for Jesus Christ and for heaven.

The reading says that this is “the grand mystery—the Christian is always dying, yet always living; and the more he dies, the more he lives.” I agree. I know that if God is not using me, the life of the flesh, the influence of the world, or the lies of the devil will be affecting what I do.

I also know this is true for all Christians. When I hear a flat sermon or encounter a lifeless and dull believer, I am aware that they need encouragement to turn again to God, and my prayers of intercession to help them overcome that thing, whatever it is, somewhere in their life that has gone awry.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Weak wireless

I'm in the mountains (see post below). Our lovely chalet is remote, not in a town but on the side of a mountain. The management offers wireless but we are too far from the office to get a connection. I can come to the office and plug in my laptop. This is free, but it has been pouring rain for two days. I want to hibernate. Posts may be sporadic, but every day will get here, eventually, or as soon as the sun shines!

Creation speaks

Sometimes the Word of God and the situation that I’m in make literal obedience laughably difficult. I’m sitting near a wall of windows in an A-frame chalet with an unobstructed view of the Rocky Mountains, tall pine trees, and incredibly fresh clean air.

It is raining, but the space inside is lovely too, a large stone-face fireplace, cedar walls, lots of light, nice paintings on the wall, comfortable furniture and a few of my own quilts tossed here and there. This is a wonderful place for a vacation.

Then God tells me not to set my mind on this. Oh my, as I look around, how can I not think about what I see?

The verse is from Colossians 3:1-3. That passage says, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.

The context is really not about the beautiful creation God has made. The things He doesn’t want me to think about are stuff like “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” A few verses later He adds “anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language” and lies.

The reason He says this to me is because I have “put off the old (wo)man with (her) deeds, and have put on the new (wo)man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created (her).” Once I was pulled aside from thoughts of God, holiness and eternal things because I was dead to those things. My spirit had no connection to God and was not responsive or interested in “things above.”

However, when Christ appeared and moved into my life, all that changed. He quickened or made alive my spirit and now I can think of things above, which does not mean tall trees and high mountains! In fact, I know that one day the glory that I will experience with Him in eternity will be greater than the glory that I see out these windows.

Does all of this mean that I’m not to enjoy my view or think about it? Of course not. The Bible also says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1) and that “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20).

Many enjoy the scenery around them without thinking about the One who created it. They look at the mountains and trees almost in adoration, as if they appeared all by themselves. I don’t want to get into a discussion of creation vs. evolution, but the Bible also says that “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (Hebrews 11:3).

By faith, I know that what I see out these windows was formed by the One whom I cannot see. He spoke the world into existence and did a remarkable job of making it very nice to look at. By getting away from most of which is manmade and lifting my eyes to what He has created, I am startled once again by His incredible power and His creative sense and ability. The God who can do all this is definitely on my mind.

Friday, May 23, 2008

It’s okay to dump on God

For the past few days I’ve not felt quite right about my prayer time with the Lord. He hasn’t made me aware of sin that I need to confess, yet I’ve felt a bit distant. I know God didn’t move, so have wondered what is wrong with me.

Yesterday was hectic. I had several unexpected chores besides trying to get ready to take a week vacation. I intended to pray while waiting for my granddaughter outside a place where she had an appointment, but wound up running one of those unexpected errands. So I put my list on the night table, and felt dutiful to pray, rather than relational.

God must have heard me, because a still small voice told me, “Just listen, and pray what I put on your heart.” I did, and that helped, but this morning I was still thinking about my denseness, that feeling of not being quite with it while praying. Again, God came through with the reason and the answer.

Today’s devotional reading is about trusting God (I do) and that He is my refuge. (Where else can I hide or feel totally safe?). Psalm 62:8 speaks of both those things, but it was the line in the middle that opened my eyes and made my heart say, Yes, that’s it!
Trust in Him at all times, you people;
Pour out your heart before Him;
God is a refuge for us.
I’ve heard people say that they could not tell God all their troubles. Their reasons were something like, “He is too busy for my silly problems” or “It sounds too much like complaining and that would be a sin.”

Are not the shoulders of God big enough to take my burdens? Are not the ears of God strong enough to listen to my sorrows, even my complaints? Is not the heart of God big enough to gather in all that is on my heart and still have room to love me?

This verse is an invitation. God wants me to dump out the stuff that tends to build up but seldom makes it to my prayer list, stuff like how tired I get with the daily grind, or the anxiety I feel when my space seems always messy and I cannot work in it like that. Ordinary stuff, but I’ve learned that if I don’t talk to God about stuff like this, I either wind up complaining to other people, or my body starts to resent these little stresses and retaliates in one way or another.

I’d been praying. My prayer list is long and requests come in often, but I had not been talking to God about the stuff that bugs me. It seems too little. (He is not too busy for my silly problems!)

Also, I hate to complain. Yet I remember that Job complained throughout his story. He said what was on his heart, not only to his so-called friends, but to God. This man made no pretense about how he felt. He did not put on a brave front during his severe trials (much more severe than mine). Instead, he was the same on the outside as he was on the inside—and surprisingly, the Bible commends him for his integrity.

God says to pour out my heart. Life fills it up with a lot of sludge, and when I feel yucky I need to get rid of this stuff without worrying about dumping it on God. He does know what to do with it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

And who is a genuine child of God?

At risk of being told I’m not supposed to judge, I’m going to describe how to tell if someone is a Christian or not. In the past month, I’ve interacted with people who say they are and I just knew that it was true, and with people who said that they are, but I really doubted it.

Jesus told His disciples that the criterion was our love for one another. In John 13, He washed their feet as an example of how they should serve each other, then said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (34-35)

Years ago the leader of a mainline denomination told me that he believed he was a Christian because he loved other people. His ministry involved helping the poor, caring for the downtrodden. As commendable as that is, he didn’t display even respect for those who claim to be children of God by faith in Jesus Christ and through the process of regeneration or new birth. He felt that being born was not necessary and mocked those who thought otherwise.

My question then became, How do I know that I love God’s people? Is it a mushy sentiment? A warm feeling? A life of sacrifice for the needy? What did Jesus mean when He said, “. . . as I have loved you . . . ?” His love involved healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, and ultimately death on a cross, but it also involved washing dirty feet. What does He expect of me?

The entire book of 1 John offers several tests for genuine faith. It talks about a Christian’s attitude toward sin and toward the world. It talks about the ability to recognize and defeat the enemy, Satan. It also tells me how to know if I love other Christians.
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
Obedience to God is the measure of my love for Him and for His people, yet this is not a rule-keeping kind of obedience where a list is hung on the wall and if I do that every day, then I am obeying God and consequently loving His children. The key to obedience is the statement that His “commandments are not burdensome.”

Keeping rules gets old fairly fast. Even if they are not burdens, this type of living certainly becomes stagnant and wearisome to the body and soul. It was to people caught in this ‘work’ that Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Truly obeying God is a delight, not a burden, because it is done in the context of a love relationship. Those who believe that Jesus is God’s Son (or it can be said He is God the Son) have an intimacy with God unknown to those who approach God with their works and their desire to do good things for other people. This intimacy gives Christians a motivation and inner strength that rests in Him and yet can overcome the world.

The “world” that John writes about is not a reference to people who don’t like Christians or who oppose goodness, nor is it all the trials and tribulations that plague this planet. Instead, it is an attitude of the heart toward things that are not eternal, things not from God. John describes this in 2:15-17.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.
This lust of the flesh is my desire to please myself, make myself comfortable, make myself feel good without any consideration of what that might cost someone else. The lust of the eyes is about having stuff and power. It is looking at what the world can offer me and going for it. The pride of life is obvious; it is me wanting to be the top banana, the best, the most important. It is egocentric and not at all like Jesus.

The love of the world can show up even in so-called Christian service. I can serve myself in the name of serving the Lord. I can serve my reputation, my ego, my sense of well-being. This is not from God, yet it can mask itself very well, and the only way to overcome it is having a life-transforming, genuine faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

All that being said, people can know they love other God’s people by measuring their obedience, not to rules but to the prompting of the Holy Spirit with whom they know intimately. Today God might ask me to call another believer. He has already nudged me to write a letter to someone. These are not the rules written in a book, but His commands spoken directly to my heart from His heart.

Note too that this criterion involves loving God’s people. While God makes it clear that I’m to care for the poor and needy, the love that identifies me as His child is love for His other children. While He created everyone, not everyone can call themselves a child of God. John 1:12-13 says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

We love each other because Jesus lives in each of us and His love becomes our motivation and attitude. My devotional reading today sums it up. The child of God is one who overcomes, yet we cannot do it by our own power. I need Jesus Christ to love and obey God and thus love His people. It says:
If we are to be saved . . . we must have a faith that shall triumph over death and hell and gain a glorious conquest over every internal and external and infernal foe. . . . we must either conquer or be conquered; we must either . . . be crowned with an immortal crown of glory, or else sink in the strife, defeated by sin and Satan. But none of God’s people will be defeated in the fight . . . faith will sooner or later gain the day, for Jesus is its finisher as well as its author. . . . He will never suffer His dear family to be overcome in the good fight of faith, for He will give strength to every weak arm and power to every feeble knee, and has engaged to bring them off more than conquerors. . . . the Spirit is pleased to work in the soul by His living energy. . . .
In the end, God knows those who belong to Him. True Christians overcome sin, the world, the flesh and the devil, not because we are special or strong in ourselves, but because God lives in our hearts and gives us a deep love for Him, a love that fully surrenders to the One who gave it, and is therefore able to love His people and conquer anything that opposes us.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Praying with Moses

When Moses penned Psalm 90, he must have been at that age where he felt wistful about dying yet hopeful that the Lord would leave future generations with the same deep faith and blessing that he had experienced. He wrote acknowledging the power and presence of God, but also how he felt about the brevity of life . . .
Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
Because God is God, He has every right to do whatever He wishes with His creation, including me. He created us and He can save us, or . . .
You turn man to destruction, and say, “Return, O children of men.” For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night. You carry them away like a flood; they are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up: in the morning it flourishes and grows up; in the evening it is cut down and withers.
Life is very short. I began to die the moment I was born. In the sight of God, this is but a blink. The older I get, the days become even more a blink—so very short. I look back over my life and wonder how I managed to get to this place in such a brief moment. Then I think of God’s mercy. My son once said, “Mom, aging isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” I could be like those of whom Moses included in the next few verses . . .
For we have been consumed by Your anger, and by Your wrath we are terrified. You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your countenance. For all our days have passed away in Your wrath; we finish our years like a sigh.
I can relate to this in that I know my sins are known by God, and that my body wears out because of sin. This is the way life is for all humanity. Sin slowly destroys us. Yet I am no longer terrified by the wrath of God. I also know His mercy, and even though I sometimes sigh about “the things I wish I’d done” I know that God loves me and my sins are forgiven. Yet still, life is short . . .
The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Who knows the power of Your anger? For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath. So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
The norm for life in Canada is 77 years for men, 84 for women. That gives me a bit more that what Moses considered hopeful. I could live another 15-10 years. At the same time, the last 15-20 swished past so quickly that I really need to be aware of God. I need to consider His anger against sin and avoid it. I need to remember His power to do great things and pray for it. I also need to fear Him and listen to His voice.

I’ve always been conscious that I must manage my time well, and now even more than ever, but this verse says that time management is not a skill to learn so that I might be more productive. Instead, it is for being more conscious of God’s authority in my life. He wants me to listen to Him and obey, for it is only by doing His will that the rest of my days and my doings will have eternal value. For that, I need His grace and mercy, lest sin and selfishness govern my actions . . .
Return, O Lord! How long? And have compassion on Your servants. Oh, satisfy us early with Your mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days! Make us glad according to the days in which You have afflicted us, the years in which we have seen evil.
Though my short years, God has shown me that true joy is in doing His will. When I am living obediently in His mercy, what I do will have eternal value. The Bible defines eternal value as those things that go into the presence of God forever. My worldly achievements will not matter. I cannot take any money or possessions with me. My best hope is that God will bless my family and others around me so that they will see His glory and follow Him, and wind up in eternity with Him and with me. For that, I pray along with Moses . . .
Let Your work appear to Your servants, and Your glory to their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands.
Most of all, I want the work of God made visible in me. He has done great things, and I want people to see that. He has worked in my life and I want people to seek and know Him because of that, particularly my family. That is why I am thinking about the years that are left in terms of what God wants from me. If He makes the work of my hands significant in some way so that His glory is made visible, then I will not finish my years with a sigh, but with a joyful Hallelujah!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Forgiven

Christians, particularly those new to the faith, often struggle with forgiveness. They know God has forgiven them, but they have trouble believing it and trouble with forgiving themselves.

Sin has a way of crying out for punishment. To someone who does not know forgiveness, it seems that the only way to be rid of guilt and shame is to pay the price for it. If those we sin against do not retaliate, that sense of needing to be punished increases. At one time, beating myself over the head with it seemed the only option.

Besides that, admitting sin can be merely a way to ‘feel better’ rather than to accept the truth of it. At one time, I was convinced deep within that I was really not that bad. That ploy has no effect on guilt either. The next step was to punish myself with sorrow and guilt in the hope that would erase it. This does not work either.

There might be other mental gymnastics that people go through to deal with their guilt. Some bury it, or take it out on those around them. Some try to ‘repay’ by giving money, time, effort to the church with the idea that will get rid of the guilt. None of these things work.

Even if I could manage to forgive (or excuse) myself that didn’t work either. I first had to know that my sin is totally forgiven by God Himself. People might be able to do totally forgive me, but because sin is against God, it is ultimately His forgiveness that really counts. Knowing that God has pardoned me and will not hold my sins against me sets me free from guilt, and the more deeply I know His forgiveness, then forgiving myself becomes a moot point. Who am I to be angry with my sin when God is not angry?

Micah, the last book of the Old Testament, is titled by the name of the prophet who wrote it. His name is a short form of Micaiah and means “Who is like the LORD?” In the last few verses of this book, Micah uses a play on words in a part prayer, part exhortation, to describe God’s merciful forgiveness.
Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:18-19).
As my devotional reading for today says, when God takes all our sin and casts them into the depths of the sea, they never come out of those depths to witness against me. No matter what I have done and how much those sins “seem to be all alive” in me, accusing me, crying out for vengeance and punishment, God’s mercy is more powerful than my guilt.

When the Lord casts sin into the depths of the sea, those sins have “no more eyes to look at us with angry indignation, have no more tongues to speak against us in voices of accusation, have no more life in them to rise up and testify that they have been committed by us.”

Sinners have broken God’s law and are under its condemnation and curse, but because of the mercy of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross to pay for sin, there is such a thing as a “forgiven sinner.” God’s complete forgiveness of sins sets me free from guilt, self-condemnation, and the sense of having failed both God and myself.

Without forgiveness, my sin would reduce me to a quivering and useless being, afraid of the wrath of God and beaten up by my refusal to forgive myself. Because of Jesus I am a sinner set free, looking forward to that great day when He presents me not only forgiven, but as Jude 24 says, “faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Unity of the Spirit

More often than not, the topic of the class I teach Sunday morning and the topic of the sermon preached right after are similar. Yesterday my class studied the obedience of Jesus Christ and how obedience to God could be costly, but was worth it. The sermon title was “A Painful Obedience.”

When I looked at the sermon outline in the bulletin, I chuckled. How does that happen? I’ve no idea what the pastor is going to do, and he certainly does not consult with me about my class. Actually, someone from one of the other classes said their discussion also involved obedience.

For anyone outside the Body of Christ, this looks like a coincidence. For those of us who know the Holy Spirit, we recognize that He is speaking to us and it is not a great surprise if His message comes the same way yet through various sources.

This morning I read this beautiful passage from Colossians 3:12-17. It talks about the ideal and joyful relationship between the people of God as we obediently walk with Him.
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
These words are not to one person, but to all who are in Christ. It speaks of a bond, a unity, a mutual attitude and care for one another that we have because Jesus lives in our hearts. When all of these things are in place, it should not be a surprise that the expression of the Holy Spirit coming from each mouth and life is in harmony with everyone else.

Further, if God’s concern, or warning, or encouragement, or exhortation to us is for the whole Body, it ought not be a surprise that each one in the Body needs and hears and passes on that same message. It might be presented in different forms (Sunday lessons, preaching, music, personal conversation), but it will be in harmony with the Spirit because He gives it to each one.

My favorite part of this particular passage is verse 16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. . . .” I love the Word of God and am certain that all who know it are far better equipped to live out the lovely unity expressed here. The Scripture is powerful and “given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:16).

When the Bible is taught and takes up a firm and lasting place in our hearts, it unfolds to us a wealth of treasure, opening up to us the wisdom of God and the mystery of godliness. If we search and study the Bible with prayer and are continually seeking to understand what God wants for us and from us, God not only gives each Christian personal instruction, but that instruction is in harmony with what He is giving the others. Because of His Spirit, we have a bond that would not otherwise be ours.

Obedience is key, but obedience is not to rules or lists of do’s and don’t’s. Instead, it is simply a response of trust to the Lord and to what He opens up to us through His Word and His Spirit. Sometimes, when a Christian is in tune with God, that response is so natural that we are not even aware that God is in the thing we are doing. I imagine myself as a glove with God being the hand. He moves and I move with Him.

Of course this is about the ideal. As my devotional reading for today says, “we very easily fall off from abiding in Christ.” It warns that we cannot “expect to keep up sensible union and communion with the Lord Jesus if we neglect those means of grace which the Holy Ghost has provided for the nourishment of the life of God in the soul.”

Those means of grace include reading His Word with prayer and faith so as to feed the spirit and the life of God in my heart. Communion with Christ results in unity and communion with His people because He lives in me and also in them. He is our bond, our common ground.

Yesterday was rich and wonderful. Today God reminds me that this richness is from Him, yet it requires spiritual discipline from me. Today might be a national holiday, but that is never an excuse to take a break from spiritual disciplines or risk doing (or not doing) anything to impoverish my own soul or break that incredible bond that He gives me with His people.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Too hard for God?

Every year for a number of years, I’ve read through the Bible starting at Genesis and finishing at the end of Revelation. Sometimes I change the version, but no matter how often I read it, I’m amazed at how fresh and relevant it is, unchanging yet always revealing to me things I’d never noticed before.

Today my devotional guide pointed me to Jeremiah 32. As I read it, verse 27 encouraged me: “Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is there anything too hard for Me?”

My thoughts go to those I pray for. My last thoughts at night before dropping off to sleep are often prayers for unsaved family members. Every day they are on my heart. When I see no change in them, or a particular stubborn streak of resistance against God, I might get discouraged, but the Lord often gives me something to turn my eyes off their attitude or behavior and remember His ability to change people.

In Jeremiah, God talks to this prophet about what He is going to do. His people have been stubborn and disobedient; therefore, He is giving them over to their enemies. They will go into captivity in a foreign land because they have provoked Him to anger with their rebellion, idolatry, and abominable behavior. They “shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence” (verse 36).

This is where I see some of my family. They are in a constant struggle with life and within themselves. They are empty, but try to fill that blank space with things that do not satisfy their famine. They are in bondage to the enemy (Satan, the world and the flesh) and seem totally blind to their spiritual condition.

When I read what happened in history to God’s people, I see the parallels in my own life too. I’ve rebelled, been bound up in this sad state, and can look back and marvel at the patience of God my stubbornness. Yet here in Jeremiah His patience seems to run out. He is fed up with the apathy and refusal of His people to listen, trust, and obey Him. Then He says this:
“Behold, I will gather them out of all countries where I have driven them in My anger, in My fury, and in great wrath; I will bring them back to this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely. They shall be My people, and I will be their God; then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me. Yes, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will assuredly plant them in this land, with all My heart and with all My soul.” For thus says the Lord: “Just as I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will bring on them all the good that I have promised them. . . .”
Everything that happened to them was under the power of God. While God did not cause their rebellion, He did drive them into bondage because of it. However, He had no intention of leaving them there. One day He would bring them home, give them the heart they needed to follow Him, and bless them with every promise He had ever made. That is incredible. What an amazing thing for God to do!

As I pray, I know that God has not changed. He holds the lives of every contemporary rebel in His hands. He can put them into a deep, yet soul-awakening bondage and He can bring them out of that into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

My devotional book uses phrases that talk of what God can do. He creates “the movements of godly fear in our hearts” and “all its tendencies are toward life and the Source of life; toward hatred of sin and love of holiness; toward a desire after the enjoyment of heavenly realities, and a deadness to the things of time and sense; toward a knowledge of Christ in the manifestation of Himself, and a longing to live more to His praise, to walk more in His footsteps, and to be more conformed to His suffering image.”

When I look at someone determined to go their own way and do their own thing, someone who is totally resistant to the Lord, I am discouraged. But when I listen to what God says, and remember what He has done in the past (even in my own life), my heart is not only encouraged, but I am motivated to continue in prayer, even to rejoice that no matter how bad things might look, He is able to turn things totally the other way. Nothing is too hard for Him.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hope’s aroma

I attended seminary as an adult, even as a grandmother. One required essay was on “hope” and even knowing what it is, I still didn’t have any idea how to illustrate it, particularly because the biblical idea of hope is not the same as the ordinary idea of “I hope so” that has no assurance.

However, the Bible college that I drove to every morning was, among other things, well-known for its cinnamon buns. When I pulled into the parking lot, I could not see them, but I could smell them. I did not have one in my hand, but I knew they were there. Because I had the right change in my pocket, I was certain that I would soon bite into one and enjoy the full promise made by that incredible aroma.

Romans 8:23-25 says, “Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.

God promises that I will live with Him forever. He gave me the aroma of that promise by giving me the Holy Spirit. My assurance is based on evidence that I cannot see, yet the sweet aroma of His presence in my life makes my hope as sure and secure as if I could see Him.

God promises that my body will be transformed. When I look in the mirror, all I see is the ageing process and a need to stay away from sweets (including cinnamon buns) and keep eating my veggies. Yet the sweet aroma of Christ guarantees my hope. I know that what He promises will come to pass, not because I can see the “after” picture compared to the “before,” but because He has given me that sweet smell, a taste of what it is like to live with God.

This hope is so wonderful that my focus is on it most of the time. Knowing He is here right now saves me from sorrow and despondency. It saves me from turning away from Jesus, and from looking anywhere else in this world for what I want and need. This hope keeps me from getting too comfortable in this world, for it will pass away and cannot offer me anything that lasts like God lasts. Of course the marvel of a perfect cinnamon bun is merely an analogy.

This passage tells me to eagerly wait for the fulfilment of this hope, and adds that I must wait with perseverance. This is a bit like that eager walk from the parking lot to the coffee shop during a prairie snowstorm. More than once, hope presented as a sweet aroma lured me, pulled me out of the safety and comfort of my vehicle and kept me moving toward the reality beyond the promise.

Hope in what God has promised does the same. Sometimes He asks me to step out of my comfort zone, or walk through dangerous or frightening situations, but the lure of one day being perfectly like Him and being forever in His presence is an incredible grace, and by this grace, I can wait patiently for that which I cannot see . . . but I can smell it!

Friday, May 16, 2008

My Shelter and Strong Tower

The wind is blowing hard today, just as it did yesterday. With temperatures rising, the land is becoming arid and even though it has only been two days, already some neighbors have complained that they are weary of it.

World news is far worse. Fires in normally wet places, like Florida, reveal arid conditions of far greater concern than the dryness in our corner of the planet. Lack of rain is a minor concern here compared to some regions that are flooding with too much rain. The cyclone in Myanmar makes the strong wind here seem like a breeze. We have nothing to complain about. In comparison, these and other things, like the earthquake in China, make our annoying weather a walk in the park. I cannot imagine the weariness of souls who have lost everything and are without the basics for survival. Even when relief teams bring supplies, rice and water cannot mend their broken spirits.

There is an old hymn called A Shelter in the time of Storm. It includes the lines: "The Lord's our Rock, in Him we hide, a Shelter in the time of storm; secure whatever ill betide, a Shelter in the time of storm. Oh, Jesus is a Rock in a weary land, a weary land, a weary land; oh, Jesus is a Rock in a weary land, a shelter in the time of storm."

These thoughts come from Isaiah 32:1-2. It says, “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice. A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest, as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.

This world needs this man who is a resting place where we can hide from all assaults. All of Scripture points to His identity as the man sent by God, Jesus Christ. Only He can make the claim to be all that anyone will ever need, no matter their circumstances or stresses.

In Matthew 11:28-29, Jesus offers this invitation: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For those who accept, He shows Himself to be their hiding place. He gives solace when everything else is handing out grief. He gives a sense of security even in the middle of chaos. He makes a solid place of assurance when everything else shifts and moves and makes no sense.

My heart is filled with gratitude for Him and that I can say to Jesus, “You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance” (Psalm 32:7) and “Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You” (Psalm 56:3).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Not my own

Yesterday’s thoughts about God owning my body continue this morning. The verses are 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.

Apparently the last words after “body” are not in the older manuscripts, but no matter. Obviously my spirit is His and I’ve not tried to live otherwise. However, I’ve mostly behaved as if this is my body, and I am responsible for it and can choose what happens to it. Not so.

Lately I’ve noticed a few physical weaknesses. For instance, my eyes become fatigued much faster than they used to and I cannot read as late at night as I once did. Also, when I have to climb hills (or the steps in a sports arena) my pulse rate speeds like a kid with his first car.

As a child, I had rheumatic fever which left me with a murmur. My heart had become enlarged and the mitral valve developed a leak. It makes a slight swishing sound. Over the years, this has repaired itself to the point that the last person who did an ultrasound had a hard time finding the leak. But it is still there.

I’ve also another heart problem. A couple years ago, I decided to try a new soft drink with vanilla. I’d never liked the taste of anything with caffeine in it, including coffee, but this soft drink tasted good. But my heart didn’t think so. After two trips to the ER with a racing pulse, and having a specialist tell me I had an A-fib (arterial fibrillation), I finally made the connection. Obviously this irregular rhythm was triggered by caffeine in a body otherwise caffeine-free. (Thankfully chocolate is not a problem!)

Thinking of these things after yesterday’s devotions, I remembered the time that I’d had worries over my lush vegetable garden during a summer plagued with severe hail storms. Finally, like the man who wrote The Pineapple Story, I gave my garden to the Lord. I said, “Lord, this is your garden. If hail is what You want for it, then do what seems best.” I stopped worrying. God owns the garden; I’m only the gardener. I’m to be a good steward, but the ultimate responsibility for its outcome lies with the owner.

At that memory, I said, “Lord, this is Your body (and your heart). I am not able to make it work the way I’d like it to work, and besides, You own it anyway. You bought it with the blood of Jesus Christ and it is yours.”

Then I also remembered a verse, Psalm 73:26. “My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Putting all this together isn’t as tidy a package as it seems. Because the Lord owns my body means I need to respond in two ways. The first is to actually yield it to Him and stop any anxiety about aging, illness, injury or anything else. Like hailstorms, He is sovereign over what happens to me too. This is not as easy to do as it is to say.

Second, I must quit trying to run my own life in respect to what happens to me. Certainly I’m to take care of myself by eating properly, getting enough of the best type of exercise (and sleep), and so on. However, I know me; governing diet and exercise can easily turn into a “me” thing, again taking control and trying to protect what I consider is mine to control. God wants me to listen to Him and do what He says. I’m to do this not only because it is always right to hear and obey God, but also because my body is His body.

Like the garden back then, and the possessions I now have, I’m only the manager, not the owner. My stuff cannot go into eternity with me, and neither can this body. When I die, God will resurrect me with a new body (1 Corinthians 15:35ff). In the meantime, I must entrust to Him this one He has lent me to use while I’m here. Come to think of it, that works the other way around; He is entrusting me with it—because it belongs to Him—and that makes this an even more serious responsibility than when I thought it was merely mine.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Playing on the best team

David Beckham, soccer superstar, played in our city last night. I’m a soccer fan so this was a must-see game.

As our newspaper reported this morning, Beckham is not one of those spectacular players who dashes about the pitch making impossible plays and scoring when no one else can. In fact, those who know little about soccer may have been disappointed watching him play.

However, he is an amazing team player who knows how to manage a soccer ball. We saw him catch high flyers with his instep and kick them to teammates in a better position. We saw him run toward several defenders and fool them by looking straight at them yet pass the ball 90 degrees sideways to a teammate; his aim always perfect. We also saw a corner kick done in the style that created the line, “Bend it like Beckham.” Perhaps the most enjoyable was watching him play without wasting any movements, moving here and there with seemingly little effort yet getting the job done.

This morning I thought about how Christians could tear a page out of this soccer player’s book. I could be a better team player, letting go of the ball when someone else is better equipped and in better position to run with it. I could develop the skills that I have, not try to do and be everything. I could pay more attention to the Lord and do only what He asks and making every action count, instead of trying to fill every second of my life with ‘meaningful’ activity.

Of course Beckham is nice to look at. Many female fans painted their faces in team colors, wore Beckham jerseys, and carried signs with “I love Beckham” boldly painted. While he seemed unaffected by that sort of attention, he did acknowledge the crowd with almost a bashful appreciation. After all, most of them were there to see him.

Today my devotional is remotely related to this experience. It is from 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

The context of this verse is a warning about sexual immorality. Stars like Beckham are no doubt tempted every day by swarms of adoring fans, but ordinary people are tempted too. God knows the world we live in and nothing could be more relevant for His people than this reminder that we belong to Him. We cannot get involved in the sexual ‘freedoms’ that are blatantly practiced all around us. Our bodies and our souls are important to God and holy.

There are other issues here too. The text isn’t about eating and drinking, but sidling up to the buffet table at the church supper can be a temptation also. Christians who boast that they neither drink (booze) nor smoke, might eat far more than their bodies need. My body is a temple for the Holy Spirit and I’m certain that He is not glorified when I abuse my own health by overeating and ignoring good nutrition.

The reading for today also makes a few points about these verses. It reminds me of two things. The first is that I will serve someone. If God is not my master, the devil will be. If grace does not rule, sin will. If Christ is not my all in all, the world will be. I might think I am serving myself, but that is never true. At any given moment, I’m playing for one team or the other.

The second is that “there is more real pleasure, satisfaction, and happiness in half an hour with God, in sweet union and communion with the Lord of life and glory, in reading His word with a believing heart, in finding access to His sacred presence, in knowing something of the droppings in of His favor and mercy . . . and spent in the real service of God . . . than in all the delights of sin, all the lusts of the flesh, all the pride of life, and all the amusements that the world has ever devised . . .” It’s taken years to realized it, but I agree.

Also, my body isn’t much. I’d loved to have played soccer when I was younger, but I know I’d never command several million dollars from the LA Galaxy or any other ball team. Yet, by the Word of God and by obeying Him, I can glorify God with my body. Me. Me with the least athletic ability. Me with such an average body. I can glorify God with what I have, even though it is not much. God says so! No disrespect intended, but that is far more amazing than whatever can be done by any multimillion dollar soccer super star!

(photo from Edmonton Journal)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Diligence

After the flurry of answered prayer over the past couple of weeks (which I am not at liberty to post online), I feel odd. Yesterday God showed me that I am still poor and needy, that I cannot ride on the crest of this wave. Today He shows me that I need to keep on praying.

My devotional verses today are Psalm 35:1-3: “Plead my cause, O Lord, with those who strive with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take hold of shield and buckler, and stand up for my help. Also draw out the spear, and stop those who pursue me. Say to my soul, ‘I am your salvation.’

From this I realize that I need to renew steadfast prayer, even for those battlefields in which it seems the fight has been won. I have felt like stopping; prayer is hard work. But the enemy of our souls never stops. He is continually seeking ways to destroy the faith of those long established in faith, never mind those who are just becoming aware of their own spiritual needs.

Prayer is my work and my obligation. Samuel even said that stopping that work is a sin against God: “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you; but I will teach you the good and the right way” (1 Samuel 12:23). He has given me much work to do, and I need to keep myself fit for the task.

Today’s reading from Ears from Harvested Sheaves says, “To keep water sweet, it must be perpetually running; and to keep the life of God up in the soul, there must be continual exercises. This is the reason why the Lord’s people have so many conflicts, trials, painful exercises, sharp sorrows, and deep temptations—to keep them alive unto God; to bring them out of, and to keep them out of that slothful, sluggish, wretched state of carnal security and dead assurance in which so many seem to have fallen asleep—fallen asleep like the sailor upon the top of the mast, not knowing what a fearful gulf is boiling up below.”

I remember my first time on the open sea in a small Alaskan fishing boat. The sea was relatively calm, at least it looked that way from the shore. Out in the open water it rolled and boiled, yet had this odd quality of looking almost like jelly, as if you could step out and walk on it. How deceptive.

This reading and that memory remind me that even when the sea appears calm and even looks safe to walk on, people (myself included) can still drown in it. I need to continually be aware that the sea of this life is still very perilous for some. I might be up on the top of the mast, but I need to be wide awake and aware of what I’m supposed to be doing, even calling to God for continual assurance that I am in this safe spot because He is my salvation.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Kept on track

God has answered many of my prayers in the past few weeks. Each one brought a great emotional response best described as exceeding joy! However, the last two days I’ve not felt joyful, even a bit depressed. I’ve had lots of sleep and more answers to prayer, but not the same elation. It is so noticeable that I’ve wondered if something was wrong with me. Have I been disobedient and didn’t realize it? Am I not thankful? What is going on?

As usual, I asked Him to give me what I need today, even asked Him to show me why my emotions seem so flat. What is making me feel like this?

As I read through today’s reading in Psalm 40, I identified with the psalmist. He had waited patiently for the Lord and cried out to Him. The Lord brought him out of a “horrible pit” and put a song in his mouth. He praised God for all the wonderful things He had done and was doing, and shared the good news with others. I’ve been there these days.

Then the last verse grabbed my attention. “But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinks upon me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.

In all of the rejoicing over answered prayer, how easily I forgot this basic truth—I am still poor and needy. No matter how much God does for me, I must not forget that I always need His help and deliverance. No matter how often He blesses me, those blessings must never sidetrack me into thinking that I am special, or invincible, or that I’ve somehow “arrived.” Like the Israelites who needed fresh manna each day, I can be thankful and praise God, but I cannot stand in the joy of yesterday’s blessings.

Each day brings new challenges, reveals new needs. The emotional highs of last week are not going to carry me this week. God is. He is my Savior and no matter how often He pulls me out of a pit, I am still poor and needy.

As I read this verse, I knew that He allowed this sense of being let down so that I would again turn to Him, rather than coast on His blessings. Sometimes God simply has to save me from myself.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Keep wrestling

We drove six hours on Friday to see Bob’s mom, and six hours yesterday to get back home. All that driving made me stiff and sore (besides the fact of too many birthdays). After this trip I notice a certain distraction, a difficulty in praying. So when I sat down this morning before reading my devotional verses, I asked the Lord to speak to me very directly and get me back on track.

The devotional is from Genesis 32:26-28. Jacob is wrestling with God and God with Jacob. Finally God says to this man, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.”

Jacob replies, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!”

It does not say what Jacob wanted, but a verse or two prior says that God could not prevail against him so He touched Jacob’s hip and gave him a permanent limp. Perhaps that limp was to break this man’s stubborn will (for he was a stubborn and self-willed man). Yet stubbornness can become perseverance under God’s mighty hand. Every time I read this, I think that in this struggle, God changed Jacob from being ornery to being persistent, and that this wrestling match was an example of persistence in prayer.

Then God said to the man, “What is your name?”

He said, “Jacob.”

And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Again I’m reminded to stay at my job. God has told me to pray, and pray persistently. I’ve three children who need to walk more closely with Him. I’ve grandchildren and others on my prayer list that need to know Jesus and identify themselves as His children.

The reading that accompanies this verse says, “It is encouraging to the Lord’s people as they are from time to time placed in similar circumstances of trial, exercise, perplexity, sorrow or distress with Jacob, to see the blessed results of his wrestling with the angel of the Lord. He crosses the ford of Jabbok all weakness; he re-crosses it all strength. He leaves his family, and wrestles alone, a fainting Jacob; he returns to them a prevailing Israel. He goes to the Lord in an agony of doubt and alarm, fearing every moment lest he and all that was dear to him should be swept off from the face of the earth; he returns with the Lord’s blessing in his soul, with the light of the Lord’s countenance lifted up upon him.”

He goes on to say that this instance is recorded for “the instruction and consolation of the Lord’s living family.” Certainly it is for me. I feel so weak and unable, sometimes spiritually, sometimes physically. I don’t feel any power to even pray, but God continually invites me to wrestle, not to persuade Him for He knows the good He is going to do, but to teach me that I am in partnership with Him in the answers to my prayers, and that He wants to bless me too.

The blessing this morning came as a promise in the cross reference at the bottom of the page, a verse not quoted or referred to in the reading, but a verse that God has often used to surprise me. Many times I have been praying for my three children, sometimes agonizing (wrestling), and God plops this verse into my hands. I have seldom looked for it; it just is in front of me, as it is this morning.

This verse from Isaiah 44:5 is out of context and really not about my three children, but can it be coincidence the many times that God juxtaposes it with my prayers for them? I don’t think so. The verse says, “One will say, ‘I am the Lord’s’; another will call himself by the name of Jacob; another will write with his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.

One, two, three. God can do it. This verse is His reassurance and His reminder. No matter how weak and tired I feel and how little I want to be involved in the hard work of intercessory prayer, He urges me to keep on. I might walk with a limp, but by persistence and hanging on to Him, He promises great rewards.