Wednesday, December 31, 2008

No more thresholds

For fun, I might count in the next few days the number of times I hear, “Where did 2008 go?” Time flies, and as we step from one year into the beginning of another, people seem to notice it more.

Life seems to fly swiftly also. Scripture is realistic as it describes how “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away. . . .” Like the tiny parts of a plant blown by the wind, our lives are short blips on the time line of history. As my husband says, we are all terminal. Everyone zooms toward death the moment they are born. Death is humanity’s greatest enemy, and for many, the greatest fear.

Yet there is more to these verses from 1 Peter. The next line says, “But the word of the Lord endures forever. Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:24-25). The gospel of Jesus Christ is filled with hope. It offers us the eternal in the gospel, a life that goes on forever. Yet this life is not merely about the future; eternal life is for right now. 1 John 5:9-13 says:
If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.
I’ve loved this passage for a long time because of the middle words: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life!

Eternal life is not about length or duration, but quality. After all, in eternity, time no long exists because past, present and future are rolled together in one bundle. This is hard to understand because I am so fixed in time, yet I do understand that Jesus has a never-ending life and because I have Jesus, I also have this same never-ending life, a type of life that is different from temporary human life, a life that cannot die.

This is a wonder, and even with aches from a body that is aging, as I think about this gift from God, I can ‘feel’ this life surging through me.

Tonight I step from 2008 to 2009. I will take part of the old year with me, memories, unfinished projects, etc. along with great eagerness for the new year, a fresh beginning. I’m excited about what lies ahead and looking forward to all that God has in store for me, even at my age.

However, I’m more and more aware that someday I will step from this life into eternity. At that transition, I will take almost nothing from my old life. God promises me that all trials, sorrow, struggles with sin and temptation will stay behind. The only thing that will go with me is that gift He gave, the amazing life of Jesus Christ, a life that is eternal and is already at work making me ready for the delights of the next life on the other side of the threshold.

My anticipation is secure because of the enduring substance of the Gospel that I’ve received by grace. It is the power of God unto salvation, and because of it, when my “earthly house of this tabernacle” is dissolved, I have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, a house with no more thresholds.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Planning for 2009

As I was driving last night, I heard a sermon about making plans and the importance of including God in those plans. This is timely because at the end of the year, I’m thinking of what the new year will bring and what I’d like to accomplish. The preacher said it is not wrong to plan, yet I need to remember that “a man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). While I can make decisions, ultimately God is sovereign over my life.

Today’s devotional carries the same theme. The verse is Ecclesiastes 7:8: “The end of a thing is better than its beginning; the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.”

The writer speaks about planning, including resolutions and decisions about the coming year. He says this (edited & personalized) to me:
Rarely will I know or foresee what will happen as a result of anything I attempt. I might begin it with great hope and in the end be sadly disappointed. I might begin it with much fear and find later that those fears are utterly groundless. It is rare that my expectations are fully carried out for I must learn again and again that I can “plan my way, but the Lord directs my steps.” I must also learn that my heart is filled with plans yet only the counsel of the Lord shall stand (Proverbs 19:21).

Yet because I am in the family of God and under His guidance, teaching and leading, whether my first expectations are accomplished or not, the end stamps wisdom and goodness upon all His dealings with me. God could take me the way of Job whose purposes were broken off and when he looked for good, evil came to him. Yet even after all those bitter things God seemed to place against him, eventually Job was blessed.

It is the same for every child of God, even for me. After all is said and done, I will be able to say, “Oh, how great is Your goodness which You have laid up for those who fear You” (Psalm 31:19) and boldly proclaim, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).
These thoughts are helping me plan tentatively and with prayer. This includes the usual goals of eating healthier, exercising more, losing weight, but also goals like reading through the chronological Bible and learning new ways to worship Jesus, such as focusing on His ultimate glory as I exalt Him.

For me, and for all who plan for this coming year, may God be in those plans, giving sound ideas, providing insight and energy, and totally directing every step.

Monday, December 29, 2008

His Role and mine

A few years ago I was praying while walking. My requests were troubling me and instead of giving them to God, I was worrying over them as I talked with Him. Suddenly I ‘heard’ Him say, “Elsie, get out of my to-do list.”

That still makes me laugh, but also continually challenges me. Back then, it seemed that my list was long and His was reserved for those impossible situations. Since then I’ve realized that I need Him for everything. For instance, He does not scrub my bathroom sink, but His input is vital for my attitude while I do the work.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Some might grab that word ‘fruit’ and say this is about spiritual things, like church work or other ministry. I don’t agree. I’m to live as Jesus lived, to “let this mind be in me which was also in Jesus Christ” in whatever I am doing so that no matter what it is I am doing it to the glory of God. This includes mundane chores, all interaction with people, and time by myself involving hobbies and other activities that have little or no connection to Christian ministry. God has no intention that I be a mere “Sunday Christian.”

Abiding in Christ means living in Him, staying close to Him, making myself aware that He surrounds me. I know that He is my source of all things, including life itself. Abiding in Him means loving and obeying Him, paying attention to Him. Today’s devotional reading further clarifies abiding. Slightly edited and personalized, it says:
As a matter of faith and experience, I have to learn abiding in Christ needs prayer and watchfulness, patience and self-denial, separation from the world and things worldly, study of the Scriptures and secret meditation, attendance on the means of grace, and much inward exercise of the soul. The Lord is very chary of His presence. That is, any indulged sin, forbidden gratification, bosom idol, lightness or carnality, abuse of the comforts of house and home, family, food and clothing, snare of activities or occupation, negligence in prayer, reading, watching the heart and mouth, conformity to the world and worldly professors, or anything contrary to His mind and will that is offensive to the eyes of His holiness and purity, inconsistent with godly fear in a tender conscience, or unbecoming my holy profession, little or much, seen or unseen by human eye—all provoke the Lord to deny my soul the enjoyment of His presence.
He is teaching me the importance of abiding, and sometimes I learn it best when I am not. Besides the awful sense that He is no longer pleased with what I am doing and is not with me in it, He shows me that activity without Him is useless and fruitless. It is without love, joy or peace and will produce nothing of lasting value.

Staying close to Jesus is important, and as previously mentioned, I cannot stay close to Him by trying to check things off His to-do list. He is the vine — I am not. He is the source of life, direction, energy and all that I need to bear fruit. I cannot do His work.

But because I am a branch, He gives me my own chore list, then invites me to hold on to Him and get at it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Suffering is a Gift

A couple years ago I read a book by Greg Harris called The Cup and the Glory: Lessons on Suffering and the Glory of God. (Kress Christian Publications, 2006) It explained how suffering is a gift from God. That was a new idea for me. While I believe that He is sovereign and controls whatever happens to us, and that He uses all things for good in my life, I’d never thought of Him handing suffering to me gift-wrapped.

The main verse for this is Philippians 1:29. It says, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”

In this verse, the word “granted” is from the noun for “grace” which means a gift from God. It also can be thought of as a revelation of Jesus Christ that changes us into His image. That is, when I see more of His love, I become more loving; when I see more of His compassion, I become more compassionate. Also, whatever quality God wants developed in me, such growth requires being put into situations where love and compassion, etc. must be demonstrated. This is how Christ changes me by grace. He shows me more of what He is like, and gives me many opportunities to act like He acts.

It only follows that if I am going to grow to be more like my Savior, I will also need to see how He responded to suffering. That means that He must also put me in stressful situations that give me opportunities to be like Him in what I have seen.

The book talked about the sufferings of this present time in comparison to the glory that will be mine in heaven. Frankly, that is too much ‘pie in the sky’ for me. I know great glory is coming when I step into eternity, but I cannot guess or imagine what that will be like. While this truth has some motivation, and the taste of enjoyed fellowship with the Lord also motivates me, my pragmatic nature still wants to know the present value of suffering. If God is giving me a gift, what could help me open it more willingly, even open it with thanksgiving?

2 Timothy 2:12 says, “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him.” This is about persevering here and now, then later ruling with Him in His eternal kingdom. My experience says that this reward of reigning with Him is partly fulfilled before eternity, even in this life.

When I suffer anything with Christlike attitudes and actions, I’ve conquered something. I’ve become a ruler over negative emotions, or complaining, or any number of other previous and human responses to suffering. If I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself, I’ve grown to be more like Jesus. That alone is a victory.

In other words, if suffering produces in me the Spirit of Christ, then I am putting my foot on the neck of my biggest enemy — my own sinful selfishness. If I am free from the usual responses, free from the fretting and complaining, free even from the pain of it, I am also thinking more about God and others and less about me. The pressures have not disappeared, but my usual responses have, and that means I am a winner.

As I write these thoughts, I can see how suffering is a gift. Whatever gives freedom from sin and turns my heart toward the One who gives me that freedom cannot be called anything else.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Faith not sight

My mother told me that my father was bringing me a pony. I believed her, long before the pony was unloaded from Dad’s truck and became a reality.

My brother told me his friends were coming for dinner. I believed him, long before dinner was cooked, the table set, and his friends walked in the door.

If I were on the top floor of my home and my husband told me we needed to get out because the basement was on fire, I would be out the door, even if I could not see flames or smell smoke.

I just set up a new sewing machine. Would it start running when I plugged it in and turned on the switch? The manual said it would, and I trusted the manual, plugged it in, turned on the switch and it started running.

The pony seemed impossible; the friends for dinner more likely, yet I believed in them not because of their probability but because my mother and my brother were trustworthy and reliable. They said it would happen and that was enough.

The fire (may it never happen) I would not have to see either. If someone I trust tells me there is a fire in my house, I will act on their word because the threat would motivate me, but also because I believe what they say.

My sewing machine is made by a reputable company. The power outlet has worked for other pieces of equipment requiring electricity. I trust both the word of company and my electric source before I tested them because both had proven themselves in the past.

Jesus, the Son of God, said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Seems impossible. Everyone dies. I cannot see that eternal life. But faith isn’t about probability or likelihood; it is about who said it. Is He trustworthy? Is He reliable? The real question, the legitimate question to ask concerning faith is, “Would the God who reveals Himself in the Bible and in Jesus Christ lie to me?”

I’m convinced that He would not and does not, and for that reason, as 2 Corinthians 5:7 says, I “walk by faith, not by sight.

Friday, December 26, 2008

In a Bubble

Yesterday was filled with delights. Only two of our three children were able to be with us, and one granddaughter for only part of the day, but for some reason, it was an extremely enjoyable Christmas.

At one point during the day I expressed that this Christmas I was deeply impressed and moved that God became a man. A bit later, I was alone for a minute or two and said, “Lord, I am so delighted with You.”

In my heart I heard Him reply, “And I am delighted with you.”

We were busy after that, eating, playing games, exchanging gifts, so I didn’t think about that quiet moment, but this morning He says it again. My devotional reading is Zephaniah 3:27, a word to Israel about their Messiah, and a word to me about His attitude toward His people.
The Lord your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.
When God is happy, He allows His people to feel His joy. And God is with me, is glad about me, gives His love to quiet my heart, even rejoices over me in song! What else is there to say? This is a wonder; He is a wonder.

Yet He gave one more blessing yesterday. Our oldest grandson called to tell us that we have been made great grandparents once again; they had a daughter, born on Christmas day.

I feel as if God has put me in a bubble of His protection, a bubble that floats above the daily chores and anxieties, a place of delight that is not affected by bad news and sorrow. I know that this will not last. Something will burst my bubble, but right now I am thankful and enjoying the One who amazingly says He sings and rejoices over me.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas is more than December 25th

On Christmas Eve, our church has an hour of carol singing in candlelight. While it could easily be routine (we know the words of all the songs) or just a time to see friends and church family (many are home for the holidays), last night was magical. My heart was filled with awe that God became a man, a baby even, and lived among us.

Later, we watched “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” on television. The lion, a symbol of Jesus Christ, is compelling. I wanted to draw near, bury my face in the fur of his mane. Yet when he roared, I thought of the power of the One whom the lion represents.

How does this awe happen at my age with so many December 25's past? Is it because I know the Christmas story so well that the symbols and music of Christmas still deeply touch my heart? God still amazes me and today, this day when we celebrate the incarnation of God in human flesh, I read these words:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16)
The author uses the word mystery in the sense that the truth hinted at in the Old Testament was revealed in the New Testament. Throughout Scripture, even since the promise of God in the Garden of Eden, a Savior was predicted and promised. While His people didn’t fully understand how this would happen, God wanted them to simply believe. By trusting in Him as to what lie ahead, they were counted righteous. Oh, this is a mystery.

Now God asks us to trust in Him as to what happened two thousand years ago. He came to earth and put on humanity. He was sinless, perfectly just. The angels, even those who fell with Satan, saw Him. He died for our sin and rose again, and then was preached to the nations, and believed on by millions. Jesus died, rose, and ascended to heaven where He sits on the right hand of the Father. This is the mystery revealed.

This is also the Christmas story. It is more than the birth of this Baby who became the most remarkable man who ever lived. The story is also the entire life of this One who is the Savior of the world, King of kings, and Lord of lords. And this story still puts awe in my heart and praise on my lips.

Jesus, I am so glad that You came, so glad that You gave Your life for me, and so glad that You will return and take me to be with You forever. You are the blessed revelation of God, the glory that fills my heart with gladness. Thank You for giving me the greatest gift of all, Yourself.

And to everyone, may You bless each one with deeper insight into this mystery, and a very joyful Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Who is steering the boat?

Defined by Scripture, sin is when “we have turned, every one, to his own way” rather than going the way of the Lord. All fall short of godliness, of the righteousness that is revealed in Jesus Christ. Apart from faith in Him and the transforming power of God to give us new life, no one measures up.

This could be illustrated by the following diagram. The vertical line in the middle represents the Cross and a saving encounter with Jesus Christ.

pure evil <----human good | new life -----> godliness

This shows how people apart from Christ have the potential for both pure evil and human good. We are sinners, but still made in the image of the living God. However, no one can head toward godliness unless they go by the Cross.

Yet even after receiving new life from Christ, Christians still struggle with sin. We also we have the potential in Christ for a goodness that is beyond our own ability. We are chosen by God that we might be godly people.

Today I’m thinking about the process God uses to get me moving toward the right side of that diagram. Sin is such that I tend to turn a blind eye to my shortcomings. I may do things that are merely “good” or at least look like it, but very often what the world values as good is an abomination in the sight of a holy God (see Luke16:15).

When this happens, God has to get my attention. He does it when my efforts fail. He does it when I read His Word. He also does it with affliction. He allows trials of all sorts so that I might see that I’m trudging along on the wrong side of the diagram and not relying on Him to live the new life He has given me.

The psalmist wrote “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word. You are good, and do good; teach me Your statutes. . . . It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Psalm 119:67-68, 71).

He knew the drill. Without affliction, my tendency also is to go astray and drift off the course that God has clearly laid out. It isn’t always blindness or ignorance. Sometimes I know the way and just don’t “feel like it” so foolishly do my own thing.

Another thing God uses to get my attention is mood. My boat may seem to be sailing along without any problems, but the fruit of His Spirit is peace and joy. It that is gone, something is not right. While I know that He will never abandon ship (“I will never leave you nor forsake you”), I also know that I can let go of Him and start drifting.

God is patient. He also knows what to do. If I am drifting, He knows how to snag me. He might let me drift into a log jam, or sail me into rapids or even let me be caught up in a whirlpool. In those places, I become painfully aware that I’ve stopped relying on Him as the Captain of my little boat and need to invite Him back to the helm.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Walk in this light

Yesterday’s thoughts have felt heavy in my mind. How does a person whose habits are lifelong change? I don’t know how to do that, only that as much as I want to be free from those things that waste my time and have me going in circles, my desire will not accomplish it.

This morning I read this verse: “And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:27). It is comforting in that it reminds me that God is taking care of me, even my prayer life. I might get in His way, but He knows who I am and what I need. The Holy Spirit even prays when I am up to only groaning about the things on my heart.

My commentary also reminds me that prayer is the breath of my spiritual life and my only effectual relief under the “infirmity” of living here on this earth and being bound by my old habits. It is good to know that the Holy Spirit understands me and comes to my aid. Even better, when I cannot even articulate my situation before God, and at times can only lie groaning before Him, even these wordless groans and a vehicle for the Spirit. He conveys them to my Father and are recognized and understood so that His will can be done in my life.

The devotional reading today (from Ears from Harvested Sheaves) says very well how I feel. I’ve edited it to make it personal and a bit less wordy, but am deeply touched once again by God’s timing as He uses this book and Scripture to lift my heart.
God’s will stands unchanging and as unchangeable as God Himself. My will is always fluctuating; God’s will fluctuates not. Because His will ever lives and rules, it is to my highest wisdom and richest mercy to submit and be conformed to it. The will of God to me is not my destruction, but my salvation. It is my profit now and my happiness hereafter. It is my present grace and eternal glory. As the Spirit is making intercession for me according to the will of God, it is my earnest desire and prayer that my soul should be saved from sin and blessed, and that I should serve God and live to His glory, and then when I die, to be with Him for ever. As that is so, then I must lie at His feet; I must be the clay and let Him be my heavenly Potter. I cannot think or plan ways of saving myself, or put my hand into God’s gracious work. I must be content to be nothing. I must sink even lower than that and be willing to be less than nothing that Christ may be all in all. Above all things, I must also covet the Spirit’s interceding breath, for in possessing that I will have a sure pledge that He will guide me in life, support me in death, and land me in glory. With His guidance I can never err. With His supporting arms I can never fall. Taught by Him, I will see the path of life plainly, and upheld by His strength I will walk in it without fear. Without His light I am dark. Without His life, I am dead. Without His teaching, I am but a mass of ignorance and folly. I cannot find the way except that He guides me, but if He does guide, I cannot help but find it. The more I confide in His teaching and guidance the better it will be for me, and the more that under this teaching I can lie submissively at His Lord’s feet, looking up to Him for His will to be made known and perfected in me, the more it will be for my present peace, and the more it will redound to His eternal praise.
This is like moving along a dark path holding a flashlight. The light moves along only as I step into the light that is before me, one step at a time. While I’d like a plan for the year ahead, or even the week ahead, today’s light is sufficient for today.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Aimless Activities

Twice now, God is speaking to me about aimless conduct. Today’s Scripture is from 1 Peter 1. It says:
And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. (1 Peter 1:17-19)
I know that I waste time. Often, when it’s too late to start something and too early to go to bed, I spend too much time in front of the television or playing Spider Solitaire on my computer. After reading these verses the second time in the past week or so, that game is removed, and I must do something about how to better spend my evenings.

It isn’t all bad. Often I am sewing or reading, but God is convicting me. Besides, it is that time of year when a new beginning is on the horizon, January 1, and like many people, I want to make the most of it.

Most time management experts say that if you take care of the time that you waste, you will have enough time to do the important things. Several lists have been made, most geared to the business world. However, I have gleaned from them my own list of ten ways that I fritter away my time.
1. Being distracted, lack of discipline to stay on one thing until it is completed. This could also be called lack of focus, no prioritizing, shifting objectives, bored by the task, etc. God says that I’m to be faithful, and that includes faithful to finish what I start.
2. Poor planning that does not consider interruptions, how long the task will take, or mistakes made in the process that must be rectified. All this can lead to last-minute rushing and big headaches. I need to slow down and get the Lord’s input on my to-do list.
3. Over planning. The opposite of #2 is that I can spend hours trying to figure out what I should be doing, making lists, combining tasks, etc. and wind up not getting anything done. Jesus was never guilty of this. When God told Him to do something, He did it, now.
4. Saying YES when I should say NO! This one also involves deeper issues. When I do this, it could be that I’ve forgotten who calls the shots. Or I’m motivated by a desire to please or impress someone. I need to listen to the Lord.
5. Procrastination. The deeper issue here is that I’m not sure I know what I’m doing, or that the task is difficult. Sometimes I’m lazy and want to do only easy things, but most of the time I feel inadequate and must simply ask the Lord to help me. Duh.
6. Too much television. Instead of being an informed viewer who plans what I watch and who decides what is really important, I use TV when I’m too tired (or lazy) to do anything else that is more productive. I could pamper myself in better ways.
7. Too much computer. Each use of this PC should have a purpose. Sometimes I do excessive research and get carried away following links. The deeper issue is that I control this PC, but everything else has limits to what I can make happen. Mmmm!
8. Doing other people's jobs, answering email requests that should have been sent to someone else. This is much like #4, but I am improving on this one.
9. Being tired and doing easy, busywork that is not necessary or fruitful, like #6 & #7, but tidying and sorting, making lists, and a host of other mindless things can fall into this category.
10. Letting clutter build so I’m looking for or moving things instead of getting the vital stuff accomplished. The opposite of #9.
I look though this list of what could be called “aimless conduct” and recognize another factor. My spiritual gift is teaching which means I love to collect and dispense information. This whole post is an example. However, I can lose my objective, get carried away and waste a lot of time. For me, there is joy is in the learning and collecting, but when that becomes selfish, then I am wasting the time God gave me.

Time is precious and a gift from God. While I’m working at a long to-do list, I obviously need to talk to Him more about what He wants on it, and what He wants removed. I also need to call on Him more than I do for the resources necessary to do the tasks and to use my time wisely.

The Bible says God redeemed me from aimless conduct by the precious blood of Christ. Therefore one more remedy for these time-wasters could be considering if each task is worthy of the blood that was shed for my redemption?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Invisible Friend

Some children have imaginary friends. I don’t recall our own children doing this, but we once read a story to them about a child whose friend was “invisible Albert.” When our oldest became friends with a very visible boy who had the same name, I often called this friend “invisible” Albert. In childhood this imagination play is cute, but if an adult has “invisible” friends, someone will call the people in white coats.

In this respect, Christians must seem foolish in the eyes of those who equate visibility with reality. I’ve heard them say if they cannot see it, they will not believe it. Yet the Bible tells believers in Jesus Christ to love someone who is invisible. It says of Him, “whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).

I’m sitting here trying to imagine the look on my unbelieving friend’s face if I told her I loved an invisible man. She would be startled, not amused, and may even tell me I should get some help. I might do the same if it was her saying it, at least if she wasn’t talking about Jesus.

Those who know Jesus also know the reality of loving Him even though we cannot see Him. If this was about sight with natural eyes, it would be difficult, but God knows that. Instead, He makes it possible for His children to Him by the eyes of faith.

God is not limited to human sight. If He were, blind people could never trust Him. Instead, He even manifests Himself to us in other ways. Christians can say with Scripture that “we have seen His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Hebrews 11:27 says of Moses that, “by faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.” Moses could see the Pharaoh who was determined to kill him, but had far more respect for God whom he could not see. God was as real as the Egyptian ruler, and more powerful. God made Himself visible to Moses.

By faith I also see Jesus who is invisible. Hebrews 11:1 describes faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith opens the eyes of my heart, but not just faith. Jesus has a way of making Himself real, even visible to my soul. Further, He comes to me in love and that love kindles or prompts a corresponding love in my heart.

I’m sure that the Holy Spirit is at work too. His role or special work is to testify of Christ, to glorify Him, to receive of the things which are Christ’s and show them to those who belong to Christ.

As Christ makes Himself known, and as the Spirit witnesses of Him, God gives me the faith to believe in Him. It is by this God-given faith that I see this invisible Man who is also my Lord and my God, the One who makes Himself known to my mind and heart.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

His great graciousness

God’s people in the Old Testament were a stubborn lot (am I much different?). They resisted His will and unfaithfully turned to idols. In their spiritual backsliding, God never gave up on them. He continually wooed their hearts and made promises of hope and blessing.

This morning’s verses touch my heart once again concerning the mercy of God. He speaks through the prophet Hosea, first describing how His people abandoned Him. Then He says this:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her (Israel), will bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfort to her. I will give her her vineyards from there, and the Valley of Achor as a door of hope; she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14-15).
God uses images from their history that would remind at least some of them of His patience and grace in the past. They were a stubborn people who insisted on their own way even after He delivered them from Egypt and took them forty years through the wilderness to the promised land. Achan sinned and brought judgment in the Valley of Achor where he and his family were punished by death, yet still they did no learn their lessons.

My commentary says that they were so obstinate that God has to “allure” or woo them by tempering His judgment with unexpected grace so He could win them to His ways. He would bring them into the “wilderness” which reminded them of their struggles and trials as they wandered forty years, a time where God helped them realize the horribleness of their sin and its bitter fruits.

Then, after all of that, they “met with the trouble resulting from Achan’s crime in this valley” at the very threshold of the promised land. However, that trouble was soon turned into joy at a great victory whereby they finally obeyed God and at Ai all Canaan was given into their hands. This was the “door of hope” opening to better days, accented by the fact that this valley of Achor was particularly fruitful.

This is the way God works. When I resist Him, He knows how to soften my stubbornness and bring me into obedience. He knows my history and reminds me of past disciplines and blessings, helping me understand that by yielding this time, I can expect good things as a result.

Today our outside temperature is -28 Celsius, but these thoughts warm my heart and draw me near to the One who knows and cares about every difficulty and every need.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Genuine Faith

In some parts of the world people are persecuted for believing in Jesus Christ. Even today, thousands are hated, chased from their homes, even tortured and killed in countries where missionary friends have witnessed some of it.

Not so in North America. While we protest the removal of Christ from Christmas, in reality there is little persecution here. Perhaps because it is relatively without cost to “become a Christian” many claim to believe in Jesus, but really do not. Perhaps it is the thing to do, or they were raised in the church and make assumptions. Some claim faith when they really want ‘fire insurance.’ Sadly, far too many “believers” actually have no genuine saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

I know some of them. One is a sweet woman who is kind toward others. She seems as if she wouldn’t harm a fly, and talks about God in a nice way. Yet she does not know Jesus. Her niceness is a surface thing and sometimes the real person shows through, a person filled with anger and deceit.

How does this happen? We once attended a church where the pastor often spoke against what he called “easy believism” whereby a person was told if they “walked the aisle and prayed the sinner’s prayer” they were in. These people often have no idea what salvation is about.

For others, their “faith” is a temporary thing. They have problems in their lives and turn to God for solutions. When the problems go away, so does this “faith.” It is insufficient for eternal life.

Another “faith” is when a person assumes that because they believe God exists, or Jesus exists, or even that Jesus died for the sin of the world, that they are okay with God. However, James wrote, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe — and tremble!” (James 2:19) Such faith is not saving faith.

Saving faith is more than mere human decision. Jesus told Nicodemus that he could neither see nor enter the kingdom of God unless he was reborn spiritually, something only God can make happen (John 3).

In fact, God is involved in everything to do with believing in Jesus. Without God being at work, there is no salvation, no genuine faith. We cannot do this ourselves. The Apostle Paul was so concerned about the power of human persuasion, reasoning, and even manipulation, that he said:
I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)
How is this practical? First because it established the reality of my own faith. While people did talk to me, no one convinced me to become a Christian; it just happened. Jesus came into my life and I believed Him. I was not trying to believe, nor did I have any preconceived ideas. Not everyone has the same experience, but everyone who is genuinely saved recognizes the power of God in their salvation. They know they didn’t do it; God does it.

Second, this helps me when I want to share with others how they can have eternal life. I cannot talk them into it. If they are going to believe in Jesus, it must be because He is at work, not because I’m pushing, persuading, encouraging or convincing. Real faith is about Him, not about my presentation skills.

Of course I don’t like the “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” part, another issue in which I need God.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Zeal?

It seems fitting that on a day when the “weather outside is frightful” and I feel like staying in bed and doing nothing, that the Lord should have me read a passage about zeal for serving Him. This was written by Paul to the Philippians. He was telling them about the things that had been considered valuable in his life. Then he said:
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)
As a less than average Christian, I read this and think about the stuff I consider gain and hang on to, stuff that matters to me. I also think of my need for a righteousness that is not my own and know that my only hope is in Christ’s righteousness. Yet I struggle with the giving up part. I still struggle with my efforts to be virtuous and have a hard time giving up the stuff for which others might give me some applause.

I want to have a good track record and be popular. I want to be well thought of, a good neighbor and friend. The world values generosity and kindness, the ‘nice’ things that Christ can give me, and I want that. I want the power of His resurrection, which could mean that such glory pours out of my life that others see it and are drawn to Him. Wouldn’t that be great?

But I’m not too keen about the other stuff. I’m not all that interested in suffering with Jesus. I’m glad when I find out that any suffering I have falls into that category, but unlike Paul, I’m not seeking losses that I might experience this “gain” to my spiritual growth.

While being conformed to His death is, in my case, not redemptive, I know that dying to self will allow His life to flow through me. It sounds so good, but the dying part is hard. Paul says it will bring him more in line with the purpose of God. I think he means that by dying to self, he will be prepared for that final transformation when he leaves his body and is then resurrected from the dead.

I’m not as keen, this morning at least. Paul’s example is too lofty for me. I want the rewards but am not very excited about paying the price. Because of that, I’m glad he added a few more words . . . “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on . . .” (verse 12).

That I can relate to, particularly on this dull day with my dull emotions about the day. With God’s help, the least I can do is say with Paul that I’m not there yet, and by God’s grace, with him, I can press on.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Aimless or Abundant?

For the past little while, I’ve experienced a vague feeling of not knowing why I’m here. Perhaps this is because I’m taking a sabbatical from teaching at our family Bible school, or it could be the letdown of retiring from an executive that I’ve been on for years.

Whatever the reasons, this morning I was struck by two passages of Scripture. One is in 1 Peter and part of my ‘read through the Bible in a year’ plan. It says:
And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers (1 Peter 1:17-18).
The words that jump out are “aimless conduct.” The NIV says “empty way of life” which is just as piercing. I’ve a routine that includes spiritual disciplines. I talk to God about things that come up. I do what seems to be the right things, but somehow the routine of it doesn’t fit the abundant life that Jesus promised.

I’ve heard people say that Christians should live in such a way that there is no explanation for our lives except that God is at work. It seems to me that the explanation for mine would be more like she is well-disciplined.

Before I sat down to my Bible, I asked the Lord to fill me with His Spirit so that my day would be fruitful and pleasing to Him. I am not surprised that He first shows me that I need to do something about the parts that are not. Today these are the parts that are good in themselves, but I am doing them by rote instead of by His leading. My ‘control’ needs to be His control, and where it is not, I must confess that self-focus. He is the Lord, not me.

The second passage came out of Isaiah, the verses from my devotional book. God challenges me again by saying:
“Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance” (Isaiah 55:1-2).
First, the abundant life is free. I’ve no need to work so hard to make it happen. In fact, if my efforts to stay close to God are not working, those efforts are rooted in the wrong things. Spiritual disciplines are ‘places of grace’ where I put myself in an attitude where God can bless me. The disciplines themselves are okay, but not blessings unless I meet God in them.

The next thing I see here is a reminder of what Jesus said in response to Satan’s temptation in the wilderness. Jesus was hungry (so am I) and the enemy suggested He make bread out of stones. Jesus could have done that (He can also make bread out of my spiritual disciplines), but He didn’t. Instead, He said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

I’ve studied this verse and know that ‘word’ here is the Greek ‘rhema’ which means a word from God that is specific for the need of the moment. This isn’t just about reading the Bible; this is about hearing God speak. It is about paying attention. It is about eating bread that satisfies, and it is about abundance.

Isaiah’s words are a warning about spending time, even money, on that which does not satisfy. The abundant life is about being delighted with life, about enjoying it to the full. That does not mean that trouble will never happen, but it does mean that with Jesus, life will be an adventure, a fulfilling experience. If I am hungry and thirsty for something more, then I need the something more of ‘rhema’ and of spending time with Jesus, not spending time in spiritual disciplines without experiencing Him in those disciplines.

I’ve been a Christian long enough to know that if it seems He has drawn back it is because I’ve done something wrong or have a sinful attitude that has not been confessed. This gets down to the nitty-gritty. I’ve been complaining (which in itself is not a good thing) about some inability in my life. Duh. James says “I have not because I ask not” (James 4) and aside from the reasons for not asking, I simply have not confessed my need to God and asked Him to change me. This has been going on for some time. Duh, again.

Lord, Your patience is astounding. I wonder why it takes me so long to realize my foibles and folly, yet You put up with me and are gracious. You know what You are doing. Once again, I realize that I cannot do this myself. I am not my Savior and Redeemer; You are!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sainthood

The term ‘saint’ is used in many ways. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines a saint first as “a person who is acknowledged as holy or virtuous and regarded in Christian faith as being in heaven after death.

It also says a saint is “a person of exalted virtue who is canonized by the Church after death and who may be the object of veneration and prayers for intercession,” or “a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a Mormon.” The word is also used informal for a very virtuous person. However, I’m more interested in how the Bible uses it.

In Scripture, a saint is anyone who by salvation has been sanctified or set apart from sin through faith in Jesus Christ. In the mind of God, a saint is declared holy (which means set apart), not because of their own virtue, but by the imputed righteousness of Christ.

No one has to die to become a saint. Unfortunately, some Bible translators make it look like it because they did not directly translate Paul’s words. For instance, Romans 8:27 says, “Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”

Paul actually wrote, “called saints” or “saints by calling” but it was replaced by “called to be saints” as if this happens when Christians step into eternity and are transformed and forever without sin.

Many passages indicate that no one has to physically die to become a saint, but they do have to be “dead to sin” and “alive to God.” Believers are called “saints” (Romans 1:7) and “saints in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1) because they belong to the One who provided their sanctification. It is a status term that does involve progress, but refers to who I am, not what I do.

Perhaps translators could not bring themselves to call the ordinary, struggling-with-sin believer a saint. Because of this, “saint” became a term used for specific individuals who were considered extreme examples of the faith. These people were venerated as an inspiration to other Christians, initially by martyrdom. Ironically, this tradition is held by the very church that Paul wrote to saying that all are called saints!

The Mormons use this title a bit closer to the ‘all’ part of the definition in that they apply it to all members of their ‘church.’ However, the doctrines of the Mormons (Latter-day Saints) fall short from more important biblical foundations about God and the nature of salvation. For instance, any Mormon that I have talked to does not understand what it means to be saved by grace through faith.

It is biblical to link “saint” and “holy,” but the common understanding of holy has also drifted. “Holy” when applied to God does mean sinless perfection, but could never mean that when applied to human beings. We are not totally holy in this life, which is likely why “saints” seems appropriate only for dead people.

However, God says those who believe are holy, even while still alive! We are saints ‘by calling’ not by virtue. This is like serving in the military. When a recruit is sworn in and given the designation of ‘private,’ he or she is every much a soldier as a five-star general. The latter has more experience and knows far more about soldiering, but both are in the army and both are soldiers.

I am called a saint now, not called to be a saint. His Word tells me to recognize all His people as saints. We do not appoint a group of people to examine our lives years after we die to see if we performed a miracle or not. Instead we must recognize the status given to us by Jesus Christ and redemption.

Also, I think of how a newly sworn-in soldier must feel. He is declared “in the army” and must want to perform in a way that is worthy of that calling. He holds his head high and as he is told who he is, he makes every effort to live up to his calling.

I find this practical. When I feel less than saintly because I’ve messed up, or am tempted, or just not doing much for God’s kingdom, He reminds me of who I am. This isn’t about performance but status. Boot camp or decorated, as His soldier, I belong to Him and am a saint.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Daily confidence

Those who study Scripture without faith stumble at unfulfilled promises and prophecies. God says Jesus will return and they say, “Yeah, right. The world keeps turning and it is not happening.”

Old Testament promises to Israel are also scorned. It appears that modern Israel is not that interested in God and worse, God is not interested in them. When the Bible makes predictions and promises like those in Isaiah 45:22-25, the skeptics are not convinced. These verses say:
“Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath. He shall say, ‘Surely in the Lord I have righteousness and strength. To Him men shall come, and all shall be ashamed who are incensed against Him. In the Lord all the descendants of Israel shall be justified, and shall glory.’”
Part of the skeptics’ problem is the superlatives. Notice all 3x, and every 2x. God says every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall take an oath of allegiance to Him, but more people see very few bent knees and more tongues cursing Him instead.

This passage also says that God’s people will credit God for their goodness and power, be confident that all will come to Him, and know that all those who are angry with God will be ashamed. Even that prediction seems to fall short as many Christians lack confidence for the future, some without realizing that God is in charge of the future.

Yet without faith, who can trust the promises of anyone? I remember an alcoholic that I knew. He often said he would quit drinking soon, yet so much of his talk about other things was embellished with lies that no one believed his promises.

Faith and trust in God depend on His truthfulness. When God says something that proves to be true, my trust level goes up. However, my head might tell me (and Scripture says) that He cannot lie, yet when I look at promises like this, like the skeptics, doubt can creep into my thoughts also.

Yesterday I was challenged with this question: “Has God ever lied to you?” I began thinking about the times when I thought He wasn’t listening, but later realized that true to His promises, He hears me. I thought of times I’ve prayed for things that seemed impossible and even stopped praying because of my doubt, yet God surprised me with answers to those prayers.

Some say they trust God because they love Him. For me, it doesn’t work like that. I trust God because He does not lie. He has never lied to me. Sometimes I don’t understand what He is doing, and sometimes I don’t like what He is doing, yet He never tells me one thing then does another. He is true and He is truth.

These verses from Isaiah speak of things that are true and things that have not yet happened. But God never promises to work on my timetable. Eventually every knee will bow and every mouth will confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2). Eventually all who do so will recognize that their righteousness and strength come from Him. Those who are angry with Him now will be ashamed. In Christ, those descended from Israel (not sure if this is literal or those who are children of Abraham by faith), will be justified and glory in Him.

The Bible says that I must walk by faith, not by sight. Sight will show answered prayer and fulfilled prophecies, but faith is based on the faithfulness of a truth-telling God. He never lies.

Knowing this is highly practical. I can live in confidence because I am certain that even though He has not done it yet, if He says that He will, then I know that He will!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Impressing God

Current news is almost totally preoccupied with an economic downturn that seems to be affecting the entire world. Those who bow at the shrine of almighty dollar have seen their idol tip over and fall apart. What seemed a sure thing for many has become increasingly shaky and unstable.

From one end of the Bible to the other, I am warned not to be concerned about money, only that I’m to consider myself a steward and be prudent with whatever God provides. Money has a way of pulling hearts from devotion to God toward devotion to power, prestige, and possessions.

Idolatry, using a loose definition, could be anything that I value the most, or anything that I rely on for my sense of security and importance. That means cash is not the only thing that can pull me into shaky dependencies.

Jeremiah 9:23-24 warns me, “Thus says the Lord: ‘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, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,’ says the Lord.”

When I was in school, I was fortunate to get excellent marks. I once gloried in that. I’ve never been what most people would call ‘mighty’ but when I work out, I’ve sometimes gloried in that by comparing myself to someone who doesn’t. (There would be no glory if I simply compared myself to the general population!)

While we are not rich by North American standards, these days I’m tempted to glory because our source of income has not changed and we are financially okay. There have been times though, when money was scarce, so I understand why some people think about it all the time and even make it their only reason for getting up in the morning.

Jesus also says something startling about human value systems in the New Testament. He was speaking about money management and finished His teaching with this:
“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided (lit. turned their noses up at) Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination (detestable) in the sight of God” (Luke 16:13-15).
This astonishing statement repeats the thoughts of Jeremiah 9. God is not impressed with the things that impress people. Instead, He challenges me to value what He values — first, that I understand and know Him.

Having a relationship with Almighty God could be taken for granted if never given serious thought, but even as I write this, the very idea of it staggers me. Who am I to know God? Who am I that He came into my life? It was not because of my IQ, power, or money; it was because Jesus died for me, a sinner. That is amazing and a glory, yet even more amazing is that God values that. He puts me knowing Him ahead of all other things that the world might consider important.

In knowing Him, I know that God also delights in “exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth.” I’m not worshiping a God who likes being harsh or who looks the other way when people sin. He delights in doing what is right, what is perfectly fair, and He delights in me when I do the same things.

I’m not sure how all of this plays out in the world’s financial crisis. I wonder if it is happening because a loving God is trying to wake up those who have made money their idol? I wonder if He has seen much unfairness and is trying to level the playing field? Whatever His plan, I do know that He is active and in sovereign control over this world. I also know that if I want to impress Him, I need to continually acknowledge that I know Him and remember that it is God who I worship, rely on, think about, and delight in — not money or any other thing.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

“But I meant well . . .”

There are few words I hate to say more than, “I had good intentions . . .” Other people might excuse failure if I mean well, but I am beginning to realize that good intentions don’t cut it with God, so they ought not to be an excuse for a shortfall on my part. Instead, I’m far better to ask for forgiveness.

Today I read Hebrews 5:8-9: “Though He (Jesus) was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.”

In a former post I pondered the question: Why did Jesus, who never sinned, have to “learn” obedience? At that time I wondered, since it was not His nature to disobey and He knows all things, why did He have to “learn” anything?

Perhaps because He was fully human and He was demonstrating the importance of obedience? As a man, He showed us how to depend on the Father for everything even as He was tested by trials like we are. All that happened to Him called for a choice and as He made those right choices, we can see the reality of His perfection as fully God and fully man.

My devotional reading says that He also had to learn obedience to be our perfect High Priest. He was in a new role and as He obeyed the Father, He became the author of our salvation. He couldn’t accomplish that by good intentions; He had to follow through.

Learning obedience to God is the same for me too. Proverbs 29:19 says, “A servant will not be corrected by mere words; for though he understands, he will not respond.” I may know what God wants from me, but suffering (intense or not) puts me in a position where I will choose to do something about what I know. Until then, I’ve not actually “learned” obedience. A truth might be in my head, but it is not part of my life until I obey it.

Sometimes Christians call that “head knowledge.” I am aware of a particular thing intellectually, but my terminology falls short after that if I say “it needs to be known in my heart.” That isn’t quite the way God says it. He wants me to know it, head and heart, but also obey what I know and make it part of my life.

Mere knowledge isn’t good enough. Salvation didn’t happen to me because I knew about Jesus, or because I went to Sunday school and church and acquired a head full of theology. Jesus didn’t save me because I memorized verses or knew doctrine. He cares about obedience.

Yet even obedience comes second. It is a mark of those who are already saved, not a way to be saved. In Matthew 7, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Some will stand before Him and say ‘Lord’ as if He is their lord, but they do not do what He commands; that is mockery. Yet others will point out their good deeds done in His name, and Jesus will also banish them because that is not enough.

The key is not what only what I say or do, but whether or not He knows me. As He says in John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”

A saving relationship with Jesus is not about what I call Him or even about what I do, as important as that is. Unless I know Him and He knows me, all my talk and even my obedience is useless, as useless as any excuses about good intentions.

Friday, December 12, 2008

He beats me to it

How can a room that is already too full hold another piece of furniture? I’d thought there is no way, but by taking out two things and consolidating two things, two more can be added. Further, the room now seems larger. Of course I’d prayed about this, and little by little the answers came. Do this, now do this. My husband was more doubtful than I, and he is amazed at the result.

How can a life that is already too full do anything more? By praying, I realize that sometimes God asks me to take on something new, but in the process, He knows how to remove, consolidate and make the resulting to-do list seem easier than it was before. To me, this is mystery, but God knows my needs and often delivers the answer before I clue in and start praying.

This morning I read Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

I know this is about spiritual matters primarily, but God is practical. He is involved in my daily life also. He sees my needs when I don’t see them, and prays for me when I don’t know how to pray, and best of all, prays for me even when I don’t think or feel a need to pray.

The devotional reading put the responsibility on me. It said that I must, “seek the mind of the Spirit, desire to know the will of God. . . . (pray) more fervently, earnestly, sincerely, spiritually, (and) more in accordance with the will of God.” It also said that my praying must “be manifested as the interceding breath of the Spirit of God in my heart” so it will “bring more clear and evident answers down.”

A few lines later, it said, “Above all, seek an inward assurance that your prayers are heard and accepted, and then watch for the answer. This will give you the surest and best of all evidences that the blessed Spirit is Himself interceding for you with groanings which cannot be uttered.”

While this assurance happens, it is more often because God does something, not me. I think of the verses that say how Christians love God because He first loved us. That means He initiates and we respond. The biggest reason I pray is because God speaks to me (in trials and when life is peachy) and lets me know that He wants to hear from me. In this verse in Romans, I realize that His prayers compensate for my ignorance of what I need to pray, and it is that and the answers He sends that melt my heart and give me that desire to seek His mind.

I suppose that after awhile a person might forget who started this cycle, but all I need to remind me is to stop praying. Then I discover that He never stops. In fact, when I read this verse, I could hear the Holy Spirit saying, “Elsie, you mess up, don’t know what is best for you, and most of the time have no idea how to pray, but it is okay; I’ve got you covered.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Trading burdens

Imagine a man carrying a load of freight on his back. It is heavy. It is all he can do to carry it. Staggering under the load, he sees Jesus calling to him, saying, “Come and I will give you rest.”

The man is so tired. He stumbles toward Jesus and says, “Here I am. Where is this rest that you offer?”

Jesus says, “The rest is yours, but first we must trade burdens. I will take yours, but you must take mine.”

The man hesitates. He knows something about Jesus. Some people hated Him. Would that be His burden? He worked day after day helping and healing people. Would that be it? Jesus also was put to death unfairly. Would he have to carry a load like that? He looked up at Jesus and asked what this burden would be.

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).

The man could not see the burden but he heard and knew the words that Jesus spoke. The first word Jesus used for a burden (heavy laden) was the one that he carried, the one of sin, guilt, shame, regret, and deep sorrow. He wanted to give it to Jesus.

The second word was a slightly different word. Too bad it is translated burden in most of our English Bibles, because it is not the same word nor the heavy load associated with that word. When he heard the second word, the man joyfully let Jesus take the load from him, and in exchange, he received the bill of lading, the invoice!

When Jesus came into my life, He took my burden of sin and guilt too. Since then, He keeps finding more stuff that I needlessly carry and makes the same offer. Will I learn from Him, walk with Him, be yoked with Him? Or will I hang on to the stuff that weighs me down?

It seems like a no-brainer, yet the same questions are thrown at me. I start wondering about the trade. Will He give me something that is worse and harder to deal with than the weight I carry? Will being yoked with Him be confining instead of giving freedom? Will He take me places that I don’t want to go? Or give me tasks that I don’t want to do?

Even though these are suggestions and lies from my spiritual enemy, they come with subtle deception and often when I’m discouraged under the weight. This enemy knows how to cause doubt, but fortunately, Jesus knows how to counter it. For one thing, He asks great questions too. “Have I ever lied to you?” “Have I ever broken a promise?” “Do you trust Me?”

He also gives me a hunger for His Word and to just keep reading. No matter what I am carrying, eventually I read those load-lifting passages that invite me into the rest that He alone can give.

Such is the Christian life. Last week I carried a load; this week I’m rejoicing because He put me in charge of the invoice.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What is Christian unity?

Two people are climbing a mountain, but on different slopes. One is halfway to the top, the other closer. Both of them enjoy the view, but both see different things. One of them is a geologist and knows the foundation of that mountain. The other is a botanist and is more interested in the details of the trees and plants growing in the rocky soil. But it is the same mountain.

When Jesus prayed for His disciples in John 17, He asked that we might be unified. When I look at all the denominations with different views of God and the way He works, and even the different views in our denomination, it seems that this prayer was not answered.

However, my heart responds. How can the Father not answer the prayers of the Son? This is part of what He said:
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me” (John 17:20-23).
In this prayer, Jesus does not ask the Father that we all agree on everything. He just asks that we believe in Him and find our unity in that relationship. We are all climbing the same mountain.

This past week I encountered someone who does not realize that the foundation of this mountain is the Word of God. That person is more interested in the experiences of the climb, the sound of the wind and the warmth of the sun, something I sometimes miss because I’m so intent what I see from my side of this Rock.

Yet both of us love Jesus. We know we do not agree, but we can be united anyway. That is the wonder of Jesus. He will bring two climbers together at the top and then we will see the same things, know the same things. In the meantime, we each focus on the slope ahead of us and are united in the glorious Name of Christ, the solid Rock under our feet!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Safe from the fire

A man who survived an airplane crash later explained that he saw a fireball coming toward him down the aisle of the cabin. At that moment remembered a verse of Scripture where God promises to protect His people from fire. He said the verse aloud. The next thing he remembered was standing outside the burning plane away from the fire and without any burns to himself.

God has the power to protect. The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego demonstrate how He delivered them in a fiery furnace. The heat was so intense that it killed the men who tossed them in, but these three were not harmed. In fact, the King who condemned them peered into the furnace and said, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” (Daniel 3:25).

This is similar to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s experience when he and his two-man crew were forced to slide down the steep icy slope of a mountain. When they made it to the bottom, they could not speak a word, but later shared with one another the same question: “Where was the fourth man?” Each one sensed the presence of another man during that mile-high, hair-raising episode. (From Endurance, W.W. Norton & Co. New York, 1931)

Isaiah 43:1-2 says, “But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you.’”

I could speculate that these events and these promises of protection are about here and now. God did this and said this so His people would know He is keeping them safe. However, Christians have died by floods and fire. Did they forget that God promised His protection? Perhaps it was not their time to die? Or is there another reason for these examples and for those promises?

In the Bible, floods and fire are associated with judgment. In Genesis, God looked at the wickedness multiplying on the earth. He saw Noah as the only one who was faithful to Him. So God judged the earth with water and everyone perished except this one man, his family, and enough animals for sacrifice and to repopulate the earth.

After the flood, God created the rainbow to remind us that He will never judge the earth again by water. The next time will be a judgment of fire. Is that literal? Will the earth burn up? Will it be the end result of global warming, as some fear? Or will it be an act of God that cannot be explained any other way? Whatever it is, the Bible says this world will be destroyed by fire and replaced by a new earth.

Yet some, like the man in the burning airplane, will know the literal side of these promises in Isaiah. They will experience deliverance from a disaster like a flood or a fire. Others will not. I can, however, be certain of one thing; all who are redeemed and have been called into the family of God will never experience the fires of His judgment. He will judge our works to see if they had eternal value or if they were useless, but we ourselves “will be saved, ye so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15).

I am not afraid of God’s judgment. Christ bore my sin and suffered the wrath of God in my place. Because He says to me, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are mine,” I am confident that fire will not touch me and like the man in the crash, I will find myself safe outside of the flames, and like Daniel’s friends and Ernest Shackleton, I will find myself in the presence of that fourth Man.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The bane of perfectionism

Those of us who are perfectionists eventually realize that perfection is unattainable. No matter the field of endeavor, just when the standard is reached, the bar is raised higher.

The root of perfectionism is probably human pride. In my flesh, I want to be the best, but I also want to please my mother. She had the habit of praising people, but never to their face. I didn’t know how much she praised me until a sister-in-law told me. Mom praised that same relative to me, and as a result, both of us wondered if we measured up to her standards. Even though I discovered this as an adult, the pattern of trying to elicit praise from my mother had been established and has driven my behavior all my life.

This desire to please an authority figure is also at the root of religion. People do strange things or go to great lengths to please their god. The God of Israel added to that effort by giving a multitude of commandments to show His people what He expected from them. Yet the harder they tried, the more they failed.

Trying to please a parent who is no longer living is challenging enough, but trying to please a perfect and holy God is a greater challenge. To do it requires either rewriting His demands to make obedience possible, or going to Him on bended knee asking for mercy and grace, a hard option for a proud human. Most opt for the other choice.

As a senior, I find echos of my mother’s standards in my own life. Reflecting on what she did show pleasure in explains why I am pulled toward certain activities. Even though I really don’t want to paint pictures or train horses, those things pleased my mother and still tug at my heart now and then. One good thing from seeing this motivation in my life is that I realize the importance of telling my children how they are admired and appreciated rather than telling everyone else but them.

As a Christian, I find echos of the Law of God that pull me away from grace and mercy. In Christian circles, it is called legalism, trying to please a holy God by rules and performance. The Bible is clear; this is not how it works.

The Law of God was never given as the means to pleasing Him. It was given to show how far short we fall. Like that bar that is continually raised, the Law keeps lifting me above what I can do. From it, I realize that I need more than my own resources.

Today’s Scripture reading is this: “Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21).

These verses add meaning to a section in Galatians that explains that God added the Law to reveal our sinfulness. It says, “Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:21-24).

Knowing that some of my behavior is an effort to please my mother is not enough to change me. In the same way, just telling me that I cannot keep the Law of God is not enough either. As today’s reading says, knowing these things must come from “the depths of a troubled heart, by God’s own teaching.

I didn’t know the depth of my sin in a way that moved me to my knees until God Himself applied that truth to my heart. This is different from learning it through the words of a preacher or even from the Bible. When God put this one truth deeply into my heart, He also offered my soul the consolation in that grace and mercy is greater than my sin and shortcomings. God the Father sent His Son to die for my sin. By knowing Him, I am set free from the demands I could not meet. That is mercy and grace.

Not only that, by grace He also offers me His perfection. In Christ, I learn to live by His power and not my own, and as I do, He assures me that pleasing Him is not my job at all. This is done for me by my Lord and Savior.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Timely Words

Yesterday while studying Scripture God opened my eyes to the reason for a problem I have with my possessions. I had been asking about it, but was still startled and even shaken by His answer. Taking the next step, I began confessing that I had not been trusting Him for specific things, and also confessing anything else that came to mind as being less than fully dedicated to Him.

After that, He put in my mind to make a list to help me get things right. That kept me up a bit later than usual. When I finally was ready to sleep, I noticed my hubby had filled and plugged in a portable humidifier in our bedroom. It was running, yet the gauge said the humidity in the room was higher than the setting. I took a look and realized the tank was empty. I felt around the floor and was dismayed to find out it had leaked on the floor and down the nearby cold air intake, mostly into the basement but partly through the main floor bathroom ceiling. I woke hubby and we were up until after 2:00 a.m. taking care of that little mess.

Five hours sleep might not seem a big deal to younger people but it puts me in trance mode. I felt weak spiritually and now weak physically. What is going on here? I know this is mild suffering, even silly compared to what Christians in places like India and Pakistan are suffering right now, but I still feel somewhat uncomfortable and under the Holy Spirit’s gun.

Today’s verse startles me again, only this time with its encouragement. 1 Peter 5:10 says, “But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.

A line from the reading that goes with this verse jumps out at me: “If He indeed touched your heart with His blessed finger, remember you will have to walk, from beginning to end in a path of suffering, for the whole path, more or less, is a path of tribulation.”

Tribulation is on a scale. When Jesus came to earth, He experienced it all, from the lesser things like filth, stench, ugliness, and noise (stuff that is not part of heaven) to deeper trials of being despised and rejected, spit on, scorned, and eventually murdered. The Bible doesn’t say if He faced ordinary inconveniences like humidifiers with a crack in the tank, yet it does say He knows what I go through.

Thinking about that, my head says, “But He was never convicted of sin and felt deeply discouraged for being sinful.” My head is wrong. When He went to the Cross, all the sin of the world was put on Him and He felt the weight of it all. I cannot imagine that but know that it was so terrible that it killed Him.

Little things that I suffer are nothing in comparison, yet Jesus is kind to me. He touches me with His tender hand and whispers a timely encouragement. From His Word, I know that in conviction and even through broken plastic things, He is working to make me mature. He wants my faith to be deeply established and rooted in Him. He wants a godliness and a calm spirit that I do not have now. He is strengthening me, even though I feel weak and tired, because through the combination of His Word and ordinary life, I am realizing again the reality of how He works all things together for my good, to make me more like Himself.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Passing the test

One test of walking with the Lord is the question: What am I doing that would be impossible if God was not involved? In some situations, a better question might be: What am I not doing that I would be if God was not controlling my life?

I’ve thrown around yesterday’s decision considerably since I made it. Today my devotional reading and these questions merge together and assure me that my decision was from God. If God were not involved, this would not be an issue; I’d have simply said yes to the invitation and disregarded His Word.

Another assurance is in the battle I’ve had with it. The Bible says that the Spirit and the flesh are in conflict with one another. If they were not, I’d worry. However, this battle between the Spirit and my flesh is another proof that God is involved in the decision.

I suppose my problem is that I’m a bit shocked that my flesh or sinful nature was so quick to jump in with wanting to do something that the Bible says I should not do. I agree with Scripture. What then is at the root of wanting to give in to this latest temptation? Or is God just trying to teach me to carefully examine all things according to His Word, not relying at all on what seems to “feel right” but on what He says?

What I do know about this test is that when I stick with my decision, I’m at peace and filled with joy. But if I begin to second-guess myself, I become agitated and unsure, and joy flies out the window. This ‘fruit of the Spirit’ is another indication that my emotions must take second place. If I pay attention to what the Bible says, God will take care of how I feel.

This morning’s reading is a long passage. Through it, God gives me more assurance that when my faith in Him is tested, there will be a reward for passing that test. The passage says:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9)
Peter’s second sentence describes the mild stress I feel over this trial, but quickly adds that the genuineness of my faith is more precious than anything else, and as I trust God on this and all other matters, it will bring praise to my Savior.

This is about faith, and isn’t faith about believing what God says simply because God says it? I don’t need to see the reasons or the results. I cannot see Him either, yet when I believe Him, He rewards me. I also realize that He is at work in me, giving me that inexpressible joy and helping me understand that what He asks of me is His will for right now. Further, obedience will bring future blessing, not only promoting my soul’s salvation, but also glorifying Jesus Christ!

Friday, December 5, 2008

It seems so good . . .

After writing yesterday about temptation’s subtle forms, I was tested on what I wrote. I received a call from a church I had never heard of asking me to come and teach their congregation about spiritual gifts, a favorite topic of mine and one that has proven to be very helpful to all who understand their gifts from a motivational perspective as in Romans 12.

I was excited as I listened to the request, but as the conversation progressed I began wondering if this was an opportunity or a test. To be fair, I asked lots of questions. I discovered that this church does not have any hierarchy of leadership, but consider themselves egalitarian. They also wanted me to be their Sunday feature. Although they called it a workshop, the sessions in which they wanted me to speak followed their typical worship service format.

What made this even more interesting is that all week my pastor and I have had some discussion on the role of women, both in the church and in the home. I know this is a controversial issue, but both he and I agree on sticking to a literal interpretation of the Bible. This means that from the very beginning, God established a headship or leadership principle that applies to husbands (and later church elders) and requires wives (and non-elders) to align themselves under that leadership. This has nothing to do with equality. All are equal before the Cross and as Christians. It has everything to do with order, and with helping both men and women overcome the power of sin in their lives.

One passage from 1 Timothy 2 covers most of what I’ve been thinking on this topic. Verses 11-14 say:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
Many women are annoyed by this passage and resist it. Many men use it like a club. Neither are God’s intention. First, God knows what happened in Eden. Eve had been created as a suitable helper for Adam (because it was “not good” that Adam was alone). However, she was deceived by Satan and instead of helping Adam, she persuaded him to eat the forbidden fruit with her. He knew better (was not deceived), but let her be the boss. After this happened, the Lord told the two of them that they would be in conflict. She would want to rule, but he was going to rule over her.

Note, this headship/submission thing was in place before their sin, and it is not the curse on their sin. The curse is that both genders are now stuck with that desire to rule over each other. Instead of following those sinful desires, God tells women to fit into the leadership of their husbands because that is the best way we can “help” them. He tells men to lead and love their wives because that is protection and security for women. Of course we need Christ and the Holy Spirit to even want to fulfill this, never mind do it. Sin is powerful and the desire to be the boss and control others is part of that sinful nature. Sin is our enemy; submission and headship are the cure, not the curse.

I’m not sure that a Christian woman is still vulnerable to being easily deceived like Eve was, but have to admit that I certainly struggle with wanting to be the boss and wanting to have my way. In fact, my definition of submission is: “Being free from the tyranny of always needing to have my own way.” When I do as God says, I experience great freedom, not bondage to sin.

When women teach men, we invariable start telling them what to do. Not only do men resist that, but it upsets the order God intended. There is a difference between being a helper and being the boss. I’ve learned that through obedience to these verses in 1 Timothy, God protects me from sin.

He wants me to learn (in Bible days, this was a new thing for women), but He also wants men to learn and to seek His will. While some men need help to do that, they tend (because of their sin nature) to resist the “help” of women when it comes in the form of her telling him what to do. I might know the answers, but the Bible tells me to back off.

There is more here. The words used also indicate that God does not want women to take an authoritative position such as the role of pastor-teacher, or elder in the church. Other places in the New Testament show that this is a male role. Aside from other reasons, I’m convinced that this relationship has a big-picture purpose. A biblical male/female relationship in marriage and in church roles mirrors or images Christ and the church. Ideally, men are to be as Christ in their leadership and women are to be as the church in responding to that leadership. There are lots of issues and questions, but in my heart, I know it is best to aim for the ideal.

Back to the request. It came from a church that is not following the biblical pattern for leadership, nor is it following these verses that say no to women taking an authoritative teaching role over men. It doesn’t matter how good I might be in that role, or how helpful the material I teach might be to the congregation; God says no. On a human level, I wonder even this group could benefit from my input when they have ignored other instruction from Scripture.

With that, I’ve decided to also say no to this request. The invitation seems more of a test than an opportunity. I’m aware that I could be wrong in my understanding, yet I am trusting God in this one. His Word says this is not what I should do. Something in me wants to jump at the chance, but I need to know the source of that something; is it God or is it that old nature that likes to have power and control? I can’t go by my feelings on this one so I am trusting in the Word of God!