March 31, 2009

This is why I need Him

Jesus keeps raising the standard. Yesterday I read these verses and saw how He did not sin when He suffered unjustly. Instead, He committed Himself to the Father, trusting Him to do what is right. This morning I realize that He went beyond that.

The verses are from 1 Peter 2:22-23. “(Jesus) committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.”

My commentary says this about the “did not revile” part:
Revile: Although He was insulted and abused, Jesus remained in control of His words and did not utter slanderous remarks in return.
Threaten: Although He suffered physical pain, Jesus did not cry out that He would get even or even that He desired to inflict pain on those who were causing Him agony.
Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah and said He would be like this.

And they made His grave with the wicked — but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. (Isaiah 53:9)
I find out that “violence” is translated as “lawlessness” in the Greek version of the Hebrew Old Testament because the translators understood that “violence” referred to violence against God’s law—or sin. No matter what happened to Him, Jesus did not and could not sin. He was the perfect Lamb, without spot or blemish (1 Peter 1:19), just as the Law prescribed.

This verse says there was no deceit in His mouth. This is a high standard too. If someone hurts me, I might not say anything to their fact, but I am apt to say something in return and it is not always, “Bless you.” Jesus did not sin by breaking the Law, nor did He sin with what He said.

Yet these verses go even farther. 1 Peter 2:23 says that Jesus had the perfect inner response to His enemies also. My commentary says this:
Committed Himself: The Greek does not have Himself, and thus does not say whom or what Jesus kept giving over to God. Most likely, He constantly entrusted both Himself and His revilers to the power of God in order to let God deal with both as a righteous judge. (Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary)
The commentary adds that when I pray, I am to forgive (that is, release to God) any offenses against me. It is not my responsibility or prerogative to “get even.” Mark 11:25, 26 says,
And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.
Jesus Christ was perfect inside and out. No matter what happened to Him, He did not sin, even when He was wrongly condemned to death by the world. His perfection included trusting even His enemies to the care of God.

How did He feel about those enemies? From what I am reading this morning, it is clear that His attitude toward His enemies sets a standard far higher than mine:
For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 5:7-10)

March 30, 2009

Tracing the pattern

Twin daughters of a friend have taken the big leap from home-schooling into the public school system. They are artists and very good artists. A recent assignment required one of them to make an illustrated book for children. Her drawings were so good that her mother told her to be prepared that the teacher would ask if they were traced. The girl was insulted, and the teacher did ask.

Normally, tracing could be a form of ‘cheating’ or at least frowned on, but there is one part of life where God wants me to do exactly that. My devotional reading today actually uses a word that refers to tracing:
For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously. (1 Peter 2:20-23)
The Greek word translated as “example” refers to a pattern that is placed under a piece of paper to be traced. It brings to mind the exercise books of childhood where I learned my letters tracing over a pattern. As a Christian, I am supposed to trace my life according to the pattern Christ laid down for me.

Here it talks about His pattern when suffering for being falsely accused or being abused for doing good things (it happens). I first notice that the tracing pattern has no lines for sin. Because Jesus didn’t, I must not either. If I am going to follow His example, I cannot fight back, threaten, defend myself, or even give a tongue lashing to those who do mistreat me. I’m not supposed to backtalk about them when they are out of earshot either.

What I can do is described in those words, “but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.” This is about believing God is sovereign and will do what is right. I can trust myself and my situation over to Him. He knows what is going on and can change things. Yet I must also know that His plan is perfect. That means if I must be left for a while in hot water, He has good reason for it.

Jesus was handed over to Pilate, then Pilate handed Him over to the Jews who wanted Him crucified. In all this, Jesus handed Himself over to the care of His Father, knowing that the will of God is good, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

By faith, Jesus died on the cross as the Jews wanted. It was totally unjust and undeserved, and by doing this, it seemed as if Jesus had been defeated and destroyed. However, God revealed to His disciples after He rose from the dead this was His plan (emphasis mine):
(Jesus) being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. (Acts 2:23-24)
But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. (Acts 3:18)
And in a prayer to God, they said, “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27-28).

When I suffer and there seems to be no reason for it, I usually want God to ‘fix’ it. That is the human response, and often a sinful response. I want comfort rather than pain. I’ve never suffered like Jesus did, but in His suffering and pain, He left me a pattern. Like Him, I need to seek the face of God and say, “Not my will, but thine be done.”

March 29, 2009

Unjust consequences?

“But I didn’t do it!” I can still hear my children protesting when they were in trouble over something. Even getting caught red-handed, so to speak, brought the same protest.

As adults, who of us hasn’t responded the same way, even when we did do it? Trying to protect ourselves from the consequences of our foolishness at times can seem much more important than just admitting our mistakes.

As a Christian, I realize that my actions have consequences, but they are not always what I expect. We get accused of things we didn’t do and the Bible even says that those who live godly lives will be persecuted. To me that does not seem just.

For instance, if we say that Christ is the only way, we are called narrow-minded. If we say that He is God in human flesh, we are accused of being mentally deranged. If we mention the blood of Christ, we are bloodthirsty. If we obey God, someone will not like it and may even tell lies about us. These accusations hurt, but it could be worse.

1 Peter 3:17-18 says, “For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God . . .”

It is possible for Christians to suffer because we did something wrong. Tell a lie, speak abusively, cheat on income tax, cheat on your wife — whatever it is, if God says do not do it, and we disobey Him, we deserve whatever scorn is heaped on us. The only comfort in this is that it is just. If I act like a jerk and am accused of being a jerk, or if I suffer in any way because I am doing the wrong thing, it does fit with my inner sense of justice.

However, suffering for doing good does not fit. It seems unfair and such a contradiction that my sovereign God allows this to happen. If I do good, should there not be a good result? Why wouldn’t people see the goodness and applaud it, not persecute the person who does it?

As usual, most spiritual questions can be answered by taking a good look at Jesus Christ. He was executed as a criminal, guilty of no crime, or wrong, or evil, or sin. He never had a mean thought, nor spoke or acted in an ungodly way. His death was the most unjust punishment ever inflicted on anyone, yet that shows me something about the consequences of doing both good and evil. I can be totally within the will of God. I can be loving, gifted, perfectly obedient and have a heart for others, yet still experience abuse for it. Unjust suffering happens.

Jesus was misunderstood, misrepresented, hated, persecuted, and murdered, yet He didn’t do anything to warrant that. He calls me to follow Him, and I must never think that doing so automatically guarantees protection from anything bad happening to me.

March 28, 2009

Weakness is a strength

Darlene was a stretch. Her husband left her. Four of her six boys had moved out too, leaving her with two rowdy preschoolers. When I met her, those boys were dismantling the house trying to get some attention. Their mother was unable to work, had little skill with money, her welfare money didn’t stretch far enough, and she was selling her furniture.

Befriending her was a stretch too. Taking care of her boys while she recovered from a beating inflicted by the oldest son was a full-time challenge. Taking her shopping opened my eyes. That troubled family lived on potato chips and sugar.

Nevertheless, God had a plan. One Sunday one of our boys was not feeling well so I stayed home with him while the others went to church. He was occupied with television so I called Darlene. I’d been practicing a gospel presentation and the Holy Spirit seemed to be prodding me to share it with her. I did. My practice was flawless, but I really flubbed doing it for real. It was awful. I mixed things up, forgot important points, and wondered if any of it made sense.

Darlene accepted Christ that day, to my utter astonishment. She later told me what part of what I said had got through to her. After that, we watched her life change. We saw her experience the utter joy of knowing Him, and gradually begin to make better decisions. She eventually married someone who adored her and her family. Even though we later lost touch, I often think of her, especially when I see a vehicle like the one she drove. It was from her that God showed me how His strength is “made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

This spiritual truth is a comfort to those who feel inadequate, but a challenge to the talented. I used to win every debate in high school and came into the kingdom of God thinking that I could talk others into believing the same as I did. God had to teach me otherwise.

A silver tongue or a sharp intellect might be an asset in some situations, but when sharing Christ with others, it is a hindrance. Some people can be persuaded with rhetoric, but to what end? If they agree, it does not mean that they believe. God had to teach me this too.

One lesson happened about the same time that I knew Darlene. I was on a team with two others. They were teaching me how to share my faith and we put those lessons into practice by visiting people who had visited our church.

One evening we were doing this, and the only person at a home was a teenage girl. We talked with her and she readily agreed with all that was said. She seemed ready to become a Christian and I was excited. Then, to my dismay, the two men on my team proceeded to talk her out of it. Again, she began agreeing with their negative comments and easily became persuaded to not become a Christian.

They told me afterward that human reasoning and persuasion do not produce genuine believers. If someone can be talked into “faith” they can also be talked out of it. True faith happens because of God’s power, not ours. I was dumbfounded, but never forgot that dramatic lesson.

Today’s devotional verses vividly bring back thoughts of Darlene and that evening where God showed me the danger of being eloquent or persuasive.
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 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 2:1-5)
In the devotional comments that went with this passage, the writer says that everyone has an image of Jesus Christ, but the one image that surpasses all the rest is Jesus Christ on the cross. To know Christ crucified is to know Him as the author and finisher of my faith and is the truest picture of His Person and work.

This seems fitting. If in His greatest weakness God used Him to do His greatest work, then it makes sense this also should be true for His followers. Jesus didn’t save me by a great act of verbal persuasion, but by yielding Himself to whatever God wanted to do with Him. God spoke to the whole world through a broken body, not a silver tongue.

Christ’s suffering on the cross is the focal point of the Christian faith and where His deity, humanity, work, and suffering are most clearly seen. Because of that, I don’t need to be anxious wondering if I am up to the task of sharing my faith. If I thought I was, I would not be!

Instead, His strength is perfected in weakness. Feeling weak and helpless is not a bad thing, and I must not let it sidetrack me from remembering where true power comes from. God wants me to humbly obey Him, just doing whatever He asks regardless of how I feel.

March 27, 2009

Suffering >>> Glory

During a teacher training seminar
last night, our pastor illustrated twelve ways to present truth and used “the power of God” as his topic. One of the methods was debate. He took the side of a discouraged person who doubted that God was powerful and invited the rest of us to “debate” with him on this point. Of course the conversation immediately went to the issue of suffering. If God is so powerful, why does He allow people to suffer?

While the Bible says that the carnal or unregenerate person cannot understand spiritual truth, this class of believers was quick to bring up a strong point: The nature of sin being what it is, sometimes the only way we can be moved out from under power is through suffering.

We also pointed out that God can and does use suffering to bring people to Himself. He is able to use all things for our good, including suffering. We also challenged the meaning of “good.” God’s idea of good is not the same as ours. We think “comfort” but His good is that we are transformed into the image of His Son.

Using a debate like this brought out how many of us have learned to trust God, even in trials. It was a powerful discussion, particularly for me as I’d been struggling most of the day over the spiritual condition of many family members. I suffer because I do not see any changes in their spiritual lives after years of prayer for them. However, last night I began to realize the reason for my suffering, and this morning God put an exclamation mark on those thoughts.

Jesus is the “captain of my salvation,” a phrase that means He is the pioneer or pathfinder, the one who went before me. He went through what I go through, not just as an exercise so He can identify with me and I with Him (which certainly happens), but to give real meaning and purpose to all suffering, whether physical or mental.
For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10)
Fitting means that it was appropriate to the situation that He should suffer; the state of sinful humanity made it so. To bring us (many sons) to future glory, He walked a path through the difficulties of living in a sin-cursed earth. This was a difficult and painful journey, but Jesus walked and I walk it too. That makes Him my leader. He has already experienced everything I will experience in my life. He not only endured all of it, but totally triumphed over sin, death, and Satan, and all related attacks and suffering inflicted on Him.

By His sinless life, Jesus blazed a path to God, a path that He calls me to follow. He is my pathfinder who understands my pain because He Himself went through it too.

Reading these verses, I realize that my normal reaction to the fact of His suffering is thinking of the Cross and the cruel death that He died, but today I am thinking of something else. Jesus did all this for us, yet millions mock Him, spit on Him, and reject Him. He loves them, died for them, and the most mention He gets from them is their use of His name to blasphemy. I’m moved to tears realizing that He knows exactly how I feel about my family. He suffers the same sense of sorrow for their lost souls, and more so.

As my example, what can I learn from Him as I walk this path and feel this sorrow? What did Jesus do that will help me be “perfected” in my journey and in my pain? One thing is this:
In the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He 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. (Hebrews 5:7-9)
Jesus made no sacrifice for Himself. Instead, He offered up of an obedient life and death and pleaded for sinners with supplications, cries and tears. His sacrifice was accepted and He was heard because of His godly fear (reverent obedience). He was saved from death through the resurrection and given an eternal ministry where He “ever lives to intercede for us.”

I am saved from sin and God’s judgment by Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrected life. I need not worry about my own pain or destiny and do not need to make any sacrifice for myself. Instead, I can sacrifice my life — in whatever way He might ask — toward the rescue of souls through prayers, supplications, crying and tears, and through an obedient life.

Jesus did not need to learn to obey as if He were previously disobedient (like I am), but He did have to go through the experience of obeying His Father’s will to learn the nature of obedience. I do too, and suffering puts me there. When life is pain-free, I know full well that my spiritual life too easily coasts. Good days bring out thanksgiving and praise, but after too many of them, my praise barometer easily begins to droop. It is in struggles that I cling to God.

Jesus was perfected by His suffering, not suggesting that He was imperfect in any way before that, but that He successfully carried out God’s plan. He endured suffering and temptation so that He could truly be my High Priest who understands my weaknesses, helps me as I follow Him, and intercedes before God for me. He was the author, or “cause,” or “source” of my salvation because His obedience to the Father led Him to His own death on the Cross and this sacrifice makes Him the source of my salvation.

No one can (nor does anyone need to) repeat what Jesus did, but He did it all so I can be obedient to God and endure my suffering, just as He did. He is my example and the One who went before me.

Last night’s lesson on using debate as a teaching tool helped me toss these ideas around in my mind. I have settled with this: God can use the suffering He puts me through to point someone else to that same path, or help someone else walk it with Jesus. Yet He might not use it that way and I know that whatever His plan, the sorrow I feel for unsaved people and the inner pain I suffer is part of how He is perfecting me. I can pray about my pain, and I can pray for those who are in darkness that He will give them light, but I can also feel comforted because He is my Pathfinder. He walked this way. He knows the sorrow of seeing people lost and in darkness. He knows their future if they do not repent. Because I walk this way and know the same things He knows, I more deeply sense that He is drawing me a bit closer. Instead of bringing up the rear, He uses suffering to help me walk right beside Him.

March 26, 2009

The Importance of Prepositions

Prepositions are like ants at a picnic. Anything an ant can be in relation to the food is a preposition, for example: in the food, around the food, below the food, and so on. Mistakes in the use of a preposition can, at least inspire humor and, at most, greatly confuse the intended reader.

In the Bible, prepositions are important particularly when they refer back to something previously written. Unless these prepositions are considered, interpretation could be difficult or in error. I’ve heard people quote some verses to encourage a person who is suffering, but the verse is taken out of context and misses the meat of the encouragement.

For instance, someone might quote “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18) to encourage a suffering person’s mind away from his situation. However, the preposition “for” points back to the reason that this statement can be made. It is found in the two verses prior, and says:
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Romans 8:16-17)
By including the context of verse 18, I understand what lies ahead and am given a description of what I can expect in the future. I know what “glory” is about and with that understanding am given greater comfort.

Here is another example that says a similar thing:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
It is comforting to know that my inner self is being renewed and that the afflictions I suffer are not lasting long compared to eternity, but verse 14-15 give the foundation for that understanding. It is the bones of the reason for not losing heart.
. . . knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.
Someday I will be raised up with Christ and glorified with Him. Whatever happens to me now, positive or negative, pleasant or not pleasant, happens for my sake and toward that end. The trials of life are nothing compared to the glory of Christ that God is using to form in me. I can look to the resurrection as my hope. I can also remember that thanksgiving is important and will bless God but also bless me.

Besides being encouraged by reading these things, I am reminded of the importance of words. Regarding Scripture, Jesus said that even the smallest strokes of each word were important. Every day, I see my God in details. I am certain that each word contributes to the whole of what He says to us. Also, the last few verses in the Bible stress the importance of not taking away “from the words of the book . . .” (Revelation 22:19)

While some translations seem unconcerned about editing, and many people interpret Scripture without considering context, each word is in the Bible for a reason. Because they point readers to connections, this includes each one of the prepositions.

March 25, 2009

Trying to be ready for the next thing

Who was John Harper? I’d never heard of him until reading this anecdote about the last minutes of his life.

Harper was the newly called pastor to Moody Memorial Church in Chicago in the early 1900s, but in 1912, he was a passenger on the Titanic. Four years after that ill-fated voyage, a young Scotsman stood in a meeting and told the audience that he was a survivor. He told how he drifted in the water on a piece of wood and encountered a man who was also floating on a piece of wreckage. This man pleaded with him to trust and receive Christ as his Savior. The young Scotsman refused. When the swirling waves brought the man around again, he asked if the younger man was now saved. He was not.

Shortly after, the man disappeared into the water and the young man decided to trust Christ as Savior. At that meeting he identified the one who drowned as John Harper. He was Harper’s last convert.

This story convicts me. If I were dying, I am almost certain that my last thoughts would not be as noble or as dedicated to the saving of souls as this man. I’m still uncertain why God is speaking to me now about being more dedicated to sharing my faith, but I am listening.

Today’s Scripture is just after an incident where Jesus sent the disciples for some bread and He remained at a well to talk with a woman who came for water. She was skeptical at first, but soon realized that she was talking to the Christ, the Messiah. She ran to tell the people of her city, and as they were making their way toward Him to find out for themselves the truth of what she told them, the disciples came up with the bread and urged Him to eat.
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” (John 4:34-35)
His mind was not on Himself and certainly not on food. He urged the disciples to get their minds off their bellies and be ready to talk to these people who were eager to hear about Jesus.

Jesus knew the woman wanted more and was spiritually hungry. He also knew that a crowd was coming that wanted to know Him. I realize that such spiritual alertness comes from the Holy Spirit. By myself, I do not notice the spiritual condition of others, and am not quick to even think about others being eager to hear the gospel. I could say I would like to be like John Harper, but if that were true, would it happen? Would I be asked to do it? And would I be willing?

Dreaming about being a different person is far easier than doing it, and I’m not sure a change in ministry is what God has in mind for me. However, as I read through these admonitions for outreach, I cannot help but wonder what comes next. I’ve said it before; walking with Jesus is always an adventure with many challenges and surprises that keep me trusting Him and hanging on to His promises!

March 24, 2009

Passion for the simple truth

I dropped out halfway through a master’s degree in religious education at a conservative denominational seminary. I loved learning and enjoyed the classes, except one. The professor had been steeped in a liberal interpretation of the Bible that bypassed what Scripture plainly said. He used a great deal of speculation and supposing to the point that one of the students asked, “Would I need to become an atheist to pass this course?”

Another student, after reading seven books on the course reading list, told me that she was beginning to believe some of the same junk as written by the authors and that supported the professor’s views. She also said she was becoming quite confused.

I felt ill equipped to deal with all this. No student’s arguments could change that man’s views. At that, I decided I’d be more beneficial to the kingdom of God serving street people at the local soup kitchen than trying to educate myself in theology and in the art of teaching the Bible, at least at that place. I walked out midterm and have not gone back. That professor holds a high position and still teaches there, and I shudder.

What happens to Christians who lose sight of the simple truths of the Bible? Why do some stray from the point that we are sinners and God sent a Savior to die for our sin and offer us eternal life? Where did they take off on another path? And how can I avoid doing the same thing?

My devotional makes some suggestions on how to fuel a passion for one important basic response to God: sharing the good news, the simple message of salvation. The reading says to first study Jesus Christ and His love and mercy toward sinners.
But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:36-38)
Jesus never lost sight of His purpose for being here. He came to seek and to save the lost, and the Bible tells me that I must do the same. “He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6).

I’m also told to study sin. It was more than thirty-five years ago, but I still remember the power of my first Bible study. It was about sin. For days I read Scripture about its guilt, power, and penalty. I became deeply aware of the devastation that sin causes and how it ruins lives. In those early days, I learned to hate it and wanted others to also hate it and be freed from it.

Since then, I realize the strong pull of sin. My own sinful desires are bad enough, but they are stirred by the lies of Satan. If I listen to him or am stirred by the ideas in the world around me, I stray from the simple truth. That is why Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Letting a college professor confuse it does not transform me toward that end.

The devotional reading today also says to study sinners. At first, I thought I could simply tell people what they needed and they would go for it, but I learned that sin is stronger than mere words. It takes the power of God to break its hold, and sometimes that power is best demonstrated by love and compassion, not persuasion. Being a good listener and a true friend is far more important than putting someone on a “project list” and treating them like a challenge. People need Jesus and Jesus was a friend of sinners.

Another way to fuel my passion for the gospel and the sharing of it is to study Scripture and see what it says about hell, death, judgment, and salvation. It is said that the founder of the Salvation Army began this ministry after a dream about seeing lost souls in hell.

I’ve never had a dream like that, but I’ve stood at the graves of those I love and not been sure where they have gone. This creates a sorrow that cannot be comforted. Even though some so-called theologians say otherwise, the Bible says that not everyone goes to a better place. Jesus said:
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
I can also increase a passion for the lost by asking God for it. In the busyness of life, it is far too easy to get caught up with other passions. I can forget how short life is, not only my own but the lives of others. They are precious to God and need to be precious to me.

I can also forget that faith comes by hearing and someone must tell them. As scary as that is, God wants me to speak up. While many will not listen and might even laugh at me for my faith, a few will hear and their lives will change for eternity. Those few are very important.

Simply reading these thoughts and looking at a few verses points me again to the simplicity of the message. I don’t need a seminary degree to share it; I just need a heart like the heart of God who loves people so much that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

March 23, 2009

Pay attention to the details

Fishermen in the time of Christ used a variety of methods to catch fish. One way was with a line and hook, which has to hurt the mouth of a fish. Another was a spear, perhaps like a harpoon, which was also difficult for the fish.

They also used a dragnet that was long and often stretched between two boats which were then rowed in a circle to trap the fish. This produced less injury to the fish, yet didn’t guarantee the quality of the catch. The net caught everything.

Another method was a casting net. It was circular with lead sinkers around the edge. The fishermen waded into the water and threw the net into fish feeding in the shallows. They drew up the net to secure the catch. It is this net that was being used when Jesus called two of His disciples.
And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. (Matthew 4:18-20)
I’m always amazed at the details in the Bible. Had they been using a hook and line, or a spear, or a big dragnet, the parallel between fishing for fish and fishing for me would have been inappropriate. God does not want me to “hook” people, or throw harpoons at them. Christians have been accused of doing both.

God isn’t asked me to throw a big dragnet either. I couldn’t do it by myself anyway, but a vast campaign that gathers everyone into a trap isn’t what outreach is about. Instead, I’m to take the gospel to those in the shallows around me, to people who are close, those I care about and can show the love of Christ by wading into the water with them.

Some fishermen can cast a large net this way. I think of Dr. Billy Graham. He cares about people, can identify with their struggles, and has reached thousands through large rallies and meetings. I’m not that kind of fisherman. My net isn’t very big and my ability to toss it into the water is rather weak, at least in comparison, but there are people in my life that would never set feet in a crusade venue. They are interested in Christianity, but want to see Christian living close up and personal, not on a television screen. They want to ask questions of a face they know personally, not one that belongs to what they would call a celebrity.

As neat as that detail is in this passage, the key is not so much the net used, but those two little words, “Follow me.” Whatever God gives me to use is only an aid. The success of reaching those who are lost with the gospel is not a method but in doing what Jesus asks, and as the passage says of Peter and Andrew, doing it immediately.

March 22, 2009


If someone says, “Imitate me,” it is generally about what they are doing, yet sometimes I can’t do it. I cannot stand on my head, no matter how much someone does it in front of me. Neither can I sing soprano, nor hit a home run. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, yet if flatter is up to me, many people will never get it. I cannot do everything the same way as others.

In church seminars and instruction about sharing our faith, we are usually taught a method or a way of saying it, an imitation. One program I took was good, but it was rote and doesn’t fit every situation.

This morning my devotional reading is about imitation and was based on one verse at the beginning of a chapter, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” The chapter breaks were not part of the original texts, only put in to make it easier to find things. However, when I start at verse one, I tend to read forward. In this case, I think the break came too soon. The last line of this passage belongs with the verse before it, so I read backwards.
Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1)
What delights me about this is that imitation is not about doing what other people do. It is more about imitating their attitude. With Christ as my example, I cannot do exactly what He did (different culture, different situations), but I can have His attitudes.

From these verses and the rest of the New Testament, the main motivating force in His life is obvious. Jesus put the glory of God at the very top of His priority list. He lived to display the wonder of God, the glory of His Father. Because He lives in me, I can do that. I can say no to my own “profit” and yes to all that will make Him known. This is a choice and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I can make that choice.

Jesus also determined not to offend people by being self-focused. His concern was for the salvation of others. He went out of His way to point them in that direction. He even gave His life that it might happen. I can have that same self-sacrificial attitude. It is a choice.

The reading brings out several other characteristics of Jesus as He shared truth with others. First, He was available. At times He left the crowds to pray, but He was most always among the people, ready to serve their needs. Even though it goes against my introvert nature, I can do that too. This also is a choice.

Further, Jesus was not partial. Common people, lepers, prostitutes, and tax collectors were no different to Him than a Roman centurion, or the wealthy. In the mind of God, everyone has needs, and Jesus met those needs whenever anyone was open to His help. This He asks of me, and I can have the same attitude of impartiality.

Jesus was also sensitive to the pain of others. Over and over, He showed His concern, healing and helping people in pain and sorrow. A cup of cold water or a hug can go a long way in touching a person’s life. I can do these things too.

To bring this full circle, because Jesus put the glory of God first, He made sure those who put their faith in Him made a public declaration of that faith. The blind man in John 9 and the Samaritan leper of Luke 17 told others what He had done in their lives, thus bringing God glory.

The example of Christ is not just about what He did. I cannot heal people or raise the dead, but I can care about them with the love of Christ. I can be willing to do anything God asks of me, just as Jesus was willing to do whatever His Father wanted. It begins with imitating the desire of the Son to make praise for His Father the main priority of His life.

March 21, 2009

But they were not willing . . .

When the barn is burning, horses will not come out. If blindfolded and removed from danger, they will run back into the barn if they can get away from their rescuers. Their fear of the fire tells them safety is in the barn.

While I shake my head over this animal logic, and while I realize a human being in a burning building would not refuse to come out, there is something in the sinful heart of people that makes us reluctant and stubborn about accepting the offer God makes of eternal life. Logically speaking, this makes no sense. If someone says, “I can give you life that lasts forever,” why would a person not jump at that offer?

Jesus came to this world with full knowledge that we are in a burning barn. This world was once judged by water in a flood that destroyed all life except Noah and his family. The next judgment is by fire. The Bible is clear that the works of God’s people will be judged by fire (even though we will be saved), but those who are not His people will face eternal fire.

Jesus grieved over the souls of men and women who had no interest in His attempts to bring them out of this barn. They didn’t want the eternal life He offered. In John 5:40, He said, “You are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life.” This strange attitude about eternal life is described also in Romans 3 where Paul says:
As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10-12)
Apart from God giving it, I cannot be a righteous person, nor would I even care to be. The best I could do would be “religious” which amounts to an attempt to please God (or impress others) by looking good externally. This is not acceptable. His righteousness comes from deep within, from that new life that Christ alone can give me. Without it, I would perish.

Yet I too am like a horse in a burning barn. If left to my own devices I would stay in the barn rather than seek a way out; I would not even seek God.

As I look back over what happened in my conversion, I realize that God came in and grabbed me, and that I was not looking around trying to find Him. He pulled me out of the certainty of fire and took me to safety. He also gave me His life. When that happened, my interest in running back into the barn, along with my fears, simply disappeared.

Now I look at those who are like I was. They are doing their own thing and not even aware of the fire in their barn. I want to rescue them. However, that is not possible. I can tell them, but unless the Holy Spirit does the work in their hearts, they will fight freedom and eternal life as if it were their enemy.

In one passage in the Gospels, Jesus is lamenting the lost souls in the city. He says:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37)
I have a print of a painting by Greg Olsen. It pictures Jesus sitting on a hill overlooking the city and is based on this passage. As I read Jesus words and feel some small measure of His angst over the unbelief around Him, I wonder if the painting has Jesus looking too serene and the city looking too normal. Shouldn’t there be fire? Shouldn’t there be agony and tears?

Yet maybe not. In this life, no one sees the fire. That is part of the blindness to their spiritual need. As many of them say, “I am just fine. I don’t need anything else; I don’t need faith.”

Sometimes I almost see the fire, but on those days when it seems remote, even unreal, I often feel the sorrow of Jesus over lost souls in the burning barn. I know His sorrow and wish I could gather them up and take them to safety.

Last night I felt like that. Our visit with family who are in a cult went well. The wife is ill, and at one point in the evening, a strong desire came over me to pick her up and hold her. I hugged her instead. Later, I told her that I was praying for her, and was surprised to see her smile of sincere appreciation. This was the first sign so far that there might be some willingness to get out of that burning barn.

Until that happens, I feel that I am on that hill with Jesus watching those who are unwilling. I keep praying that the Holy Spirit will change their hearts and bring them out of their fears and false sense of security, and into the life that only Jesus can give.

March 20, 2009

Flexible obedience

Sometimes I feel like a pretzel. The first time was when God taught me to stop talking so much. Then after I became quiet, my next lesson was learning to speak up at His prompting. While this is an ongoing process, initially the sensation of being turned in a new direction reminded me of the twists and turns in a pretzel. I just got used to a new thing (new for me) and had to bend in the opposite way.

This week He is at it again. Yesterday I wrote about His questions to me about evangelism as part of the disciple-making process. I’m passionate about teaching believers, and love to share what I know, but when it comes to outreach, I’ve little skill and less passion and make lots of excuses for not wanting to do it.

I wrestled with this, and am feeling like a pretzel again. I want to be and do whatever God wants me to be and do, so am trying to bend in whatever direction He desires, so have yielded on this one only to have Him throw another curve at me this morning. It is in these verses:
And He (Jesus) Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
The first thing I noticed is that everyone listed here has a role; God does not expect one person to do it all. Duh! I know that. We’ve known pastors who burned out because they tried to do everything the church needed. Not a good idea. However, burnout is not limited to clergy; Christians who want to serve God can get caught in that same trap. I love and want to please Him, yet in this case my ego is likely at work.

I’m also sensing the same principle in this lesson as the one about talking. It isn’t that God wanted me to be silent all the time, or that He wants me to talk all the time. He simply wants me to pay attention to the Holy Spirit and be obedient.

It is the same with skills, passion, and all other things. He might ask me to do the work of evangelism. He might ask me to do the work of a teacher. He might ask me to do nothing. Whatever it is, I’m to listen and be obedient, not flap about with excuses about my expertise, interests, passions, track record, or whatever else I might come up with to avoid one or the other.

The goal is to be mature, to be like Jesus. Sometimes Jesus exercised His compassion for souls. Sometimes He taught His disciples. Sometimes He headed for the hills to pray. At all times He did as His Father commanded with an attitude of “not My will, but thine be done” which is the same attitude that He wants me to have.

Tonight we visit a family member who has been in a cult for most of his life. That particular cult is trained to turn off their brains as soon as anyone tries to teach them, so I know that my passion for teaching is not a good plan. Tonight God may have another plan. It could be that all of this bending and twisting is to vividly remind me that I must pay attention to His Spirit and be willing to speak, or to shut up, or to reach out in compassion rather than do my usual “share what I know” and tune him out.

March 19, 2009

Where is my passion?

Today’s devotional reading and the events of last night have me asking questions about my passion. What do I get excited about and how can God use it?

My sister is in town. She does pen and ink hockey art and had a booth at a charity Old Timers’ game. She is passionate about her art and passionate about the Lord Jesus Christ. We watched the game part of the time, but standing in or near the booth was also a delightful experience.

My sister invited two of our adult children to help her. As they interacted with people and each other, I watched her share what God is doing in her life as He guides her small business to success. She has had all kinds of experiences that can only be explained by His voice in her life and is not afraid to tell people about them. If the slightest opportunity arises, she is quick to use it for His glory.

This morning, my devotional reading began with this line: “Everything worthwhile in life is the result of someone’s passion.” It went on to talk about the events in human history that make a difference and that they happen because someone has a deep, consuming desire to fulfill goals. As Christians, our passion and goals should be like the passion and goals of Jesus Christ.
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:35-38)
In a book I have about prayer, the author says that so many Christians are subnormal in their desires and behavior that when a normal Christian comes along, they think he is super-spiritual. In other words, the norm for my life should be compassion for the multitudes, prayer for workers to be involved in reaching them, and as the next chapter of Matthew indicates, being part of the answer to my own prayers.

Yet as today’s devotional says, I live in an age that “tends to dull my sharpness.” Life itself has a way of “obscuring legitimate goals and robbing my faith of fiery power.” It also says that spiritual passion is not the norm, but rather “the norm is not to let Christianity disrupt your lifestyle.”

Instead of letting that happen, the normal Christian life should be one of using your lifestyle as a tool for your passion. I know one man who has a passion for curling and uses his sport to meet and tell others about Jesus. Another uses his love of jet skiing. My sister uses her hockey art.

I like to do several things, art, write, quilt, but my passion in my spiritual life is teaching the Bible. In the command to go and make disciples, I’m drawn to the part that says “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” and would rather teach believers than reach the unsaved.

My evangelism skills are not well developed, and while I feel compassion for the lost (at least most of them), I tend to button up when I’m with them. I’m involved in one group where I could share more than I do, yet I’ve been quiet, enjoying the group and our activities only.

The last line of the reading asks the question: “Is the church only a self-indulgent activity center, content with comfort and prosperity?”

The Holy Spirit echos that same line back to me: “Is your life only a self–indulgent activity center, content with comfort and prosperity, or are you going to let your passion become productive for eternity and for Me?”

March 18, 2009

“But I have all the gold . . . ”

“I know lots of people who get along just fine without that.”

This was said in a conversation with someone about faith in the Lord. She scorns it and thinks that being a Christian has no value. In her mind, others are happy and prosperous, so who needs faith and a relationship with Jesus Christ?

The religious people of Jesus’ day had a similar attitude. In their minds, faith in Him was not necessary. They were doing just fine without it. He said to them:
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7)
This illustration didn’t change their minds, but it does give me insight into what delights the heart of God. He rejoices when sinners repent. He also rejoices when people realize that they need to repent because they are lost.

In the Bible, being lost can mean something that has wandered away from home, like a sheep, or it can be about a possession that has been misplaced. However, Jesus uses it here to also describe those who are spiritually lost. This means they are in an unregenerate and sinful state, spiritually dead and deprived of the presence of God. Worse yet, many are lost and don’t realize it.

The Greek word is apollumi, also translated as perish, destroy, lose, and be lost. It can indicate to destroy, to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin, to render useless, to kill, to declare that one must be put to death. This word is sometimes used metaphorically to say someone is devoted to or given over to eternal misery in hell. In other words, being lost is a very serious condition.

If that were not bad enough, that word apollumi is right close in the Greek dictionary to Apolluon or Apollyon, the name of “the angel of the bottomless pit, the Destroyer.” Those sheep who wander around lost might think they are getting along just fine, but they do not realize how close they are to the one who wants to totally destroy them.

Jesus said, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10). Instead of deception and destruction He offers life. “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Those who are lost do not understand or do not want what He offers. They think they are “just fine.”

Whatever “just fine” means to them, without Jesus, sinners are separated from God, lost from Him. Unless they have His gift of eternal life, whatever they do have (such as a good life, lots of friends, or money) has no power to save them from the destruction Apollyon has in mind.

There is a museum in Deadwood, South Dakota that displays an inscription that sums up this sad and deceptive attitude of “getting along just fine.” It was left by a besieged prospector who wrote, “I lost my gun. I lost my horse. I am out of food. The Indians are after me. But I’ve got all the gold I can carry.”

March 17, 2009

Depth represented by baptism

The Bible is rich with imagery, figures of speech and symbols. Each of these teaches and represents deep truths that are either difficult to explain in words, or needs a short version to remind us of the longer explanation. Baptism is one of these.

Being baptized is not to be taken lightly. When Jesus left this earth, one of the last commands He gave included making disciples and baptizing them. His intention is that every person who believes in Him experiences it.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19)
Yet getting dunked (or sprinkled) by itself has no value for the human soul. A little grime might come off the skin, but the deeper issue is the grime of sin. Sin can only be cleansed by a mighty work of God through the shed blood of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. God washes away sin, not water, and He uses blood. In a passage comparing the sacrifices made in the Old Testament to the sacrifice made by Christ, Hebrews 9:14 says, “. . . how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

Christians know this power. It comes to us by grace. When I was a new Christian, the thought came to mind that this grace of having my sin forgiven so freely meant it did not matter much when I sinned again. After all, Jesus died for it all and all was forgiven. However, just being clean is an incredible motivation to stay that way.

The action of water baptism symbolizes even deeper reasons to be clean. Part of the truth that it signifies comes from Romans 6. It says:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:1-11)
The word “baptism” as used here means to be immersed or submerged, but this isn’t talking about water baptism. Instead, because grace immersed me “in Christ,” whatever happens to Jesus also happens to me. I died with Him; I was buried with Him, and I walk in newness of life with Him. Water baptism doesn’t make this happen but it does symbolize this remarkable and life-changing union with my Lord and Savior. Because of Him, I am clean, and my sin is washed away. I was baptized in water to declare my faith and my union with Christ and to declare that He washed my sins away. I am clean.

However, the New Testament is filled with verses that tell me to keep myself clean. I still sin and even though future sin is covered by grace also, I’m not to take that for granted. Instead, I’m to remember that I died with Him and am set free from sin. Why go again into its bondage? While the benefits of purity are explained over and over, I do get grime in my life, and God offers the way to renew that cleansing.
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7-9)
God will forgive my sin, but I must confess my sin. Then He can go to work to wash it out of my life. I don’t need to be dunked in a baptism again, but I do need to confess it to Him.

In fact, the way to receive cleansing from sin is the same for those who do not know Jesus as it is for those who do. Doing it the first time was extremely difficult, but the experience of knowing Christ and His grace, and the reality of what baptism symbolizes make confession and cleansing a vital part of living for Him every day.

March 16, 2009

Power to change

For most Christians in North America, our experience with faith starts out noisy; this is all we talk about. We want everyone to know about Jesus and eternal life and find out that some are actually interested. However, after awhile many of our friends get tired of hearing us. Some are possibly convicted that their lifestyle is contrary to our new life. Some might make fun of us and we avoid them. Whatever the reason, those friendships drop away. We begin to be a bit cautious about sharing our faith, even at times are afraid to say anything. We quickly learn that Christians who seldom talk about their faith are not likely to experience persecution.

In other parts of the world, many new believers risk their lives to tell others about Jesus Christ. In a few countries, the results are less volatile, yet their families shun them and their friends mock them. Those who are bold pay no attention and continue to tell people how to be saved. Their passion overrides their fear of persecution.

The apostle Paul had been a zealous anti-Christian, which bothered only the believers. When he met Christ on the road to Damascus and became a Christian, he started to talk. Then reactions changed and he was laughed at, regarded as a fool, put in jail, chased out of town, and stoned, but he continued to talk. He gives his reason for this:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. (Romans 1:16)
Paul knew that those who believe (a present tense verb indicating an ongoing condition) were experiencing the power of God in their lives. He was experiencing this life-changing power himself. He wanted others to know it and know the salvation that it brings.

Salvation is a rescue word, a word about deliverance from sin and its power to rule our lives. God rescues believers from our lostness and our inability to stop sinning. Salvation saves us from the wrath of God on our sin, from our spiritual ignorance and blindness, from darkness, and from eternal punishment. It is the most incredible gift that anyone could receive, and it is offered freely — from Almighty God to us, Jews and Gentiles, everyone.

This verse raises questions for me. I used to talk more about salvation. While I can write about it, even in letters and email, the verbal communication is much more difficult. I don’t think that I am ashamed of it — nothing gets me more excited, more enthusiastic than sharing spiritual truth — yet I’m cautious to the point that I’m not sure if that caution is from God or I’m just a coward.

What does God want from me? Are the people around me truly not ready to hear, not interested, and simply so dead to spiritual things that I would be “casting my pearls” only to see them trampled, and wasting my efforts? Or is the problem with me?

Now that I say that, I’m making myself open to change. The gospel, which I believe with all my heart, is the power of God for those who believe. Since I am one who believes, this power is for me and can overcome the problem of silence. I’m convinced that He is able to do that, but also to open the hearts and minds of others. That means that I am certain about this: when God wants me to talk and He wants someone to hear, He can make that happen.

March 15, 2009

Listen to the Boss

An article in Sunshine Magazine shows the difference between a leader and a boss using a comparison made by a successful owner of large department stores. He claims that . . .
The boss drives his men — the leader coaches them.
The boss depends upon authority — the leader on good will.
The boss inspires fear — the leader inspires enthusiasm.
The boss says “I” — the leader, “we.”
The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown — the leader fixes the breakdown.
The boss knows how it is done — the leader shows how.
The boss says “Go” — the leader says “Let’s go!”
As I read this list, I’m thinking of the leadership style of Jesus Christ. He certainly coaches His disciples and is with them in every task and project. As the branch must abide in the vine, we also cannot do anything apart from Him. He also inspires us, fixes the messes we make, and shows us how to do what He asks. He is right there, no matter what He wants me to do.

Yet as my leader, Jesus must also have authority as well as ability. What good is a leader who cannot be or do anything that He asks of his followers? What good is a leader who cannot have any influence to bring the work done to a successful end? I could not follow Him if He had no clout, but of course He does have clout. He said:
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18)
His authority covers everything that affects me. While He was on earth, He demonstrated authority over the weather, sickness and death, and all spiritual entities. He had the authority to forgive sins and judge all men. While He submitted to events, the Bible says that He now is sovereign over all. At the end of His time here, He also proved that He had the authority to lay down His life and take it up again. He is in charge of the world and all that happens in it. I may not understand what He is doing all the time, but I do know that He is the Boss.

Authority is important. While the world works toward “equality for all” this concept so easily backfires into anarchy. From youth who say, “Who are you to tell me what to do?” to adults who pay little attention to road signs and speed limits, anyone can observe the effects when people have little or no respect for authority. We need leaders, and we need to be able to recognize our leaders and follow them.

Authority is also important in the church. While we are all members of the body of Christ and “each member is as important as the others,” Jesus also gives authority to some who are leaders in the church. This has many important implications. One is that leadership provides a system of accountability that authorizes discipline when church members fall into sin and refuse to get out of it. The Bible says:
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
If Christians find themselves in spiritual trouble because they have fallen into sin, they might go to a psychologist or counselor rather than their pastor. There, they may get good advice (unfortunately, not always), but an independent counselor cannot claim any spiritual authority over them or hold them accountable to obey biblical principles. The relationship is more clinical than personal so even if their counselor was another Christian, there is less likelihood that person would exhort a sinful client to confess and repent.

Christians are told to be accountable to those in authority over them and those who are spiritual are told to restore those overtaken in sin (Galatians 6). These are examples of the value of authority.

As for the practical part of this, I need leadership; running my own life gets me into trouble. Whether it is Jesus Himself, or someone He has authorized to take charge, I need someone to say “stop it” or “start it” and someone to show me how and cheer me on.

Just as the department store owner says, I need the “we” aspect of Jesus’ leadership. Whether I’m trying to keep my life straight, or am trying to obey His commands, I need my leaders.

I also need Jesus, and I am so glad that He is right here with me. The verse from Matthew, in its context, continues; after Jesus says He has all authority and gives His followers the command to make disciples, He finishes with, “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

March 14, 2009

Being available

Two prayer requests will get almost immediate answers. One is the prayer, “God, change me and make my life what You want it to be.” His answer comes so quickly that I’ve learned to duck when I pray that one.

The other one goes something like Isaiah’s prayer after he had a vision of God’s holiness that left him devastated and overwhelmed at what he saw of God and what he realized about his own sinfulness. He declared that he was a man of unclean lips living among unclean people because his eyes had seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then he says:
Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)
God loves a clean heart, but He also loves a willing heart. We heard a great sermon last Sunday about compassion for those in need. Just reading a newspaper tells me that the needs in this world are enormous. Finding them is not an issue, but knowing where to start can be overwhelming. We live in a thriving city, yet thousands of needy people live here. What can I do with such overwhelming need?

Early this week, I prayed something like, “God, I’m not able to do many things, but in whatever capacities I have, I’m willing to help people.” It didn’t take Him long to set it up.

Starting Monday, for four days out of five I found myself with several additions to my agenda. God put a few people in my path with needs that fit my resources. I could help them, and although it didn’t seem like much in my mind, they were grateful for what I could do.

On one of those days I had the privilege of touring a care center for children in crisis. This center occupies the entire top floor of a downtown skyscraper. Here, various agencies that are involved in child abuse cases have office space so the victims of abuse do not have to go to their offices scattered all over the city to get the various kinds of help needed.

This center, with its bright counseling rooms and other spaces, is geared with children in mind. In one room the seating is low, yet the interview people usually sit on the floor. In another room, the tops of all the desks are covered with stuffed toys. There are offices for lawyers, doctors, police and counselors, as well as a board room and a large classroom where volunteers are trained.

As I talked with the director of this unique center, she told me of one of their biggest needs and as she said it, the Lord whispered to my heart, “You can do that.” How could I not respond, “Here am I”?

The starfish story pops into mind. Unusual waves stranded hundreds of starfish on a sandy beach. A young man walked the beach, picking up one starfish at a time and tossing it back into the ocean. Another man said to him, “What good is that. With so many stranded starfish, how can what you are doing possibly make any difference?”

The young man selected another starfish and, as he tossed it into the water, he said, “It makes a difference to this one.”

Being on call for the Lord never results in idleness. No servant of Jesus Christ is bored or lonely or wondering what to do next. As long as I keep praying the first request, He’ll put the second one on my heart to also pray, and between the two of them, life will be filled with meaningful things that bring good to others and glory to God.

March 13, 2009

Mission Statement

Success seminars say everyone needs a mission statement. Formulating one is difficult because it needs to answer big questions such as: What is my purpose? Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing?

The reason behind having a mission or purpose statement is something like, “Aiming for the stars and hitting the woodpile is better than aiming for the woodpile and hitting your foot.” Everyone needs a goal. If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.

Christians do well to think also about goals and our purpose for being here. After attending several seminary classes that told me I needed a mission statement, I began working on it. Part of my reasoning is that Jesus often declared His purpose, and since I’m following Him, I need to do the same. In one of His declarations He says, “. . . for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

Forming a mission statement must answer that big question of why am I here, but also consider my skills, abilities, opportunities and experiences. It asks where do I go from here, and how will I get there. Also, I need to understand God’s purpose for giving me new life; what does He want done with it?

Jesus had all this covered. John 13:3-5 says, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.

Jesus knew that God gave Him that goal to seek and save the lost, but also knew that His Father supplies all resources needed to reach that goal. Jesus knew where He came from and where He was going. Armed with this “mission,” He could serve others toward that end. Washing the disciples’ feet was part of the teaching process that prepared these men for their mission.

At first, my mission statement outlined things I thought I should do. Too broad. Then I began formulating it around my spiritual gifts. Too narrow. I also noticed that using it to determine what I should be doing next produced some major conflicts. The needs at hand didn’t always fit the formula in my statement. Finally, I came up with this one (with thanks to author, Angela Hunt): Love God and obey Him.

This mission statement works for several reasons. First, it requires me to focus on the Lord rather than any agenda, pressing needs, or whatever else is happening. When my mission is to love Him, then all relationship issues and priorities fall into place as well.

Of course the part about obeying Him means that I must pay attention. In each situation, He will direct my course of action if I ask Him. I must search for answers in His Word, listen to the quiet voice of His Spirit, and heed the advice and examples of godly people in my life. Otherwise, I will quickly slide away from this mission statement.

Today’s devotional reading tells of a mountain climbing expedition where the participants were told to take basic necessities only. One person ignored that and loaded up with extra stuff. As the climb progressed, he found he had to ditch the extras and wound up carrying only the basics.

This is what my mission statement does for me; it makes me stick to the basics. Life is so complicated and filled thousands of choices. Without any guidelines (and with my attention span), I could be all over the map, and some days I am. However, this mission statement to love and obey God keeps pulling me back to those basics. Life has become simpler in many ways, yet having this as my mission does not make it narrow. God always has plans and directions for me that I otherwise would never have imagined by myself, and following Him makes my life a grand adventure.

March 12, 2009

Be Reconciled

A woman in a television show kept returning to her abusive husband. After each time he beat her, he charmed her into a reconciliation, making promises that he did not keep. I still see her mashed and bleeding face as she closed the door on those who wanted to help her out of this terrible abuse.

It was only a show, but this happens over and over in real life. This isn’t the place, nor do I have the expertise to write about such inhumane treatment, however, I would like to say something about genuine reconciliation. It does not mean coming back to a relationship of abuse.

Reconciliation is actually a wonderful word. It means a changed relationship for the better between persons or groups who formerly were at enmity with each other. The Bible encourages reconciliation between estranged people and spouses, but this term most often refers to the new relationship between God and humanity made possible by Christ’s redemptive work. The key part of this definition is that things are “changed” when genuine reconciliation occurs.

In fact, this word is totally inappropriate when one of the estranged persons consents to any abuse by the other. God didn’t save me so He could make harsh demands and push me around. Genuine reconciliation is about both sides wanting the very best for one another. It is so good, that the person who is genuinely reconciled to God wants others to have that same relationship. An abused person would not wish their life on anyone. Paul wrote about how this works.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)
As my devotional book says, we are an extension of the ministry that God the Father gave to His Son. Jesus said, “As You have sent me into the world, I have also sent them into the world” (John 17:18).

An “ambassador” is someone living in another country for the purpose of representing their homeland to that country. Jesus commits to me “the word of reconciliation” but ambassadors are more than messengers. I and the life I live represents the Sovereign God who sent me.

In the Roman Empire, there were two kinds of provinces, the senatorial and the imperial. The senatorial provinces were generally friendly to Rome, submitted to Roman rule and under the control of the Senate. The imperial provinces were acquired later and were not as friendly, and under the authority of the emperor himself. To these areas, the emperor sent ambassadors to govern and maintain peace.

This sheds more light on the role of a Christian ambassador. I have been called by my King to serve as an ambassador in a world that is in rebellion against Him. He has given me a message of peace and reconciliation and I am to implore people to be reconciled to God.

In light of what Paul wrote, I often feel as if I’m not doing my job. Part of that is that I tend to gauge my success by the responses of those who hear the message. These days, most seem to lack any interest in spiritual things. They may want God to help them with some things, but reject the idea that they must be reconciled to Him and they do not want their lives to change.

Thinking of this in terms of the abused woman in the television show, far too often sinful people seem to prefer the abuse of sin. To them, it is a security that they know. Even with the bruises and pain of sin’s consequences, sticking with that lifestyle is preferable in their minds to a relationship with God.

From my side of things, I cannot imagine how knowing God can seem even more frightening than sin and its consequences, yet He tells me that I must somehow take the hand of those caught in the abuse of sin and urge them toward the freedom of reconciliation and peace with Him.

March 11, 2009

His Glory IN the church

A book cannot be judged by its cover neither can a home be judged by its exterior. I watch some of those home make-over shows, particularly Color Confidential and Divine Design, enjoying the transformation from blah to beautiful. However, the exterior of many of these homes isn’t much to look at while the inside can be a big surprise.

A local church can be like that too, but this is not about the appearance of the building so much as outside perceptions of what church is about. When our children were small, one of the neighbor boys asked our son if you had to be a member to attend. He’d never been in a church and thought it was something like a social club.

Others have the idea that church is more like a school where the Bible is taught, or a place where people go to worship and sing. Television offers a few stereotypes as does the memory of childhood experiences in Sunday school or DVBS, daily vacation Bible school. My memory of that included making crafts with “God loves you” written on them.

Church can include some of those things, but today’s reading gives the real purpose of the Christian church. This is right after a verse that I often quote to remind me of God’s power when I pray. I’m surprised that I’ve not paid attention to the rest of it. These verses say:
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)
While the church is a place for worship, fellowship, learning, receiving help, and so on, the primary purpose of the body of Christ is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. We are to do that in our worship and in our lives, but He also does it in us and for us as He answers our prayers.

I read these verses, I think how people on the outside may not see that. Our exterior hides it, and they need to come in to see it, but even when they do, there is something about His glory that is visible only to those who are part of His body, the church.

Glory is about the attributes of the Lord, about what He is like, what He does, and the way He works in the lives of His people. We pray and the answers are clear to us who are on the “inside” even though those who observe might see only a “coincidence” instead of God at work.

It was no different when Jesus walked this earth. A few people realized that this man who did miracles was God in human flesh, but most of them had other conclusions. To them, He may have been a good teacher, or a threat to current religious practices, or a kind man, or a leader of rebels. To those who believed what He claimed, He was the expected Messiah who would deliver them from sin.

Is that why some see the glory of the Christ and others do not? In 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote how Moses’ face shone so brightly in the presence of the Lord that he had to put a veil over his face when He came out so the children of Israel could look at him. He uses this to illustrate how not their eyes but their minds were blinded. He goes on to explain that Christ came to take away that veil, but “even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart.” However, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (2 Corinthians 3:12-18)

This explains part of why he also wrote “to Him be glory in the church.” That glory is seen mainly in the church because the true church is made up of people who have turned from sin and to Him. He has opened our spiritual eyes and we can see Him, but He remains veiled to the eyes of those who are not interested or have not heard.

He amazes me every day with His glory. I don’t know when or where or how I will see Him today, but because of His amazing grace, I know He will do exceedingly abundantly above all that I ask or think. That is the wonder of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ and the joy of being part of His church.

March 10, 2009

Godly planning requires an eraser

Would the coming of Jesus Christ tomorrow mess up my plans?

What a challenging question. Today, I’m reading verses that tell me to have an eternal perspective, to prioritize the things of God rather than stuff that does not last. These verses say:
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. (Colossians 3:1-4)
In context, they begin a section that tells me to put off my sin and put on the new life that Christ has given me. Actually, that is the easier goal. I hate that old life and am quite happy to live in the power that He gives. However, these verses make me think about the “mess up my plans” part of the question.

Yesterday I planned to finish a small project and go to bed. Instead, the phone rang. It was a young Christian friend who is here from another part of the world to advance his education. He has not felt well and found out yesterday that he has tuberculosis. He must be quarantined for a few weeks. These days, doctors send TB patients home rather than into a sanatorium, but his landlord and roommates want him out of the house, now!

We have a room, but my husband’s CLL means a low immune system. Not a good idea to move him here. Where can he go? It is -32 C this morning, and moving to another place in such conditions is not a great idea, never mind the difficulty of finding something for a few weeks. He is feeling well and working on what to do. Even though I want to help him, part of me went to bed thinking I’d rather be working on my project.

I could argue that both project and DC’s needs seem like “things on this earth” but I know that is not what Colossians 3 is about. It is not the “thing” out in front of me that God challenges, but the attitude of my heart. Not only must my mind drop that selfishness, all temporary stuff must be evaluated by an eternal perspective. My project will not survive the test of time or eternity, but DC will. He is a child of God with an eternal soul and needs help. The qualities God asks of me are also eternal. Anyone could make my project, but God wants Christian virtue to meet this young person’s need. This is a no-brainer.

However, there are lots of things on my to-do list and many of them get interrupted. Even just now, as I’m trying to focus on the Lord and how to make these decisions, the telephone rings. Sometimes I don’t answer because being with the Lord is more important, but a glance at the call display and a little nudge from the Spirit tell me that I better take this call.

Something like this moves me into a grey area. I was focusing on eternal things and yet the Lord urged me to take care of a temporal one. How can that be, particularly in light of these verses? Obviously, having my mind set on things above includes listening to what He says, not trying on my own to decide what is “more spiritual” when confronted with such choices.

Besides these examples, I’ve more than that one little project in my plans. I’m preparing to teach a Bible class again soon, have been asked to do a presentation at a local shop, and another one for our denomination. I’ve a column to write for a quarterly publication and several websites to update. None of these things are eternal, yet many of them have a spiritual focus and could make an impact on eternity for someone. Should God put another option before me, could they be as easily dropped as that little project?

Deciding what has value for eternity and what does not is a task for the Holy Spirit. I’m not always certain. I know that sin is not going to show up in heaven, but an act of kindness such as taking time to listen to someone’s woes might wind up making a difference. So could things like patience with a telemarketer, forgiveness toward a meanspirited relative, gentleness with a senior (who, at this point in my life, is someone older than I am), and meekness when someone points out my faults and failures.

Yesterday, in some measure, I was sure of myself. Today, I don’t feel so certain. Something tells me this is a good thing. Instead of sliding into a schedule of completing what I want to accomplish, God is constantly telling me that I need to pay close attention to not only the interruptions, but to His quiet and discerning directions.

March 9, 2009

What do you collect?

For a century and a half after New York City was founded in 1624, their water supply came from two crystal-clear springs that flowed into what was called the Collect. The residents of Manhattan used this sixty-foot deep pond covering 48 acres for recreation activities. Swimming and ice skating would take a toll, but not so much as sheer abuse of this natural resource. By the 1780s water quality declined due to garbage, slop buckets, and even dead animals being dumped into it. In 1803, the city started to fill the Collect. The area today is covered with concrete.

Now the city depends on three watersheds with a total area of 1,969 square miles. However, deep below the Criminal Court Building those original springs still give forth sweet water. Where does that water go? Congress decided it should be funneled into large sewers that eventually carry it to the Hudson River. What once was dependable and pure has been neglected and goes totally unused. Not only that, after the pond was filled, tenement houses were built over the Collect area and it became the poorest section of Manhattan, filled with prostitution, casinos, and sin of virtually all forms.

I found all this while trying to illustrate the incredible value of grace and how important it is to not neglect this precious gift that God offers. If anyone takes it, they are blessed. If they refuse, they might find costly substitutes, but they will also pollute their lives with sin and miss out on the wonder of God’s grace.

John wrote, “And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17).

The grace and truth of God could be illustrated by springs of pure water. Jesus said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38).

John explains in the next verse that Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit who is the source of that pure and “living” water; He becomes a blessing to everyone who takes a sip. In other words, the life of a Christian who walks with Christ and is filled with the Holy Spirit is like that Collect fed by those springs underneath the city. That person becomes a blessing to many people.

Another thought comes out of these verses from John 1. While the law of God appears here to be contrasted by grace, the next verse is showing that this is not so. The relation between Jesus Christ and Moses and the law is one of fulfillment. The grace of God revealed in the Old Testament was perfectly manifested in Jesus Christ.

Old Testament grace is this: God did not have to provide atonement for sinners. He didn’t even have to tell people that they were sinners. He could have destroyed the whole works of them with legitimate reason (like He did with the flood), but He did not. Instead, He gave people a Law that revealed His holiness and their lack of it. Romans 3:20 says that “by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” The purpose of Law is God’s grace in revealing our need. We are thirsty.

Then He gave a sacrificial system whereby sins could be forgiven. His people were not saved by this system, or by keeping the Law (which they couldn’t anyway), but by faith. They needed to trust Him in full recognition that it was only God’s grace that kept them from eternal punishment. In faith, they looked forward to that perfect sacrifice which is Jesus Christ. In Him, all the Law is fulfilled. He not only kept it, but took our punishment for not keeping it.

What does this have to do with unpolluted water? Just this, if a person knows about Jesus and knows that grace is offered freely, but rejects it, they are like the people of New York who threw their crap into the free and pure streams they were offered. The Bible says:
For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.” (2 Peter 2:20-22)
My devotional reading today asks the question: Is the experience of God’s grace in your life a thrilling thing?

Yesterday the grace of God seemed even more amazing than usual. Our Bible class offered truth upon truth of how to overcome the enemy who threatens our spiritual lives. The music and the sermon lifted my heart even higher as our pastor described the compassion of God and challenged us to be like Him. On the way home, and throughout the day, I kept thinking about God’s grace. He has poured it out on me. He forgave all my sins, put the Holy Spirit in my heart, helps me understand His Word, calls me to serve Him. I enjoy a wonderful and rich communion with other believers and am so blessed to belong to His family. He opens my eyes to see the world as His Creation, and yet speaks to me as His child and loves me in a personal and intimate way.

Divine grace is given through Moses to show us that everyone needs to drink. We will die without Living water. Divine grace is intensified and manifested in a new mode, offered to us as Living Water when the Word, Jesus Christ, became flesh. Jesus Christ is full of grace and truth and offers to pour both into our hearts.

I can relate to that Collect. I feel like a pond of fresh and living water. How foolish would I be to toss junk into that deep pool? His life, lived in me, is too precious and a blessing beyond anything else.

My heart often aches for the myriads who don’t know about the Spring and miss His flow into their lives. I ache even more for the myriads who actually do know about the Spring and would rather cover it with the concrete of their hard hearts.