Sunday, December 27, 2009

Home For Good

God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I'm not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd's crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I'm back home in the house of God for the rest of my life. (Psalm 23, The Message)

* * * * * * * *

Like many veterans of World War II, my father didn't speak extensively about his time in the service. He served in post-victory Tokyo in an administrative role, and I'd reckon that is why we do at least have some stories of his time there, unlike so many other families with fathers who saw hard combat and wished to forget about it. Still, there are some stories that I can recall these many years later.

One story in particular sticks with me, especially since I am writing this post around Christmas time. Dad told of the barracks full of young soldiers, so many barely out of high school, lying on their respective bunks and sobbing into their pillows as the radio played "I'll Be Home For Christmas." It can be an emotional song for anyone, but for young men stuck thousands of miles from home, it is especially so.

But even when we are far from our homes and long to be back with loved ones, we must remember there is a far better, more permanent home waiting for us. The 23rd Psalm, along with so many other passages (like John 14) tells us we are to look for something else at the end of this life ... something that will endure beyond our wildest imagination.

Just over a week ago, our church family lost a dear saint. Hazel (a.k.a. A.D.) was 95 years old. She had lived a full and obedient life to her Savior. And, while her passing was still unexpected and the news came as somewhat of a shock, I couldn't help but think that she had reached what she longed for. And, to top that off, she was home for Christmas! Oh, the sheer joy of an Advent season experienced in direct worship of the One for Whom we lit the candles in the first place. Home for Christmas ... for the very first time, never to experience the aches and pains of this temporary place again.

There is a certain exquisite joy in the way David writes the end of Psalm 23. Of all the sermons and illustrations I've heard given on it, one stands out in particular, especially given the promotion of our beloved A.D. this past week. S.M. Lockridge, in a way only he can bring a passage to life, keys in on the more traditional translated word "dwell" in the last verse. He begins to get fired up about it, saying it doesn't say "tent" or "tabernacle" ... it says DWELL! God has promised guidance, direction, correction, instruction, provision, and protection for us throughout our entire life as we walk with Him. And then comes the big finish. We get to go home for good and dwell in His very presence.

As we celebrated A.D.'s life and mourned our loss, I couldn't escape the rapture of the thought. She's home for Christmas. She's dwelling in the presence of God. All that was temporary, broken, and painful has slipped away like a shadow in noonday sunlight. She is home for good. And as I walk along my own Crooked Path, my pulse quickens and my steps feel just a little lighter. God has a place prepared for me as well, and He will take me home for good at some point. That's an absolute guarantee.

* * * * * * * *
  1. Are you struggling today under the weight of your life and the circumstances around you? Do you find it hard to see past the next steps?
  2. Have you considered what it must be like to finally reach home for good? Are you confident that God is good enough to "get you through" until that time?
  3. Are you in tune with your Father enough that when you are away from Him as you are now, your heart aches like those servicemen in Tokyo? What is at the center of your longing?
The Message – Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Deaf and Blind - All For The Better

"Hear, you deaf; look, you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the LORD? You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing." It pleased the LORD for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious. But this is a people plundered and looted, all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons. They have become plunder, with no one to rescue them; they have been made loot, with no one to say, "Send them back." Which of you will listen to this or pay close attention in time to come? Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned? For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law. So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart. (Isaiah 42:18-25, NIV)

* * * * * * * *

God’s prophet Isaiah is carrying a pretty desolate message to Israel. They are condemned as a people without sight and hearing … but they would be better off deaf and blind and committed to the Lord then hearing and seeing with nothing to show for it. God goes so far as to say they have been looted and plundered by others and He will pour out his anger on them. And even then, they won’t listen to Him or seek His face. It’s an odd passage, I know, but I think there is a bigger point to be made here.

I happen to be writing this during the last week of Advent. The fourth candle to be lit (traditionally for the theme of love) still hasn’t burned, but so many are burning their own candles at both ends. We hurry and scrape and claw … and for what? We try to accumulate more “stuff” that we don’t need, and all too often ignore what is going on right in front of our faces. I’m afraid that my sight and hearing aren’t that much clearer than the sight and hearing of Isaiah’s audience. I’m just as guilty of paying too much attention to the wrong things and not enough to the One Reason we will light that final Advent candle. If I’m not careful, I could suffer the same fate as Israel.

I am privileged to know a young song writer by the name of Jess Ray. God has given her some incredible insight and a great passion to make Him known to everyone she meets. She wrote a song that I believe fits this theme well, and is the very reason I chose the title and passage I did for this entry. The song is simply titled That I Might Love You and it speaks of all the disoriented distraction this world offers against a soul’s desire to go intentionally deaf and blind so God’s love can become real. Here are the lyrics:

It calls to me and I so easily listen
To a world that’s quickly, and surely falling to pieces
There’s no foundation, no rock to keep me steady
Just lies and poor melodies, Rising up from here.

So make me deaf that I might hear you
Make me deaf that I might hear you, that I might hear you

They dance for me and I choose to believe
In the images of fiction and the crooked men,
Selling their lies to me, telling me I’m free
But there’s no foundation, No rock to keep me steady
Just false advertising, stealing my eyes away from you.

So make me blind that I might see you
Make me blind that I might see you, that I might see you
So make me deaf that I might hear you
Make me blind that I might see you, that I might love you

It is a plea I want to say with all my heart and mean it. If I do so sincerely, my travels on the Crooked Path will be focused more on God and less on me. He will increase; I will decrease. And that truly is the reason we light the candles on the Advent wreath … so we can reflect on Christ and the Way He alone provides.

* * * * * * * *
  1. What are you hearing these days? Is it drowning out the message God has for you, the one that will truly enrich your life?
  2. What are you seeing these days? Do you find yourself blinded to God because of all the glitz and glitter the world is trying to sell?
  3. Are you willing to risk going deaf and blind to everything and everyone but God so you can focus on Him and find He is the only Love you will ever need?

NIV - Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Seeking a Sign of Joy

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’” Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:1-11, NKJV)
* * * * * * * *
Do a quick search on the word “joy” in any version of the Bible, and you will return dozens of references. Almost every passage or verse will note some object or event that either brings out joy or is intended to be an occasion of joy. Among these passages, is the one noted in this entry about the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. To say that particular source of joy has had a profound impact is an understatement.

In ancient times, when men went out to battle, they set up encampments in tents, often in some way or another encircling the command tent. It was the rallying point for orders and leadership. The general (or other commander) gathered there with his closest officers and advisors to plan what the army would or wouldn’t do during the course of an upcoming skirmish. The soldiers would see the flags and banners of their country and other symbols letting them know what was happening.

They would also be searching for a different sign, often with great anticipation. If, above all other flags, they saw the banner of their king, it was a cause for them to take heart and rejoice. Like the Magi, they recognized the banner of their leader and they would rally to him in a fresh way. Their king had taken up residence among them and would lead them personally into the battle.

When I was in college (oh so very long ago), I had the privilege of singing in one of the vesper choirs. Our accompanist was a talented woman who wrote, among other things, Christmas carols. One of these carols spoke of that special star rising up and bringing joy to all who saw it and recognized its significance. If I can recall correctly, the refrain went like this:

The weary men of war rejoice!
Look up, behold, a star.
Rise up, the King of all takes residence
In mortal halls tonight.

I think this captures the joy those Magi must have felt. They had studied the skies, ancient texts, and who knows what manner of sources for one specific purpose. They were looking for the sign indicating the promised Messiah King had arrived. And, when they saw it at long last, they spent the next couple of years following it to Judea. The fact that they stopped to inquire of Herod may indicate that the start “hid” from them for a time, which leads to the climax Matthew notes in this passage. When they came out from Herod, the start shown once again and guided them to their final destination. And that was a cause for great joy.

As I travel the Crooked Path, I need to look diligently for the signs of what God has in store for me. Some will be plain and some may be a bit obscured at times. But the signs will be there. And just like the Magi, I will find a sense of joy in them, because they point me to the only One who is the source of true joy, rest, and gladness. My King has taken up residence with me and the path I walk doesn’t seem so difficult anymore.

* * * * * * * *
  1. What sign are you looking for? Is it a sign that, when you see it, will cause you to rejoice with great joy like the Magi?
  2. If you look toward the center of your life, what banner is flying there? Is it a banner that causes you to take heart and rise up with renewed strength?
  3. Have you, like the Magi, been following a sign only to have it disappear for a season? Has that caused to you re-evaluate what that sign represents? Is it something you truly believe God will bring back and use to point you to Him?

NKJV - Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lead, Inhabited, and Followed

Awake, awake, clothe yourself in your strength, o Zion; clothe yourself in your beautiful garments, o Jerusalem, the holy city; for the uncircumcised and the unclean will no longer come into you. Shake yourself from the dust, rise up, o captive Jerusalem; loose yourself from the chains around your neck, o captive daughter of Zion. For thus says the LORD, "You were sold for nothing and you will be redeemed without money." For thus says the Lord God, "My people went down at the first into Egypt to reside there; then the Assyrian oppressed them without cause. Now therefore, what do I have here," declares the LORD, "seeing that My people have been taken away without cause?" Again the LORD declares, "Those who rule over them howl, and My name is continually blasphemed all day long. Therefore My people shall know My name; therefore in that day I am the one who is speaking, 'Here I am.'" How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, Who announces salvation, and says to Zion, "Your God reigns!" Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices, they shout joyfully together; for they will see with their own eyes when the LORD restores Zion. Break forth, shout joyfully together, you waste places of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, that all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God. Depart, depart, go out from there, touch nothing unclean; go out of the midst of her, purify yourselves, you who carry the vessels of the LORD. But you will not go out in haste, nor will you go as fugitives; for the LORD will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard. (Isaiah 52:1-12, NASB)

* * * * * * * *
When chatting with a good friend the other night, she mentioned a verse that God had impressed on her mind. She quoted the text “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of (her) who brings good news …” and I did a quick search of one of my favorite sites to find the reference. I spent the next few minutes reading the rest of what Isaiah wrote that we have in our Bibles as chapter fifty-two. I was familiar with what Cathy quoted, but the rest of the passage is what made the impression on me.
God is making three distinct promises to His people. He declares Himself faithful and that He will take up their cause and fight for them. His “holy arm” is bared in a show of strength and power. He is not going to let what has gone on (throughout history in Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, etc.) go without notice and without being avenged. He is going to restore Zion and be a comfort.
In restoring Zion, He is promising to dwell with His people once again. While He will go out and fight for them, it is what He will do in providing peace and safety at home that will have the greatest impact. What has been laid to waste will be raised up again and the nation will be made whole as He originally intended. God has spoken and will continue to speak on Israel’s behalf.
Finally, as God leads them out, He also promises to be their “rear guard” as they go forth. He commands them to stop mourning, purify themselves, and go forth in freedom, no longer as bound slaves. God “has their back” and they have no need to fear anymore.
So, how about us today? Do we really experience God leading, inhabiting, and following us? He still does, you know. He is providing in miraculous ways every day, even though it looks just ordinary to us. The God of all Heaven has already sent Jesus to pay the penalty for our sin and redeem us out of bondage. He has gone before us and fought our unwinnable battle. He indwells us in the person of the Holy Spirit, giving us the ultimate sense of peace and joy and communion with Him. He not only leads us, but He follows after us, protecting us from anything or anyone who may try to overtake us from behind and try to destroy us.
As we travel our Crooked Path, we have a God and Savior who is intimately and passionately involved with us! That thought alone ought to make us break out in a joyful song of praise. No, our path isn’t easy all the time. But we do not walk alone … we always have a Leader to follow … and He follows us to pick us up if we stumble as well. I’d say that is news worth spreading.
* * * * * * * *
  1. Are you still looking at your chains, wondering why they seem like they are still locked? Do you feel bound and alone, even though God has declared you free?
  2. What does the concept of having a “rear guard” mean to you? Is it a comforting thought to you knowing that somebody is watching behind you, so you can focus on what is ahead?
  3. Are you ready to go shout out the Good News of a personal Redeemer who is in the business of restoration? Your God reigns … what keeps you from acting like it?

NASB - Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


In addition, you must count off seven Sabbath years, seven sets of seven years, adding up to forty-nine years in all. Then on the Day of Atonement in the fiftieth year, blow the ram’s horn loud and long throughout the land. Set this year apart as holy, a time to proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live there. It will be a jubilee year for you, when each of you may return to the land that belonged to your ancestors and return to your own clan. This fiftieth year will be a jubilee for you. During that year you must not plant your fields or store away any of the crops that grow on their own, and don’t gather the grapes from your unpruned vines. It will be a jubilee year for you, and you must keep it holy. But you may eat whatever the land produces on its own. In the Year of Jubilee each of you may return to the land that belonged to your ancestors. (Leviticus 25:8-13, NLT)

* * * * * * * *

Two things … first, I realize this post has a similar theme to the last one, but the topic is so rich it just deserves more thought. Second, I’m writing this on the Thanksgiving holiday, so I’m already feeling reflective about what God has provided. That being said, I’ve actually thought about this idea of the Year of Jubilee for quite some time. I’ve even thought about seeking out a rabbi so I could get a more traditional Jewish perspective on this most special of celebrations set down in the Law. But my ultimate goal in looking at it is to determine why, outside of the original decree in Leviticus 25, we don’t read about the Year of Jubilee in Scriptures. I have a thought on that as well. I’m not sure Israel ever got into the habit of celebrating the Jubilee.

If this is the case, it certainly explains a lot to me. When God prescribed the various feasts and celebrations, each one was a symbol of some aspect of His personality and love. They found forgiveness in the Day of Atonement. They saw his purity in the Feast of Unleavened Bread. They saw renewal in the celebration of the new year. And they experienced rest in the Sabbath year. But all of these pointed not only to God, but to that fiftieth year when they were to celebrate the Year of Jubilee. Debts (specifically those tied to land and servitude) were to be cancelled. People returned to their ancestral homes. It was more than just a Sabbath rest … it was a picture of the ultimate renewal God would provide through Messiah. Israel would not always wander, nor would they continue to be oppressed and enslaved. God would grant a permanent Jubilee some day.

As was the case in so many ways, I suspect they lost sight of the Jubilee and of the magnificent, renewing grace God gives. While living their daily lives, downtrodden and beat up, the very idea of a Jubilee must have seemed foreign. And then, of course, there was the constant wandering and rebellion. If you look at their history, it shouldn’t be a surprise if they never celebrated a Jubilee. I’m not sure they had fifty uninterrupted years of focusing on God and His Law. Too many times, they chose to proceed on their own, and the price they paid was high indeed.

Then again, I can’t say my vision is all that clear either. I get sidetracked just like Israel, and I forget what it is really all about. Sometimes, the Crooked Path gets too long, too tedious, and too painful for me. At those times, if I am not careful, Satan creeps in to steal my joy and my thoughts of the Jubilee get dulled. I start to view this world as a permanent home, and I’m not happy about the state of affairs. And I lose heart when I forget that Jesus is the incarnation of the Year of Jubilee (thank you, Michael Card).

But God hasn’t lost heart. His vision and His character are constant. He has provided Jesus as my Jubilee. He will grant me His vision and His purpose so I may rise back up and see the Hope He has provided. He will, in that final Jubilee, release all my bonds, remove (not just forgive) my debts and my mortal failings, and He will renew everything in one final act of love. Eden will be restored, and the Jubilee won’t last just a year. It will be last an eternity. The Crooked Path I walk ends at the gates of the Kingdom. On this day above all days, that is something to be thankful for. I’ll say it again … Jesus is my Jubilee!

* * * * * * * *

  1. Have you lost your vision of the Jubilee? What might it take for you to regain it and see what God is doing and what He has promised?
  2. Is your vision of the Jubilee a private one, or a public one? Can people around you see the Joy of God in all you do? What do you suppose would happen if they did?
  3. Are you thankful today? Can you honestly pray “Thank you Jesus for everything” and mean it? Are you ready to let Him be your Jubilee?

NLT – Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not The Last Word

And regarding the question, friends, that has come up about what happens to those already dead and buried, we don't want you in the dark any longer. First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus. And then this: We can tell you with complete confidence—we have the Master's word on it—that when the Master comes again to get us, those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they'll be ahead of us. The Master himself will give the command. Archangel thunder! God's trumpet blast! He'll come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise—they'll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them into the clouds to meet the Master. Oh, we'll be walking on air! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, The Message)
* * * * * * * *
Each year, starting in late October and progressing for four weeks, we celebrate three birthdays in our house. I start things off, followed by my mother, and then my youngest daughter. The birthday flag flies for about a week (not for Mom, since she doesn’t live with us) each time and the cake (or pie, or cheesecake) doesn’t seem to last nearly long enough. As the three people involved are at three distinctly different stages in life, this four-week span provides an insight to the celebrations in equally unique ways.

But, starting just the day after my birthday, we also remember four other milestones of a significantly more somber nature. They also involve four members of our extended family who have left us. Among them are my father, one of my brothers, a brother-in-law, and an infant nephew. All of these losses were hard, though we had some time to prepare for three of them. My father left us abruptly after multiple heart attacks over a six-week span. My brother Mike battled cancer for almost five years before succumbing to its grip. My brother-in-law Darryl spent a year wrestling with cancer as well.
And then there is Michael. Michael was named for my brother Mike who had already been waging his war for some time. My brother Pete and his wife were overjoyed with the prospect of their second child, and we all shared in that joy. Then, one afternoon in November, my pager (no cell phone at that point) went off with the code my wife used for “urgent” matters. I don’t recall what I was expecting to hear, but it certainly was not the news she presented. Michael, just two days from a planned C-section, had left us. As all of us seem to freeze in time when we die, he would forever be an infant.
The quickly arranged trip to Albany followed. I met up with Mike in the Philadelphia airport and we entered my younger brother’s shattered world. We laid Michael to rest on top of my father in a small village cemetery in southern New York State. The grief was as thick and deep as I could possibly imagine it … and so much more for my brother and his wife. But even here, in the darkest of steps on the Crooked Path, God speaks through the Apostle Paul, “You must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word.”
As I talked about this passage with Pete just this week, eleven years later, I can still hear the grief in his voice. He reminds me that this is an often misquoted passage, where some misguided Christian will stop at the comma in the phrase noted. So many of them want you to “get over it” or “not to grieve like the others” or something similar. And they do mean well, but they probably don’t get it. As Christians, we aren’t told to avoid the grief or to shorten the process. We’re told to do our grieving with a great deal of hope. We have to know and believe that the God who conquered the grave in Jesus will present us with our loved ones again. Death, as Paul wrote, is not the final word in any case. It is only a temporary setback.
There is one more event that comes around every year, one that grew great significance in the wake of Michael’s death. You see, Peter and his wife lost a baby girl, Sophie, a few years later. Sophie, like her brother, never took a breath in this world. As part of their grieving process, and in response to the challenge of a pastor to get either “better or bitter,” the lives of these two children are celebrated in one of the greatest outreaches of our time. This year alone, over 160 shoeboxes filled with the love of Christ join Operation Christmas Child, springing from the hearts of an extended grieving family and make the bold statement “Death is not the final word.” God has the last word for all of us, and that word is Jesus. My brother Pete’s steps on the Crooked Path get little lighter seeing all those boxes go out.
* * * * * * * *
  1. Are you in the process of grieving the loss of a loved one, or do you find yourself fighting against it because somebody said you should have gotten past it by now?
  2. Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to minister to somebody else who is deep in grief. Do you have a solid, Biblical approach for coming along side them and sharing in their pain? What would you do if you had that opportunity?
  3. As the pastor at baby Michael’s service charged us all, when tragedy strikes are you going to get better, or are you going to get bitter?
The Message – Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Ultimate Fresh Start

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." He said to me: "It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. (Revelation 21:1-7, NIV)
* * * * * * * *
How many of our games as children involved a “do over”? Things didn’t turn out the way we wanted or intended, so we called “do over” and reset things to try again. Even as an adult, my weekly golf game was sprinkled rather liberally with Mulligans. In so many ways, each of us seeks out and, often achieves, a fresh start to some aspect of our lives. If you really need evidence of this, check out somebody’s resume or the traffic at a new car lot.
Our Christian faith is, for the most part, based on the principle of a “do over”. We accept Christ’s finished work based on the grace God give us and we are reborn. Jesus called this out specifically to Nicodemus in John 3, causing the Pharisee more than a little confusion. I sense that somehow Nicodemus knew he needed a “do over” but the way Jesus portrayed it was hard for him to comprehend. But the fresh start was definitely at the core.
And how many more examples do we find in Scriptures? The woman taken in adultery ends her encounter with Jesus hearing the phrase “Go and sin no more.” Jesus tells the rich young ruler to start again by giving everything away. Even in the Old Testament, God speaks to Abraham about making a fresh start in a new land and then changes his name.
If we look at this all the way John Eldridge portrays it in Epic (yes, I know I went there just a couple entries ago), perhaps our hearts are turned to that final act … the one yet to come. I’ve lost loved ones in this life, as I’m sure many of you have. They’ve gone on to a great renewal in Heaven, but the final act of renewal portrayed in today’s passage is quite different. It is God’s final act of making everything new again. A new earth, a new Heaven, and a new sense of just how awesome He is (and has always been).
C.S. Lewis may have painted the best picture of this in his last Chronicle of Narnia. When Aslan explains to the children that the wreck in the train station was real, that they have died from the perspective of the “shadow lands”, he exhorts them to follow him with the call “Farther up and further in!” This is the final call of Jesus as He makes the final renewal and fresh start for all eternity. It is the very essence of the passage in Revelation where everything is created again new and fresh. It is the final “do over”.
So today, as we travel the Crooked Path, may we look for the renewal from God as He gives us the opportunity to mirror His final fresh start. Our lives are far from easy most of the time, and it can be difficult to overcome our perspective and adjust our attitude. But focusing on Him and remembering the change He has brought, the changes He is bringing, and the changes He has yet to make, perhaps our steps can be a little lighter and our songs a little brighter. As the note I fastened to the wall of my office says:
Remember Who …
Consider Why …
Start Fresh Today!
* * * * * * * *
  1. When did you last feel like you had a fresh start? What were you starting over from?
  2. Do you have a favorite “do over” from a Scripture passage? What one and what makes you especially fond of it?
  3. Do you find yourself longing for the final fresh start? In doing so, are you overlooking the daily opportunity God provides you for renewal? What is keeping you from starting fresh today?
NIV - Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Beyond Thirsty

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63:1-8, ESV)

* * * * * * * *
Perhaps it’s just the odd way my mind works, but the image I recall is from the very first episode of the show Northern Exposure. The young doctor Joel Fleishman has woken up to his new reality. He is, effectively, marooned in a remote Alaskan village. He runs the distance into town (without stopping), bursts into the general store, and promptly consumes most of an entire gallon of bottled water. His thirst is enormous (and his quenching it rather amusing).
Two times in the Psalms, David uses language that engages that picture, but I’m not so sure our English translations adequately capture the scene. In Psalm 42 (verses 1 and 2), he writes “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” To me, the picture here and in Psalm 63 is of a stag being shot at and pursued doggedly by the hunter. He has darted through the brush and brambles at top speed, shells whizzing by him. He finally breaks through to the small clearing beside the clear, spring-fed stream in the middle of the forest. There, his sides heaving as he catches his breath, he lowers his great antlered head and drinks deeply of the sweet, cool water.
That is how I interpret these passages. God wants us to be absolutely desperate for Him. We need to strip away all passion and want for anything else so we can genuinely feel that need and that need alone. The trouble is, most of us are content just feeling a bit thirsty and going to church (or reading our daily reading, reciting a prayer, etc.) and just dowsing our superficial thirst. We never allow ourselves the opportunity to develop that deep, life-defining thirst that God longs to quench. We haven’t raced through the deep woods and rejoiced to find the brook just when we thought we couldn’t take even one more step. No, we’re just strolling down the hallway of life and looking for a quick sip at God’s cosmic water fountain.
The result, rather than our thirst being satisfied, is that our taste for the fresh, cool waters God provides is dulled. We not only fail to long for it the way the Psalmist describes, we don’t even know what it tastes like. Instead, we’ve substituted some rituals and rites and outward affectations for something that was designed to fill the deep crevices of our souls. And, in turn, we don’t find the rest and refreshment because we never go looking for it. Oh, we’ll sing the songs on Sunday that talk about it such as “This is the air I breathe …” but we don’t grasp the depth they hold for us or the strength they can bring.
When we come to the place we are “beyond thirsty”, He alone will give us the Water of Life to refresh our souls. Once we’ve tasted deeply of that Water and taste Him, we understand the true nature of the deep thirst and how it can be constantly abated … sip by sip and drink by drink of God’s gracious provision. And now as we travel the Crooked Path, we will reach out for Him in earnest, rather than just in passing. We will be satisfied beyond our wildest understanding.
* * * * * * * *
  1. Can you recall a time when you have been desperately thirsty for something – anything? What drove you to that thirst?
  2. How is your level of thirst for God? Can you say with the song writer that He is the very air you breathe?
  3. Have you become complacently satisfied with a passing sip at the drinking fountain rather than seeking out the deep, clear waters of God’s provision? If so, what will it take to drive you back to Him?

ESV - Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

In Search of a Motive

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, "Indeed, has God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.'" The serpent said to the woman, "You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.. (Genesis 3:1-6, NASB)

* * * * * * * *
Everything we do, everything we perceive, everything we see is based on a motive. Some motives are plain to see (I buy groceries so I have food to prepare of meals and sustain life). Some actions appear to hide something deeper, perhaps an ulterior motive that could not be achieved directly. Some motives appear just to be blatantly self-serving. But, rest assured, there are motives behind it all … with one notable exception.

God, in human terms, has no motive. Instead, He is the source of everything and all is designed to flow back and reflect His glory and grace. He is not seeking to satisfy some goal or need as we know goals and needs. He has no needs, but is completely self-sufficient within the perfection that is (and always has) existed within the relationship of the Trinity. The source of most of our problems is when we begin to question (or in other words “assign”) motives to God and His actions.

The great tempter Satan did this to Adam and Eve in the garden. He slithered into Eden, sidled up to Eve (with Adam likely standing right there, dumb as a Spring lamb) and began to question what would possibly motivate God to place so many ridiculous restrictions on what the couple could eat or do. In presenting his argument, Satan planted the seeds of doubt about the true heart of God. He portrayed the Almighty as scared and intrepid, fearing that His creations would unwind His mystery and become gods themselves.

And we all know the outcome. The couple bought the lie and soon found out what really happened to God’s heart … they broke it. But God, even a broken hearted God, still reached out across time and space and revealed the source of His infinite love. This wasn’t some reaction either. He knew all along what would happen and He planned all along to glorify Himself by sending Jesus. As John Eldridge would say, the epic God is writing started long before we can imagine. And God is the only constant in the story.

So how does this apply to us in the 21st century? We know all these stories. We’ve heard them since we could first see a flannel graph board. I won’t pretend to speak for you, but from my perspective, I do continue to fall back on the question “What else does God expect of me?” I’m still uncomfortable with the God, portrayed as the ridiculously generous landlord, will reward all equally regardless of our works. I struggle to grasp the idea that I can trust His heart completely to be free of ulterior motives. I beat myself up because of some repeated sin or habit or (even worse) continue to compare myself to others based on what I do or don’t do. I’m no different than Adam and Eve, tricked once again to questioning the goodness of God and His motive.

In his book Lion and Lamb, Brennan Manning quotes James Burtschaell, noting “(God) does not detect what is congenial, appealing, attractive, and respond to it with His favor. In fact, He does not respond at all. The Father of Jesus is a source. He acts; He does not react. He initiates love. He is love without motive.” I think that pretty much sums it up … He acts and my reaction needs to be in line with His glory through His mercy and grace displayed through Jesus. May I carry that thought with me as I walk the Crooked Path today.

* * * * * * * *
  1. How often do you struggle and search for God’s motive for doing this or that in and around you?
  2. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable waiting in His presence, seeking to understand what part He has for you in His epic reflecting His glory? What brings you either out of your comfort zone or into God’s?
  3. Are you waiting to find out what else God expects from you, anticipating that He has some ulterior motive He will spring on you when you least expect it? Are you willing to let go and trust His heart?

NASB - Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Renewed by Mercy Alone

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men. (Titus 3:1-8, NKJV)
* * * * * * * *

I love to show pictures of our kitchen to people, especially when they are standing in it. I have one in particular I like to pull up on the computer screen, ask my friends to step back, and then have them look into the kitchen. The reactions are pretty predictable. It really looks like a different kitchen because my wife and I, before we moved into our house, remodeled it completely. It took a great deal of work on our part (we did most of the labor) but the results are very much worth it. And each onlooker can agree, we should feel proud of what we have done and the change that was made.
Sadly, many of us as Christians have a very similar approach to our lives. Yes, we’ve been saved by grace, but after that we like to show the evidence of some very hard, diligent work on our own part. We’ve been faithful in prayer and giving, church attendance and devotions, and the list goes on. We are far different people than who we once were, and we are proud of the change. Paul says to Titus that people like that have forgotten where they came from and who got them there.
Mercy and grace seem to be tricky things for us. We acknowledge their part, and yet we still seem to work so hard to fulfill them. Something within us wants to feel good about what we’ve done, to feel like we’ve earned our position with God or at least a little higher position. It just doesn’t sit well with us that the God of the Universe has given us everything as a free and unearned gift. It all just seems too easy (at least most of the time) and we respond by trying to work it out. And in doing so, we forget who we were and where we came from.
God has provided everything … period. There is nothing to add to His “kindness and love” shown to us through Jesus. We have nothing on the non-Christian, be he good or bad morally, but our participation with God through Jesus as our Savior. We brought nothing to the transaction and can add nothing to it. Any “good deeds” we do now come as a response to the incredible love God displayed to us and serve as acts of worship, not merit. And most of us, in our heads, know this is true. Which leads to the real question … why do we keep living as if our actions determined our position with God?
And this cuts both ways, because while we go on living like we can earn some standing with Him, we look down on the rest of the world and smugly say “They are getting exactly what they deserve.” Therein lies the heart of what Paul writes to Titus. Complacent Christians casting stones at everybody else instead of reaching out in love and reflecting the Kingdom.
As we travel our Crooked Path, God will continually put people in our way who need Him and we can demonstrate that by understanding how they need us as well. It isn’t some socialized version of the Gospel, but a practical outgrowth of our faith and a clear representation that demonstrates we know who we were and the One who has saved us. In reaching out to them with kindness and good works, we reflect God’s mercy and give entry for Him to show His Son so they might be washed and renewed just as we are. After all, it isn’t about us, it’s about grace.

* * * * * * * *

  1. Are you now or have you ever gone through a “smug Christianity” period in your walk of faith? Can you see how wrong that is? Have you forgotten where you came from?
  2. What would it take to remind you of the renewal and regeneration that comes only from God and His work?
  3. Have you shied away from “good works” because you think they look too much like a socialized version of the Gospel? If we don’t feed and clothe those in need, how else do you expect them to understand the love God has in store and to see Jesus in us?

NKJV - Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Grousing About Grace

"God's kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work. "Later, about nine o'clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went. "He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o'clock. At five o'clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, 'Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?' "They said, 'Because no one hired us.' "He told them to go to work in his vineyard. "When the day's work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, 'Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.' "Those hired at five o'clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, 'These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.' "He replied to the one speaking for the rest, 'Friend, I haven't been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn't we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can't I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?' "Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first." (Matthew 20:1-16, The Message)
* * * * * * * *
The Pharisee within me completely understands the response of the 6:00 AM workers. If you are honest, the Pharisee within you does as well. Many of us have been raised in Christian homes under Biblical teaching and discipline since we were very young. The core of that teaching was grace, to be sure, but all too often there were additions made that sounded good, but they aren’t part of our “deal”.

Once you are saved, if you work hard for God, your rewards in Heaven will be great … greater than those who didn’t work hard during their Christian life. That’s what we were told so many times and in so many ways. It was never overtly a works theology, but it certainly played out as one. We were told clearly and plainly that God blesses the life lived for Him. And I have no debate against that at its purest core. God does want us to live a life that pleases Him and works for His kingdom. The key here lies with the idea of “extra blessings” that are granted or even guaranteed.

The early workers in the field watched with growing anticipation as the hired labor was paid. The one-hour workers got their dollars and moved on. The six-hour workers got their dollars and moved on. Certainly, they would anticipate getting at least two dollars, or perhaps even more. It didn’t matter what they had agreed on twelve hours ago or even what the going day rate was for manual labor. They saw a ridiculously generous master and they began to salivate for something more. Imagine their shock at receiving exactly what they agreed to.

Or do you even have to imagine it? God, in the part of the radically benevolent landlord has offered the same salvation to everyone on the same terms – believe and repent. Nothing we do can add to that one bit. Paul was clear in Romans about our status apart from grace. And yet, we somehow want to take verses and passages about working for God to mean we are guaranteed something more just because we had the opportunity to find God’s grace in Jesus earlier than others. And in doing so, we actually “devalue” God’s grace in our hearts and minds, which is a very sad thing.

We should daily be falling down on our faces, astounded that God has chosen to give us anything at all. His promise to us is clear – believe and live forever … take up your cross and follow me … drink of this Living Water and never be thirsty again … so many ways of saying the exact same thing. We rebelled and deserve absolutely nothing! God, in his incredible grace, made provision for us to live in His kingdom forever. Like the angels, we should rejoice every time another sinner comes into relationship with Christ. But somehow, we get stuck too often grousing about what we didn’t get versus what somebody else did get.
As we travel the Crooked Path, may our focus be on what God has done for us and what He is willing to do through us. We are members of a redeemed community and our “work” should be to spread the news as far and wide as we possibly can. Anything we do for God is, at best, filthy rags and we all know what those are worth. Instead, we need to glorify God for His provision and reflect His love and ridiculous generosity to a dark and dying world. That is a task worthy of our Master.
* * * * * * * *
  1. When is the last time you compared yourself to another Christian, specifically so you could feel “good” about what we’ve accomplished?
  2. Do you feel some level of distain that God has provided His grace to so many “unworthy” people out there? Or do you rejoice that one more person is saved from eternal separation from God?
  3. Where is your heart and your focus? Are you expectantly rejoicing in what God has done, or stubbornly grousing about what you think you deserve?

The Message – Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Small Understanding, Bigger God

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” "It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him. We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the one who sent us. The night is coming, and then no one can work. But while I am here in the world, I am the light of the world.” Then he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and spread the mud over the blind man’s eyes. He told him, “Go wash yourself in the pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “sent”). So the man went and washed and came back seeing! (John 9:1-7, NLT)
* * * * * * * *
Eugene Peterson starts Jesus’ response with the mild instructional rebuke “You’re asking the wrong question.” In this brief passage, I believe we get a unique glimpse into the epic story God is unfolding around us and an opportunity to expand our understanding and our field of vision regarding our lives, our world, our place in eternity, and most of all our redemption.

For the longest time, I found myself in the position of believing teaching that spoke of, essentially, a dualistic God. We were told about His “perfect will” and His “permissive will”. As I’ve studied that concept more and embarked on a journey to increase my own understanding of my Creator, I just can’t buy into that line of thinking anymore.

I’m not casting stones here. I know there are many sincere Christians who believe this as a way to explain things in their own lives. And, effectively, that is what it is … a human explanation (or an attempted explanation) of an infinite God. But as I talk with fellow believers and then turn again to a passage such as this one, I’m convinced that isn’t the right explanation.

In my regular men’s group recently, my friend Billy challenged me once again on this subject. I was talking about God’s original creation of a perfect, sinless world and people with the soul imprinted design of the Almighty. Sin comes into the world via the first temptation, mankind falls, and God enacts his plan of redemption.

But, as Billy put it, God knew all along the world He created would be corrupted. He had planned before the beginning of what we call time to create the world and man fully knowing Satan would confound and corrupt the whole thing. Adam and Eve’s action of rebellion didn’t somehow take Him by surprise and leave Him scrambling to formulate a plan. God had intended it all to happen right from the start.

This is where the passage in John really came into focus for me. Our need for redemption is just another way for God to show His glory to everyone. Just like Jesus’ answer to the disciples, it isn’t about some particular identified sin. It is because of SIN … the universal evil product of the first rebellion … that God shows us His glory and power. This isn’t about a single act of redemption or healing. Everything represented in the restoration of the blind man’s sight, my own salvation, or anything else of that nature we witness is because the Creator God of the entire universe is showing us just who He truly is and what He is capable of doing.

I came back to Billy shortly after our discussion and told him he was absolutely correct. To believe anything else, to even think that God created a plan “on the fly” as a result of something we did or that He is somehow sitting there waiting to act based on what we do or do not choose to do, would mean that God I claim to worship is basically unstable at best and a schizophrenic at worst. I can’t speak for you, but I’m thinking that is not the case.
If I can trust that the Holy and Infinite God of the Universe is absolutely in control and will reveal His own glory and power on His terms and in His timing, it makes my life much easier. The Crooked Path doesn’t seem as tedious, and the “momentary trials” I experience all feel lighter. God is actively, personally interested in me and He is working it all out on a much grander scale. That’s a concept I can grasp and rest on. After all, He is a much bigger God than I can possibly imagine.
* * * * * * * *
  1. Do you find yourself trying to look for reasons and explanation for everything that happens to and around you? Has your vision and concept of God been narrowed by your own experience or by somebody else trying to “sell you” an explanation?
  2. Can you trust God to be good even when “good” doesn’t look the way you envisioned it?
  3. Is your God one of single-minded purpose … to proclaim His glory, or is He much smaller and sometimes confusing? How would you expect the “bigger God” to act in your life?

NLT – Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

An Earnest Prayer

As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, "O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.' They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man." (Nehemiah 1:4-11, ESV)
* * * * * * * *
I’m borrowing liberally from my pastor and my men’s study group again. We’ve been on a series about “normal prayer” for several weeks. At the same time, our men’s study group began studying the life of Nehemiah (we wanted to look at a man who both started and finished strong after our David study). Thinking about the two, Nehemiah’s prayer in the first chapter stands out like a shining beacon.

If normal prayer is after the model Christ gave to the disciples, Nehemiah’s prayer fits it almost to the letter. He starts with a distinct reverence for the One he is approaching, calling out the awesome and steadfast nature of God. He is appropriately contrite and humble, taking ownership on a personal level for the sin of his nation, his family, and himself. And even before that, he prepared himself by fasting and mourning for several days. You might say he took his prayer life very seriously, especially given what he was about to ask.

And God does want us to bring our requests and petitions to Him in prayer. He loves hearing from us. The trouble is, sometimes we seem far too familiar when we approach the Almighty. We have our prayer list that we are checking off as we go (not a bad thing, mind you) and we view what should be an act of worship as just another task to complete. And we expect God to be pleased with our efforts.

God wants us to pray expecting His answer. He wants our worship as part of our prayer and as the framework for our relationship with Him. If we start our prayer by acknowledging his absolute holiness … and then try to really live in that way, it will change our attitude and approach to our conversation with our Maker. One of the most pointed and beautiful illustrations I’ve ever heard regarding prayer came years ago at a home group meeting. Our leader read to us several scenarios of people coming to prayer as if they were approaching God in His office. The working man came in at the appointed time as if it were another meeting to attend, made his requests, and left. The busy woman came in, dusted a few things, flopped down in a chair and sighed, made her requests, and left.

But the child crept in quietly, feeling a sense of awe just to be there. He crawled up in the chair and, when asked what was on his mind, replied, “Is it OK if I just sit here for a while? This is a pretty special place.” And so it is. Friends, we have been granted a one-on-one audience with the Creator of the Universe. We need a little childlike wonder in us to begin to appreciate that. We should, as Nehemiah did, give honor to the One who grants us entrance. It is an absolutely amazing opportunity!
As we travel the Crooked Path, may we stop often and reflect upon who God is and what He is doing in and around us. As we bring our sincere petitions and requests, knowing the outcome is in His most capable hands, may we find rest, reflection, and connection with the God who loved us to such a degree that He crafted a plan of redemption so expensive, He paid for it with the blood of His own Son. Now that’s Somebody worth communicating with.
* * * * * * * *
  1. When you pray, do you begin by actively recognizing who God is and what He has done, perhaps recite a verse from a Psalm or your favorite worship song?
  2. Have you fallen into the habit of just praying through a list without a thought to your connection to the Creator? How would you pray differently if you considered yourself having the exclusive ear of God when you pray?
  3. Do you feel like God is close and present when you pray, or does He seem distant and aloof? Is that because of who He is or because of how you approach your conversation with Him?

ESV - Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Heart Transplant

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD,” says the Lord GOD, “when I am hallowed in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God. I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. I will call for the grain and multiply it, and bring no famine upon you. And I will multiply the fruit of your trees and the increase of your fields, so that you need never again bear the reproach of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations. Not for your sake do I do this,” says the Lord GOD, “let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel!”

‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will also enable you to dwell in the cities, and the ruins shall be rebuilt. The desolate land shall be tilled instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass by. So they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden; and the wasted, desolate, and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’ Then the nations which are left all around you shall know that I, the LORD, have rebuilt the ruined places and planted what was desolate. I, the LORD, have spoken it, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 26:22-36, NKJV)

* * * * * * * *
It occurs to me that when I focus on myself and my own plans (or more accurately schemes), I harden my heart of stone and end up breaking God’s heart. Yet if I will lay aside my desires and truly seek God, He has promised to perform a heart transplant and give me a heart fashioned after His. I take this to mean not only will I desire what He desires, but I will put myself in the position of making my heart “breakable” as well.

And here’s the rub … I really don’t like my heart being in a breakable state. You see, my baseline self is pretty angry. And I’m especially angry when the way I envision things doesn’t pan out or somebody else won’t follow my lead when clearly it is the best option out there (or not). I struggle with a perfectionist nature and find myself leaning on my own strength and intellect to make things happen. In other words, I like my “unbreakable” stone heart.
But God doesn’t like it. In fact, when I act out of a stone heart, I tend to grieve His heart and break it. Somewhere in my mind I know what He wants is complete surrender and I know I’ve been happier the times I’ve done that. Yes, that ends up making my “God heart” vulnerable, but if I am to reflect His image to a lost and dying world, wouldn’t it be better if my heart were breakable, especially if it breaks over the things that grieve God?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that once you commit to Christ, He transforms you and you are completely and permanently adopted. But this world is still severely tainted with sin and we are subject to that environment continually. Our mandate is to pitch our hearts toward God continually and put away (Paul says “mortify” or kill) the sin that would try to enslave us.

As His part, God has promised a heart transplant for us. He will remove our stone heart and give us one like His own. Our new heart will beat for Him and our relationship will move toward restoration. God will have perfection once again because that is who He is and what He does. He will live in our new hearts and cause us to walk with Him and for Him once again. On that day when He calls my name for the final time, He will shatter this stone heart once and for all. At that point, my new heart won’t even be breakable anymore, because God’s heart and mine will be joined for all eternity.
So as I continue to walk on this Crooked Path, I can rest assured that God is more than willing to do my heart transplant and move me toward perfection. It will happen on His terms, but He will see it done. And there is a complete restoration in store for me ahead. I really can stop trying to do it myself because His way is much better. It’s even worth that temporarily breakable heart instead of my cold stone one.
* * * * * * * *
  1. So, what is your heart made of … stone or flesh? If it is made of stone, are you ready for your transplant?
  2. Are you in tune with your “stone heart” choices grieving God and breaking His heart? Do you have a tendency to try and run things your own way?
  3. Have you given up your own version of perfection for God’s process that leads to true perfection? Are you longing for the day when He will shatter your stone heart once and for all?

NKJV - Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Distorted Images

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need ... During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-10, NIV)

* * * * * * * *
If you study the Old Testament, particularly the book of Leviticus, you learn of the original pattern God set down for His people, the children of Israel. Leviticus lays out the specifics for feasts and offerings, worship and sacrifice, service to God, and responsibility to man. It is a model of precision and, if followed, was not only a structure with a promise of blessing, but a picture of what was to come for Israel and, ultimately, for us.

The Aaronic priesthood played a major role in all of this. God had anointed Aaron, his sons, and specifically the tribal clan of Levi to serve Him by leading the people in their daily worship, their sacrifice and offerings, and the appointed festivals and celebrations. Each one of these acts, as originally prescribed by God, was a picture of what was to come and of the promised Messiah. It would have worked well for everyone, except for one small detail.

The men serving as priests, dedicated though they may be, were sinful themselves. The sacrifices, the offerings, and the feasts were merely a reflection of who God truly is … and they were a distorted image at that. Over time, the people would go through the motions and rituals just because that is what they were accustomed to doing, and they lost much of the connection (cloudy as it was) to the magnanimous nature of the Eternal God. They came to see them as the “real deal” rather than just reflections designed to point them forward.

As I listened to Hebrews a while back and heard chapters 4 and 5, it began to dawn on my that God’s provision of the Aaronic priesthood and all the festivals, offerings, and feasts was never meant to replace the image of Jesus as our ultimate high priest. It struck me that Jesus is called a high priest “in the order of Melchizedek” and not identified with Aaron. Then again, Jesus wasn’t a Levite either. I reflected on the limited Biblical account of Melchizedek … a man with no recorded beginning or end. And then it made sense … Jesus is not only our High Priest, but our King as well, just like Melchizedek. God gave us all the rest the images to point us to the One, True, and Perfect Revelation of His character and being. We cannot substitute what we see for what we are promised because the images are intentionally clouded with the trappings of this fallen world. Only Jesus will break the final veil between us and God and bring perfection.

C.S. Lewis said it best in his final Chronicle of Narnia. We live our lives in the “shadowlands” and we must always remember that. What we see and experience is not permanent and is not, in fact, reality for us. The problems come when we begin to view what we have as the answer and end up missing God’s Answer. And I don’t say this as some kind of fatalist either. It is the harsh reality of life in our fallen world.
But, even though the pain and distortion of the crooked path is all around us, we have a Great High Priest who has also walked where we walk. He has already broken through to the other side and is making it ready for us. He will (and one day soon) call out to us to leave the shadowlands and, along with Aslan’s character in Narnia, lead us on calling out “Farther up and further in!” Knowing that, I can endure for a little longer on this current crooked path.
* * * * * * * *
  1. Have you come to view the current “images” around you as the real thing, rather than as mere reflections of something better?
  2. Do you find it hard to comprehend that Jesus experienced life in this world fully and completely, so that He can understand everything that you struggle with?
  3. Are you ready to look beyond the “shadowlands” and reach out to the One True High Priest who is like no other we have ever known? What in this world can possibly hold you back?

NIV - Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Enough is Enought - I Quit

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, "I believed, and so I spoke," we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:1-18, ESV)
* * * * * * * *
On August 9, 1914, explorer Ernest Shackleton and 27 hand-selected men embarked on a trek to reach the South Pole. The men would travel half way around the globe only to end up stranded in an ice flow. They watched as their ship, stuck fast, was heaved and crushed. Through an amazing turn of events and a story worthy of their ship’s name, The Endurance, Shackleton and two of his team finally arrive at a whaling outpost on May 20, 1916 and initiate the final rescue of all of their comrades. Quitting, even in the midst of the direst circumstances, obviously never entered their minds.

We won’t likely face the extremes that Shackleton’s party did. However, to us, our problems will seem every bit as weighty and intense. We will examine and re-examine what has happened, what is happening, and project into the future what we think might happen. We will struggle, fall, weep, and get up only to struggle and fall again. This much is certain, the Crooked Path has much treacherous ground and we will have to cover it. Our Bible and our Lord declared we would have “much tribulation” in this world and we certainly can see the effects around us.

But Paul offers another promise. He exhorts us not to yell “I quit!” because these troubles that surround us are, as our passage states quite clearly, “light and momentary.” Yes, we are of frail bodies and weak minds, but that is only the temporal vessel of our eternal soul. And that eternal soul is what God considers to be of interest and value.

“But wait,” you counter, “these difficulties are FAR from insignificant to me.” And you go about citing political unrest, economic difficulty, war, and a host of other headlines from today’s news. Paul counters (in verses 5 and 6) that we still should not lose heart because our place is to proclaim Christ, and He conquers all things. This is exactly what the Master said to his disciples in John 14 when He exhorted them not to be troubled or afraid.

And, to be certain, this is a promise of enduring power. God is not attempting to pull some bait and switch on us. There is no secret formula we must labor to discover. He has not stopped paying attention to us or lost interest in our lives. He remains constant and sovereign above all else … and that must give us strength to endure what we must endure. It is in our weakness He shows Himself strong.
So, when the crooked path becomes too difficult and I want to scream “I Quit!” it is likely I’ve forgotten Who has ordained the path and Who walks it with me. If God calls these troubles “light and momentary” it is because He sees beyond them to the person I will become. He sees the unseen, and that is of great comfort. My part is to surrender, and that doesn’t mean to deny the pain or make light of it. And in surrendering, I grow to trust His goodness all over again … and the troubles seem a little less troublesome.
* * * * * * * *
  1. What difficulties are facing you right now? Is your vision of God big enough to view them as “light and momentary”?
  2. Are you in a position to trust God completely? Can you rest in his goodness even when “good” doesn’t look like you thought it should?
  3. Are you willing to endure and not be troubled? Is your relationship with God based on the seen or the unseen? Can you give it all over to Him and stop fretting about your “rescue”?

ESV - Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Illusion of Control

When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it. But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, "Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. "Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life." The LORD said, "Do you have good reason to be angry?" Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. So the LORD God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered. When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah's head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, "Death is better to me than life." Then God said to Jonah, "Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?" And he said, "I have good reason to be angry, even to death." Then the LORD said, "You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. "Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?" (Jonah 3:10 – 4:11, NASB)
* * * * * * * *
It was one of those moments where something dawns on you in a way that never happened before about that particular idea. I wasn’t directly thinking about it, but I did have thoughts of a friend in mind. The friend had expressed some frustration about a family situation (the particulars don’t really matter) and had made a statement about how difficult it was to give control over to God and just let Him have His way. Several days later, while driving and listening to an entirely different passage, these thoughts came pressing down on my mind.

Laying aside the standard lessons about rebellion and repentance and even turning the focus from the obvious imagery about the three days Jonah spent inside the great fish, I have come to believe that, for the modern Christian, the book of Jonah is presented to us to help demolish our illusion of control. And while I will continue to believe that God in His sovereignty has given us complete free will of choice, control is never part of that bargain. Jonah made that mistake multiple times and God consistently showed who was ultimately in control.

A quick reading of the book of Jonah finds at least six comparative references to Jonah making a choice and God intervening in the situation, showing that He is in control of all events and outcomes. Jonah chooses to flee … God hurls a great wind at the ship. Jonah convinces the sailors to throw him overboard … God appoints a fish to scoop him up. Jonah chooses to pray and repent … God causes the fish to vomit him up on the beach. Are you seeing the same pattern here as I see?

In the midst of our making choices and decisions, we all too often act like Jonah and think we can somehow manipulate God and wrest control from Him. We plot and plan and scheme to “make things happen” all the while causing God to either laugh or weep as He continues being Who He is and deftly controlling every outcome. His purpose will be done regardless of our participation, yet we seem to think we can overcome that by our own force of will.

How much less pain and how much more joy would we experience if we would actively seek God regarding our choices and give over our illusion of control? Jonah held on to his right to the bitter end and even wished to die based on his anger over a plant (one that God “appointed” to grow in the first place). While we see the choice of repentance from the people of Nineveh, we only see bitter remorse and regret from Jonah because he didn’t get his own way. And the truly sad thing is, if I will be honest enough to admit it, I am more often like Jonah … I like my illusion of control.
If you have seen the VeggieTales take on Jonah, you may resonate with the remark of the worm/caterpillar Khalil who, while he is leaving Jonah’s side, states, “You are pathetic!” Our illusion of control is definitely one that should be demolished so we don’t end up like Jonah. May God rescue us from our own choices and guide us to be comfortable with His control.
* * * * * * * *
  1. Are you struggling with your own illusion of control? What is it in your life that causes that struggle to continue?
  2. Do you truly believe you can make better choices without considering God’s plan and involving Him? As Dr. Phil would say “How’s that working for you?”
  3. How much of yourself do you see in Jonah? Are you struggling with an angry response to what God has done or is doing in your life and in the world around you? What will it take to shatter your illusion of control?

NASB - Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.