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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Getting Back to the True Message of Christmas

This year, as I've listened to the radio, read Christmas-themed articles, and shopped for gifts in the store, I think I've heard every kind of answer to the question, "What is Christmas All About?"  Some say vague but nice-sounding things like, "giving," "spending time with loved ones," "joy," and "peace."  Some answers are more disturbing, such as the sometimes sexually-suggestive songs that are so popular this season.

You know what?  Christmas is a cheerful season, with lots of pretty lights, nostalgic songs to sing, pretty packages full of things we want, great food, and greater company.  It's become a tradition on many blogs and public sounding boards to harshly criticize the merchandising, the parties, and the tinsel, but I won't here.  I feel the beauty and generosity of the season are good things, which warm the soul and can show God's love to others--obviously when done in moderation and with the right motives.

Christmas got started with a desire to celebrate a very important birthday, which happened for a very important reason.  The real birth date was not known, so one was chosen, possibly to coincide with pagan celebrations in worship of the sun.  In fact, early church members disagreed with celebrating Christ's birthday at all, because it was a pagan practice of the Romans to celebrate the birthdays of emperors, who claimed to be gods (see this article entitled, "Why December 25?" on Christianity today).  Many still reject Christmas for this reason.

 But, I digress.

Stepping back from all the controversy for a moment, I can see the real significance of Christmas is getting lost.  Why should Christians celebrate Christmas at all in the midst of all of this?

To answer this, I would have to begin with the testimonies about Christmas I have heard from my Indian friends and boyfriend.  They grew up surrounded by a totally secular culture that loves constant festivals and ceremonies, revelry and color.  From their perspective, Christmas is perhaps the one big chance every year for Christians to testify to this culture about Jesus' life and message.  It's the one day of the year that Jesus gets any attention in the public lens, however brief it is.  To them, Christmas is a different kind of festival than all the others, focused on hope and Christ's sacrifice, not human traditions.  It's not even so much to them a chance to talk about a baby in a manger--it's a bold time to talk about why Jesus came.  He didn't come for gold, frankincense, or myrrh; He came to die.  The real message of Christmas is the cross.

In the Western world, where most people have heard the story of Jesus before, we can sometimes deceive ourselves into thinking that giving toys and gadgets is a "good enough" witness of the life that Christ has given us.  This is a sad testimony if we really believe it, wrapping up fear and dismissive thinking in the disguise of holiness and generosity.

That brings me to another testimony I found in a newspaper obituary this summer.  It celebrated the life of a formerly-Muslim immigrant from India, who came to my part of the US in the early 1960s.  He was hostile to the message of Jesus until one Christmas season when some kind of personal troubles drove him to accept a friend's invitation to a church service.  Apparently the promise of "peace on earth" in a traditional carol was enough to convince him to give Christmas another chance. The obituary didn't detail much about it, but something brought this staunch Muslim to repent on his knees at home on the evening of December 25, and from then on, he became a bold witness for Christ.  His whole family gave their hearts to the Lord, and took the occasion of their father's death to print his testimony in the newspaper!

So, to ask it again: What is the significance of Christmas?  It's not in the presents or the time with family, it's not in holiday lights, tinsel, or feasting.  It's an occasion to testify about eternal life--the true message of Christ's ministry.  For perhaps one or two months a year (in the West), or maybe only one day in the East, people are listening.  Are we talking?  Can we be bold this Christmas?

I will proclaim the message here, for any searchers who found my blog this Christmas time:

At the beginning of time, God, the creator of life, made humankind to know Him and to live with Him, and in His goodness, He drew a line between what is good, true, kind, and just, and what is rebellion and injustice.  To His dismay, the people He had created chose to cross that line, even though they knew that the penalty for rebellion was separation from God (that is, eternal death of both body and soul).  He didn't want this separation to stand, but He couldn't revoke what He knew was a good law.  This led God to a plan that would both meet the requirements of the law and satisfy His desire for reunion with humankind.  Since death was the punishment, He sent a substitute for those who were condemned to death.  No human substitute could be found, since all humans were already doomed to pay the penalty and couldn't pay someone else's penalty as well.  Therefore, God sent His own son to die.  Christmas celebrates the beginning of Christ's life on earth, which was set to end in death.

Jesus was able to pay the penalty for others because He had not disobeyed God.  The curse of death didn't apply to Him, so God raised Him from the dead.  Now, anyone who recognizes their penalty and asks Jesus to pay it for them can escape eternal death and rise again, with Jesus, in the same way, with the penalty lifted from them.

The reason why we change our ways and begin to obey God after Jesus redeems us from death is not to try to buy this salvation; it is because we reject the folly that got us into this mess.  Rebellion no longer holds its charm when we have seen the freedom that salvation, God's way, brings.  Therefore, if you have asked Jesus to redeem you today, don't return to your old sins.  Learn God's ways, which have brought you life, and reject what brought death.  It is a better and more secure way, as you will discover.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are You Stressed Out for the Holidays?

I've seen tons of stress-relieving tips popping up all over the internet these last few weeks, but unfortunately I haven't seen anything to help the spiritual needs of stressed-out people.  I mean, telling people to cook and freeze an extra casserole for busy days is a good idea, but that solution doesn't address the deeper needs at present.  What is causing the stress?  How can God help us deal with it?

Obviously, the holidays are strongly associated with lots of activities, most of which require a lot of time to plan and lots of money to pull off.  Besides deadlines and finances, there are also the trials of dealing with difficult people (including visitors and people in the stores), work-related projects or even lay-offs, and generalized feelings of inadequacy.  When in the midst of all of these stress generators, we need comfort and refreshment--and God can do that for us.

God Expects Obedience, Not Perfectionism

We often miss the difference between obedience and perfectionism, and it can be a cause of some serious stress right about now.  When I write about obedience, I mean doing what is right by God's standards, whatever the personal cost.  On the other hand, perfectionism, especially at its holiday worst, is the pursuit of the appearance of goodness by following all the rules and pleasing people.  It is okay to want to please, but it's a mistake to lose sight of God's standards of goodness and perfection.  Social rules can sometimes be tougher to achieve, or can even lead us away from God's plan.

For example, the hostess who burns the turkey will not be barred from heaven for doing so, but social circles can remind her forever of her mistake.  God measures and values us by our hearts (1 Samuel 16: 7), not by our cooking, the way we dress, the way our house looks, or our choice of wrapping paper.  Anyone who is getting stressed out about these things should keep this in mind, and relax, because we cannot be justifiably held to a higher standard than God's.  If we are right with God, we are "good enough."

For those who are going to be guests rather than the host or hostess, it is also important to remember God's standards of conduct and treat the hosts and fellow guests with love at all times.  That includes when someone snaps at us while under stress, or when someone comes to a party looking to reopen old grudges.  If we let perfectionism take over, we will get stressed out because "nothing is going right," but if we focus on obedience and conduct ourselves with grace, God will credit it to us as wisdom and righteousness (Proverbs 19:11).  Things may not go "perfectly," but "love covers over a multitude of sins," (1 Peter 4:8 NIV) and "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger," (Proverbs 15: 1 NIV).  If there is any path to perfection during the holidays, it can be achieved through obedience to God.

God Has Time to Hear Us

Speaking of interacting with others during the holidays, I can say that frequently, when we get really stressed out, we bottle it up and blow up at others.  Unfortunately, that can be pretty stressful for those individuals, especially if they are going through the same stress we are.  That's why it's important to release our troubles to God, before they come out of our mouths as abuse of our brothers and sisters.  The Apostle Peter wrote, "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you," (1 Peter 5:7 NIV).

It's not just a trite phrase.  Letting God know what is bothering us is the first step toward overcoming the stress and anxiety in our hearts (Philippians 4: 6, 7).  It always takes away the stress to share our problems with a good listener, who is not in a hurry to go elsewhere, or ready to pass judgement before the whole story is told.  God is that listener!  Some of us try to perfect that skill, but I must say, God will take the call at 3 a.m. without grumbling or reminding us of the time.

God Can Take Away The Stress or Change Our Attitude

Besides being a good listener, God is also a good "fixer."  Sometimes we keep our troubles to ourselves, because we fear unwanted help that is more disruptive than helpful.  God is not the bringer of that kind of help; He hears our requests, and gives us what we need to receive (Matthew 7: 9-11).  He is our peace!

Now, I know that many would like to read here, "God will always take away the cause of the stress."  However, that would be a lie.  Sometimes God chooses to let us go through stressful situations without any relief in sight.  He's trying to help us grow in our faith that He is really in control, and really our strength, in every situation.  Otherwise, we could forget God and imagine that we can manage life on our own.

That said, God doesn't send us into a stressful or difficult situation alone. The Bible says, "I can do all this through him who gives me strength," (Philippians 4: 13 NIV).  The essential ingredient is God's strength, not our own.  Where we lack endurance, God can help us.  Where we lack patience, God can instruct us.  Where we lack stamina, God can give us a boost of energy or physical strength that helps us get the job done.  It is a comfort, even for the most independent soul, to depend on God rather than our imperfect selves.

These are some things to think about as we go into the busiest time of year, the Christmas season.  I'm praying for you that you receive God's comfort and that you are able to manage your stress through the grace of God, putting all things into their proper perspective and overcoming the obstacles in your path.  Until next time, stay savvy, talk to God, and rest in God's peace!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Six Things I'm Thankful For

It is almost Thanksgiving here.  For those international readers who may not know, Thanksgiving is a celebration in the United States where we traditionally gather with family and sometimes friends to eat a banquet and thank the Lord for the good things that happened to us this year.  It was first celebrated at harvest time by a group of our earliest settlers, after a terrible winter that killed many of their members.

For so many in the US today, the Christian origin of the holiday, together with the focus of the occasion, seems to have been lost.  Many of us have not known the kind of hunger and tragedy that those first settlers had faced.  That itself is something to be thankful for.  Sometimes we get so caught up in the joy of seeing family members who have traveled far, and we forget the other blessings we have received throughout the year.

So, at the risk of seeming trite, I wanted to thank God for my blessings today.  I know that just going through the exercise will improve my outlook.  I encourage each of you to do the same!
  • I'm thankful for the lessons God has patiently taught me this year.  More than anything, I think the lesson has been to hang on and wait for His plan to unfold, because "godliness with contentment is great gain," (1 Timothy 6:6 NIV).  Waiting can be frightening and frustrating. I've been through the whole spectrum of emotions, but I'm thankful that God held me throughout.
  • I'm thankful for the great people I have come to know in the past year.  I don't have permission to specifically name names, but you know who you are.  You've taught me to put my life in perspective, particularly in a global perspective, and the freshness of your faith and steadfast hope in the Lord that you have exemplified is inspiring! "I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.  For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge—God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you," (1 Corinthians 1: 4-6 NIV).
  • I'm thankful for the great people I've known for another year.  I'm so glad you put up with my shortcomings, and I'm thankful for all the ways you have helped me throughout my life.  You are priceless! "How can [I] thank God enough for you in return for all the joy [I] have in the presence of our God because of you?" (1 Thessalonians 3: 9 NIV).
  • I'm thankful for the difficult people and trying times that God used to make me grow.  It hurt at the time, and remembering still hurts, but I see that I learned invaluable lessons that easy times don't teach.  "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance," (James 1: 2, 3 NIV).  You put me to the test, but I have forgiven you.
  • I'm thankful for the great distances God has carried me over the years.  Earlier this week, I found an old photograph of myself, from almost ten years ago.  I could see some naivety that the past ten years has knocked out of me, and I found myself thanking God for being my Teacher and Friend, but most of all for carrying me through it all, as I know He will continue to do.  I am His handiwork, and I am who I am because of His faithfulness, "rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as [I was] taught, and overflowing with thankfulness," (Colossians 2: 7 NIV). 
  • I'm thankful for the material blessings God has brought my way.  So often over the past year I have focused too much on my finances, and I've given worry too much of a place, but when I look back over the year, I see it has been the most prosperous year in memory for me.  I'm still not where I want to someday be, but I see the miracle in it all.  In a struggling economy, I've been blessed with an increase, and in the global economy, I am richer than most people on the planet.  The only appropriate attitude is gratitude! "The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.  I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread," (Psalm 37: 23-25 NIV).

 I could go on, but I think that is enough to get everyone thinking about their blessings.  What do you have to be thankful for?  Write about it on your own blog, and backlink your post to this one.  I'd love to read it!  Thank you for being such faithful readers!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Five-Step Cure for Anxiety

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God," (Philippians 4:6 NIV).

The past few months have been a real test for me in the realm of anxiousness.  I see that, just like the church at Philippi, I still need to work on my worry.  I have too often given in to anxiety about money, or about wasted time, or about relationships.  I don't know what the Philippians were worried about, but I suspect it was about these same sorts of things, or perhaps a more general need for security in the midst of trials.

We don't have to let anxiety shut us down.  In fact, we should not even let it enter our lives!  It is the opposite of what God wants for us.  He has given us a hope and a future (Proverbs 23: 18; Jeremiah 29: 11), one that we can look forward to, and be certain of.  Let me say it again: Our future is not in jeopardy; it is determined, and certain! Our future and our very lives may seem threatened, but God is in control, and He is holding us.

Even though I know this is true, I still struggle with it from time to time.  I imagine I am not alone in this feeling.  Paul gave us some good tips for dealing with anxiety, if we read the context of the verse at the beginning of this post, in Philippians chapter 4.
  1. Have an attitude of praise, no matter the circumstances (verse 4).  Paul didn't say "rejoice in the Lord when things are going good," nor did he write, "You are allowed to stop celebrating when things are rough."  Why should we praise God when we are having a hard time?  Because directing our minds off our troubles and onto the God who takes care of us can improve our mood and maybe even put some things in perspective.  Why should we praise God when we are having an easy time?  Because God gave us the good times and the bad, and He is with us through them all!
  2. Be gentle to others; God is near (verse 5).  When we are upset, harried, or otherwise burdened down or burned out, we tend to be rough on others around us.  The resulting arguments and troubles between ourselves and others will only make a bad situation seem worse to us.  It adds to worry and anxiety, rather than lessening it.  It's important to remember that God is near to comfort us, and He sometimes sends others to comfort us.  We need to be gentle and ready to receive that strength from others, rather than receiving them with unkindness, in an unchristian manner.
  3. Always pray, thanking God (verse 6). We serve an awesome God, who is always listening to our requests and is ready to deal with them for us.  There is no need to worry about how we're going to perform miracles to solve our problems--God will take care of our needs, and He will take care of us during the time of need.  Remembering to pray always shuts down anxiety in me, and I imagine it works for others just as well.
  4. Focus your thoughts on good, positive, and praiseworthy things (verse 8). The key to furthering your anxiety is continually mulling over every circumstance that is worrying you, one by one, without stopping.  I've soured many good moods this way, and I've let a few bad things cause me to forget the good things that happened during the course of the day.  If you find yourself only thinking about worrisome things,  change your thoughts.  Play some uplifting music.  Read your Bible.  Talk to God about what He did for you in the past.  Read a chapter in a fun novel.  Go outside, away from things that remind you of trouble and anxiety.  This is very important!
  5. Mimic good examples and good habits that take you away from anxiety and into the peace of God (verse 9).  If a Christian you admire has overcome the circumstances that are making you anxious, study how he or she did it and glean what you can from that example.  A good teacher can help you learn how to apply the principles in the Bible to your own life, so seek out good examples!
If we can get into the habit of following these steps, our moods and anxiety will improve greatly.  In fact, I believe this is the cure for anxiety.  God's ways of doing things are greater than our solutions.  We should give it a try, and let God work in our lives.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Trying to Disprove Christianity?

My last post managed to draw one visitor who was looking for ways to disprove Christianity, but I must say that doesn't trouble me much.  I confidently believe there is an answer from the Bible for every question of that sort.  I speak from personal experience.

I can't count the number of times professors and others have cast doubt on belief and made me question things I'd always taken for granted about the Bible.  One great weapon I once wielded against this sort of quasi-logic was C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, which was originally presented as a series of radio talks broadcast during the London Bombings of World War II.  That must have been something to hear, in those circumstances!  I really should read that again soon.

There seems to be three main lines of attack against Christianity, and I've encountered them all in a variety of places, from churches to news shows and from public universities to internet websites.
  1. A subtle twisting of facts as they are written in the Bible, such as pulling verses out of context, or pairing them with verses that are unrelated, to create unsupportable positions.  The goal is to create a doctrine, or line of reasoning, that appears to be backed by Scripture.  The next step is to knock down this strange logic and make it appear as if Scripture is unsupportable and self-contradictory.
  2. Omitting facts that are inconvenient for the theories and teachings being presented.  For instance, last time I spoke about the theory that Christ fainted rather than died, and pointed out that the stab wound on the cross would make that theory unsupportable.  A similar argument that Jesus was a good, accepting guy cannot stand against His strident and decidedly intolerant statements against sin and polytheism in the culture He lived in.
  3. A direct attack on the provability or accuracy of the Bible, including a dismissal of prophecy, miracles, and supernatural events, and attempts to undermine the authority of the Scriptures themselves.  This appears to be the most successful, because in the same stroke, it attacks the logic and good sense of opponents and also appears impossible to disprove.  However, it is extremely risky, because it can be dismantled in the same kind of direct approach, using secular historical records, natural science, archaeology, and anthropology.  For instance, scholars long used the lack of an Israeli state as "proof" that the End Times prophecies could never happen, but 1948 changed all that.  Others tried to undermine the authority of Scripture by suggesting it has changed over time, but the Dead Sea Scrolls disproved that.
I believe that God defends Himself, and defends the truth about Himself. We don't need advanced degrees in logic and reasoning to address attacks on our faith, because God already did the work--we just need to benefit personally from the work He's already done.

When presented with these three types of attacks, the best approach is the direct one.  Don't try to put it out of your mind, because it will gnaw on you.  Do your research.  Question what the Bible actually says on the topic, and take no one's word for it until you have read it yourself.  This defeats the first and second types of attacks.  When faced with the third (which is often accompanied by belligerence and bluffs), seek the counsel of several good sources, who have experience in addressing these issues.  They will guide you to proofs, both internal and external to the Bible, that belligerence can't overcome.  That's where Mere Christianity and other similar books come in.  Don't rest until the matter has been completely put to rest.

Above all, we should treat our opponents with grace and understanding, addressing their questions but not returning in kind.  They may be trying to tear us down, but that is only because lies have torn them down.  As Paul instructed Timothy,
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 23-26 NIV)
I know how these attacks can erode faith to the breaking point, but I believe that spending time studying the Word will fix these painful doubts.  It brings us back to the reasons why we first believed, and reminds us of points we had forgotten in the midst of the attack.  It grounds us in the truth.  That's why it's valuable to look into these things.

Until next time, this is my reminder to you to stay savvy and stay up on your reading!  It's a lifesaver when you are under attack.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Do Not Be Deceived; Christ is Risen!

In college, I had one professor who told the class that he would accept any written interpretation of the poems we were reading, as long as we could find sufficient proof of our point in the text itself.  In other words, if we wanted him to believe our take on it, we had to find a lot of things that supported what we were saying, and explain away all of the things that seemed to disprove our point.  This task is a lot trickier than it may sound.

Last night, I discovered that the old second-hand paperback novel I've been reading for awhile was actually an attempt to disprove Christianity.  I suppose I suspected it all along, but I had been withholding judgment until the end.  Less than fifty pages from the end, the author suddenly began clumsily trying to explain away the miracles of Christ, His crucifixion and resurrection, and even the calling of Paul.

My outrage over the distortion and omission of evidence throughout this anti-Christian diatribe has led me to talk about such things today.  I don't want to mention this author's name, or the name of his book, because I don't want to give notoriety to people who disseminate false information.  I will, however, address the author's theories, because they are commonly propagated thinking:
  •  Parables and even non-miraculous prophecies concerning Christ are accepted as having really happened, but problematic prophecies are neatly avoided.  For instance, it is easy to accept the prediction that Christ would enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey's foal (Zechariah 9:9). That can be arranged by human effort.  It is much, much harder to accept other Messianic prophecies, such as Christ's virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14).  A good theory should have an explanation for every prophecy; it should not be so easily undermined by additional information.
  • The claim that Jesus did not die at the crucifixion, but rather fainted, was put forth.  I have heard this many times, but it always omits a vital detail from the crucifixion--the account of the Roman soldier piercing Jesus' side (John 19: 33-35).  The soldiers had come to break Jesus' legs to hasten His death, but they found Him already dead, according to the Biblical account.  Obviously, based on the story in the Bible, the bloody water gushing out meant that the Roman soldier hit something vital with his spear, as he intended, because he, too, wanted to make sure Jesus hadn't just fainted.  It was his job to ensure there were no survivors of this execution.  I've read some medical theories put forth that said the organ punctured was the pericardium, the watery sack around the heart.  It makes sense to me that the soldier would have aimed for Jesus' heart in this killing blow.
  • The claim that this was a small group of isolated people, who all believed in Jesus anyway, and thus saw what they wanted to see at the time of His crucifixion.  The only way this could be believable is if there had been no evidence that could convince an outside skeptic.  This means overlooking the supernatural occurrences on the night of Jesus' death, which even Pharisees and Romans observed and could confirm.  For instance, there was three hours of darkness during the daytime, from noon until 3 o'clock (Matthew 27: 45), a serious earthquake that tore a very thick curtain (about a foot thick) that hung in front of the Holy of Holies, and a lot of dead people who came back to life and entered the city, appearing before many (Matthew 27: 50-53).  Even pagan Romans are recorded as having spoken out their belief that Jesus was no average man, to have died with such signs around Him (Matthew 27: 54).  To say early believers made these things up is ludicrous, since they could easily be proven or dismissed.  The fact that they could so easily been dismissed is itself verification that they did happen.
  • The claim that the apostles and even Paul were naive, having been deceived by Jesus and several "co-conspirators," including Judas.  Considering the context and the penalty of joining in lies of this magnitude or believing in them, I think this is at best an arrogant insult to human intelligence--both mine and these early Christians.  Concerning their alleged naivety, though the apostles were uneducated men (Acts 4: 13), they did not lack the ability to think.  Paul, in contrast, was one of the best educated men among all of Israel; he knew what scripture said and could not be tricked by a few twisted scriptures, or even a multitude of them (Acts 22:3).  If they were in any way not acting in a clear, well-informed frame of mind, they had to be crazy, not merely naive.  Furthermore, this theory is ridiculous because, when faced with the threat of death, most people take stock of what is important to them.  People don't die for something they doubt themselves, and certainly are not inclined to die for something they know is a lie.  Maybe a few might try such a thing, but at least one person who is "in on it," will talk. 
I could go on analyzing the book and these commonly-held false theories about Jesus, but I think that is enough to make my point.  There is far too much evidence supporting the deity of Christ to easily dismiss this claim with a few half-baked theories.  Any good theory would have to answer all the evidence presented, or it would fall short of being believable.  Well, at least, that's how it should be.

Anyone can believe in theories without hearing the opposing evidence.  This is done all the time, and it attracts a large readership of people who don't check their facts.  These theories leave readers in jeopardy, because one well-aimed fact will undermine all that they believe.  I pray that for the sake of the deceived, the facts will destroy these theories before too many are taken in by them.

It is best that Christians should not be numbered among the gullible masses.  As my banner for the site reminds you, Christians are warned to be, "shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves, " (Matthew 10:16 NIV).  My mission with this site is to inform Christians and encourage them to analyze these tricky theories, rather than fall victim to their entanglements.  The truth needs no defense, because it defends itself.  Our minds need defense, so we should arm our thinking with the truth.

Until next time, this is my reminder to stay savvy and hold on to Jesus.  He is worthy.  He really came, He really rose from the dead, and He really is coming again soon!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Remember

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.  They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.(Psalm 19: 1-4 NIV)

A long time ago, people used to use flowers to send coded messages to each other.  This was a part of a "flower language."  Most of that information has been forgotten, but a few remain.

Pansies symbolize the phrase,"remember me," because they were thought to resemble a human face.  I don't know about that, but I think they do make me remember one very special someone in my life--Jesus.

The Creator of the world thought I was important enough to send me there's a thought for today.

All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.(Psalm 22: 27, 28 NIV).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Growing Backwards

It seems that grownup life is layer upon layer of increasing complexity.  Maybe it is boredom with the simple concepts we once came to know, or maybe this reflects our advancing skills in everything from juggling tasks at work to cooking a gourmet dinner.  More likely, it has to do with the competitive nature of adulthood.  If you can't distinguish yourself from the rest, you could suffer rejection and loss of one kind or another. All I can say is that being a grownup is tough.

Our relationship with God is quite the opposite of "being a grownup."  Don't get me wrong.  It takes maturity to face the things that come with being a Christian, like dying to self and enduring persecution.  When it comes to the bare bones of Christianity, it's really pretty simple, and that's just what God wants for us.

While life gets more complicated with the passing days, God has very much simplified what He wants to see in us.  It's like growing backwards, and it's really quite refreshing.  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these," (Matthew 19:14 NIV).  Heaven is full of people who come to Jesus with the same level of trust, understanding, and faith as little children!

Take a moment to study this.  The children who swarmed Jesus were eager to know Him and see Him.  They didn't question His claims that He was the Son of God.  They just accepted Him eagerly.  They didn't complicate matters by wondering if they were worthy to know Him;  they didn't contemplate whether they were attractive enough, holy enough, learned enough, rich enough, or popular enough.  They just came.  This simple motive, to know Him and be known, is what Jesus most longed to see in those adults who also swarmed around Him.

God doesn't want anyone to be blocked from knowing Him, due to some lack of skill or distinction.  It's not a competitive race to the top with Him--He wants us all to be winners!  Here's the most-quoted passage on childlike faith in the Bible, for review:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.  And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18: 1-4 NIV)
I'm sure that gathering of adults was wondering, "What could this random kid know that I don't know already?"  The answer to that is key.  The kid didn't know anything that they didn't already know.  The kid already had all the qualities that God needed from all of them:  Faith, obedience, trust, love, humbleness, attentiveness, etc.  God needs only the most basic of ingredients to work miracles.  That's how He transforms everyone who comes to Him, from the greatest to the least.  It is His skill, not ours, that shines, and His righteousness, not ours, that makes us ready for the kingdom. 

The problem that adults have is too much complexity, which stands in the way of what God wants to do with us.  As Peter wrote, "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance," (2 Peter 3: 9 NIV).  God is waiting for us to recognize our overdeveloped sense of self-righteousness, and become humble and meek in our faith.  We need re-training in what is good and praiseworthy.  We need to become like children again, just learning from our Teacher, and stop coming to class with the attitude that we know more than the one teaching us.

It's time to go back to the basics with our faith, and praise the simple, unquestioning belief that isn't obscured by the cares of this world (Matthew 13:22).  Those who humble themselves to the authority of Jesus and humbly, obediently, selflessly obey what the Bible teaches will prosper.  Those who look for loopholes will stumble over their own faithlessness in God's competence.  He is competent, and His work proves that.

Let's grow backwards today, toward a simple, childlike faith, and find rest in Jesus.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5: 6, 7 NIV)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Persistence Results in Growth

Today was an exercise in persistence for me.  I discovered a data entry project that seemed important and therefore urgent.  Little did I know that it would take almost four hours of constant repetitive tweaking (several small changes on each of approximately 100 things) to set it right.  By the half-way point, I was ready to do anything but finish!  The urgency seemed to have faded, and I longed for a shortcut, easy button, or magic wand.  It wasn't just a test in patience; it was a test in persistence.

Patience is the quality of being able wait for something without whining or protesting.  Persistence, on the other hand,  is continuing to try without giving up, even when the cause has gone away.  When it comes to long projects, we have to show patience to wait for the end without complaining, but we have to demonstrate persistence in doing something the right way, as many times as necessary or for as long as it takes.  Both are a mark of maturity.

So how did I fare today?  I think I did every piece of data entry with the same attention to detail as the last, but I will admit to complaining when I started getting tired and my lunch break was delayed.  I'm not there yet, but I'm working on this quality in myself.

Persistence, I see, is not just a good quality in business.  It's an essential part of spiritual growth, too.  We have to demonstrate patience when waiting for God to remove obstacles or answer prayers, but we also have to demonstrate persistence in our relationship with Him.  That means consistently praying, studying the Bible, and worshiping God with the same level of excellence and sincerity at all times.  It means not giving up or losing steam over time, when things seem comfortable, worn, or less exciting than at the beginning.

Persistence.  My word for today.  Can we learn persistence?

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up," (Galatians 6: 9 NIV).

Monday, October 17, 2011

Growing Through Praise

It is so easy to praise God when everything is going well. It doesn't take much maturity at all to remember to praise and thank God when things are going right.  It's nothing short of common courtesy, really.

The tough times are another thing entirely.  It doesn't seem like there is anything to thank and praise God for, when we are suffering under oppression, persecution, and fear.  However, praise is not an option in those times, either.  It is a necessary part of growth in our relationship with God.

The psalmist who wrote Psalm 113, declared at the beginning, "Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore," (Psalm 113: 2 NIV).  He didn't say, "Praise God when times are good."  He said to praise God constantly, starting now.  He then went on to elaborate, "From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised," (Psalm 113: 3 NIV).  We are to praise God all day long, coast to coast, nation to nation, and in every stage of darkness and light in our lives.

The psalmist outlined two good reasons for doing this: (1) God is sovereign and ruler of us, overseeing everything and more powerful and worthy of praise than anything in creation (vs. 4-6); (2) God can easily and miraculously fix all of our problems, from poverty to barrenness (vs. 7-9).  This means that God is praiseworthy because He is God, but more so, because He is supremely good.

It is a lie to think that God is being unkind to us when hard times come, or that He is no longer worthy of praise.  Our perspective may be skewed by our circumstances, but God is never changed.  We must always remember that our God looks down on everything; He is never overcome by troubles or blinded from watching our daily lives.  Unlike imagined gods in the world, the sovereign God sees us and is moved to kindness by our hard times.  He is moved to protect us, to lead us, to bless us, to rescue us.  He doesn't just see, but He acts, and His every reaction is righteous.  This righteous quality is eternally praiseworthy!

This realization, I believe, is what gave the early Christians occasion to praise God, even when they were chained in prison, awaiting death (Acts 16:25).  They weren't seeing God's action at that moment, yet they demonstrated an unshaken faith in the character of God that sees beyond circumstances.  God is praiseworthy in His character at all times.  They were praising God because of who He is.  Their eyes were focused on Him, not on their own circumstances.  Because of their faith, and because of His plans, He delivered them--but that is almost beside the point.

An immature faith is still largely focused on ourselves, and what we feel we need to get from this relationship. It takes a mature faith to look beyond circumstances and focus on the reality of who God is, and praise Him for that.  Can we have eyes for God, and not just for our needs?  That is the challenge for today.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Weekly Snippet: He Knows Us Completely

I've been talking about growing in the Lord lately, trying to step back and really study what that means.  Christians today aren't following a dead religion, born of a dead book, and focused on a dead Christ.  He still lives, He still speaks, He still loves!  How little do we recognize what a miracle that is!  How often do we forget the God we are trying to know, and try to appease Him with ritualistic obedience?  When we pray, we are speaking in the ear of God, who hears us like a friend, lover, or parent would.  No need for formality and ceremony when sincerity is needed!

Something led me to re-read Psalm 139 this morning.  It talks about how closely God studies us and knows us.  Although human parents, siblings, friends, and spouses may know us so closely that they can almost always predict what we are about to say or do, God knows us better.  He knows our thoughts (v. 2); He knows our words before we speak them (v. 4); He saw us before we were formed, before we were born (v. 15, 16); He knew all of our days before the first one began (v. 16).  What's more, we cannot hide from Him or move so far away that He can't be with us (vs. 7-12).  There is no person who could ever care about us this much.  No one, not even the most doting mother or loving spouse, could ever love us this much!

God has invested so much time in getting to know us.  He loves us to the point of preoccupation, and I don't mean that in a negative way.  We are flattered when our boyfriend or girlfriend remembers our favorite ice cream or can read us so well that they can predict and respond to what we are about to ask.  We should be flattered, rather, awed by a God who cares to know so much about each of us.

We should also return that love, to the best of our abilities.  God knew we couldn't get to know Him as well as He knows us, because we are finite, so He did His best to make Himself known.  He introduced Himself to us before we asked, and told us about Himself before we got curious.  He's come more than half-way to meet us.  How can we love Him back with the same passion?

I think we should mirror His actions toward us, and the feelings will come along with those gestures.  When someone does something kind to you, and you reciprocate, an affection is formed.  So it is with God.  God reads and studies His book about us, and we should read and study the Bible, written about Him.  God studies our thoughts and anticipates what we will think and do; similarly, we should seek to understand and anticipate what God is thinking, through what He has shown us about His view of the world, and right and wrong.  God stays with us, wherever we are, and His hand is always upon us, and we should likewise follow where He told us He will be, and keep our hand firmly in His.  It's not hard, and it's not "religious."  It's a natural affection that grows imperceptibly, not willfully by the things we are doing but freely because of the things that we do.

Here is a video, by the group Downhere, that talks about rediscovering God and growing in your personal relationship with Him.

Those are my thoughts for today.  Do you have other suggestions for getting to know God like He knows us?  Leave me a comment!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Growing in Wisdom

Lately, spiritual growth seems to be a recurring theme on this blog.  I feel this is an important topic for the body of believers everywhere.  We are increasingly under attack in the world today, whether it is physical, verbal, or emotional persecution.  It doesn't matter where a Christian lives or who he or she knows.  Christians, because they are called by that name, will face trouble (Luke 21: 17).  This situation calls for wisdom, so believers today can handle trouble with grace and keep their faith strong under the battering ram.

The Beginning of Wisdom

It is easy to say that something "calls for wisdom," but in practice, it can seem very hard to acquire that wisdom.  What can I say?  Growing in wisdom (or any kind of positive growth) will necessarily be painful.  To achieve virtue, we have to put to death the non-virtuous aspects of ourselves.  To achieve wisdom, we have to put to death the foolishness in our hearts and our thinking.

Put to death?  That sounds pretty harsh, doesn't it?  Yet that is how Paul described it--like crucifying ourselves with Christ (Galatians 2: 20; 5: 24).  Wisdom requires that we not only identify what is foolish in our behavior, but also that we eliminate it, permanently, from our lives.  Cutting something out forevermore is as close to killing it as I think we can get with this metaphor.

Turning our back on foolishness is also easier said than done, but the Bible tells us how to do it.  To start with, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding," (Proverbs 9:10 NIV).  If we don't fear God--that is, if we don't have healthy respect for His lordship and judgement over how we live our lives--we will never be wise.  This is something that even Christians need to remember sometimes, so that we don't fall into the trap of believing that God is our "chum" and not our judge as well.  Yes, God is our friend, but He is also capable of disciplining us.  If we can't believe there are consequences for foolishness, then we will never be motivated to change.  This motivation is the first step of the process.

Ways of Getting Wisdom

God made many ways of acquiring wisdom available to us, and none of them require superhuman powers.  Remember, His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11: 29, 30).  Rather than threatening us with a vague feeling of doom at some future time, and no directions on how to avoid it, He sends people--yes, people!--into our lives to do the work of discipline and instruction all along the way.  It should start with our parents (Proverbs 1:8-9; 29:15), but if we weren't fortunate enough to have parents to faithfully teach us the wisdom of the Lord, God will send us friends and even strangers to correct us when we err. If we appreciate this when it happens, and recognize the lessons, we will grow wise.  A wise heart cherishes rebukes from God, no matter the method or the vessel.  As it says in Proverbs, "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses," (Proverbs 27:6 NIV), and in another place, "Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise," (Proverbs 19: 20 NIV).

There are faster, more painless, and more direct ways of gaining wisdom.  The first is to spend time reading the Bible and faithfully putting its teachings into practice.  It is preferable to learn something before punishment forces us to take it seriously, just like it was always better to truthfully answer "yes" when your mother asked you if you had cleaned your room, brushed your teeth, or taken out the trash.  I believe that studying the written word of God is what made Samuel a man of wisdom and a leader in Israel (1 Samuel 3: 19-22), since Eli, who was raising him, was not known to be a good parent who disciplined his sons.  We can benefit the same way today from just spending time reading the Bible daily and measuring our decisions by that standard.

The second painless way to gain wisdom is to directly ask God to give it to you.  This is like signing up for the accelerated course.  God can teach wisdom to any fool through discipline and from reading the Word, but it may take many repeated lessons before even the tiniest bit of wisdom is imparted.  Meanwhile, those who ask God for help in grasping the lessons will be given the ability to learn and understand more quickly.  What's the secret?  Human pride, which causes us not to ask for help when we need it, gets in the way of wisdom and shames us publicly through the necessity of repeated lessons (Proverbs 11: 2).  Humility, on the other hand, is rewarded by God.  Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, asked God for wisdom because he was already wise enough to understand the urgency of his need for wisdom as a ruler, and God granted it.

Growing in Wisdom

 So what can we learn from all of this?  As Daniel so wisely observed, God "gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning," (Daniel 2: 21b NIV).  Those who are wise will be given more, and those who persist in foolishness will continue to look foolish.  It is certainly better to grow in wisdom!

Today, let us yearn for that growth, because that is what God wants for us.  Let's go beyond the daily lessons and rebukes, and ask God to give us His wisdom.  We need it now, without further delay!  We need to learn from God's encouragement, rather than His punishment, because that is the best way.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Thought Traps

I've been thinking today about some of the traps in thinking that so many of us (even Christians) fall into from time to time.  They aren't right beliefs, but this kind of thinking feels comfortable, logical, or easy.  Sometimes that can become dangerous!  This is why it's important to be analytical, prayerful, and maybe even a little self-critical from time to time, so we can catch these things before they wreck our lives.

Here are a few beliefs I've been analyzing today:

It is easier to believe that what we see is all that exists. However, the Bible constantly reminds us to pay attention to what is going on behind the scenes.  There are forces of good and evil at work at all times in the world around us (Ephesians 6: 12; Daniel 10: 12-14).  Just because we cannot see them, does not mean they don't exist.  It is vital that we remember our Adversary, Satan, and our Ally, God, and also keep in mind that God has already defeated Satan.  It's important that we don't focus too much on merely temporal things, because they distract us from the real issues.

It is easier to believe that we can be good enough, worthy enough, or deserving enough to have good things. The days of human worthiness passed away when Adam and Eve, followed by all of their descendants, chose to disobey God.  Now justice truly dictates that no one is good, worthy, or deserving.  No one has "leverage" with God, but those of us who know Him can confidently ask for and receive mercy from God (Daniel 9: 17-19; Hebrews 4: 16).

It is easier to believe that the payoff must be directly proportionate to the work we put into something. This seems right, maybe even biblical in its proportions, but it can lead to all kinds of errors. If this were true, then we would be able to work for grace, and we would always be paid for work we loved and put our whole effort into doing. Christians who obeyed God all their lives would get a better eternal reward than those who only obeyed God for the last five minutes of their time on earth.  In reality, God only asks of us that we obey Him and honor what is good, but the results are in His hands.  We can take comfort in knowing that whatever God gives us, it will be a good reward, and we will be satisfied in it (Matthew 7: 9-11; Deuteronomy 11: 13-15). God takes care of us, not the effort of our own arms, and He gives us what is good for us (even if it's not what we expected).

It is easier to believe that the truth is still out there, needing to be found, rather than present with us and revealing itself to us daily. Some people take a greater delight in the hunt for the truth than they do in the truth itself, but this is a trap.  Don't fall victim to the philosophical superiority of those who try everything but are not searching for a place to settle and grow in their faith.  They have no security in what they believe, and they yearn for depths they cannot reach.  God didn't make us to be satisfied with partial answers and a lack of spiritual depth.  The good news is, God made truth easy to find (Deuteronomy 30: 11-14), so we can move swiftly into the deeper levels of knowledge of Him!  God is truth, and He wants us to find Him (John 14:9).  We don't have to search long before we can get our deepest questions just ask!

Monday, October 3, 2011

When God Trains You for Bigger Things

"When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned," (Genesis 39: 3, 4 NIV).

Joseph knew, early in life, that he was meant for big things, but he didn't begin life with the skills and abilities already developed.  God carried him through hard training, so that one day he could juggle the responsibilities of a nation as well as those of his own household.  Joseph started managing Potiphar's household, moved from there to managing the prison where he lived, and from there, he went on to manage all of Egypt.  The superior organizational skills he had developed probably saved countless lives during the drought the region experienced in his day, and the consequences are still being felt through the modern-day descendants of that generation.

What can we take from this?  I've been thinking about that today.  I see that the struggles we are going through in life today may be God's way of developing our "muscles" for the responsibilities we will have to shoulder in the days ahead.  Remember, God doesn't make the problems, but He is always making solutions out of our problems.  As Paul put it, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose," (Romans 8: 28 NIV 2011).

Joseph was called and raised up for a purpose--to save many lives, including those of his own family.  However, he didn't get there by himself.  He had to submit his will to God and continue to trust God, even when it got tough.  Because of his steadfast faith, God was able to equip and use him!

Similarly, many of you today may feel called for a purpose, but you may feel unable to accomplish it.  Take heart!  If you put your trust in God, He will equip you with the abilities you need.  An earthly teacher can lead us to harm, because he or she can't see what lies ahead, but God has proven Himself to be a God who gives sight to the blind, and who prepares us with the knowledge to stay out of trouble. Any student who trains with Him will grow to be like Him.  That is a good thing!
"He [Jesus] also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?  The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher." (Luke 6: 39, 40 NIV)

This isn't a passive, learning-by-osmosis equipping; you will have to apply yourself to the task of learning.  When life brings a challenge, put your trust in God and ask Him to guide you and to reveal the lesson.  Pair that with a thorough study of Scripture, because, "all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work," (2 Timothy 3: 16-17 NIV).

More than likely, God is already at work in your life, training you for bigger and grander things.  Today, learn the lessons He sends!  He is teaching you righteousness and building virtue, so that you will be ready to handle whatever life brings.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Thank You God for Making Things Grow

I learned, long ago, that it is possible for a "grown up" to act immature or childish (Genesis 25: 30-34), and on occasion, children can act wiser than their years (Matthew 21: 15, 16; Mark 10: 13-15) .  Age does not grant wisdom or automatically make us role models.  Height doesn't make us "bigger" people.

This was a tough realization for a kid who so desperately aspired to be "grown up."  It seemed that older people knew everything and had everything.  Was this "grown up" quality a skill I needed to master, like jumping rope?  I never was that coordinated, and I had little faith that I would remember to do the right things at the right time--there were always so many rules to remember.

What made some people grow up, while others stayed behind?

In my prayers, I've felt God telling me that humans have been given great skill to reason and teach, but that He alone can make people grow (1 Corinthians 3: 7).  God makes us grow in stature and physical maturity, but more importantly, He makes us grow in spiritual maturity.  The first is something we aren't likely to willfully resist.  It hurts to refuse to eat, or to walk around with a brick on our head!  The second can only happen if we willfully submit to it.  We don't gain spiritual maturity without making the conscious decision to obey God, no matter what.  We have to decide to let Him grow us!  That is difficult.

I am far from being as "grown up" as I always wanted to be.  First of all, I never got as tall as I wanted to be.  Now the only physical growth I can achieve is horizontal, if you know what I mean.  More importantly, I'm not as mature spiritually as I know I should be.  I still have limited faith, limited hope, limited patience, and weak perseverance.  When I forget this and believe I have it all under control, God patiently reminds me of these weaknesses and calls me again to listen to Him and trust what He says.  I know that if I go to Him, through these challenges God will make me grow--and that's what I want.  As James wrote, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything, " (James 1: 2-4 NIV).

That's my prayer for all of us today--that we will continue to be challenged by God, and bow our knee to the challenge, so He can make us grow into something we both can be proud of.  Through dying (to ourselves, and our sinful inclinations), we can grow in the Lord. 
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.   Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.  My Father will honor the one who serves me." (John 12: 23-26 NIV)
Can we aspire to be "grown up" in the Lord, today?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Prioritizing Prayer

In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon advises the novice that the best way to defeat people in their prayer life is to lead them to feel that they have to be in the right mood or frame of mind in order to pray.  It is true that I have often thought that I was too tired, overworked, or stressed to take time out of my schedule to pray, or that it was "just not the right time." As a consequence, I can confess to some dry, defeated periods in my personal prayer life.

The truth is really that we should always be willing to pray.  Always.  The Bible literally says, "Pray without ceasing," (1 Thessalonians 5: 17 KJV).  God is always ready to hear from us, whether we are in a bad mood, happy to the point of distraction, harried and scatterbrained, contentedly busy, or deeply upset about something.  He is a friend who likes to talk to us, and He always has time for us.  Honestly, we all can be hard to talk to, at times. What human friend do we have that is this available, and patient with us through our most extreme moods?

Now, that said, it is easier to quote Bible verses like this than it is to put them into practice.  Because of our human weaknesses, we often forget to talk to God.  It frequently is not meant as a deliberate slight...we just...forget. Or maybe, at the heart of the matter, we don't prioritize prayer.

Daniel had a daily routine for prayer.  Though he was one of three administrators over one of the greatest kingdoms of ancient history (the Medo-Persian Empire), he took time out of that busy office and court schedule to pray three times a day, every day (Daniel 6: 1,2; 10).  We don't know when he started doing this, but the Bible reports "he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before," (Daniel 6: 10 NIV). He already had a routine when the edict was passed.  It could be that he had specially built his house with windows that opened toward Jerusalem, so he could pray toward the temple there, as Solomon had taught, to acknowledge God's living presence among his people and attentiveness to their requests (2 Chronicles 6: 18-21, 36-39). However long he had been doing this is not as important as the fact that Daniel considered these prayer times such an important routine that he was willing to disobey a royal edict to keep to it.  He put such priority on speaking to God that he risked death to pray!

What can we derive from his example?  For one thing, the tenacity in Daniel's faith and prayer life is something I think we should try to match.  He suffered great hardship, and even the things he did well were not without their hazards.  In the midst of all of this, he learned that persistence in his relationship with God was beneficial (both to himself and to others).  Whether things were going well or going south, he was consistent in his obedience. He prayed because it pleased and honored God, who was constantly watching him.  More than once this humble but stubborn prayer habit saved his life and lifted him above disaster.  Because of what he had seen, he valued prayer and refused to neglect the opportunity, for any reason.

Daniel was a captive of an invading enemy, living far from home in a land where his faith and lifestyle were not generally accepted (and sometimes prosecuted).  Today, most of us are not living in such times.  I know we may not have the same obstacles that Daniel faced, but I won't say that persistence in prayer will be easy.  Our flesh, our attitudes, and our schedules will constantly work to disrupt this habit, if we let it.  Prayer is not even considered politically correct, so we might encounter some persecution.  If we can overcome these things, with God's help, and hold prayer as our highest priority, we will be rewarded in our life, and most importantly, in the depth of our relationship with God.

Can we manage this?  Let's try.

"[P]ray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people," (Ephesians 6: 18 NIV).

Friday, September 23, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Humble Yourself

I have been reading Daniel again this week, studying each chapter for details I might have previously missed.  This time I found myself comparing the lives of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar.  Neither could be called good men, but one was brought back from the brink by the decision to humble himself before God.  The other despised God to the swift end.  Can we learn something from even these atypical role models?

I can contextualize much of their thinking by pointing out that the kings of those days were often seen as gods among men--literally.  You may not be familiar with early Babylonian history, but you are probably familiar with the god-kings of Egypt.  When ancient kings (almost the world-over) spoke of carrying off the kings of a country, they were saying that they were more powerful than the gods of the kingdoms they had conquered (see Isaiah 10: 8-14).  In fact, they were exalting themselves as supreme gods among lesser gods.  No humility there!

Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar were no different.  Unfortunately, they chose to glory in their conquering power over the "little" God of Israel.  This can be evidenced by the godlike tone of statements such as this one from Nebuchadnezzar: "[I]f you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?" (Daniel 3: 15).  Belshazzar knew where those golden goblets had come from, yet he praised other gods and ignored the God of Israel (Daniel 5: 2-4). They had no respect for a God they thought they had defeated, but God wasn't playing their games. He gave them their power and all their victories; they were His tools, not His betters (Isaiah 10: 15-19).

Both men, mind you, were terrified by the power they suddenly encountered when God showed Himself to them.  Who can stand against God's wrath?  Nebuchadnezzar was warned when he saw the three Hebrew children walking in that fire, and he immediately ordered that their God be shown more respect--by others, and not exclusively, mind you (Daniel 3: 28, 29).  Later, he had a dream predicting his imminent destruction, and he heard Daniel's counsel to humble himself before God, to avert this judgement (Daniel 4: 27).  He forgot this for a year, but in the end, he learned his lesson and honored God.  How strange it must have been to his court to hear a conquering "god" praising the God of a conquered country as the "Most High," whose power even he couldn't question or deny (Daniel 4: 34, 35)!

Contrast Nebuchadnezzar's change of heart to Belshazzar's behavior on the night of his defeat.  Belshazzar, like his predecessor, was equally terrified by this appearance of God--the hand writing on the wall.  Again, from Daniel's lips he heard of his kingdom's imminent demise, and he was urged to humble himself (Daniel 5: 18-23).  Though the Bible doesn't explicitly say that Belshazzar scoffed,  we get the idea that he did.  Though Daniel had asked him to keep his gifts and give his high appointments to others, he ordered the fine robes and the proclamation anyway (Daniel 5 : 29).  I see a mockery here that is parallel to the mocking of Christ before the crucifixion (Matthew 27: 27-31).  That very night (as secular historical records corroborate), Darius of the Medes disguised himself as a palace guard and killed Belshazzar while his men took the rest of the capitol.

Fatal Hubris

I have spoken before of the tendency in all people, since the days of Adam and Eve, to be filled with the kind of pride that causes us to aspire to godhood.  The Bible is full of so many examples of these so-called "gods" who dared to challenge God, saying, "By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding," (Isaiah 10: 12 NIV).

Today, I don't think I need to rerun the facts.  We should read the stories of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and take heed of the lesson.  Shall we be like Nebuchadnezzar, who needed seven years of Divine punishment to drive him to repent?  Worse still, will we scoff at God's power when He sends us a warning on the eve of our demise?  I would personally rather humble myself before blows or final warnings have to come.  How about you?

Something to think about over the weekend.  As always, thanks for reading!  This is my reminder to stay savvy and bow to the Most High, before He humbles us.

"Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.  By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, 'In the Lord alone are deliverance and strength.'"All who have raged against Him will come to Him and be put to shame." (Isaiah 45: 22-24 NIV)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Footprints in the Garden

My dad had an elevated flower bed behind my house, next to a handmade compost pile, where he experimented with raising different kinds of vegetables.  It was edged in wide wooden slabs of tree trunks, called railroad ties, because they are the sort of thing the metal tracks are laid on. One year, when my sister and I were still very young, he took the two of us went out to spend an entire afternoon tilling and loosening the soil, removing weeds, fertilizing and leveling the ground, and preparing it for seeds.  By the time we were ready for the planting stage, it was very late and Dad was tired.  He went inside to rest, leaving us with a simple but firm injunction, "Don't play in the flower bed or step in it.  If I catch you throwing dirt or undoing all of this work, I'm going to punish you and you won't be allowed to help me plant the seeds tomorrow."

It wasn't as if there was nothing else to play with.  We had a swing set, a sandbox, and plenty of other toys to string out, and since the sun was going down, we weren't going to be out there much longer, anyway.  However, the seriousness of Dad's command quickly wore off, and I (being the oldest and the leader) said, "If we walk on the edging, we won't really be playing in the flower bed.  It's like a balance beam in gymnastics!"  Very quickly we were walking around the U shape.  When we got to the top part of the U, we jumped across to the other side and went around again.  The first two times were fine, but the third time I jumped across, I slipped, and my foot sank deeply into the soft tilled earth.

"Dad said not to step in the garden!" my sister reminded me.

"I know.  I'll get the rake and fix it up again in a minute," I said.  She was confident that I knew what I was doing, so the game continued.  Then she lost her balance and put both feet in the garden, leaving two more distinct footprints.

"I can fix that, too," I assured her, and we continued circling, each tripping a few times on the way around.  Soon, there were lots of footprints everywhere.

"Girls, dinner time.  Come inside!" we heard mom call from the back door.  I jumped down and started hastily scratching the dirt to try to loosen it, but I only managed to cover up one small footprint before I heard Mom's voice, much closer now, saying, "Hey, I don't think your Daddy wanted you to mess around in there.  Come."

It was so dark that I realized she hadn't seen the footprints in the garden.  I cast one more anxious look that direction, and went inside.

I worried about those footprints all through dinner, and even when I was being tucked into bed that night.  My plan was to go out, somehow, before Dad got up in the morning and try to fix that mess before he saw it.  I had to--I so badly wanted to help plant the seeds!  But my conscience was so deeply pricked that I couldn't sleep.

I finally had to admit to myself that I was definitely going to get caught.  It was only a question of when.  If I told my dad now, I knew I would probably get punished, but maybe he would go easier on me, or even let me help plant the seeds.  I got back up, ignoring my sister's angry protests against "telling,"  and went alone to the living room.

Dad looked a little stunned at this sudden midnight confessional.  He listened to the whole story (told through tears), and finally said, "Rachel, I'm proud of you for being a grown-up and telling me the truth.  You do know that I still have to punish you.  I told you what I was going to do if you did that, and you did it anyway."

I nodded my head and submitted to the punishment.  No, I wasn't going to get to help plant the seeds, and yes, I was going to undergo a spanking--a very brief, light-handed one that was more ceremony than anything else.

When I went back to bed, I felt better.  What a weird thing, considering that I had just been punished and banished from the garden.  As I lay awake, I started thinking about my Sunday school lessons and how Adam and Eve did something very similar when they ate the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3).  I realized that even if they had immediately confessed, God would have had to punish them for what they had done, in the same way that He ended up doing it.  Adam and Eve had broken a direct command, and confessing, or giving God all the reasons why they did it, wouldn't have undone the damage.  He had to punish them, or His rules weren't really rules to be respected, and His threatened punishments would have been lies.  God isn't a liar.  He keeps His word, even when keeping that word hurts Him.  That is justice.

On the other hand, when Adam and Eve didn't immediately confess to their crimes and submit to the punishment, they were adding some extra sins to their record.  They had enough nerve to think they could trick God out of punishing them, which is the sin of lying, and they tried to accomplish that by covering themselves with leaves.  Later, they tried to hide from God, which is an insult to God's all-seeing power and His justice.  Then, when God found them, they had the nerve to lie to God and blame others for their own actions.  They never apologized, and never seemed to be sorry about what they had done, throughout the whole exchange.

So what would they have gained from telling the truth from the start?  One, giant thing, only.  Their relationship with God would not have suffered so badly.  All those delays and additional sins compounded the problem, and didn't avert punishment, really.  These additional sins also disappointed and hurt their closest Friend, and fostered in their own hearts an unreasonable resentment against a punishment they brought upon themselves.  If they'd gone immediately to God and confessed, they would have found approval for that honesty, and they would have understood the mercy of God, which is even seen in the way He punishes sin.

Confessing to sin and taking responsibility doesn't make the need for punishment go away, and it doesn't make punishment hurt less.  However, it does positively change the nature of the relationship between us and God (or us and our fellow man) going forward.  This is why confession is good.  It brings an understanding of justice and the truly loving nature of God--a God who simply keeps His word, even when we make choices that bring the promised punishments upon ourselves.  If we understand justice, it opens the way for total reconciliation and healing through God's Son, Jesus Christ.
Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.--Proverbs 28: 13 NIV
Today, if you have some dirty footprints hanging over your head, and you are dreading the revealing light of day, I beg of you, for your own sake, to confess quickly, before the sun comes up.  You won't gain anything by staying silent, but you will find mercy and approval, leading to reconciliation with God, if you make amends quickly.  Don't wait.  Don't hesitate.  Get up and settle this now!

Do you have any stories like this one?  I welcome you to share in the comments section, or write about it on your own blog and share the link in the comments so I can go read it.  As always, thank you for reading!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Weekly Snippet: The Passing of the Seasons

Fall has arrived, according to the rainy view out my window today.  Where I live, summer bakes the earth dry and dead, until the leaves turn brown around the edges and the sky takes on a faded appearance.  Then fall sweeps in and temporarily revives the world with constant, cold rain.  The last green things and all the colored leaves and fall flowers stand out brightly against a foggy gray sky, darkened, weathered wood, and damp earth.  It's a beautiful picture, and my favorite season of the year.

I see that every season has a purpose, although the hardships of each sometimes make the reason hard to see.  Without the baking heat of summer, we would have no sun-sweetened fruit to enjoy in the fall.  Without the falling leaves, the tender roots and bulbs would have no blanket to cover them until spring.  Winter snows enrich the soil with water and minerals (a little-understood fact), and sharpen our anticipation for spring.  Where would we be without spring?  Those lovely flowers and leaves are too young to bear fruit or bring shade, but they lift our spirits for another year, and signal the return of the sun.

Still, there is a deeper testimony in all of these seasons.  As Paul testified to the Greek crowd at Lystra, "In the past, [God] let all nations go their own way.  Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy," (Acts 14: 16, 17 NIV 2011).  These seasons testify to God's existence and proclaim His power, while at the same time, they show the kind and giving nature of God.  Now who wouldn't want to know a God like that?

The seasons of nature often parallel our own lives--an endless parade of planting, harvest, endurance, and hope. Sometimes we find it easier to see the hand of God than at other times, but in every season, God has brought us lessons to learn.  If we trust in Him, we know we will find in Him just what we need.  Today, let's rejoice in the promise we see outside our windows.
May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you [God] rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth. May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you.  The land yields its harvest; God, our God, blesses us.  May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him. (Psalm 67: 4-9 NIV 2011)

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Error of Thoughtlessness

A wicked man puts up a bold front, but an upright man gives thought to his ways. --Proverbs 21: 29 NIV 1984

There is tremendous pressure in today's society to make quick decisions, act fast, or speak up. This is a recipe for disaster when coupled with the human tendency to avoid asking ourselves probing, reflective questions like, "Where did I learn this habit? How did I come to believe this or do that? Are my reasons sound?" Ultimately, it is very easy to go through life without thinking very deeply about our ways, and even easier to fall into sin without noticing how we got there. Even the most careful, introspective people can be guilty of this.

Speedy Decisions Sometimes Mean Impulsivity and Thoughtlessness

It is very difficult to get into the habit of thinking about your motives before you act. I speak from personal experience. I think I was one of the most impulsive kids you could meet, and that was a lethal quality when paired with my tendency toward thoughtlessness. My repertoire of impulsive and thoughtless mistakes included an incident in which I participated in a rock throwing game that sent one flying through my parent's bedroom window. If only I had thought about what might happen when the game got started. Hadn't I been taught not to throw rocks? If I had really looked at myself at the moment I was asked if I wanted to play, I might have seen that my desire to be likeable to my friends was outweighing all other concerns and everything I had been taught. If I had thought about it, I think I still could have had fun, just without all the trouble.

There are widely-accepted cultural proverbs that seem to pressure us not to think too long before we act, like this one, attributed to sixteenth-century writer Joseph Addison: "He who hesitates is lost." The Biblical proverb at the beginning of this post seems to directly contradict this idea on first glance. Are we to believe that the Bible tell us to hesitate before everything we do? Isn't it also wisdom to act quickly before opportunities are lost?

Did Jesus Model Impulsivity?

If I just focus on the life of Jesus, I see plenty of examples of unplanned behavior. Jesus turned water into wine at Cana ( John 2: 1-11); spoke to the sinful woman at the well when she walked up to draw water (John 4: 1-26); and healed a blind man on the way into Jerusalem for the last time (Mark 10: 46-52 please note as well that Bartimaeus was rewarded for his impulsivity). I gather from these and many other examples that Jesus modeled impulsive, that is, unplanned, spur-of-the-moment decisions, as long as they proved righteous both at the time and later, upon further scrutiny.

When Jesus did something that seemed unplanned, both the action He took and the results were righteous, and that is a good Scriptural test for our own lives. We can learn from Him that seizing an opportunity is good, as long as the decision can stand up to rigorous testing and reflection long after the moment is past. At the same time, we recognize the challenge--we can't reflect on the goodness or badness of an issue for long, or the whole situation will pass. If Jesus had thought about the wedding couple, the woman at the well, or Bartimaeus for too long, these miracles would not have happened, and many would not have been saved.

Because of this, I see a careful line being drawn in Scripture between impulsiveness and thoughtlessness. You can be impulsive, but thoughtful, and do what is right. Alternatively, you can be hesitant, but thoughtless, and do what is wrong. The awareness of good and evil in everything you do is critical for a good outcome. You have to have that awareness before the situation arises, or you could end up doing the wrong thing (2 Timothy 2: 15; 2 Timothy 4: 2).

Strange as it sounds, the key to making a good impulsive decision is, well, good planning. Returning to the verse at the beginning of this post, we see that Proverbs 21: 29 is a not as much a commentary on impulsiveness as it is about this kind of moral planning. It is urging you not to put on a "bold front," that is, appearing to be so secure in what you are doing that people are afraid to challenge you or your actions. Rather, this proverb urges readers to do what they know for certain--through study and self-analysis--is a righteous action.

This is my challenge for you today: Plan ahead by knowing what the Bible says is right before leaving your home in the morning, so you don't have to hesitate and wonder about it when some situation arises during the day. That way, when evening comes and you are reflecting on your own behavior (a thing you should do regularly), you can say, "Yes, I made the right decision, and the reason why I acted that way is because the Bible told me so."

Until next time, this is me, reminding you to stay savvy and go out and put what you've learned into practice. God bless!