Giving Thanks in ALL Things

 

I have so much to be thankful for.  In no particular order (other than the first 2), I thank God for my Savior Jesus Christ.  That He would willingly take my place for my sins boggles the mind, but I am eternally grateful that He did! Second is another gift God has given me, my wife Betsy.  The most a grace-filled, loving, patient, brilliant; the list goes on, person I have ever known.  To realize that before time began our Creator had it so planned that she and I would spend so many years together is another mind-blowing event that I am thankful each and every day.

There is so much more: my two adult kids, my good health, my sobriety, my friends, my dog.  It could (and should) go on and on.  I was told very early in recovery that gratitude is an action word, meaning that if I am truly grateful for what I have received, my face, actions and words ought to reflect that fact.  For these more obvious things that have come my way, I think I do a pretty good job showing how thankful I am for them.

But something else has come to mind recently about which I am far too slack in giving thanks for: the challenges and problems that I face.  That they occur shouldn’t be a surprise.  Jesus even tells us so: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33, emphasis added).

Jesus gives us so many promises in the Bible: I am with you always, my sheep know my voice, I’m going to prepare a place for you, etc. These and so many others are exciting, fulfilling and comforting promises.  And He always does what He says He’s going to do, never once deceiving us.  Therefore, the promise that there is going to be troubles is also true.  If I’m going to accept the ‘good’ ones, I have to accept the others as well.

But being thankful for troubles and trials? Why, you might ask, should I or anyone be grateful for the issues that come up in life? With so much bad in the world, why not just count as blessings the good I have experienced.  The answer for me lies in the fact that without the challenges and struggles, I too quickly become lethargic about being thankful.  When I stop giving thanks for the bounty that surrounds me, I become lazy in giving praise to God.  If I allow this to go on for long, a feeling of entitlement can start to grow.  Left unchecked, I can get to full-blown complacency in a very short time.

Thankfully, God knows this about me even better than I do.  It’s not that He is up there in his throne room keeping score on my gratitude meter, but rather that He allows the various challenges and things that make me struggle come my way so that I will keep Him in the proper place in my heart and mind.

It seems I grow the most in my faith when I can get over my wounded pride or selfishness or whatever other shortcoming gets illuminated during a trial or conflict and come to that place where I simply trust God and His sovereignty.  Without fail, when I realign my heart with God’s during these times, He will point out some aspect of my life that needs to get reined in; or maybe better said that I bring this area to Him, humbly asking that He lead me in the way He would have me go in regard to it.

Like most, I seem to learn best from my mistakes.  Now if I could just stop screwing up the lessons might be over! However, my track record would indicate that more mess-ups are likely.  I’m trusting that with each one God will help me to turn to Him more quickly, thus shortening the time that I need to suffer or be at a loss of how to go on.

God is faithful.  He has seen me through even trial and tribulation I have ever faced.  His track record is perfect; as is everything about Him.  I am thankful for this truth.  I am thankful for every struggle that has brought me to know this more fully and I’ll be thankful in the future when these types of things come up against me, because I know I am under His complete care.  When I remember that, I am indeed so very grateful for everything in my life.

My Chains are Gone. Now What?

 

I’ve been asked if I have a favorite Bible character.  The answer is no, simply because during the various seasons and times of my life, different characteristics (both good and bad) of the folks mentioned in it have had deeper meaning to me.  Jonah’s running from God, David’s sinning and Peter speaking without always thinking first have, like so many others, given me insight into my own faults and shortcomings.  Likewise, the miracle of Bartimaeus receiving his sight and the transformation of Saul from being deadly opposed to Christ to Paul who goes all-in for Him have been powerful encouragements to me.

When asked if I have one particular account in the Bible that I cherish above all else, the answer is a resounding yes! It is the telling of Paul and Silas’ imprisonment and miraculous release found in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles: 16:16-34.

I encourage you to read it for yourself in its entirety, but for now here’s a brief description of the events.  Paul and Silas were in Philippi spreading the news of Jesus Christ as Savior.  They were thrown into prison after Paul upset some men as he cast a demon out of a slave girl these fellows were making money using.

Without trial, Paul and Silas were severely beaten and then put into the inner cell of a prison, their feet locked in stocks.  Around midnight, and in spite of their pain and uncertainty of what was going to happen to them, they were singing songs of praise to God.  The Bible then says that as they were, a powerful earthquake hit the area, so strong that the chains that bound them fell away.

It is what happens next that makes this account so deeply meaningful to me: Paul and Silas not only talk the jailor out of taking his life, but they present the salvation message to him! We are then told that this man and his whole family came to faith in Christ that night.

This all brings me to the point of the title of this entry: My Chains are Gone, now what? Many of you who regularly read these jottings know of my life of alcoholism.  That chain held me completely in the dark and hopeless of any way out.  The ‘earthquake’ in my experience was realizing the saving power of Jesus as I sat in a detox center.  The chains of addiction fell away that day as I admitted my sins before Him and asked His forgiveness.  I give Him all thanks and praise for it.

The journey I began those 27 years ago has led me to being an ordained minister.  No one, myself at the top of the list, saw that one coming way back then!  Though I was not instantly cast into a position of bearing the Good News like Paul and Silas were, I can still see the similarities in how God works.  He removed my chains for me so that I would in turn work for Him.  Because He chose to do this for me, I live with a peace that can only come from Him.

If He has removed the chains that bound you, won’t you join me in spreading His love that is so desperately needed in our hurting world.  Share your story, take the time to invest in the lives of others so that relationships can be built.  No matter what blessings you have received from the freedom granted you by God, there are greater ones still awaiting if you will only acknowledge the wonderful work God has done in/for you.  These blessings probably won’t come in some material form.  More likely it will be you realizing more deeply than ever how much God loves you.

The chains He removed from us make us uniquely qualified to help others find the freedom that only God can give.  I would never for a second go back to the life, it you could call it that, that I was chained to.  But today I remember how it was so that I can always remember the depths from which God saved me.  My chains are gone.  Today I willingly submit the life God transformed to Him, that He use me in ways that promote His freeing power to all who would accept it.

A Grand Re-opening

 

My writing style, such as it is, attempts to inform and instruct both followers of Jesus Christ and those who do not.  It is my goal to present the truth of Scripture in meaningful ways to all who might read these jottings.  This entry, however, is written specifically to those who profess to have put their faith in Christ.  Please read on, even if you haven’t made that decision for Christ yet, for even this discussion might contain something you can relate to.

I recently attended an area meeting of Elim Fellowship.  This is the group that has ordained me and that provides headship over independent ministries like ours.  These bi-monthly gatherings give the opportunity to meet and network with others in our geographical area.  There is also time set aside for praise and worship and usually a message from the Area Director, Rev. William King.  What he shared the other day has had a positive impact on my walk with Christ.  I share it in hopes that it will do the same for you.

It came to him as he was reading through Genesis, specifically Chapter 26:18 which states: Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them (NIV).

Meditating on this verse brought a question to Rev. King’s heart and mind: “What wells of mine have been stopped up.”  In other words, what things had he gotten away from or had lessened in importance to him in his walk with the Lord over time.  He mentioned several things that he became aware of and has since asked for the Lord’s forgiveness and is now making the effort to walk in them more fully.

I took his experience to heart as I too contemplated the question about filled in wells in my life.  Two things jumped out at me as I did: my personal prayer life and my attitude of gratitude (I wonder if they are connected?).

I thought about the mornings some years ago when I would simply stand in my kitchen and pour out my needs to God and then take some time to simply be silent before Him, allowing His Spirit to speak to mine.  Somewhere along the line I have allowed busyness and the need to get things done to crowd out and diminish this precious time.  It didn’t happen all at once, but in keeping with the illustration of the well, it slowly filled in with other things I thought more pressing.

The well dug next to this one I named Gratitude.  I was told early in recovery (the timing of which coincides with my Christian life) that gratitude was an action word.  If I was grateful, my life should reflect that fact in how I lived.  By daily remembering that God was sparing me from the scourge of addiction, my life ought to be a joyful one filled with giving of myself wherever He led me to.  Alas, this well too has gotten somewhat filled in by the cares and concerns of my life.  Gradually, as I look back, I can clearly see how I have allowed them to overshadow my gratefulness.

Here’s another thought about wells: in this part of Central New York, most wells need to be dug 15-20 feet to hit water.  The wells Isaac was reopening were generally dug to a depth of 70 feet! To carry this analogy further then tells me that there is quite a bit of work involved to get my wells flowing again.  The key for me is to remember how sweet and fresh the ‘water’ tasted when I first dug them, thus encouraging me to open them up more fully again.

The same quality of the water Jesus offers is abundantly available to all.  Only His water can give life to the fullest.  It is the same spiritual drink that the Lord offered to the woman at the well; life giving water that quenches our thirst in/for Him forever.

If these thoughts have helped you to realize that some of your wells have been stopped up as well, won’t you join with me in asking the Lord’s forgiveness for our negligence? I have found that by doing so, He has allowed me the pleasure of experiencing once again the joy of His loving touch.  My prayer today for me and you is that we make every effort to keep anything from blocking the flow of the living water He has for each one of us. Amen.

On the Road Again

As I sit, still waiting for inspiration as to what to blog about, it occurs to me that I have not updated you all on what Lakeside Christian Ministries has been up to (or if this serves as an introduction as to who we are, that’s great too!).

First, let me say that we chose our name with much prayer, and recent events have made me more aware of how God wants to use us for His purposes.  When we started out some 5 years ago, we were sure of only one thing: that God did not want another small church that was 75 % empty on Sunday mornings.  Hence, we went with ‘Ministries’ in our name in hopes of letting people know we were up to something a little different than the other faithful, yet small, local churches were.

At first, we thought having home ‘church’ was going to be the answer.  An intimate setting with no stain glass or pre-set conditions was what we offered.  The idea, however, was greater than what occurred.  This is not to say we didn’t experience some sweet ministry in the name of Jesus in our home.  We met some new folks and even held a baptism in the living room!

And yet, at the end of two years, we had experienced no growth.  Back to God in prayer we went.  As we did, it became evident to us four founders of LCM that God was calling us out into our community to be a resource for the existing ministries/churches in our area.  God has blessed this as we continue to build relationships with local pastors and leaders.  As we get better acquainted with them, we express our desire to help.  Also, by visiting various churches on Sundays, we have been able to renew old friendships and make some new ones.  In fact, several of these churches have taken us up on our offer to help by asking Betsy and me to come lead worship and preach.

Even with those exciting opportunities, we were still missing something.  After all, lending our help on a Sunday morning is all well and good, but it is still only Sunday morning.  What about the other six days of the week?

The Bible is filled with accounts of God always being faithful.  I continue to read these knowing this to be true.  God is faithful! He is so faithful that He decided to let us see how much first-hand!  Lakeside Christian Ministries was about to go on the road.

It started when a retired work acquaintance, Ken, with whom I had stayed in touch  through Facebook, saw we were hosting a study on Paul’s letter to the Colossians on Wednesday evenings.  He and his wife starting coming, traveling some twenty miles to get to our home.  The study was blessed by God as He opened our hearts and minds to more of His truth, as well as deepening the relationship between my Ken, his wife and Betsy and me.

As the eight-week study was concluding, they asked if they could bring their son-in-law, an unsaved man, to come meet with us.  Of course, we said yes and to make a long story short, after several months of bi-weekly discussions, answering questions as best we could, this man gave his life to Christ!

Soon after, Ken called to see if we would be interested in beginning a bible study in his home.  We did (we’re now on our 2nd study), and LCM was on the road!  We continued to press in through prayer for more opportunities, and sure enough, God showed His faithfulness once again.

A family I have come to know as I provide pastoral care through Hospice inquired about the possibility of starting a bible study at their apartment complex.  These are hungry people, both spiritually and physically.  Once again, we knew God was providing us a way to show His love to people who are often overlooked or down right forgotten.

Along with being faithful, I have come to realize God’s timing is always perfect too.  A little over a year ago we prepared a seeker-friendly study titled, You’ve Got Questions, the Bible Has Answers.  As excited as we were to offer this in our home, there was little to no interest shown by the community.  I simply shelved the idea as a good one that didn’t work out.  God had other plans for it though, as we now meet weekly at the ‘Projects,’ answering questions and talking about the things of God with a group of people.

As the folks present at these meetings have gotten to know and trust Betsy and me, they have opened up their hearts to the Lord, which culminated in a answered prayer for healing this past week.  A woman with a badly swollen and unusable hand from arthritis was relieved of her pain and regained much of the use of it.  This all happened about an hour after we had prayed for her.  She was so happy she called her mother to tell her she was doing the dishes, something she had been unable to do up until then!  In speaking with the family since then, I have been able to encourage them to thank God for his touch, for it is from Him, not us!

Lakeside Christian Ministries is indeed on the road.  We look forward to whatever God has in store for His kingdom here in Fulton New York, and doing whatever part He has for us to do in it.

For more information about us, we have a Facebook page under Lakeside Christian Ministries.  You are also invited to check out our website: www.lakesidechristianministries.org.  There you will find a more detailed description of the ministry God has us doing as well as uploads of all the preaching/teaching I have done over the last several years.  If you do stop by, let us know what you think and please pray for us that we faithfully carry out God’s plan for Fulton.

But pardon me if I don’t get back to you for a couple of days, I will be on the road somewhere!

 

Nothing is Re-heated at God’s Banquet

I know I’ve made mention here of the wonderful blessing from God my wife Betsy is to me (and many others!).  Her love of the Lord Jesus is evident in all she does and her modeling of the joy that comes from reading the Bible has inspired me to read mine more.

I am not sure however, if I have ever written about another of her gifts: Betsy is a great cook.  This comes in handy given my love of eating.  She is forever creating new ways to prepare meals, making old favorites never boring.  In this season of life (with just 2 humans at the table), she prepares many of our dinners in the crockpot.  Somehow, she makes these meals in such a way that as they get reheated, they seem to taste better each night.  Chicken, pork or beef, it doesn’t matter; as delicious as they are on day 1, they’re even better each ensuing meal.

Cooking meals in this way is a great time saver, especially as her work life is very demanding of her time.  This makes it easy for me, with my limited skills in the kitchen, to simply plug in the crockpot to re-heat our evening meal.

As much as I enjoy these several times warmed up meals, the banquet table of God will never have anything re-heated on it! “That’s quite a jump in topics,” you might be thinking; but please stay with me, I think I can connect the two.

You see, just as the taste buds in my mouth enjoy my wife’s great cooking, the desire of my heart is to have even more of what God offers.  No matter how good, or even how much Betsy makes in the crockpot, eventually we finish it.  Not so with God!

Christianity 101, if you will, says that all people are separated from God by our sinful condition into which we are born.  There are many scriptures that make this point, but for our purpose today let’s go with for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  ‘All’ is one of the easiest words in the bible to understand: All means all.  You, me and absolutely everyone else falls short of the glory of God.  God is holy, we are not.  Said another way, we are in deep trouble without Him.

That’s an awful place to be, but thanks be to God, He has issued the invitation for all of us to come be with Him (the banquet table I mentioned). This truth can also be found in numerous places throughout the scriptures.  For example, Romans 5:8 tells us: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

God in His mercy has made the way to take us from our lost (sinful) condition to knowing His forgiveness because of what Jesus Christ has done.  Simply put, we do not have to get ‘our ducks in a row’ before we can go to God; rather He takes us, regardless of where we have scattered and miss placed the ducks that are our life, and makes us complete in Him.

Our job is to recognize the condition we are in apart from God and then humbly ask His forgiveness.  It really is that simple!

Now back to the banquet table.  When thinking about what God offers, please don’t assume His mercy and compassion are sitting in some heavenly crockery, waiting for us to ask for some.  No, His love is made fresh and available every day as the Prophet Jeremiah wrote: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. 23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).

There you have it! God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, patience, etc., are made fresh every day for each one of us.  I realize that is a tall order, but thankfully He can handle it.  He always has, and He always will.

Much as Betsy and I would love to have you all over for dinner sometime, I do not believe one crockpot would handle the demand; and as tasty as her food is, you will get hungry again.

Not so as God’s banquet table.  His never depleted supply of love for us is always available; at no charge! Jesus paid it when He was crucified and gloriously raised from the dead.  He is inviting you to partake of the divine food that satisfies the soul.  It is made fresh today, piping hot, just for you!

 

Memorial Day Every Day

 

Memorial Day weekend means many things to people here in the States.  For some, it is the ‘first weekend of Summer.’ Others look at it merely as a chance to get away from work and maybe outside for the first time in months (other than for shoveling snow). Thankfully, a great many will take the time to remember those who have fallen protecting the freedom we live in.  Parades and memorial services will be held throughout the land, helping people to remember that this freedom does not come without a great cost.

Personally, I came to this greater appreciation after the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Prior to that, I took for granted all that comes with living in America.  As an under grad I majored in history, with a concentration in the 20th century.  I learned many of the important dates and the activities of historical figures from that era, but I never felt personally the sacrifices that were made that gave me the basic freedoms I enjoyed every day.

The attacks of 9-11 awakened in me a passion for our country I had never felt before.  It was seeing the graphic destruction in my homeland and the suffering of so many innocents that prodded me from the national lethargy I was living in.  Though I do not always agree with, condone or understand what the political machine is doing here, the love I feel for my country and what it stands for is unwavering.

From that point onward, I have made it a point to thank each member of the military I meet, wherever that may be.  I extend this greeting to law enforcement as well.  It may be a handshake and ‘thank you for serving our country’ or simply a nod of the head to a passing patrol car, but it is one way I attempt to let these brave men and women know I appreciate their efforts and by extension, all those who have gone before them.  In this way I carry Memorial Day in my heart every day.

There are similarities in my coming to faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior.  As a spoiled and carefree youth, God and the things of eternity could not have been farther from my mind.  From my late teenage years to the age of 31, the hell that is alcoholism kept me selfishly focused only on me and my perceived needs.  This Jesus, if he existed, certainly didn’t have any desire to be associated with a drunk like me (when I finally read the Gospels, I saw how wrong I had been!).

It was in the earliest stages of recovery that I realized that not only did He exist, but He also was giving me the opportunity to be free from the bondage I was under.  Since then and over these past 27 years, I have been blessed to know the eternal relationship has been restored with my Heavenly Father because of the atoning death Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins.  His resurrection to life gives me the assurance of security regarding my forever life with Him.

Much as I make it a point to let those serving our country know I appreciate their efforts, I also attempt to acknowledge what Jesus has done for me (and everyone) in all I do.  I have found the best way to do this is to follow the example of the Lord; listening to people’s concerns and extending my hand to help.

I was taught long ago that gratitude is an action word.  If it is so, then my simply giving lip-service about what Jesus has done doesn’t truly show my thankfulness for His sacrifice.  Every person I meet and interact with offers me the opportunity to in some way express the love that God has for them.  In so doing, I am remembering daily the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In closing, allow me to again say thank you this Memorial Day for all those who paid the ultimate price while preserving my freedom.  May your legacy never be forgotten or diminished.

And every day, may we remember that the Son of God not only died for the forgiveness of sins, but that He is alive still today!  His message of hope continues to go out.  May we who know His love remember always to express it back to Him as we model it to the world around us.

Giving Money to the Church?

 

The subject of money is usually touchy for most people.  For those involved with a local church, it can get downright divisive.  The idea of tithing, the giving of 10% of your income to the church, sparks many a debate.

I truly understand the difficulty that the concept of giving money causes so many.  I had plenty of reservations about it at the beginning of my life of faith.  With a sheepish grin these days I can recall my questioning of the first church leader who brought this subject up to my wife and me.  “Who decided on 10%,” I self-righteously asked.  It seemed like a random choice to me until this person gently explained that the word tithe means 10%.

Also, we were having trouble enough making ends meet.  As I have written of before, my riotous life as an active alcoholic had brought us just past the point of financial disaster.  Now that my life was becoming livable again through sobriety, I was concentrating on paying off the large debts I had incurred while now trying to properly take care of my family.  There didn’t appear to be anything left over to give away to anyone, let alone a church.

Since those early days as a Christian, what tithing is (and isn’t) has become quite clear to me.  Some of the things it is not are: an attempt to curry favor with the Almighty.  You do not have to give a specific amount before you can expect God to bless you.  As a matter of fact, the greatest blessings I have received have had nothing to do with finances.

Tithing also is not simply a ‘box’ to be checked as if it were some way to pay for your salvation (Indulgences went out a long time ago).  I encourage folks who have a church body they call home to support it both monetarily and with an investment of their time.  Ministry just doesn’t happen; things need to be paid for, the building(s) kept up and teaching resources bought, to name just a few.  These must be accompanied with the donation of time, less any thing the church purchases for kingdom work collect the dust of not being used.

What tithing is: An ongoing opportunity to be obedient to God, and not in a 10% kind of way, either.  Being joyfully willing to give 10% (or whatever amount) off the top is the key.  As time goes on, I realize how much I have because of God’s redeeming love for me.  With this deeper understanding/appreciation of who God is and what He has done for me, I desire less of the shiny things of this world.  Those things are merely distractions that want to keep my attention from God.

The key to becoming a joyful tither, at least in my experience, is to comprehend what it is that God is looking for from us in this regard.  The Old Testament is full of examples of the Israelite’s bringing the ‘first fruits’ of their crops as a gift to God.  I didn’t have any sense of what this meant at the start.  As I said, when first considering this idea I looked for left over money after all the bills were paid.  That is the opposite of first fruits.  I have learned, over time, that God wants my giving to be off the top because I recognize everything I have or earn comes from Him in the first place.

That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but what about my bills.  Don’t I have to pay them? The answer is of course yes.  I never recommend someone give to a church instead of paying their heat and electric bill.  What I do recommend to folks I have this discussion with is to honestly look at the way they are spending their discretionary money.

Here’s how things changed for me once I did this: After I had read the verses from God’s word that were suggested about tithing, I felt my heart begin to change about giving in general.  It no longer looked like a fool’s game to me, but yet I still couldn’t see how I was going to be able to give anything.  Though I was beginning to see what the meaning was of giving back to God, the bottom line of the household budget still didn’t reconcile to giving any percentage of our earnings away.

It was at this point in my life when I heard yet another teaching about tithing.  This one was different, however.  Oh, it still used Malachi 3:6-11 to make its biblical case for giving back to God, but this speaker brought the entire issue to a personal level for me.  I heard him ask, ‘What is it you spend your disposable income on?’  For the first time, as that sank in, I began to see my spending was conformed to my ideals, not God’s.

After all, I made all my monthly payments plus the penalty and interest that accrued from my destructive drinking.  Both the IRS and the State of New York were quite insistent that I pay all the back taxes I owed.  God blessed me/us with a good paying job that enabled me to eventually come clean with both those government agencies.

So what was I spending my money on? Why was there still nothing to give to the church I now called home? It took and honest look at my expenditures to reveal the painful truth.

What I discovered was that while I was being good with our money, my personal concerns and comforts were still in the forefront of my mind.  The bills were being paid on time because I was working so hard to do it.  From this self-centered approach came a slightly trickier one; my kids and wife (and I) deserved take out dinners 2 or 3 times a week.  Have I mentioned I was still smoking cigarettes at this time? I certainly needed them to keep going at the wonderful new pace I was working.

As I began to ponder these things, I realized that I had placed them in an ‘untouchable’ category in our budget as if they were fixed expenses.  It was easy to do, as life was becoming such a joy to live and these types of things seemed to make everyone happier still.  Yet I discovered that at the heart of the issue was still my lingering selfishness.  This was my money I was working hard for and I would spend it on these ‘necessities’ before I would give money to church.

I came to realize that walking out this faith I was professing to have would require some changes on my part; primarily that I truly start thinking of others before myself (Philippians 2:3-4).  Doing this allowed me to get to the place where I could, cautiously, begin to tithe.  Next time I will share some of the many blessings God has poured out on us because of our faithful lives that have included tithing to the local church.

Thanks for reading.  I would love to hear your thoughts about tithing.

What my Puppy is Teaching me about God’s Unconditional Love

I’ve been at this bible study/teaching/preaching for some time now.  I believe I am pretty well versed (pun intended) on the topic of God’s unconditional love.  Both Old and New Testaments are replete with examples of the Almighty’s undying desire to call broken and lost sinners back to Him.  When faced with the pain, suffering and confusion of those I have the privilege to minister to, I often extend God’s comfort through His promise to never leave or forsake us.  No matter how dark the moment or deep the pain, His love can give us hope when all seems lost.

I am amazed even as I look over the paragraph above.  I mean, how is it that God’s unconditional love can be offered to me? I have been a screw-up of major proportions, both in my life before I came to know Jesus as Savior and sometimes since then, too. Yet, I am assured of an unfailing love that calls me to eternal life; simply because it is His will to do so.  I know both in my heart and in an academic sense that the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ has made this possible.  It has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Him!  His love is absolute and unconditional.  I cannot earn and certainly don’t deserve it, but it is extended to me (and all of us) without reservation.

Knowing in my ‘knower’ this to be true, I still find myself struggling with the application of it from time to time; especially in regard to showing the love of God to others.  Ministry is not complicated: Love God and be a conduit for His love to flow from me into others.  However, if I am being honest, there are more than a few times when I pass judgment rather than love.  I too often find myself being critical of others instead of offering grace.  The bottom line is this: In the day to day struggles and challenges of life, I do not always recognize or even look for God’s unconditional love in the world around me.

Thankfully, one event in my life this past week has more fully opened my eyes and my heart to God’s unconditional love.  It is through the puppy my wife and I brought home that I find myself more aware of and grateful for God’s continuous care of me.  ‘Violet’ has been a wonderful example of both giving and receiving love unconditionally over these last seven days.  With only a slight change, I am finding the old adage to be true: A new dog can teach an old dog new tricks!

It took Violet all of about two hours to become bonded with my wife and me.  With food served at regular intervals, plenty of walks outside to work on potty-training and lots of time on the floor playing with toys, we watched her love for us grow before our eyes.  Even when she was loudly reprimanded for getting into the modem wires, the love never left her.  Violet simply loves us, all the time.  The correlation to the love described in the Bible is clear: God loves us because He is love.  The Scriptures then tell us we can return love to Him: We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19).

Much as Betsy and I didn’t have to earn Violet’s love, God’s love should not be viewed as ‘a carrot on stick’ either.  I for one am so very glad for the way God loves us.  Far too many live under a dark cloud, realizing that their life’s choices are not necessarily right or healthy, and condemning themselves for it.  It becomes easy to believe the lie that you are not worthy of God’s love, and the self-loathing perpetuates.

The mis-conception so many are under is that God loves like we do.  We equate human, imperfect love with His holy and faultless love.  Because we see love through our human paradigm, our understanding of God’s love is skewed.  Our experience tells us that to love is often risky and many times downright painful.  Once broken, the human heart can never fully heal itself.  What a blessing that God’s heart doesn’t operate like ours!

His unconditional love is always there.  We here on earth are left to respond to it in one of two ways: We either joyfully accept His gift of love or we ignore it.  The first option is obviously my counsel.  When one can truly allow themselves to be loved by God, attitudes and outlooks change for the better.  Those things that used to consume us with worry can be seen in a clearer light.  Realizing God’s love gives us a new and better perspective on the events of life.  Ignoring or denying this heavenly love leads only downward, toward bitterness and despair.  Life lived outside of the Almighty’s love is ultimately futile.  There simply are not enough shiny things, money or fancy vacations that can fill the void that is in you.

If you are struggling with some facet of God’s love, might I suggest you too experience some ‘puppy love.’ No, I’m not saying go listen to Donnie and Marie Osmond’s song with that title.  Rather, allow yourself to simplify your understanding of what God’s love is.  That’s what Violet has been showing me and honestly, I have a greater grasp of, and deeper appreciation of how, God shows His love because of it.  Allowing yourself to accept God’s love isn’t always easy, but it need not be complicated.  Remember He loves you first and always, no matter what.  Your job is to respond to that love.  I’ve got to stop for now, someone needs to go outside!

What is Prayer?

What is prayer? A straight-forward question with a not so easy to answer.  My basic response to this question is the following: Prayer is a means of communication that God makes possible between Himself and the pray-er.   When I take this definition into account, I have a better understanding that prayer should be a two-way street.  This is awesome; the Creator of the universe has made available a way that I can speak and hear from Him.

Prayer is so much more than just me bringing my list of needs/wants to Him.  Far too many folks approach prayer in this way, as if God were only sitting in His heaven waiting to fill our orders.  Yet, He does desire to hear our hearts as we bring our requests before Him.  Saint Paul said it this way: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present you requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7 NIV).

To get at the heart of what prayer is, please slowly re-read those two verses again.  Thanks.  Paul wrote this letter to a group of believers in Philippi.  If you are reading these thoughts of mine and you too have put your faith in Christ, this truly is the ‘how to’ for prayer.  Note first the call to not be anxious about anything.  Sounds difficult, as I have already experienced several pangs of anxious feelings just this morning.  This Scripture is exhorting us to keep our faith in Christ in the forefront of our minds because in so doing we will be much less inclined to needlessly worry about stuff.  Our prayers ought to reflect an ever-growing trust in God to be able to handle what it is we are praying about.

This familiar text from the letter to the Philippians also tells us what to pray about; everything!  Like in other places in God’s word; the message is crystal clear: everything means just that.  We are to be praying about all that makes up our daily lives.  I believe the very act of intentional prayer will deepen our relationship with God as we become more transparent before Him.  It’s not as though we are going to surprise God by telling Him what is on our mind, because in His omnipotence He already knows! It is our willingness to be open before the Almighty that will grow our faith as we learn to trust Him with all the details of our personal circumstances.

But pray about everything? How do I do that? Perhaps you are wondering, as I did, why the instructions are broken into two parts: prayer and petition.  I found a clear explanation of this in the Expositor’s Commentary: Prayer is a word that denotes the petitioner’s attitude of mind as worshipful. Petition denotes prayers as expressions of need.  With this understanding, I am reminded that who I am praying to deserves my utmost respect always, and that because He is Lord of all, I can lay all my needs before Him, trusting that the answer He gives (which sometimes is “No”) is what is best for me.

The answer to the valid question, “Does God answer prayer?” is contained within verse 7, provided we have submitted our prayers in the proper attitude of worship and reverence.  It is also vital to remember that answers to prayer do not always manifest themselves as what we have asked for! Re-reading Philippians 4:7 shows me that the promise given to those who pray in this way is the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your heart and mind. 

Coming to know this promised peace of God ought to be at the very core of every prayer we pray, because ultimately the purpose of prayer is to get to know God better.  Several words of caution are needed here. First, if you have been praying and the peace that Scripture talks about seems to be eluding you, it’s not because God is withholding it.  A much more likely explanation is that I/we have not trusted deeply enough in God’s ability to provide and sustain us through our circumstance, which tends to keep us in a constant state of unrest.

The second thing I must remind myself of is this: This promise in Scripture tells me I will not fully understand the blessing of God’s peace to me! As a somewhat structured and logical person, I can struggle with this.  Caution must be exercised so that my pride won’t sneak up on me.  Asking myself questions like, “Why can’t I more fully understand God’s peace if I am in a growing relationship with Him?” or, “Why don’t I have this figured out by now?” are indicators that I am seeing myself as being a super-spiritual person.  The bottom line is this: My intellectual pride keeps me from admitting that God has got something that is so far beyond my ability to comprehend.  And that something, His peace, is what is being offered to me!

I say all this to conclude with this thought; prayer is how I/we can know God more intimately.  There is no structure required to our prayers, just a willingness to come before the Creator with an open heart and mind.  Remember, there is nothing too small for God to not care about and nothing too large that He isn’t bigger than.  Pray about everything with the assurance that your prayers are special to God, because you are too!

 

Happy Birthday to me from the NYS DMV!

 

I received a reminder from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles several weeks ago that it was time to renew my driver’s license by my birthday this year.  Actually, I was grateful for the heads-up, as I don’t have much cause to look at my license these days and may well have missed this date altogether.  Having not been pulled over for a driving infraction or seldom writing personal checks that need an ID, I rarely use it.

I dutifully went to our local DMV office last week with all the necessary forms. (note to self: double check this before leaving the house, it may help having to avoid wait in line twice!) Finally, with everything updated and paid for, I was given a temporary copy of my new license.

I looked it over to confirm all the information was correct and noticed a check mark under the category of ‘Restrictions’ and a capital letter B.  Turning it over, I found the key explaining the B meant I need corrective lenses to operate a motor vehicle.  That must be why the nice clerk had asked me if I needed glasses when I drove.

I spared her the long story and said yes.  You, dear reader, won’t be as lucky! My eyesight went bad when I was barely 10 years old, so into the world of nerdy frames I went.  Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the professionals that give care to our eyes as well as the technicians who craft the lenses to each patient’s individual ocular needs, as I have needed these corrective lenses ever since.  Through all the style changes, from aviators to micro frames that were too small for me to properly use the lineless bi-focal, I have relied on my glasses to give me 20/20 sight.

That’s 20/20 physical eyesight.  Often, I find that my spiritual eyes are in need of adjustment as well because they are out of focus.  I notice this in several ways.  Sometimes I allow my physical vision to be all that I see.  I far too often miss something beautiful that’s going on around me because I am distracted by whatever has my undivided attention.  Also, because my spiritual eyes are often in need of correcting, I am not able to discern clearly what God has planned for me.  This is especially troubling because I know what God has said about this: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV).  God has a wonderful plan for me but I need to be able to see it well to live it out.

My trip to the DMV brought my focus to the restriction my weak physical eyes have placed on my drivers license.  Moving forward, I am going to remind myself daily of my need for ‘corrective lenses’ on my spiritual eyes as well.  With God’s help, I will use the gift of improved spiritual vision to see more of the things He wants me to see.  More importantly, I hope to see more of Him everywhere I go, both in the places He has for me to help others and to be evermore aware of the path He has laid out before me.

So thanks again to the New York State DMV for the birthday present of making appreciate all the more both sets of corrective lenses I need!