What a Friend, Part 2

 

Many, myself included, have sung the wonderful old hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus.  As I prepared to preach a message recently on what the friendship offered by Jesus can mean to us, I did a little internet research into the origins of this classic.  What I story behind its writing!

The author of the lyrics is Joseph Scriven. He born in Ireland in 1820.  We pick his story up on the eve of his wedding.  Incredible tragedy strikes as his fiancé drowns that very night.  It was this trauma, coupled with some other family issues, that drove Joseph to discover salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

His life of trials continues after he moves to Canada.  He meets and falls in love with Eliza Roche and they become engaged to be married.  As hard as it is to believe, his wife to be got sick shortly before their wedding date and also passed away.

Faced again with the difficulty and pain of going on, Joseph begins to fulfill his life’s call by providing care for the elderly and other less fortunate folks.  Rather than wallow in self-pity, he opts instead to carry on with the work of God’s Kingdom.

It is during this time (1855) that he receives word that his mother is extremely ill back in Ireland.  He wrote the words to What a Friend We Have in Jesus to be an encouragement for her as she lay dying.  I have an incredible amount of respect for this man who allowed God to use him despite his personal struggles.

I’ve included the lyrics to this great song here.  Please consider them and note the Scripture references I’ve added. I hope it helps you, as it has me, to see the validity of the friendship Jesus offers today to each one of us.

  1. What a friend we have in Jesus,                 John 3:16-17
    All our sins and griefs to bear!
    What a privilege to carry
    Everything to God in prayer!
    Oh, what peace we often forfeit,                Philippians 4:6-7
    Oh, what needless pain we bear,
    All because we do not carry
    Everything to God in prayer!
  2. Have we trials and temptations?               John 16:33
    Is there trouble anywhere?
    We should never be discouraged—
    Take it to the Lord in prayer.
    Can we find a friend so faithful,               Hebrews 2:18
    Who will all our sorrows share?
    Jesus knows our every weakness;
    Take it to the Lord in prayer.
  3. Are we weak and heavy-laden,                Matthew 11:28-30
    Cumbered with a load of care?
    Precious Savior, still our refuge—
    Take it to the Lord in prayer.
    Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?      John 15:18-19       
  4. Take it to the Lord in prayer!
    In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,
    Thou wilt find a solace there.

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John 3:16-17: All our sins Jesus has taken on Himself that we might be saved! We find this at the beginning in order that we get it from the start!

And yet, I/we don’t live in the constant all-encompassing peace this friendship offers. Philippians 4:6-7

Part of the reason for our unease was foretold by Jesus: John 16:33

            Take heart= action required on our part

Faith= Has He overcome your world?

In Him, our Friend, we have peace

A friend knows what it feels like to . . . Hebrews 2:18

            Jesus knows what it feels like to go through whatever we’re going through. He can help (if we ask Him)

Still, we get weary.

Our Friend Jesus knows and tells us what to do Matthew 11:28-30

            “All you,” that’s you too!  When you allow Jesus to lead, we can find rest and peace

However, there’s no pink cloud here; John 15:18-19

Strong words about being hated, but true.  The world hates Jesus, the world sees Jesus in us, therefore the world hates us.

One other constant throughout this Hymn: Prayer.  Take everything to the Lord in prayer.  Open up, admit your needs, shortcomings and insecurity.  Your Friend Jesus cares for you and will care for your needs, if you ask and then let Him.

What do you think? Is Jesus a friend worth having?

 

 

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!

 

#Imprayingforyou

Every Saturday morning at 7 am a group of local pastors and church leaders gather to pray at a different location each week.  This group is a great blessing to me in several ways, not the least of which is the evidence of the unity of believers the Holy Spirit brings.  There are Pentecostals, Lutherans, Methodists and non-denominal folks currently meeting (and have been for over 6 years now!).  We come together to seek God for our community and we also spend some time simply talking with each other; highlighting the things God is already doing here in Central New York.  We also talk about our struggles; knowing full well the challenges of ministry here.

I give you this background, so I can share a wonderful idea that was brought up just yesterday morning.  Reverend Diane Wheatley, Pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fulton, shared what had come to here recently regarding today’s technology.  Like most of us who are closer to 60 than 50, the electronic age seems more suitable to the younger generation(s) than us.  We use it as best we can, but honestly it creates more frustration with a hint of fear than it does any advancing of the Kingdom of God.

Pastor Wheatley’s insightful idea struck me as being brilliant.  Basically, she said that instead of side-stepping technology, we ought to embrace and use it.  She intends to start at her church by inviting people to take out their phone/devices at a certain point during church services and reach out to someone on their contact list.  Using whatever venue they want, folks will be encouraged to let someone else know who is not at the service that they are praying for them, right now!

She also said the same for the preaching of the Word. Why not live-stream some or all of it, again with the purpose being to let others know what it looks and sounds like at a church gathering. The message could also be recorded by members of the audience to be posted to their various accounts later.

As I have pondered these thoughts during the day, I have gotten more excited about doing these things myself.  After all, if we truly mean to be inclusive in our fellowships, shouldn’t we be reaching out to people in as many ways as possible?

The answer is a definite yes! As I look out at the various congregations I have the honor of being involved with, I see that most of the people in these churches belong to my generation.  There are some young families attending, which is a great blessing, but for the most part the local church is still ministering in the old ways to an increasing older crowd.

In his book, Building a Discipling Culture, Mike Breen explains the reason why this is: Most of us have been trained and educated for a world that no longer exists (p. 11).  I find this to be true in the clear majority of churches in my area.  Pastors and leaders have been trained with an inward focus which has precluded most of them from engaging in any new way of communicating the gospel.  All the pastors I know are hard-working and faithful shepherds of their flocks.  Yet the demands on their time have kept their efforts primarily toward keeping to a minimum the number of folks who are leaving their fellowships, thus making any attempt at using technology to reach out to non-churched people at best extraneous.

The bottom line is this: the ‘tried and true’ method of being the church is tired and for the most part useless regarding reaching new/different people.  The local church, as it currently is operating, is dying.  Attendance is receding like my hairline and no number of committees or resolutions is going to stem the tide of dwindling membership.

What are we to do?  Let’s run with Reverend Wheatley’s idea!  After all, when Jesus walked the earth, He communicated a radical message in the best way possible then, He talked with folks.  He shared the love of God in both word and deed.  As the message spread, so did His audience.  Our task is the same: Share what we know to be true about God through our actions and words.  The biggest difference (other than us not being Jesus!), is the far-reaching and instant audience that is available to us.  With the shrinking of the world because of electronic communication, let’s reach out to those who have never been to a traditional church with the means we have.  The message of God’s love is unchanging.  We ought to be sharing always and everywhere.  The easiest way to do it today is already in your pocket or purse.

Now if only someone would show me how to use snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, Tumblr . . .

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.

Getting and Staying Spiritually Fit

 

I happened to watch some of the Winter Olympics the other day.  I was fascinated by the biathlon as I watched these athletes cross-country ski various distances and then stop to do target shooting at dollar sized target at 50 meters (160 feet).  Such a test of skill and physical endurance.  I’ve never been a skier, but I have done some target shooting with rifles, shotguns and handguns.  My eyesight, which has never been sharp, made hitting the bullseye next to impossible.  I cannot imagine attempting to be accurate during strenuous physical activity as these biathletes were doing.  Racing against each other with the pressure of shooting straight seems implausible to me.

Yet, one after another they did just that.  How much practice went into this I wondered.  Countless hours of skiing, weight training and target practice were undoubtedly accumulated to gain this level of proficiency.  Obviously, not everyone has the skill and the persistence to make it to the Olympic Games.  What sets these top-notch athletes apart from the others? In addition to their natural abilities, the dedication to hone their skills didn’t waver.  I am sure that sacrifices had to be made if they were to reach their goal.

As a teacher/preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I am always looking for examples in the events of the world around us that shine light on biblical truth.  The above-mentioned biathletes have accomplished this for me!  As I said, I am not skier nor a marksman.  Yet the results of these competitors’ tenacity in preparation can still inspire me as I apply that same principle to my life of faith.

The athlete’s I mentioned didn’t just wake up one day at their peak of physical abilities, it took much hard work and practice.  St. Paul uses this same line of thinking to encourage us about our spiritual condition as well.  In his first letter to his young apprentice Timothy, he wrote the following: Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 8 For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8 NIV).

Notice that Paul does not discount physical training.  He recognized, as we should too, the importance of maintaining our health through physical activity.  We are not to ignore this in the pursuit of a deeper spiritual life.

Having said that, the Apostle does not apologize for what is of far greater importance.  Deepening our spiritual lives provides benefits in the present as well as for the future.  The plusses in this life might be; a greater sense of peace and purpose, or simply a deeper assurance that God does indeed have everything under control.

The question is, how do we train ourselves to be godly?  Maybe first we ought to consider what it is to be godly.  I define being godly as: practicing what I preach! I can espouse wisdom and good counsel in this venue, praising God for all His wonderous deeds both then and now.  If, after having done this, I close my laptop and go about the rest of my day seeking to fulfill only my selfish desires, I am hardly being godly.  To further hone my definition, I would add that my life is to be lived in such a way that points always to God and that my being transparent ought to give hard evidence that I am devoted to the Lord.

If living life in love and honestly wanting to be of service to all is my goal, how do I train for it? Going back to our athlete’s example, they didn’t suddenly wake up one day ready to compete in the Olympics.  As I said, they put countless hours into their preparation.  This same approach works in training in godliness too!

Like the athletes in their pursuits, I didn’t merely come to one morning with knowledge of the Scriptures.  I spent (and spend) the time to read them.  I sought out people with deeper understanding of God’s word and asked them to teach me.  Probably the greatest lesson these devoted folks shared with me was this: God will reveal as much of Himself to me that I desire Him to.  Much the same as prayer is, the reading/studying of God’s word is done to know Him more deeply.  With this in mind, I do read/meditate/study the Scriptures every day expressly to deepen my relationship with Him.

Another training discipline I have embraced to become more godly is the memorization of passages and verses of the Bible.  If, as I believe it is, the Scriptures contain the very essence of God, what better nourishment could I possibly ingest? God desires me to follow Him whole-heartedly and by His grace He has supplied me with the manual to do so!  If my bible is sitting on the shelf collecting dust, I can assume my relationship with the Almighty is crusty as well.

The last point I will draw from the example of the Olympic athletes is this: making the time to do the training required for excellence.  I am positive that they built their schedules around the activities they undertook.  The training was the priority, and they made the appropriate time available to achieve their goal.  The same mind-set should apply to our training in godliness.  If I wait until it is convenient to do so, I most likely will never get to it.  If I think I will put the time in after everything else is done, I am fooling myself.  To train in godliness is to take on the responsibility of growing in the faith.  No one can do it for me, I must make the commitment to do so.

Listening to the interviews of the Olympic athletes, I have yet to hear one say they regretted the hard work and sacrifice they put in to get to this stage of their career.  Likewise, I have yet to hear anyone lament the time and effort they have made to grow in godliness.  I take that as great encouragement and hope that you do to.  Wherever you are on your faith journey, there is always more opportunity to grow in it.  If you put the time in to do so, the rewards will be great.  The bible doesn’t say we will get a Gold Medal for our efforts, but it does tell us that the faithful will receive a crown of righteousness!

Hungry?

One of the common denominators of the human condition is hunger.  Unless debilitated by sickness, we all feel that empty sensation in our belly from time to time.  How we choose to quiet that growling goes a long way in determining how healthy we are.  If, for example, we consistently turn to comfort foods to fill us, we are missing out on other more important nutrients.  Also, over-indulging in these mis-named choices causes our clothes to be less comfortable due to the added weight they bring!

I am no dietician, but I have learned over time that what I take in for nourishment does play an important role in my day to day physical well-being.

Though most likely not as readily agreed upon as our mutual need for food, we all have a longing within us that goes beyond what the physical or natural world can satisfy.  I have heard it said that ‘everyone is born with a God-shaped hole inside them, and only God can perfectly fill it.’ When I look back at my life before coming to faith in Christ, I can easily see the truth in this statement.  There was a definite hole in me, and I tried many and various ways to fill it or to at least take my mind off its existence.  Most of the things I tried to fill it with were unhealthy, illegal or at the very least self-serving.  Ultimately, every attempt failed, leaving me more aware of the emptiness within.

It was when I came to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior that I understood that He was what I truly needed to fill this void.  I believe this is the heart of Jesus’ message when He said, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:35 NIV).  As I have pondered this simple yet so profoundly wonderful truth, I’ve wondered why more don’t discover it.  All the fruitless searching for that ‘one thing’ to make your life complete has been undertaken while the solution has been available to you all along.

I came to a better understanding of this as I re-read the words of Jesus: He who comes to me.  There it is! Though the invitation to partake in the bread of life is always present, action on our part is required.  To take what the Lord offers, one must acknowledge the need of it and be truly sorry for the time wasted in looking elsewhere for it.

This is not the only invitation that Jesus offers.  In fact, the Scriptures contain many examples: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come I and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20 NIV). I love this as not only is Jesus bidding us to open the door to Him, but as we do He will then share the meal with us! This is an invitation to enjoy fellowship with the Lord. To not open that door is like standing outside a local steakhouse with a huge appetite, savoring the wonderful smells coming from its kitchen, yet refusing to go inside even though the bill has already been paid.

Lest you think these invitations are only concerned with eating, consider this one: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NIV). As with any invitation, it remains only words until it is acted upon.  In this case, the coming to Jesus is to acknowledge that the struggles of life have worn you down and that your own coping mechanisms are not working so well.  The Lord offers rest to those who will come to Him in this way.  This does not mean that your problems will then magically disappear; but accepting the rest Jesus offers will refresh you and His strength will see you through any trial you are now facing.

Please note as well who it is that gets invited to receive this rest: all you who are weary and burdened. All means all and you means you! This is another of the many examples of the inclusiveness of the heart of Jesus.  There are no conditions to meet or parameters to follow; simply come in your brokenness to Him.  He will minister His love to your heart, if you will allow Him to.

One last thought (for now) on a balanced diet as prescribed by the Bible: to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3b NIV). We all know that to keep our body running well we need to take in nourishment.  The same is true for our spirit.  God’s word is sustenance, and just as our physical body needs fuel to keep going, the truth of Scripture will refresh, hone and challenge us to continually grow spiritually.

I hope that these thoughts help you to recognize the spiritual hunger within and that you will allow the Lord to satisfy your longings.  He is ever so ready to do so.  As for me, just thinking about these things as me hungry for more of what He is serving.  Back to the chow line for me.  Where was I? That’s right: For God so loved the world . . .

 

What is God’s Will for Me?

 

“What is God’s will for me?” As I speak with folks, this question often comes up.  Generally, there is some frustration in their voice.  They have been praying and seeking direction, but somehow the answer seems to elude them.

We pastor-types tend to make this out to be pretty heady stuff, this trying to figure out what God’s will is.  In many cases, we have made it a more complicated issue than God intends it to be.

To help us get our minds around this topic, let’s start with the big picture and work from there.  With this wide-angle lens with can say with 100 percent clarity that God’s will is for every person to come to know Him as Savior.  His has spelled this out in the familiar John 3:16 as Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  The Apostle Peter also tells us; The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV).

The Bible clearly establishes that God’s heart is for all people to come to Him, acknowledging their need of a Savior.  It really is that simple, God’s immeasurable love is always on display through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is an open invitation to absolutely everyone.  If you are reading this and you have come to know God’s forgiveness, I rejoice with you!  But like those old Ronco veg-a-matic tv commercials, “Wait, there’s more!”

To find it we must begin to look at the  picture with a narrow focus lens; that being God’s will for your life now that He has called you to His fold.  Once again, we can find some straight forward instruction as to how to do this from the Bible: Be joyful always; 17pray continually; 18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV).

Sounds simple enough as at first glance it appears God is saying to keep a bright outlook most of the time, pray a lot, and remember to say thank you when someone does something nice for you.  But if you will read those three little verses again, you will find that God is saying much more about what His will is for you.  We are not to qualify or justify our actions by self-righteously deciding to withhold our gratitude, not bothering to pray or opting to be sour instead of joyful.

Realizing God’s will for us in these things is a full-time and faith-filled response to the above mentioned love the Almighty offers to each of us.  Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as: Being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (emphasis added).

The faith that is borne at our salvation brings us the surety of eternal life and makes us certain of that which we cannot see with our physical eyes.  Saying yes to Jesus allows us to know the truth of the Scriptures.  In the context of knowing God’s will we can then find the comfort of: 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). As the power of that verse sinks more deeply into your heart, we can better see how we are to be joyful always, for even as things may be bleak or painful around us, we have God’s promise that He is working things out ultimately for our good!

The instruction to pray continually does not mean to be reciting prayers non-stop, but rather to be aware of the presence of God always.  The more we do this, the more likely we are to be in a constant conversation with Him.  I encourage you to simply try living in the constant awareness of God’s presence.  Conversation for most of us comes much easier with someone we are familiar or comfortable with.  We have established God’s will for you is to be in contact with Him.  It becomes possible if you are willing.

The third piece of knowing God’s will, we are told, is to give thanks in all circumstances.  Here again we experience the tension between what we are currently going through and the higher call of being thankful always.  The Expositor’s Commentary explains it this way: We need to recognize that seeming aggravations are but a temporary part of a larger plan for our spiritual well-being. Out of this perspective we can always discern a cause for thanks.  I’m not saying this is easy for any of us to do, in fact it’s downright impossible on my own.  Ah, enter faith! God is bigger than what my circumstances of the moment are!

Having said all this, you will note that I still have not given you specific insight into what God’s will is for you.  The reason is simple:  That’s not for me to do! I would suggest, however, that if you will incorporate the instruction given about being joyful always, praying continually and being thankful in all things, you will find yourself much closer to God on a daily basis.  As He nurtures your relationship to Him, your faith will grow. As it does, your ability to see and trust His purpose for your life will increase, revealing His wonderfully personal will to you!

Hands Free

 

Betsy and I were blessed with the opportunity to buy a new car just before Thanksgiving this year.  This is a really, really, big deal for us, as the previous (and only other) new car purchase we made was a 1983 Renault Alliance.  Needless to say, there have been some technological advances over the past 34 years in the automotive industry.  Though cruise control and heated seats intrigue me, they pale when compared to the wonder of the ‘hands free’ connection offered between the new car and my phone.

Hands free? Free to do what? Drive the car? No, I won’t will not get on my soapbox about distracted drivers at this time.  Rather, I will opine on what I and we should all be doing, caring for others.  If you have read any of my other entries, you know I am writing from a Christian perspective.  More importantly, I hope to be living as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and in so doing, be involved with the care of my fellow human beings.

The Bible gives us clear direction about this in James 1:27:  Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27 NIV).  Everything Jesus taught about helping others was meant to encourage us all to get actively involved in caring for our fellow humans.  When we do, we move religion, with its many negative connotations, into the more positive light of relationship.  This is the heart of the Lord’s message; not formal once-a-week gatherings to simply check a box of obligation, but rather an involved, intentional life that thinks of others before self.  We need free hands to do this.

The Apostle John says it this way: Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:18 NIV).  Good intentions are simply not good enough.  We are to use our freed hands to share the love of God with everyone.  The Baker Bible Handbook describes it this way: The Bible connects two important realities that are often separated: paying close attention to our own spiritual formation and meeting people’s basic needs. (p. 929)

 

But being hands free in life is a bit more complicated than having my phone synced with our new Subaru.  In it, merely pressing one button gives me access to my entire list of contacts (that’s not completely hands free now that I think about it).  Prompts from the vehicle then allow me to call anyone of them.  I can be connected with the outside world just that quickly and easily.

Hands free in life is rarely as simple as that however.  Often our hands are tugged in several different directions, usually at the same time.  The day to day demands on our time and resources hardly feels like freedom.  We do what we have to do, which generally leaves us too exhausted for anyone or anything else.

Perhaps your hands are held captive by something more sinister.  Hands that are tied by addiction, in its many forms, are polar opposite of being free. The darkness of these types of bondages seems to envelop you.  It is impossible to be truly helping others when you basically cannot help yourself.  If you are reduced to survival mode by your addiction, only your survival matters.  Others are to be used by you, not helped.

Those of us not tied down in this way, when we do take the time to look around us, we see that there are many who need our help.  The numbers seem overwhelming and that alone can keep our hands bound by inactivity.  Thoughts like, ‘What can I possibly do against the flood of pain and strife,’ often stop us before we get started.  Yet, the scripture quoted from the letter of James gives clear indication that we must be engaged in reaching out to others.  I have often pondered that verse, trying to understand it more from God’s perspective.  It is, after all, God who has freed our hands to be of service to Him.  He has revealed some of His unlimited care to us, hence His viewing of helping others is truly ‘pure and faultless.’

Perhaps you are thinking that this sounds good, but how can I possibly fit one more thing into my already full and hectic life? My question to you in response is: How are you rationing you time?  For me, I can easily get over-protective of ‘my time.’  This happens when I focus on what I have been doing instead of who I am doing it for.  I quickly tend to tip the scales in my favor, telling myself I deserve this or that because of what I have already done.

When I get to this place, I have lost sight of what James 1:27 is teaching.  I need to get myself back to proper perspective, which means realizing once again that the universe is not revolving around me.  The IVP Bible Commentary sums up well what James is saying: Scripture says that God is committed to caring for the powerless and defenseless, including the poor, the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Since the needs of such people are on God’s heart, he expects that same heart to be in us. Further, Jesus himself so identified himself with needy, oppressed people that when we care for one of his people in need, we do it unto him. Any practice of Christianity that does not exhibit this concern in action is deceptive (it misrepresents the truth about God’s own heart) and worthless (it is of no value before God).

Not only is God’s word giving us clear direction as to how we are to respond to the needs of those around us, we have the example of the Son of God to follow as well.  The heart of Jesus was and is for all people to know the love of God.  He constantly had His hands free as He extended forgiveness and the promise of eternity to all.  His love was so great for mankind that He freely allowed His hands to be pierced with nails so that all might be saved.

Few of us are called to anything nearly as drastic; but we are called to give of ourselves.  Whether it is our time, talents or treasure, we are to keep our hands free and hearts open to the hurting world around us.  May we all know the blessing of being a blessing to someone else!

What a Sight!

I am in no way a well-traveled person. Born and raised in Central New York, I have lived here for all my nearly 58 years. I do not travel much, having never been outside the U.S. (save a few trips to our neighbor to the North, Canada) This is not to say, however, that I have not experienced some wondrous sights in my lifetime.

I have had the opportunity to stand in awe on the shores of both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. A vacation to the Southwest gave me the opportunity to see the beautiful red landscape of Sedona and the breath-taking splendor of the Grand Canyon.

As a devoted fan of the San Francisco Giants, seeing three games in the gorgeous AT&T ballpark in 2013 is forever etched in my memory; as is my first football game inside the then brand-new Carrier Dome in Syracuse some 35 years ago.

When employed at one of the three near-by nuclear plants, I stood inside the 550-foot-high cooling tower (while the plant was on shutdown!), with its opening so wide above me I could not see all of it when standing at the bottom! I have stood within a few feet of the spent-fuel pool with its beautiful cobalt blue color, peacefully hiding all that power.
I am sure that most reading this will have seen and experienced much more wonder than I have. I am also equally sure that none of us have seen or heard anything as glorious as a group of lowly shepherds did one night some 2000 years ago:

And there were shepherds living in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:8-14 NIV)

Now there’s a wondrous sight! And on so many levels! First the obvious; the proclamation that the Savior of the world had been born. This wasn’t some minor announcement relegated to the end of a local newscast. No, it was announced from heaven in a way that truly befitted a King. Can you imagine what was going through the minds of those shepherds on that lonely hillside as they saw and heard this?

While were on the topic of those shepherds, why were they the first to hear this awesome news? Wouldn’t the town square or perhaps outside the home of the highest official been more fitting for an announcement of this magnitude? After all, shepherding in those days was the lowest of professions. If you were a shepherd, there was little to no hope of ever improving your lot. You were going to work and live with sheep, an often dangerous and always lonely life, and all for the benefit of their owner.

But it is in the fact that shepherds were blessed to hear the news first that we get a clear picture of the heart of God. In His infinite wisdom, he chose to reveal to the lowest that He was breaking in on human history. The Sovereign Lord, the Almighty King of kings, thought it best to tell simple shepherds that salvation had come to all men. A most humbling reminder to all of us; don’t let your station in life dictate to you how and when you may hear from Him. There is no more level playing field than the one that stands before the throne of God.

Not only did God reveal His heart’s desire to mere shepherds, He made it clear that His saving love was for all people. The angel proclaimed that this great news was for ‘all people.’ There is not much explanation needed with the word all; if you are drawing breath, this announcement is intended for you.

As all encompassing as this was, God also made sure the His salvation plan was an extremely personal one too. He had the angel not only tell the shepherds that this Savior born was for them personally (I bring you good news), but for us as well! The Savior Jesus Christ was born, lived, died and was resurrected for absolutely all people. Yet in the midst of that mind-boggling fact, the salvation offered from God to us is done on a personal and one at a time basis.

So, if you are feeling over or under whelmed as Christmas fast approaches, please take a moment to consider again the shepherds whom God first told of the birth of His Son Jesus. Don’t let the hustle and bustle of last minute things keep you from pondering why it is you are doing what it is you are doing. There has never been a more life-changing occurrence in all of history; and it was made with you in mind. What a sight to behold!

Closed for the Season

Just north of where I live there exists a relic from the past: a drive-in theater. When (if) the winter weather finally breaks, it opens, and they show movies on the weekends until late October. At that time, along with a thank you to their patrons, they put on their marquis, ‘Closed for the season.’
I drove by the currently closed drive-in the other day and was struck by those familiar words as we approach another Christmas. Seemingly everywhere you see or hear ‘tis the season,’ as December 25th draws near. What is a time of joy for many, with thoughts of family, presents and parties abounding, others find deeply depressing for any number of reasons. Hence, my thoughts on closed for the season.
In my broad circle of acquaintances there are several who will be going through Christmas without their spouse for the first time. Their sense of loss and loneliness is heightened as the calendar relentlessly chugs toward the 25th. Their pain has them closed for the season.
I know others whose financial struggles are heightened at the holidays. They want to buy gifts for their kids, but the heat bill must be paid. Their jobs aren’t giving them any security either, as more and more in this already economically stressed area are being laid off. Uncertainty has them closed for the season.
Still others are going through the annual tension caused because their kids are estranged from them. Attempts are made at reconciliation, but seemingly they go for naught. Stiff reunions are accented by more arguing. Anger has these folks closed for the season.
If these examples, or any I haven’t mentioned that you are currently causing you to feel closed for the season, please know that there is hope! It is found in the true ‘reason for the season,’ Jesus Christ. The Prophet Isaiah wrote of this hope some 700 years before the birth of the Lord: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 NIV). Immanuel means God with us. It is a personal promise from a personal God. Just as it was to the Israelites in the dark days when Isaiah prophesied, the hope of knowing the Savior is just as real today.
If you find yourself feeling closed for the season, I ask you to take a moment to simply reflect on those words the prophet wrote. They truly are incredible; a virgin conceiving? And then her child was to be God with us? It’s almost to crazy to believe, and maybe you don’t. I also have plenty of people in my circle who do not. If that’s you, I pose to you the same question I put to them: How is your life going without God in it? May I encourage you to consider the awesome possibility that what was said so long ago did in fact happen. If you will, allow that wonder in, you may well find those things keeping you closed for the season will lose their power over you as the power of our loving God permeates your life.
Being a realist who has been at the trade of pastor for a while now, I understand that not everyone is or even will be open to the things of God. Yet I press on, because you are so very important to Him (and me too!). For your consideration I offer some more words from Isaiah that also point to the saving heart of the Lord: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6 NIV).
Here this same promised Savior of the world is described in a most glorious way. The Son of God, sent by the Father to bring salvation to the world, is indeed wonderful, mighty and everlasting. The peace He brings to a lost soul, as the bible says, truly transcends human understanding.
Does it all sound too good to be true? Where’s the catch? Friend, it is true! And the only catch is in you risking a little faith to believe it. I know what it is to be trapped in despair with no human way out. I have felt the pain of loss and the debilitating guilt caused by my actions. Thankfully, I now know the nearly inexpressible joy that comes with being a child of God. What seemed to be permanently closed for every season in me has now been opened. May this be the time that you can experience the freeing love of Jesus; tis, after all, the season!