No Foolin’

April Fool’s Day has come and gone again for another year.  For the most part, I enjoy the shenanigans that accompanies the first of this month, though I could have gone without seeing Mother Nature’s 6 inches of snow prank on us here in Central New York!

Those who know me are aware that I love to laugh, remaining always ready to laugh at myself first.  If laughter is indeed the best medicine, I must be a pretty healthy individual.

What I know for sure is that the joy that is in my heart, ready to bubble over at any given moment, has been placed there by the Spirit of the Living God, whom I trust without reservation for my salvation.

I say all this to preface what I would like to briefly share with you all today.  I was asked to preach at a local church this past Sunday, filling in for their pastor who was not available to do so.  My style, if you can call it that, is to deliver the message of hope from God’s word in the same way I attempt to communicate all the time: straight forward, down to earth and with a touch of mirth so that we take the message, but not ourselves, seriously.

The title I gave to my sermon was Truth and Consequences, pointing out from numerous places in the Scriptures the truth that there are consequences for all our actions, both good and bad.  I concluded my presentation with an invitation for anyone in the audience to see me afterward to discuss the truth and consequences of making/not making an informed decision about Jesus Christ’s call to salvation, having outlined the consequences of believing in Him or not.

As I stood at the front, an older gent, I’d put him at about 80 years young, came up to me.  I had noticed as I spoke how attentive he and his wife had been, interjecting a fair amount of Amens! to the various points I was trying to make.  What he said to me is what has inspired this entry.  As he thanked me for speaking, he said, “Now that was preaching like we used to hear.”

I asked him what he meant by that.  He simply told me that the message was clear: Jesus Christ is the way to salvation and that there are indeed consequences that affect us forever based on our decision to the Lord’s invitation to be forgiven.

Here’s what I am still pondering and I welcome any and all thoughts and opinions: If plainly speaking about the pros and cons of recognizing our need of a Savior is ‘old school,’ exactly what is being preached/taught in churches today?

I started this entry speaking of the joy I experience daily.  I love a good laugh, usually at my own expense.  I’ll often refer to my lack of height (Vertically Challenged), my inability to jump and overall lack of athletic skill (Prisoner of Gravity) or my lack of good looks (Face made for radio) to get the humor started.

It is with the same joy that allows me to be not so serious about myself that I attempt to spread the simple yet all encompassing Good News about Jesus Christ.  The line between harmless self-deprecating humor and the absolute importance of making the choice for Jesus is crystal clear however, no foolin’.

Thanks for taking the time to read this,

Pastor Chuck

Have a Forever Happy New Year!

Happy New Year.  I’ve said it to plenty of people again this year with my heart in the right place, but when I stop to consider what I am really saying, it falls far short of I truly hope for them.

Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary (does anyone other than me still use a hard- covered dictionary?) defines happy as: favored by luck or fortune.  Knowing and believing what I do about the two possible destinations that await each of us when we die, this wishing for a happy new year to those I meet rings shallow.

Please understand that I have nothing against someone experiencing some good luck in 2019.  If you golf, may a fortuitous bounce give you a hole-in-one.  If collecting coins is your hobby, may that rare find find you.  Or maybe by chance you’ll step on a $100-dollar bill on your next walk outside.  Whatever it is in things like this, I do indeed wish that you are favored by luck or fortune.

The pastor/teacher in me yearns for all of us to experience a far deeper and everlasting peace that none of these fleeting examples listed above can offer.  If you are reading these words and you know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, I rejoice with you!  My 2019 greeting to you is that you take the time to come to know Him even better in the days ahead.  As you do, may you be filled to overflowing with the peace and contentment only He can provide.  Please don’t keep this blessing to yourself! It is meant to be shared with the world in which you exist.  I pray that you daily manifest the love God has poured out on you to others.  In 2019, may you be a true example of what a follower of Christ is to be.

Friend, if you are reading this and don’t know the salvation that Jesus died to offer you, my 2019 greeting to you is please consider it! At the top I mentioned there are only two destinations for us humans when our physical life ends.  It is an eternal reality: One is to live in bliss for absolutely ever in the very presence of God, the other is to live on forever with the knowledge that what you heard about, but never acted upon, was true.

Maybe that doesn’t sound too bad to you on the surface, but consider this: We’re talking about eternity here.  That’s a long time to ponder the hugest mistake you could ever make.  It breaks my heart to even consider the utter loneliness of that existence and the total inability to change your circumstance once set in it.  This is an isolation from all other life but even worse, it means you are forever separated from God; hopelessly lost forever.

I realize that is some heavy stuff to be thinking about on the first day of the new year, but so be it.  I believe you are worth talking to about this! And as strongly as I feel for you, God has an infinitely greater desire to be in relationship with you.

The Bible makes many direct references about God’s heart towards those who have not yet come to believe in Him.  One that says it clearly to me is this: 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 promise mentioned here is that there will be and end of the world as we know it.  It doesn’t say when, just that it will happen.  God’s heart for you is revealed in the second part of this verse: He is patient, not wanting anyone to miss out and He even tells us what we need to do; repent (meaning to be truly sorry for our mistakes and failures).

His offer of eternal security remains in place until the Lord comes back again, another promise from the Scriptures.  I’m not claiming to have any inside-trader information of when that might be, only that it will.  Please, please, please don’t be left out when that happens.  Why not start this New Year with a brand-new you!  Not one that is sculpted at the gym or through dieting, but one that is eternally transformed by your Creator God.

Will this then be a ‘happy new year?’ Not it the sense of good luck or fortune, but it will have at its base an unshakable certainty that God’s love will care for you always.  I pray you consider God’s invitation and take Him up on his desire for you: to be happy, fulfilled, content, peace-filled, forgiving, etc. forever!

Blessings to all and thanks for reading,

Pastor Chuck

 

That’s a Big God in a Small Baby!

 

The Bible teaches that God created everything.  I don’t want to get into the particulars of how He did it just now, I just know that He did.  As I said, everything!  That’s big beyond any concept of large I can muster.  I am too limited by space, time and lack of brain-power to get my mind around this in any reasonable way.  I accept on faith that there was a time when there was nothing until God put creation on the board.

So He’s a Big God with unlimited power and creativity.  The way He has designed things in nature, the working inter-dependence of all these moving parts is evidence enough for me that an immeasurable mind is behind all we can see.

Reading the Scriptures also reveals that God has an equally large heart.  He knew/knows we are a broken lot, like lost sheep without a shepherd.  Even on our best day, we fail at times to live lives that are worthy of the praise God deserves.  Still, His heart is for absolutely everyone to enter in to a personal, one on one relationship with Him.  We are invited, just as we are, to enter into the most one-sided relationship there ever could be: us with God!

The question then, with the unequaled vastness and power of God established, why come into the world as a tiny baby? My logical mind says He ought to have made a bigger splash upon entry.  Blessedly, my logical mind is not the impetus behind God’s salvation plan!

I believe the answer to this question lies in the very greatness of God I’ve mentioned: He knew He could have blown away people with a display of fireworks that got their attention.  He could have written across the sky “I HAVE ARRIVED.” And should He have entered history more like this, it seems even less likely that an infant child would be the preferred vessel to carry and then bear the message of salvation.

Ah, but there’s that heavenly, boundless wisdom again.  God knows how much we are drawn to the bright and shiny new thing.  Our curiosity and desire to be entertained draws us like a moth to a light.  The problem is, like that moth, it is the brightness that is the attraction, not the Maker of the light.  Furthermore, we tend to be quickly bored, making us look for the next bright thing.

I believe God chose to come to us as a baby to challenge us to grow out of that shallow life of bouncing off one light to look for the next.  Also, Scripture teaches us that God desires us to come to Him, that we may develop into the children He wants us to be.

How can this be? Recall that He is beyond measure in all things, allowing Him to be more than capable of meeting the desire of every heart that chooses to follow Him.  As we do, we can joyfully discover the depths of His love, evidenced first in His humbly coming to us a babe.

When we approach the God of the Universe with our own measure of child-like wonder, He reveals the greater plan at work that He set in motion at the birth of Jesus we rightfully celebrate this season.

The greater plan, of course, is the saving of a lost world.  The plan is set and is at work, but much darkness still persists.  The world chases the next shiny thing or follows the person will the most bombastic rhetoric while the baby in the manger still calls.

Only a God beyond measure would downsize enough to come as a baby to show all mankind He is more than big enough to handle the job of salvation.  In this Christmas season, I invite you to allow the super-natural wonder of the birth of Jesus to amaze you, for the first time or the One-hundredth; and may the joy it is intended to bring be yours beyond measure, just like God is.

Merry Christmas from Pastor Chuck at Lakeside Christian Ministries!

What’s in a Name?

(The following is an excerpt from a message I preached several years ago at Lakeside Christian Ministries.  The four-part series focused on the names the Prophet Isaiah gave to the coming Messiah.  This is the third installment which examines Jesus as Everlasting Father).

What’s in a name? Quite a bit actually, especially when we consider the names the Prophet Isaiah gave to the coming Savior some 600 years before He was born! They are recorded in Isaiah 9:6: 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. (NIV)

Before we dive in, allow me to share a question I have been wrestling with to get us started: What, if anything, is different this Christmas season from last year’s? Or any other Christmas season, for that matter?

Where is the focus? If it is to get the many things done and to go to the many places we go simply because it is Christmas time again, may I kindly suggest that the focus is misdirected.

Because December 25th is approaching ought not put us into a frenzy to get the house decorated or the perfect gift purchased.  Yet, like most, if I look back at this time last year, that pretty well describes the lives of many of us.  We celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus by running ourselves ragged with what we think has to be done to make this season successful, happy, memorable, etc.

If you find you are caught up in any or all of the busyness going on around you, please take some time to consider Jesus Christ.  Yes, this is the time of year we celebrate His birth, and rightly so! This is the Savior of the world, who came to the world because He so loved us.  Take this time to re-set your focus.  Place it solely on Jesus and watch if all the other ‘important’ stuff going on doesn’t fall into its rightful place.

As I said, we’ve been discussing some of the wonder of the birth of our Lord through the lens of the prophesy of His birth given us by the prophet Isaiah.  I find it truly amazing that God’s word spoke to people in their context over 2000 years ago, and it is still speaking clearly to those who would listen today!

Remember, the ancient Israelites Isaiah wrote to were living in a dark period.  They had weak leadership nationally and spiritually.  They were in this condition because they had turned their backs on God. Despite this, God in His mercy and love gave them the encouragement of the awesome promise of a Savior.  He still holds this promise out to all today.  His light can/will still shine brightly into any area of darkness.

So far in this series we’ve considered how Jesus fulfilled the names Wonderful Counselor and Mighty God by which Isaiah said He would be called.  All the wisdom and power of heaven was/is on display through the child born, this son given.  His counsel is true, his power unlimited; we should seek Him out continuously as we walk this earth.  He will guide us if we ask Him, his power will supply us if we allow it to.

To help us discover the light God wants to shine on all of our lives, let’s look at the third title Isaiah gave to the coming Messiah, Everlasting Father.  Let me help with any confusion this title might cause at first: How can Jesus, the Son, be an everlasting Father?  It’s an excellent question that comes with a straight-forward answer that the original language will help us to find.

In Hebrew, the phrase translated Everlasting Father is literally “the Father of Eternity.” This speaks of the purpose of his coming.  Ray Pritchard of Keep Believing Ministries explains it this way: He (Jesus) is before, above, and beyond time. He is the possessor of eternity. He is eternally like a father to his people. This is not a statement about the Trinity but about the character of our Lord. All that a good father is, Jesus is to his people.

Jesus is this type of father, forever.  My earthly dad, Ken, was a wonderful man who taught me life lessons by his words and deeds.  He played a large part in making me who I am today.  But, like all mortal fathers will, he has passed away.  He was a great dad, but not an everlasting one.  Only God possesses eternity.

Ray Pritchard again: Because he is like a father, he cares for his people. Because he owns eternity, he can give us eternal life. That’s important for those who live on this sin-cursed planet. No one lives forever. Sooner or later we will all find our own place in the graveyard. We are not immortal but transitory. We’re here today, gone tomorrow. A dead Christ will do us no good. Dying men need an undying Christ.  Praise God, our Lord Jesus is eternal!

This had to seem like a bit of a stretch to those who first heard Isaiah utter this prediction.  After all, he was proclaiming prophesy of a child not yet born in Isaiah 9:6.   However, the text clearly says that this newborn Messiah is in fact to be an Everlasting Father! Go ahead, get your mind wrapped around that!

Helping us to do this will be the mind-set we bring to it.  We talked last time about child-like wonder at the things of God; how God often challenges us to get past our logical thought process in order that we might see more clearly how He is at work around us.  Remember, this is God Almighty coming to the world as an infant.  God chose Bethlehem, not even big enough to make most maps back then, to be His birthplace.  Given these facts, in all their heavenly contrast, let’s see how Jesus was/is indeed an Everlasting Father.

To do this, we do have to consider the term Father in the context that the Prophet Isaiah used it.  In our day we have watered down the concept of father in many ways.  Be it the bumbling portrayal of a Homer Simpson, to the real-life dad who works 2 full-time jobs, supplying materially but not emotionally to his family, to the no-account who fathers children and then disappears from their lives; part of each of these, plus many others, tend to make up today what we consider the title ‘Father’ to mean.

Being a father in Isaiah’s day carried with it much more than the above.  To be a proper father then meant that you oversaw the entire process of family life.  As one commentator put it, the father was the head who provided nutrition, education and protection for his household, including all those who might work for him.  It was a title of respect that was earned through bringing compassionate care as well as proper discipline and correction.  The Father was involved in all aspects of life in order that those under his care could live and grow in a loving and nurturing environment.

It will also help our understanding if we realize there was a tremendous stigma attached to those who didn’t have a father back then.  Being fatherless as a child in Isaiah’s time was to be virtually an outcast in society.  You had no advocate or anyone to look out for your best interest. This information ought to help us see all the more clearly that Jesus fulfilled/fulfills the title of Everlasting Father.  God left clear instructions in the Old Testament that teaches about providing care and provision for those who were in need (For more on this, read Deuteronomy 24:17-21).

Throughout His earthly ministry the Lord Jesus displayed this type of loving, paternal heart as He met the needs of so many.  Here are just a few examples found in John’s gospel:

  • He turned water into wine at his mother’s request when they had run out at a wedding reception.
  • Jesus took the time to explain to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, the necessity of being born again through salvation. He took the time to show a Samaritan woman at the well that he was Messiah.  Jesus invested His time in others.
  • He spoke a word and healed the royal official’s son; healed a lame man at the pool called Bethesda, gave sight to a man born blind and to a beggar on the road, miraculously fed thousands of people from a few fish and a loaf of bread and, let’s not forget that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. All evidence of a Father’s heart beating in His chest.  In this case, the Everlasting Father who showed great love and compassion for people.

But Jesus went well beyond merely meeting needs.  His love for all people, especially those who were lost in their sins, was abundantly clear. There is a poignant example of this recorded in Luke 13.  As the Lord approaches Jerusalem, he receives a warning to not go there as King Herod is planning to have him killed.  Rather than avoid the problem by not going or giving in to anger about this threat, Jesus instead reveals His loving parental heart:

“O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34)

On another occasion, as the Pharisees looked down at Jesus for dining with ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ the Lord told the parable of the Prodigal son.  Of the many lessons that can be gleaned from that teaching, primary among them is the loving and patient heart of the Father who longed for the lost child to return:

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)

There are many more examples of the parental heart Jesus had for people.  As it is my hope that our previous examinations of the Scriptures revealed Jesus to be the Wonderful Counselor and Mighty God Isaiah spoke of, so too my prayer is that this brief study sheds light on how Jesus clearly fulfilled the pronouncement that He would be the Everlasting Father as well.

As mind boggling as it can appear to be, our Lord Jesus, along with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, is God.  These three distinct persons, the Trinity, exist simultaneously together as God.  Jesus was well aware of the confusion this was bringing to his original audience, as well to people still today.

Because of this fact, Jesus made many other statements that were meant to bring clarity that He was indeed the prophesied Everlasting Father in Isaiah 9:6.  One can be seen as He spoke with Thomas:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.  From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6-7)

To bring this all into focus in our context this Christmas season, please remember that the Messiah promised in Isaiah Chapter 9 is indeed Emmanuel, God with us.  Today we have concentrated on the eternal Father that Jesus is.  That He is everlasting is more than a statement of time; or of His always having been there or that He will always be there.  Though wonderfully true, the point of application is that He is always with us now!  We can know that this promised Messiah, Emmanuel, is indeed with us each and every moment.

My hope and prayer for all of us in this particular season is that we can experience a deeper sense of God being with us.  This is God; who made us and loves us.  He’s not merely sitting somewhere above, watching and ready to pounce on our mistakes.  Rather, He is always and everywhere around us, as our Everlasting Father, offering us His peace.  The Messiah, Jesus Christ, stepped into this darkened world to bring forgiveness and salvation to all who would accept Him.

The miracle only began at His virgin birth because the miracle continues in the heart of each person who puts their faith in the Lord.  Once you have done this, the everlasting care of God is available to you.  He will guide and comfort you, He will direct your steps.  You need only allow Him to and He will do so as your Everlasting Father. Amen.

 

Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor

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).

(The following 4 blogs are excerpts from messages I preached at Lakeside Christian Ministries a few years back as we explored the meaning and application of the four names prophesied by Isaiah of the coming Messiah whom me know to be Jesus Christ)

We hear this scripture read often as we enter into the Christmas season.  It speaks of the awesome promise fulfilled by the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ.  God chose that point in history, some 2000 years ago, to start into motion His plan of redemption for mankind.  His marvelous light shone into a dark world bringing the hope of salvation to all who would believe.

As I contemplate the current world around me, I wonder if ever there was a time that we needed the light of God to shine on us more than we do right now.  The deep divisions within my own country of America are threatening the very fabric of our nation.  Fear and dis-trust are at an all-time high and the future seems anything but certain.  Racial, economic and political strife are the daily reality for a growing number in our land.  To sum up, a deep darkness has enveloped us, seemingly blocking out any light of the hope God brought through the birth of His Son.

The Scripture verse at the top is part of the prophesy spoken by the Prophet Isaiah over the troubled land of Israel, some six hundred years before the birth of Christ.  The people lived in gloom (you can read about it in Isaiah 8:19-22), they were hungry for something and searching for answers from everything but God.  Spiritual confusion had replaced their hope.

As unsettling as our times are, one thing they are not, is unique to the human experience.  History is marked with both long and short-term examples of prevailing darkness.  In the 1300’s, it is estimated that 100 million people in Europe died from Bubonic Plague.  Biblical history also gives many accounts of the darkness that existed periodically over the nation of Israel as they suffered at the hands of various conquerors, as well as oppressive rule from their own.  Just skim the historical books of 1&2 Kings to get of sense of this.

Thankfully, our God is an ever-faithful God! Throughout the scriptures He has promised, and fulfilled, to never leave us nor forsake us.  Whenever His people, whether individually or as a nation, recognized they have strayed from His marvelous light, He forgives and brings them back into His fold.  That’s the ‘bottom line’ we must all remember.  God has provided the means for our forgiveness through the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus.

Isaiah 9:6 is one of the most frequently quoted verses of the Old Testament.  Together let’s consider what it is God is promising and has done in fulfillment of this prophesy, with the emphasis being on the four names Isaiah referred to this coming child as, starting with Wonderful Counselor.

As usual, we have to work through the language to get at what God’s word is saying to us today.  To this point, consider how you and I often use the word wonderful.  We say things like ‘isn’t that wonderful,’ or, ‘that’s a wonderful idea.’ We use wonderful to describe things that are pleasant or enjoyable.  Isaiah had a much deeper meaning in mind when he told us the Messiah would be called Wonderful Counselor.  The Hebrew word used that has been translated wonderful means miracle or astounding, something that is incomprehensible and totally set apart from the normal (Strongest Strong’s Concordance).

Carrying this thought forward to Jesus’ actual life, we see many examples of this being fact.  Actually, start with His conception through the Holy Spirit and his virgin mother Mary.  Incomprehensible? You bet.  That’s not how conception normally works is it?  True, but this was no normal child to be conceived.  I would add the record of His healings and His sinless life to the list of the miraculous, astounding and incomprehensible things about this Wonderful Messiah named Jesus.

The biblical meaning of wonderful counselor as it applies to Jesus means that He is, as one commentator puts it; beyond anything we have ever seen, that He is so extraordinarily vast that we cannot possibly understand all that He is because he is outside the realm of human possibility.  John’s gospel captures this thought:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NIV).

But Isaiah not only described the coming Savior 800 years before the fact as Wonderful, he ties this word with Counselor.  Once again, we must look more deeply into its meaning to get the full richness of the intent. There are no shortage of counselor’s in our world today.  Many are highly trained professionals, whose clinical knowledge and expertise help people with myriad ailments plaguing them.  According to research done in 2013, there were over 1 million practicing counselors in this country alone.  They span the spectrum of professions, from mental health to educational and vocational, just to name a few.

Please know that I am in no way depreciating the work and dedication of these men and women, for a vast majority are modeling the very heart of Christ as they bring care to so many who are in need. What we must understand, however, is that Isaiah was not describing a counselor as we have come to recognize the term.  Whereas today’s usage of the title often describes a particular area or field a counselor works in, the term Counselor as applied to the coming Messiah was meant to be singularly applied to the ruler giving counsel to his people.  The advice from this kingly counselor was to be known as trustworthy and full of godly wisdom.  You should act in confidence about what this Counselor told you, for He has had access to the wisdom of heaven.

Jesus, as the Wonderful Counselor, has been described as being the sum total of all knowledge.  He is/has all wisdom, all guidance, all direction, all truth and insight.  He knows everything about everything and is never wrong.

Now that’s quite the list of qualifications for Counselor, wouldn’t you agree?  They certainly go well with the adjective wonderful, for Jesus, as this perfect counselor, is indeed incomprehensible to us.

Knowing what we now know and as we enter in to the Christmas season, let me encourage you to really consider what this time is all about.  Of course, we ought to celebrate our Savior’s birth and I’ve nothing against trees and presents and parties, but please take the time to remember this: For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son. (John 3:16)

He did so to save us from judgment we all deserve and thus to offer us eternal life through the saving work of the cross of Christ.  That certainly is a cause to celebrate!  Just don’t let the hectic days of planning and travel and shopping lessen the marvel this time should be inspiring within us.

And while you are thinking about God, ask yourself this: Have I been using the awesome resource of this Wonderful Counselor?  I/we are often so quick to seek advice to try to gain understanding on our own; shouldn’t we be at least as eager to seek the counsel of Jesus Christ?

He is the definition of Wonderful!  Let that thought linger in your mind.  Everything about our Savior is Wonderful.  As such, He is the One from whom we ought to be daily seeking counsel.  His wisdom is eternal, His understanding unmatched and His compassion unending.  And He has left the on-going connection to God the Father by leaving us the Holy Spirit to remind us of all He has said.

Please don’t think that this is not for you, because it is.  We read it at the top: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.  That us is you and me and absolutely everyone.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Amen.

 

 

 

It’s Personal: Part 1

 

Over the next several weeks, I will have the privilege of speaking at two events.  The first will be a commemoration service for the local Hospice organization I volunteer at and the other is a Blue Christmas church service.  At each the focus of my message will be the hope that God brings to people in their darkest hours.  I have endeavored to pray, study and meditate on the familiar words of Psalm 23 in order to share what I have discovered and experienced about God’s comfort in the context of His promise to care for us always.

For my blog, I imagine this will be broken into several different entries and as always, your feedback is desired and appreciated.

As it is rendered in the New International version, Psalm 23 begins:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down on green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he restores my soul.  He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

That the relationship offered by God is personal can be seen here at the very start: The Lord is my shepherd (emphasis added).  He’s not just someone else’s shepherd, He is mine! Think about that.  The God of the universe, creator of absolutely everything, considers you important enough to be your personal shepherd.

With the LORD as my Shepherd, I can also experience the wonder of having all my needs met.  I read this in verse 1 as it tells me I won’t have any wants.  Logically, this informs me that with my needs met, there won’t be any wants.  Being honest, I don’t always live in the midst of this promise.  My mind can often wander, considering how nice it might be to own this or to have that.  Usually, and thankfully, God will grab my attention back from dreaming about these totally non-essentials.  When He does, I re-set my focus on Him.  As I do, He then makes more of His peace available to me as I again realize the abundance of gifts I receive while under His care.

In some ways, I find this personal relationship that God offers mind-blowing.  After all, what do I bring to it? It’s when I realize, again, that it’s all about Him and not about me, that the idea of the Lord being my Shepherd resonates deeply within me.

Continuing with the example of Psalm 23, verses 2 and 3 are further expressions of God’s personal care for His sheep.  Sheep won’t lay down when they are hungry and also will not drink from fast moving water.  Once again, the psalmist is telling us that our needs are being met by the Great Shepherd.

To me, these are clear indications of God’s caring heart toward those who would follow Him.  But before going any further, let me ask, “Are you o.k. with being a sheep?” Sheep are totally dependent creatures.  They can’t fend for themselves and on their own they are no match for predators.  They’re not known for being overly smart.

I’m not suggesting that we simply lay about in the natural, waiting for someone to come and take total care of us.  On the contrary, we are to see not only to our needs but also to the care of others (Philippians 2:3-4 has more on this).  Rather, it is in the spiritual realm that me must trust and rely upon God alone for our care.  It is when I muster this child-like faith that I can more fully realize the working of God around me. In my opinion it certainly is o.k. to be a sheep in God’s fold, because His faithfulness to me (and many others) has taught me this!

In closing for this time, please consider what we read in verse 3, he restores my soul.  The simple implication here is that we have a soul that needs to be restored! Does yours? Mine certainly needs it from time to time.  Once again, the Great Shepherd is the One who can/will accomplish this for us.  His is an all-inclusive care package.  A member in God’s flock can have the joy and peace that only He can provide and remember, this is not a cookie-cutter, one size fits all peace, it is personal! Created and molded for each one individually, the perfect fit from the Perfect One, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Appeal of Christianity

Does the person who cut me off on the highway know I am a Christian.  Did my one-fingered salute clue him in that I profess to follow Jesus? Do the folks around me at a hockey game experience my love when I loudly disagree with the referee’s call? Does my wife see the love of God displayed in me when I grudgingly agree to help with a project around the house? No, no and no.

Looked at in this light, I am missing by a wide margin the command Jesus gives in John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV).

The word love in these verses is God’s all-encompassing love.  It is the love given to us that we are to express back to Him and others.  Another place in Scripture tells us that, we love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

How do I do this? On my own, I can’t.  I/we can only exhibit the love of God if it is in us.  In order to obey this command, we must believe Jesus to be the Son of God who gave His life for all sinners and was raised from the dead to give the final victory over death.

Ok, I do believe that; why then do I have trouble obeying this command? The answer comes down to understanding the sacrificial nature of Jesus love.  More than understanding, I must become willing to supplant my wishes in favor of others.  That means I have to grow to be less selfish as I live my faith out.

Allow me to share some insight into what I see as the lack of appeal in today’s Christian to the outside world.  My current ministry has me visiting different churches in our area as I fill in for vacationing  pastors or as I help my wife lead worship when there is a need.  These churches have some things in common.  One, the people that are there seem genuinely glad to be there.  Second, there aren’t many of them.  The churches we help out at always seem to be more than half, if not two thirds, empty.

Why is this? Why are there more empty seats than warm bodies present on any given Sunday (except for Easter and Christmas)?  The answer, as I see it, is that going/belonging to a church has lost its appeal.  What has happened in the relatively short period of time from the commitment of  my parent’s generation to weekly attendance to the mass exodus from church today? I understand we live in a busier world today, with each of us seemingly being pulled in multiple directions constantly and that Sunday morning for many is the only chance to catch up on sleep.  There is also soccer and hockey and a myriad of other activities going on these days that never were on help on Sunday morning before.

Ok, I get it; folks are busy, stressed, or just too tired to even think about church.  This has resulted in a generation of people who are not necessarily anti-Christianity, they simply have not had any exposure to what a life of faith is all about.  The majority of this group has formed their opinion of what a Christian is based on how it is portrayed on television sit-coms.

This my fellow-believers, is our fault.  Somehow, in the busyness of our own lives, we have lost the attractiveness of what being a Christian should be.  Many of us, myself included, tend to ‘love others’ at our convenience.  In so doing and ever so subtlety, we have traded the command to love everyone for the desire to love ourselves first.  Said another way, once our wants our met, we can see to the needs of others.

When we profess faith in Christ, yet live with a ‘me first’ attitude, we fail miserably at obeying the Lord’s command to love others.  Our love of self limits our ability to experience the love God gives us.  With this restricted flow of heaven-sent love in us, we become far less appealing to the hurting world around us.

If we find ourselves falling into this trap, there is but one way out; ask God to forgive us our selfishness and restore to us the joy of His salvation.  This allows us to see our relationship to our Creator more clearly.  As we do, we bring our weakness in to the light; His light!

Remember, God is not a about condemnation when we screw-up.  What He is always doing is inviting us to enjoy a deeper life of fellowship with Him.  As we accept this invitation, we will find our ‘wants’ list to be greatly reduced in size as we realize our utmost need is being met.  Living in this freedom then allows more of the Father’s love to flow in to us, thus making us better able to love the world around us.  That appeals to me and it is what will make the life of obedience to Jesus appeal to others.

It’s simple really, just not easy.  But it is so wonderfully worth it! Let’s all make today the day we will take the Lord’s command to heart and love others as He has loved us.  In this way we can best make our appeal to those who don’t know Him yet.  For my part, I will pray blessings on that next driver who cuts me off, I’ll acknowledge the referees good work at the hockey game and joyfully join with my wife in our next project.

 

Death of a Salesman

 

My first job out of college was in retail sales.  I hated it.  No matter how much I knew about the product or how much I would reduce the price to entice a customer to buy, my sales figures never matched those of my colleagues.  As much as I struggled on the sales floor, my other primary duty was an absolute nightmare.  I had to design and implement both the window displays and the in-house sets that were to promote the latest and greatest items in the inventory.  Of the many things that I am not, being a flashy attention-grabbing designer is near the top.  You can imagine may trepidation whenever one of my regional managers showed up.  He or she was never satisfied with what I had done, and usually with good reason.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want the displays to look nice and improve sales, I just lacked that creative gift.

It has now been over twenty-five years since I left the world of retail sales, and I can honestly say I haven’t missed it one bit.  The frustration of not being able to improve my skills finally caused me to look for work elsewhere.

I found my niche in the workplace as a painter.  As you may have guessed, not as an artist, but rather a contractor.  With training and a great mentor in the trade, I learned to be quick about my work and extremely neat.  I relished the fact that I didn’t have to design anything, merely put the proper coating on it!  This skill set allowed me to work in nuclear plants, factory settings and finally on a maintenance crew at a local college.

While working my 40 or more hours a week, I also slowly completed my schooling and training (though the training is always on-going) to follow the call God has put on my life to be a pastor.

That’s quite a way from retail sales you might be thinking, but consider this.  I entered this stage of life with the enthusiastic approach of a new salesman because I now had the single best-ever product to promote: Jesus Christ! How could I miss with this material?

But miss I did.  I realize I’m not the most gifted public speaker, but with abundant research and the occasional funny and applicable story from my past, I thought I would at a minimum be able to inspire folks to want more of this Jesus.  Unfortunately, my preaching lacks the ability to really grab a hold of people.

Not to be discouraged, I approached small group leading and teaching with the conviction that if I took the time to really explain what we are studying from God’s Word, those in the group would dive in with me to plumb the deep truths of Scripture.  Again, I experienced only a limited return on my investment of time and study.

Doubt in my pastoral abilities and the persistent voice in my head telling me that I wasn’t any better at pastoring that I was at selling had me once again wondering if I had better find something else to try.  Maybe this unnamed something would finally be my ticket.

Before heading in a different direction, I decided to first to follow the advice I so often counsel with: Don’t make any big life changes without first earnestly praying about it.  With a fair amount of self-pity, I approached the throne of grace with my tail between my legs, telling God I was pretty useless in this kingdom business and that He better open us some other way for me to serve Him.

I chose the term ‘throne of grace’ for a reason.  It is exactly what I experienced! God in His unending grace listened to my pity-party.  Once I got it all out, He simply let me know that it was my “sales” approach that needed changing.  I came to realize I could talk a good game about what living life for Jesus meant, but these words are hollow unless they are backed up with living life as an example of what I was suggesting others do.

What freedom! What a release it is to live ministry instead of merely doing ministry.  To wrap up the salesman analogy, I had to wear the product I was showing, not just talk about it.  The practical application is simple, if not always easy.  The love I feel toward God has to be evident in more places than just my office or prayer room.  It must be the thing people remember about me after we have met or as we build a relationship.  Wearing this love can/should take many forms, but a short list ought to always contain: patience, compassion, willingness to listen and to help (outside of my comfort zone), forgiveness and kindness, to name just a few.

In the short time since God has begun revealing this to me, He has allowed me to see tangible results as people are responding to Him through me in some new and powerful ways.  I am deeply grateful to the Lord for His grace, gratified for the people who are growing in their faith and extremely pleased the old salesman has passed away.

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.

You Think This is Hot?

I enjoy reading and occasionally commenting on the blogs I follow.  It was as I read the various accounts of a heat wave being felt in various places around the globe that I got the inspiration for this entry.

It is hot here in Central New York also! The temperature (Fahrenheit) is above 90 today and will remain so for the next 4 to 6 days, with an expected high temperature of near 100 degrees later this week. A genuine heat wave like we are experiencing is rare here.  We are much more accustomed to cold and snow than we are to the heat.  My little city averages about 250 inches of snow (that’s over 20 feet!) each year and the air temperature rarely gets above 30 from January through March.

Some places get a ‘dry’ heat, which in theory makes the high temperatures more tolerable.  I have spent time in Denver Colorado and the desert of the southwest US; trust me, 95 degrees is hot whether it is dry or wet! Closer to home, when we get a heat wave it is always a ‘wet’ one.  The dew points will be in the low to middle 70’s during this event, which will make journeying outside for even the briefest time make you feel and look like an extra in a jungle safari movie.

As you may have guessed by now, it’s not the air temperature that I really want to talk about; but as long as we are on the subject of heat, let’s talk Hell for a bit.  Admittedly, I don’t know much about that place, but I can say my understanding has grown from thinking it is simply a hot, nasty place (se Dante’s Inferno).  The Scriptures do plainly say that a place of eternal punishment exists, I just don’t think it’s fire, brimstone and devils wielding pitchforks.

The punishment for those there, as I understand it, will be the eternal realization that life was spent wasted by non-belief in Jesus.  Regardless of the treasures and pleasures amassed, all will be found for naught when the last breath is drawn.  A separation exists between the Holy God of heaven and this place of hopelessness.  Jesus alludes to this unbridgeable expanse in the parable of the beggar Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31).  This is horrible news for those blinded to the truth of salvation through Christ alone.  Maybe fire and unquenchable thirst might be preferable, at least in so much that the physical suffering might temporarily take one’s mind off the eternal ramification of being separated from God.

However, this bad news is more than counter-balanced by what we preachers often call ‘The Good News.’  Knowing that there is a bad makes the good that much more wonderful. The Gospel (gospel=good news) proclaims that God has prepared the way for sinners like me (and everyone else) to stand guilt-free before His throne when life as we know ends.

The certainty of salvation is based on where it comes from; God Himself.  Jesus Christ somehow bore the sins of the world in Him as He died on the cross.  In His mercy He took my/our/all who would believe place.  We cannot earn nor do we deserve what He has done; we need simply to believe it.  The Apostle Paul describes how salvation works: That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9 NIV)

It really is that simple.  The hard part is coming to grips with it.  I have heard it said that we are all born with a God-shaped hole in our hearts that can only be perfectly filled by Him.  I love that imagery.  It describes my need (if I want to be complete) as well as the complete solution.  And it is all done for me!  God takes the pressure off us; asking only that we submit our will to His as we accept by faith His salvation: For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

Let’s review: The current (outside) heat wave plus humidity is oppressive but with history on my side, it is safe to say that it will end sooner than later.  The far bleaker forecast is for those who are feeling the heat (whether they admit it or not) of not choosing to have faith in Christ.  Crushing loneliness and helplessness are their future, the worst possible news.

My friend, if you haven’t ever considered eternity, please do in the context I’ve tried to describe.  Deciding not to decide is still a decision, and a bad one at that.  Put your trust in Jesus, He is who the Scriptures claim He is.  Though I cannot promise you that your life on earth will be all sunshine and roses, I stand (as you can) on the foundation of God’s saving love that continues to bring peace to those who believe.

Uncomfortable weather conditions come and go like the seasons.  Only God is constant.  Hebrews 13:8 tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.  No number of fans, a/c or cool showers can give the lasting relief and comfort that the certainty of God’s love can, if only we will let Him.