Monday, September 29, 2014

Choosing Joy...Even When You're Not
Two weeks ago, I scooted too quickly around the gathering table to help child #2 with his homework.   In the process, I kicked the table leg and had to pause to let the pain pass before moving on.  Like most mothers, I gave it little thought, especially since my bare feet are forever kicking something in a three-child household.  This was no big deal, right? 

Wrong.  A few days later, the toe began to swell until the nail was ringed in red and it had its own separate heartbeat.  Apparently, I had gotten a cut when I hit the table leg's sharp edge, an invisible invitation welcoming infection inside until it grew into a blister under the nail.

A needle relieved the pressure, and Nurse Allison said it should get better.  But there was one caveat--no running until it healed.  That evening, I grumbled to God about how unfair this newest trial was, especially since I was in the midst of training for the half marathon in January, something I was certain He told me to do. Did He really expect me to walk the whole thing!?

James 1 tells believers to "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (v. 2-4).

But how does a Christian count all life's trials as pure joy  when they certainly don't feel like joy?  In fact, often, those are really painful, life-changing, kick-you-face-down-in-the-dust trials?

HOW does a person count those "all joy"?

The answer can be found back in Isaiah, in a prophecy about Messiah and how he would be put to death on a cross.  The prophet says, "But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. " (Is. 53: 10). 

In the above verse, the word "pleased" or "chaphets" means "to take pleasure in; to delight in*"  Likewise, the words "good pleasure" come from that same root word and mean the same thing: "delight, pleasure, ...that in which one takes delight"*

This idea of taking delight in something is the same thing as James' counting it all joy.

The two words show that God the Father was pleased, was delighting, was counting it all joy when Jesus was pierced, was beaten, was suspended on a cross between heaven and earth.  He was taking delight and joy when Messiah's soul that had known no sin was burdened down with the sin of the entire world, became sin itself, thereby separating Jesus from God the Father. 

How could God do this? As a mother, in my flesh, I can't comprehend how a Father could delight in His son's physical and spiritual suffering, His son's anguish as it says in verse 11?

And yet, the answer lies in the next verse, explaining how we as believers can count our trials as a delightful joy as well.  

Isaiah writes, "As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities" (Is. 53:11).

The Father could count His Son's suffering all joy because He knew what was coming as a result of that trial, of that suffering and anguish.  Because Jesus submitted Himself to the Father, because He chose to endure the trial, chose the cross, chose to take on our sins, we believers would have the opportunity to be justified through Him and, ultimately, to be reconciled to God.

It's not that the trial, itself, was a joy.  Anyone who has seen Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ could attest to this...and that's only the level of anguish we mortals can imagine.  Yet, what God had planned through that trial--the redemption of His children--was joy.

This should tell us a good bit about trials in our lives.  They may not feel joyful to endure. They may be the hardest thing we've ever endured. And yet, we can count it all joy because of what God is going to do both through that trial and on the other side of that trial.  

We believers must learn to look beyond the moment, beyond the trial, to what God is accomplishing through them.  It could be that the trial will lead to God doing something wonderful in our lives.  Even more humbling, though, it could be that our counting it joy through the trial will lead to God doing a work of salvation in someone else's life.

*Strong's Concordance Online
 Image: from Tutorials for Crafty Hands.  Tammy Tutterow is truly amazing and gifted.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Softening the Hardest Earth

It wasn't but two months ago when my trio of little monsters skipped through the bright, disinfected halls of the local nursing home.  Their energy and eagerness was hard to rein in as they sought to give a gift of comfort to each man and woman they came in contact with.

Every few seconds, each child returned to my side to dig deep in the garbage bag I held, searching for a favorite beanie baby.  Then, hands full, they were off again, bursting through someone else's open door to deliver a handful of love.

One lady's wall was covered with more cat posters than I had ever before seen.  In the bed nearest the door lay her husband, catnapping despite the conversation taking place around him.  When my eldest son Wyatt approached his bed, I protested, whispering that he would awaken the man.  Still, he turned and gently placed the offering atop the man's chest, ever so careful to not awaken him as I held my breath.

Down the halls we went until our bag was empty and our hearts were full. As Wyatt said, "I feel all warm in my heart."

Since then, the children have mentioned this occasion numerous times, confirming to this mother that it made quite an impact on them.  It was just one in a long list of acts of kindness done for the sole purpose of showing Jesus' love to others.  Many times I think we have been blessed much more than those we set out to bless in the first place.

Like many who labor for the kingdom, I rarely see the result of any of these ministries that my family does.  For instance, I have prayerwalked the subdivisions around our community since August 2011; yet, I know of not one person who has been saved as a direct result of my prayers or tracts I have left on the doors. The same is true of my teaching ESL.

So imagine my surprise this past Sunday when a dear friend came to me with eyes shining in excitement to tell me how a man in the nursing home had just last week given his heart to Jesus.

She told me his story and the miracle of how this once mean, grouchy man had overnight transformed into a man filled with joy, one who had even gone to all the workers at the home to ask their forgiveness for how he had mistreated them.

Then, she asked, "Do you know who his first contact was?"

I shook my head, thinking maybe our pastor or another elderly gentleman from our church who often came with us each month.

"Wyatt."  she continued.  "He gave him a beanie baby."

I was stunned and ever so humbled that God would use the simple love of a child to pave the way for His glory.  

Wyatt had given him a silly stuffed animal, a gift of Jesus' love.  God had continued to work on that gentleman's heart as he underwent surgery, causing that man to seek truth in the Scriptures once he was well enough.  And then God had sent a Christian worker to lead his now-tender heart to saving faith in Jesus.

The apostle Paul spoke of this same manner of winning people to the Lord.  He writes, "What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building" (1 Cor. 3:5-9).

Some of us may scatter seeds.  Others of us may haul around a heavenly watering can.  

But God. 

God causes the growth.  

We laborers for Christ don't bring anyone to salvation.  But God graciously allows us to plant and water, to labor for the kingdom so that when someone does enter in through the narrow gate, we are able to rejoice that much the more.  

Let us not grow discouraged when we don't see the growth from our labors.  Instead, even if we never see the fruit, let us still continue fervently working in the harvest fields, believing by faith that just as Paul and Apollos sowed and watered two thousand years ago, we, too, are called to that same task.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What if You Don't Want to Be a Peacemaker?

It wasn't long into my marriage that I learned what my role was going to be in every disagreement.  I was the peacemaker.

Husband grew up in a house much like mine where conflicts were aired with great gusto to keep them from festering into a toxin while swept under some rug.  Somewhere at the fringes of adulthood, I learned how the occasional verbal disagreement was necessity for marital harmony.  Keeping those hurts and perceived injustices bottled up inside would never work in the long run.  They were bound to spill over at some point, and usually at the nasty velocity of a champagne cork.  I determined quickly that it was best to be aggravated with my husband, speak with carefully chosen words (not verbal swords) to let him know about it, forgive, and move forward.

Husband, on the other hand, never came to that conclusion.  Instead, he left his childhood home with a complete aversion to confrontation.  To him, a verbal disagreement was to be avoided at all costs like the eight Egyptian plagues.  That meant any time I was displeased with him and gave voice to the problem, he would avoid me, often spending the rest of the day walking in and out of the room I was in without saying a single word.  His logic was, "She's mad at me.  I'm going to give her some space until she gets over it."

At one point, we went a solid week only speaking when communication was absolutely necessary.  I knew the only way to move past our disagreement was for me to don my peacemaker hat as usual, only I was tired of being the peacemaker.  Couldn't my husband play that role just once in our marriage?

This concept of peacemaker has been at the front of mind lately as I have read The Berenstain Bears' Blessed are the Peacemakers to my children.  It's a good book for teaching children how to make peace with others, even quoting the Bible verse "Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it."

But being a peacemaker isn't always easy.  Still, it is commanded.  Right at the end of The Beatitudes, Jesus slips in the phrase "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matt. 5:9).

Blessed are the peacemakers.

I have often looked back at the Beatitudes and thought, "Please, Lord.  Call me to be merciful, meek, pure of heart, or even to be persecuted for righteousness' sake...but not a peacemaker."

With the second half of the verse saying "for they will be called children of God," it seems this is a verse specifically for God's children, since they are the only ones able to be true peacemakers in this world. Yes, that means true peace in men can only exist between two believers who are both at peace with God.  

This is because peace is a gift from God.  Ephesians 2:14 says Jesus is our peace.  1 Corinthians 14:33 says "God is not the author of confusion but of peace."  

If Jesus is our peace, that means for a peacemaker to do his/her job, s/he must first make peace with God in her own heart.   As long as I'm battling God in my heart, I can never make peace with anyone else in my life.  I'm too proud to make peace, too self-righteous to make peace. Making peace requires a hefty dose of humility.

Only when the peacemaker is submitted unto Christ can he be at peace with God, and only when that peacemaker is at peace with God can he sufficiently humble enough to seek peace with other men.

But how does this peacemaker hat work with Jesus' own words that say "Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you no, but rather division" (Lk. 12:51) or "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword" (Matt. 10:34).

Division.  A sword.  Those don't sound very peaceful, at least not by the world's definition.

Yet, in both these Scriptures, I believe Jesus is telling Believers that true peace isn't a mere truce.  It isn't a tense compromise.  It isn't evading the problem to avoid confrontation either.  Instead, true peace can only come for the Christian who enters the conflict with the sword of truth, who confronts heresy and false doctrine in love, and who calls sin a sin instead of  "life choice."  

The first step to true peace is ensuring both parties are right with the Father.  A verse my boys have learned this year in their Royal Ambassadors program says, "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ; certain that God is appealing through us, we plead on Christ's half, 'Be reconciled to God'" (2 Cor. 5:17-20).  

If we are truly ambassadors of peace for Christ, we must first seek for them to be at peace, to be reconciled, with God.

Many times, using the sword of God's Word is divisive, is confrontational.  But it is necessary.  Only when sin has been dealt with in the lives of both parties, when whatever issue is truly resolved, can there be true peace. 

In short, being a peacemaker doesn't mean we stick our heads in the sand and pretend everything is ok.  It doesn't mean we lay down like the proverbial doormat either.  Being a peacemaker means wielding the sword of truth--God's Word--and not backing away from the truth in exchange for an uneasy "peace" that isn't rally truth peace.  

It means confronting sin, false teachings, and injustice in order to achieve true peace, which is only accomplished through Jesus.  It means ensuring both parties are right with God.

Fourteen years into my marriage, my peacemaker hat still hangs by the back door, ready for me to pick up at a moment's notice. And yet, I have learned if my heart isn't right with God, I dare not pick it up lest I use it as a weapon of pride and self-righteousness to beat someone over the head.

First, we peacemakers must make peace with God.  Then and only then, our hearts are such that we can make peace with other believers in our lives.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Why Victoria Osteen's Words Really Bother Us

For two weeks now, the video clip of Victoria Osteen has clogged up social media, her ten second sound byte repeated round the world as she passionately spoke from the heart while her husband stood beaming in the background.

Her now infamous statement reads, "When we obey God, we're not doing it for God...we're doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy. Do good 'cause God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God, really. You're doing it for yourself because that's what makes God happy."

While most Christians likely wouldn't put it in quite such a jaw-droppingly abrupt manner, that doesn't mean the Osteens are that far out in left field when it comes to having their finger on the pulse of the religious climate in America.  If anything, Victoria Osteen hit the nail squarely on the head, accurately describing where our country is currently in who we believe God is.

And perhaps that's the problem, the real reason the video went viral: It's one thing to live out an unspoken belief through our actions.  But it's quite another to hear someone put voice to that belief. 

For too many years, the prosperity gospel preachers have made basically the same claim--a religious version of Mel Gibson's "If you build it, they will come."  Even the decades'-long argument within the church over the style of worship--traditional versus contemporary, hymns versus praise choruses--it addresses the same basic issue: Do we worship for what we can get out of God?  Do we live holy lives only so we will receive God's blessings and not His curses?

Our actions answer that question all the time.  If a church doesn't completely fulfill my needs, if it doesn't offer my kind of Sunday School or my preferred Bible study teacher, I pull up stakes and go hunting for another one.  Likewise, if God doesn't grant me a life path of ease and pleasure with the job I want, the children I want, the finances I want--a path that meets my needs--then I question His goodness or whether that's a God I even want to serve.

Our worship, our lives are growing increasingly me-centered, and one pastor's wife did little more than to point out what we honestly don't want to admit about ourselves because then we might have to pull our heads out of the sand, make some changes in our personal lives and, more importantly, reconsider how right (or wrong) is our relationship with a holy God.

No matter what the world may try to teach us, we were not created for ourselves or for our own happiness. The prophet Isaiah said, "Everyone who is called by My name And whom I have created for My glory, Whom I have formed, even whom I have made" (Is. 43:7).

God is our Creator, and in that role, He created us for HIS glory, not for OUR glory or happiness.  The apostle Paul said much the same thing in Colossians:  "For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him" (Col. 1:16).

Since we were created for the glory of God, that means all the works of our hands should glorify that Creator.

Paul writes, "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve" (Col. 3:23-24).

Whatever I do, I am doing "as for the Lord rather than for men," and since I am part of "men," that means I'm not working for myself and my happiness, either.   Whatsoever my hands find to do, I'm supposed to do it for the glory of God.  

Paul even says to the Corinthians,
"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved" (1 Cor. 10:31-33).

There is a reason it's all about God and not all about us.  Our lives are supposed to glorify God, are supposed to point to God so that others will be saved.

That doesn't mean God wants us to be unhappy, but in truth, sometimes it takes a heavy dose of unhappiness before we can stop doing for ourselves and start doing for the glory of God.  

Happiness simply has nothing to do with it.  God wants His creations to experience joy--not superficial happiness but soul-bursting joy--and for that joy to be found in Him.  What's more, He'll do whatever it takes to accomplish His purposes, to save our souls, and to sanctify us.

Monday, September 1, 2014

There is None So Blind

Cleopas had heard the women’s story of the angel who proclaimed that Jesus was alive. But his eyes weren't the ones to see Him. So his heart doubted. And sadness permeated his every step as he and another of Jesus’ disciples undertook a seven-mile trek on the dusty road to Emmaus.

As the pair walked, they inwardly mourned Jesus’ death, talking of their hearts’ disappointment--Jesus wasn’t who they thought He was. As they later said, “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Yes, “were hoping.” Past tense. Their faith and hope had been buried right along with Jesus in the tomb.

But then their faith became sight…well, almost: as “ they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him” (v.15-16, my Italics).

This was the Jesus they had followed so closely, developing such an intimate relationship with Him that surely they knew his mannerisms, the sound of his voice. And now, Jesus was near enough to touch, to smell, to hear, to embrace. But still, they didn’t really see Him.

As they walked, Jesus told His life story: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (v. 27). This wasn’t your usual man-to-man conversation using the fewest words possible. Jesus was teaching the high points of the Old Testament to them. Words they knew. Words they even had likely heard from Jesus’ lips before.

Surely they looked into his face at least once on the journey. And yet, something “prevented” their identification?

In the Greek, the word “prevented” is more accurately defined as “to take hold of, grasp, hold fast” or “to have power over.” In essence, something or someone took control of their eyes so they couldn’t see Jesus clearly.

The Scripture doesn’t say anything about their vision being otherwise impaired. Nothing about them running into trees or having trouble finding a place to stay for the night. It was only Jesus they couldn’t see. As such, the commentaries I’ve read say this was a supernatural covering of their eyes.

But I think there’s a second equally valid interpretation: that their emotional devastation over Jesus’ death was clouding their actual vision. You know…the kind of blindness when disappointment clouds your view of life so you can’t see the blessings right before your eyes? So you can’t see Jesus before standing right before you?

Cleopas and his fellow disciple didn’t mentally understand how Jesus would accomplish salvation for all mankind by laying down His life and dying on a cross. They couldn’t really comprehend His triumph over death. They didn’t expect this kind of Savior.

And in that disappointment, they almost missed “seeing” Jesus entirely. The Scripture even implies that Jesus was just going to continue along down the road without them had they not invited Him to stay: “And they approached the village where they were going, and He acted as though He were going farther. But they urged Him, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.’ So He went in to stay with them” (v. 28-29).

Even in blind disappointment, their hearts were still “burning within” them (v. 32). Their hearts knew Jesus even when their eyes did not. And once they invited Him to dine with them, He broke the bread as He had done shortly before His death, and their eyes “opened and they recognized Him” (v. 31).

Too often, I fear this scenario describes even the most devout Christians.  We pigeonhole Jesus without realizing it, the clay attempting to be the potter who molds a Savior into one we can recognize.  Then, when He doesn't act as we expect, when the circumstances of life don't line up with what we anticipate God to do in our midst, we are blinded in disappointment, often to the point of missing where He is at work both in our own lives and in the world around us.

The frightening part is, if we don't follow the prompting of our hearts burning within, Jesus may just continue on down the road without us, leaving us in our blind state, completely unaware of what we have missed.

May we not allow life’s disappointments to cloud our vision such that we miss Jesus standing right before us. May our own hearts burn within us when we fail to see. And may we follow the Spirit's prompting when those heart yearnings do happen.

 Revised Archives 09.20.09