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As I write this, I am flying home from an incredibly restful and refreshing respite in the mountains - blessedly removed for a moment from the troubles and strains of 2020. My heart is tugged in so many directions as I look out the window and over the miles of wilderness. How beautiful and glorious is God’s great creation! Everything He made He called good, and He made it for His own pleasure and ours. But how frustrating that the world is so confused and chaotic. Too many people are not aware of His goodness, or have been fooled to think that God is not real and this is all just random, purposeless chance.
If you were an evil enemy of God, what would you do to take as many people away from Him as you could? Not very many people are so easily led to outright devil-worship or murder or other wicked acts - trying to catch everyone in that trap would be a terrible waste of time, even for an evil enemy. The fastest and easiest way to draw people away from God has proven from the very begining to be to sow confusion about God’s character. Is He really entirely good and completely unselfish, or is He just controlling and self-seeking like everyone else?
Remember what happened in the Garden of Eden - we read in Genesis 2: 15-17…
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Next, fast-forward to chapter 3: 1-5…
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say,
‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened,
and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Do you see what the crafty serpent did there? The enemy took the word and law of God, and twisted it up to confuse and trap God’s beloved children. Our good Father does not want automatons for children - He has given us each the blessing of a free will. God could have blasted the serpent out of existence right then and there, but then real love would have been cheapened. Only when the risk is there to not choose relationship can love really be love. God wants each of us, all of us, to choose to be with Him, and to enjoy all that He has made.
But the enemy hates God so much, that he really does want to keep everyone from knowing their Creator. Not because that serpent cares or feels anything for us in any way, but because he wants to hurt God as much as he can in the time he has left before his own horrible end. So, the enemy’s preferred method since the beginning has been to cast doubt on God in the minds of His children.
It is a highly effective method - beware.
“Did God really say…?” that wicked rascal whispers, again and again. “You won’t really die - He just doesn’t want you to have what He has.”
Some would accuse me of being a little overly-religious and old-fashioned here; perhaps even repressed or leaning on some sort of old crutch that mankind invented long ago to keep everyone “in their place.” I would say that such accusations only add more evidence to my belief that God is who He says He is, and that there truly is a battle for the soul of every human. What better way to keep people blind to reality than to cast doubt on everything that is true?
So many Christians today find themselves confused or wondering if maybe they are not a little off-base and intolerant, like everyone is accusing. Maybe we shouldn’t be so rigid and uptight about sin and selfishness. Maybe it really does not matter how anyone chooses to live their life. Maybe God actually is just cruel and selfish, and doesn’t want everyone to have fun in their own way. “Did God really say…?”
We have a good friend who has frequently told the story of a young man with a chemistry lab. This fictional person is highly trained in their field, is already has several advanced degees, and keeps a working lab with all of the right chemicals and compounds that any serious chemist would have. He is proud of his set up and loves to invite friends and family and any interested persons to visit and check things out.
Imagine if this young chemist decided, just for fun and to be free from convention, to change the labels on some of the chemicals in the lab. For instance, what if he took the jar of cyanide, which as any reader of mystery novels knows smells like bitter almonds, and changed the label to read “Almond Jelly Beans?” The next time visitors came to his lab, he could show them this container with its pristine new label and invite them to sample the contents.
Clearly, the new label says “Almond Jelly Beans,” such a harmless and innocous thing. Almond jelly beans pose no threat to anyone. What is the big deal?
Tragically, no matter what this young man chooses to call the substance in the container, it is still cyanide. The moment his visitor opens the lid to take a smell of the harmless little jelly beans will be their last moment - no matter what you call it, cyanide is deadly.
This story is such a perfect illustration to describe what we can see on the news and in our neighborhoods every day. Changing the labels doesn't ever work - sin will still kill you every time. God’s laws are not just arbitrary rules: He does not make up things on a selfish whim, or just to keep us ‘in our place.” Rather, God’s laws are a description of reality from an infinite persepective. His laws are truth, and they are inviolable.
He does not instruct us not to do things to keep us from having fun or living our best, carefree life. From His timeless and limitless perspective, God can plainly see the train wreck that is coming down the line with selfish and willful choices. He wants us to have a good life now and forever, so He tells us the truth about what will help us truly live and what will make us surely die.
Be encouraged today, and do not let confusion be sown into your mind and spirit. Read the Word of God and spend time in the presence of Jesus through worship and prayer. Rejoice in God's truth, and take comfort in the fact that He holds everything together - now and forever.
We must not fall into the the mistake of becoming angry with the people around us who do not yet know the love of God. More than ever, everyone needs to know the peace and confidence that comes from a relationship with Jesus. The world is giving off plenty of fear and anger - we must have lives that radiate joy and hope. We know that the laws of God do not squash the life out of us; in fact, they set us free to live a truly abundant life! The enemy has fooled so many of our friends and neighbors, but no one is too far gone that the love of God cannot reach them. This season is a wonderful opportunity for the Church - the deeper the darkness, the more brightly the love of Christ can shine.
For further reading on God's Laws, please see Winkie Pratney's 21CR resource - a real treasure!
In our younger years, I taught elementary school and loved it. Kids are amazing and so much fun to work with, and it is so inspiring to watch how just a little love, care, and positive attention can help them to bloom. However, the elementary school classroom is also a wonderful place to develop and maintain a firm understanding of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Contrary to popular modern teaching and opinion, groups of people living and working together day after day in close proximity are not going to magically and organically treat one another with care and respect - in fact, left to their own devices, most school classrooms would quickly devolve into a Lord of the Flies situation.
Any serious study of the history of civilization will testify to the fact that without some sort of outside influence, chaos reigns. The problem is, of course, that just about all of the outside influences are little better than chaos themselves. Injustice is rampant, power is corruptive, and the strong devour the weak - every sort of kingdom that humans have managed to produce in our own strength are tainted by these truths.
This is why, when a truly unusual young man from a little town called Nazareth began teaching and preaching about a new kingdom over 2000 years ago, so many people had questions. The next time you read through the Gospels, notice two things - first, how many times Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God. The two are inseparable, Jesus and His Kingdom; you cannot have one without the other. Second, notice how many of the conversations recorded in the Gospels are of Jesus answering questions that people had about His Kingdom. What is it, where is it, why can't I see it, and how do you get into it? The more Jesus explained His Kingdom, the more questions His listeners had.
His hearers then were almost exclusively Jewish people. At that point in time, they alone had the revelation of who God really was; yet, when He came to them in the flesh, many could not recognize Him or His Kingdom. It is thought-provoking to note that the priests and the teachers of the law had taken the beautiful revelation of God and over the centuries created an elaborate system of rituals and of complex lists of do's and don'ts. Their system became more precious to them than their God - it lost the heart of God and became a new standard for righteousness: Self-righteousness.
When confronted with the real King and His Kingdom, many could not make things make sense. He did not do things the way they thought He should. Jesus was born in a stable, not a palace. He came from a backwater town and hung out with the lowest of the low, little kids loved Him and wanted to be around Him, and He made time for anyone - man or woman, rich or poor. He preached that if you want to be first, you have to be last; and that you cannot say you love God without also loving and forgiving your neighbor, and treating everyone else as you would like to be treated. He taught that people of His Kingdom would be known as meek, merciful peacemakers. He taught that if you want to save your life, you have to lose it. And instead of delivering with an army, He delivered by laying down His own life.
Since Jesus came and revealed to the whole world what HIs Kingdom was like, civilization has been radically changed. It is actually amazing and revolutionary that now there are entire nations in which slavery is illegal - that is because of Jesus and His people. It is also amazing that in many nations, women and children are treated with dignity and respect, and given every opportunity to have a full and purposeful life - that is because of Jesus and His people. In many nations touched and influenced by the teachings of Jesus, the poor are looked after and the downtrodden are lifted up. His Kingdom looks very different than anything humans could produce on our own - His Kingdom is entirely motivated by real love and selflessness.
This is why the writer of the letter to the Hebrews was so insistent that we not miss the real King and be satisfied with our own systems of self-righteousness. See this strongly worded passage in Hebrews chapter 12...
See to it that you do not refuse Him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused Him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from Him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now He has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire."
- Hebrews 12: 25-29
Everything that can be, will be shaken. If ever there was a time that this seems very likely, it is today in 2020! Nothing that humans have created outside of God and His Kingdom will remain - no structure, no system of governance, no religion, nothing.
Listen to the profound and prophetic words of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in a sermon preached in 1963. He was writing in a time and place when, for the first time, no one laughed at the idea of the earth being literally shaken and melted - it was the dawn of the Atomic Age and everyone was very aware of the power and fear that had been unleashed with nuclear weaponry, and this after a half century of brutal world warfare...
"In other words, we can put it like this: the uniqueness of this message lies in the fact that there has been One in this world who really did not belong to it. The world has thrown up its great men, its great philosophers, its great scientists, its great statesmen and great musicians and many other great men, but Jesus of Nazareth was not a great man, He was God-man!
This is the appaling thing, is it not, that two thousand years later, He is still being ignored. The world has always been a place of trouble and of pain, and the whole story of civilization is that of the human race trying to solve its own problems...trying to put an end to war, trying to make people live amicably together, trying to order life so that men and women might live as it should be lived and that they might enjoy it. But they failed yet the world is still trying, still turning to the same kind of idea...doing everything except listening to this one thing. This is why this writer puts it like this: "See to it that you do not refuse Him who speaks."
Friends, we know that everything will be shaken, and that only God's Kingdom will remain. Do not allow the things that are happening now to discourage or frighten you - keep your eyes on Jesus! As one old preacher said, Jesus and His Kingdom are God's total answer for man's every need. By His grace and forgiveness can people learn to live peacefully together, now and forever.
This is our wonderful opportunity to share with all of our family, friends, and neighbors the Good News of Jesus, who alone can lift our burden of sin and bring real help to men and women. It is our honor to tell everyone how much God loves them and wants them to be a part of His great, unshakeable Kingdom.
2020 has been full of surprises, to say the least. It is really beginning to seem like God might be trying to get our attention. In His infinite wisdom and mercy, and in His perfect timing, He has seen fit to give us ears to hear what He can always hear- the terrible weeping and groaning against the injustices committed, in both attitude and action, by the peoples of the world. God hears the cry of every heart, in every street, in every land, and is deeply grieved. Injustice is not imagined nor is it a problem of the past; it is very real and terrible and painful, and very present in modern times in so many ways.
When we are forced to face this problem as we are right now, and not just ignore it or pretend it is not there as we so often do, it can seem overwhelming. What can any of us actually do? The problems of society here in America and across the world seem so immense and devasating that we can be tempted to freeze into inaction, or to play the blame game and shift the responsibility for help somewhere else.
As we find ourselves in a time of upheaval, we recognize that injustice is not limited to America, but is rampant throughout the world. Again, God really does hear the cry of every heart, in every street, in every land; He is moved with compassion and His unexpected answer is to send help through His people who respond to HIs call. The great love of Christ compels us - not just to hear the cry and to see the need, but to be like Him and do something about it. As followers of Jesus, we must live our lives in such a way that we bring not just empty words, but real solutions, and we know that the beginning of real change starts in the heart of every human. Jesus alone can bring healing and hope, restoration and reconcilliation; “He died for all, that those who live in Him should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Cor 5:15)
The problem is the human heart - filled with selfishness, sin, and pride.
The solution is a heart change - through Jesus, who alone can give us new hearts. He takes away our bondage to sin and selfishness and fills us with righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom 14:17)
Where do we start? Of course, we must all start with our own hearts. We must surrender our own wills to God, have our own burden of sin lifted, and receive forgiveness and a new heart. That is a good start, and probably everyone reading this has already done that. But then what?
Jesus told a great story about this…
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Matthew 13: 3-9
This is a story about the Kingdom of God. When the good seed, which is the good news that Jesus has brought salvation, lands in good soil, it produces a beautiful, bountiful crop that has far-reaching impact. When Jesus changes one good-soiled heart, an entire family and community and even nation can be impacted. Sadly, when the seed falls on unprepared ground, it often just dies.
Here is the point - there’s nothing wrong with the seed, and we cannot believe that only the smallest minority of hearts will ever accept the truth. Someone just needs to take the time to prepare the soil.
It brings to my mind the myriad stone fences found in the part of New England in which I spent my childhood. Everywhere you look, there are miles of rugged old fences made of big stones, surrounding beautiful farmland. Someone, sometime had to dig up all of those rocks so that the land could produce fruit. This could not have been easy work; in fact, it probably included a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and time.
In agricultural terms, very few fields are ready to farm right away; rather, they need to be tilled and prepped and the trees, roots, stones, and thorns must be removed to ready the soil. In human terms, very few hearts are ready for the good news right away. The layers of hurt and bitterness and the carefully constructed walls around their hearts have to be broken through so that the seed can flourish.
How can we prepare hearts to hear the good news? In decades of university ministry, we have noticed that many hard hearts can be softened when we can show them real love and laughter - these two things can plow the hardest of hearts. Here are some thoughts along those lines:
May God help us today to renew our committment to Jesus and His Kingdom. May He grant us strength and wisdom and vision to stay the course and see hearts won for Jesus in the places He has sent us. May the Spirit of God fill us afresh and anew today with power to be His witnesses and with hope for the people we meet. May we boldly declare the praises of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light, and may we have the patience to gently till the ground of hard hearts all around us so that the work of God can flourish in their lives.
A year and a half ago, in the old days before the virus, I was teaching an introductory class on spiritual disciplines to university students at a fall retreat. I love to open eyes to a whole new world of walking with God, and it is no secret that I am especially fond of working with college students. Now that I am older than most of their parents, I really enjoy filling them in on what life was like in the Old Days. I feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder explaining pioneer life.
We were doing a brief overview on each of the chapters in Richard Foster's excellent book Celebration of Discipline, and had come to the topic of solitude. For the first time, I fully realized that I was talking to a room full of people with a radically different notion of "regular life" than I have.
They were surprised and laughed when I told them that most of my young life we only had three channels on the television, and even then our house in a little New England town could not quite pick up the third. The television channels signed off with the national anthem at about midnight, and just played static until morning. Not only that, but we actually had to stand up and walk across the room to change the channel or adjust the volume!
They gasped when I told them that stores closed by 5 or 6 pm every evening, and were not open at all on Sundays; banks closed earlier in the afternoon each weekday and were closed all weekend, the impact of which was enhanced when I explained that there was no such thing as an ATM or a debit card, let alone PayPal. They were really amazed to learn why 7-11 is named that way, and I saw many of them looking it up on their phones to see if I was making that up.
I tried to help them imagine life before microwave ovens, VCRs, and video cameras, back when you actually had to wait to cook real food, watch a movie once in a theater, and send off your film to be developed. I painted a picture of what it was like to exist in a time when you could only watch one episode of a tv program per week, and when you might have to actually go to the library or book store to check out the newest book, music album, or book on tape. New songs were played on the radio, and love notes were written out with a pen and paper, delivered in person. Answering machines did not exist, so you had to call again later or just wait until you saw the person to deliver your message.
Readers with more life experience than I - a child of the 1970's - might find this list of the "Old Days" amusing. But the truth is that when the subject is solitude, all of us in 2020 are coming with a vastly different filter than any person could have in 1980, or 1880, or 80. The young people of today have no experience of a life without the world wide web and all it stands for sitting in their hands. They have no memory of a slower world, with a slower pace of life because it has been 24/7 news cycles, shopping, and noise since the day they were born - and all of us of every age have been impacted and affected by this new world.
When we talk about solitude and silence, it is difficult for many of us to even begin to approach the concepts, let alone practice them. Yet if Jesus Himself practiced the discipline, or habit, of getting alone with God in the early years of the first millennia, how much more do we need to in this modern age of noise and chaos?
Solitude is needing nothing but God. It is waiting in the presence of the Lord. It is being still and knowing that He is God. It is taking a break from the pressure for social media likes, from the constant need of affirmation from others, and from noise and chatter and conversation to rest quietly in God. Dallas Willard explained this well...
“Solitude well practiced will break the power of busyness, haste, isolation, and loneliness. You will see that the world is not on your shoulders after all. Your will find yourself, and God will find you in new ways. Silence also brings Sabbath to you. It completes solitude, for without it you cannot be alone. Far from being a mere absence, silence allows the reality of God to stand in the midst of your life. God does not ordinarily compete for our attention. In silence we come to attend.”
In a day where it is difficult to get away from electronic things and constant noise, we must seek solitude and incorporate it into our schedules. One interesting part to the Coronavirus drama was the fact that, for many of us, it temporarily erased our hectic calendars and schedules. There were many days during the lockdown when there were long stretches of time with nothing at all planned. How interesting to realize that the first temptation was to feel guilty for not doing enough. How interesting that, for many, the next thing was to reach for the phone or the computer to fill up the silence with more noise and dubious information. What a beautiful and fulfilling challenge it was to learn to sit, still and quietly, for awhile to just be.
As we move forward, how different the world could be if we as Christians could remember to incorporate solitude and silence into our lives. Our families, friends, and neighbors need us to be different from the rest of the rat race. They need to see the love and hope and peace of God at work in our lives. They need to know the Good News that God really does have a purpose and a plan for all of our lives and for this broken world; that...
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Explore the world of the spiritual disciplines further, on your own or in a small group - follow the link to order your copy today!
Most people are familiar with the imagery of a person walking through life, daily influenced by the presence of an angelic being on one shoulder and a demonic being on the other shoulder. It is a humorous representation of the Christian idea that we all have the free will to choose which influence will guide us. The little guy with the horns and pitchfork wants to push us away from God and everything He represents; the one with a halo and wings is always trying to pull us closer to God. The devil wants us to be stuck in selfishness, sin, and despair, while God wants us to come further up and further into unselfishness, peace, and joy.
Jesus explained this reality in John 10:10...
The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy: I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.
The devil hates God so much that he does everything he can to make the creation of God fruitless and despairing. He knows his time is short and in the meantime will do all he can to kill, steal and destroy men and women, boys and girls, and to keep them away from God forever. He wants everyone to stay blind to spiritual realities or to give themselves to the gods of darkness, anything but know the true God.
I have such a vivid memory of sitting in an English class at St. Patrick-St.Vincent high school in Vallejo, California, listening to our teacher read those famous, despairing words of Shakespeare's Macbeth...
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Even though I was only sixteen years old, I could tell that William Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing in crafting this story. Macbeth believed what he was saying in this famous soliloquy, and believing that life is meaningless is the greatest tragedy of all.
So many of our neighbors have never heard that their life has meaning and value. The too-real character represented with horns and a pitchfork laughs as our secular society has convinced itself that all of life is just chance, that none of it has any meaning, and that there is nothing after death except annihilation.
This is why it is so vital that we remember the second part of what Jesus said...
I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.
We have been given an opportunity to remember how precious life is. During this pandemic, we have all instinctively wanted to protect our kids and our elders from this terrible sickness, knowing that life at every age and stage is valuable and meaningful. All of us have been vividly reminded that every person is carefully and lovingly made by God in His own image, and that every life is purposeful. It does not matter what race, gender, age, income bracket, or political persuasion any of us happens to be - every life is treasured. Not only that, but we will all live forever in one of only two places, so the choices we make in this life matter. Through Jesus, we can truly live lives full of hope, purpose, and joy regardless of our circumstances here on earth, and forever with God in heaven.
With this wonderful knowledge comes great responsibility - now more than ever.
Many of our neighbors are suffering - physically and spiritually. The numbers of people that we hear about in the news who have been affected physically by the virus or who have lost employment are not just statistics, they are real people. They live next door, they live in our town, we pass them at the grocery store and gas station.
As Christians, we must not turn a blind eye - we must look for those who need our help. We can share our groceries, we can share our money and resources, and as we share our material things with those in great need, we can also share the love and hope of God. If your church or community is already doing something organized to help people in need, jump in. If not, start something. The more of us that work together to meet the need, the better. A wonderful thing about abundant life in Christ is that there is always plenty of love and hope to go around, no matter what storm or pandemic is raging around us.
A blessed Eastertide to you and yours! In the traditional Christian church calendar, this is not just one day, but an entire season for celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, beginning with Easter Sunday and it lasting for the fifty days until Pentecost Sunday. This year, we really need the whole fifty days!
As I write this, we are all still engaged in a worldwide fight against the terrible Coronavirus. No one could have guessed the way this year would unfold. Innumerable people are going through incredibly difficult circumstances, and all of us have been impacted by measures to fight the spread of illness. It has been interesting and thought-provoking to celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord juxtaposed with such fear and unknowing in the face of a pandemic.
It has been especially fascinating to read the many social media posts and news articles about how people are weathering the lockdown period. Though no one wants this strange pause in life to go on indefinitely, more than a few people are realizing that the break-neck speed at which life in pre-Coronavirus 2020 was going was not particularly healthy. With weeks now to unwind, many people are connected with their families like never before. Kids are learning to play and use their imaginations again. People are getting enough sleep.
Sadly, this is not the case in every home. Other news articles point out that there has been a sharp increase in domestic violence, in anxiety, and in pornography consumption, just to name a few things. Being home all the time is not easy or pleasant for everyone. It seems that the angry just get angrier, and the selfish become even more indulgent. Many people are acting entirely out of fear - fear of losing income with no hope to get it back, fear of illness for themselves or a loved one, and especially fear of death itself. Faced with a virus no one really understands yet, this last fear is seizing multitudes.
Some might wonder if there might be a way we could take each individual person to a beautiful retreat center, maybe somewhere in the mountains, to refresh and relax. Imagine if this place was large enough that everyone could spread out and have plenty of space to himself. Here, each one would have all the food he needs, and none of the wicked temptations of the modern era like drugs or pornography; in fact, this place would be completely unplugged. The library would be filled with only the best uplifting and informative literature of the ages, and the music selection would be calming and peaceful. Everywhere each person goes, they would find green pastures, fruit trees with every kind of fruit, and crystal clear steams flowing. Surely, if we could create a place like this, everyone could finally find peace and harmony?
But, here is the problem - There is only one place like that, and the way to it is blocked by cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth. We are not allowed to go back into Eden, into that beautiful and abundant place where peace truly existed and where God Himself came down to walk with man in the cool of the day. Nor can we ever re-create such a place on our own.
Our wicked and crafty enemy was not entirely lying to Adam and Eve when he said they would not die if they ate the forbidden fruit. In fact, they did not drop over or cease to exist when they took a bite - what happened to them was far worse than that. The true death that occurred, and which God had warned them about, was that we became infused with sin (aka total selfishness) that we cannot get rid of by ourselves, and which results in a horrible, eternal separation from God and enmity with one another. No amount of education, medicine, money, technology, or laws can fix this problem of sin.
The virus that is currently sweeping the earth reminds us all of this universal human condition. While it has been amazing to watch the world rally together in real time to fight the physical illness and to find a cure and vaccine for this particular strain of virus, something unimaginable even fifty years ago, we remain hopeless to save ourselves from sin and from true death. Doctors are learning every day how to combat Covid19, but selfishness remains. Most of the time, we can ignore the fact that our sin separates us from God, but not right now. When faced with this problem, just about everyone would love to know what to do.
Listen to an interesting thought from Dorothy Sayers, writing at the outbreak of the Second World War....
"War (we could say pandemic) is the breaking up of security and habit, and the letting in of energy upon the things hat had become static and corrupt. The great obstacle, in times of peace and prosperity, to improvement in the social order is the inertia that society presents to any kind of change. The reformer spends nine tenths of his energy in endeavoring to make his voice heard above the snoring of well-cushioned indolence, to smash his way into the closed circle of vested interests, to disturb complacency and generally to overcome the disposition of his hearers to let sleeping dogs lie.
But war does this part of his task for him. All the dogs are up and barking very loudly, and nobody can possibly pretend to ignore them. The world is startled awake, complacency is destroyed, and even the vested interests are rocking uneasily on their foundations. His chief difficulty now will be to catch the distracted attention of agitated people and get it focused on what he has to say."
And we do have something to say!
Here is the Good News - Jesus came to save us from our sin! There is real hope and real help. John the Baptist heralded Him, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" Jesus does not just hide our sin or cover it - He takes it away. Through His work on the cross, we can be free from the deadliest virus of all - sin. In Christ, we can have peace with God, and with one another.
The Bible is clear that God has made a way for us to be with Him again, and that Jesus willingly laid down His own life for all of us. Remember the beautiful passage of John chapter 11, in which Jesus shows His power over death by raising Lazarus from the dead and proclaims...
I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.
As Christians, we have an amazing opportunity this Easter season to share this great news with people who truly might be ready to listen. In times past, we may have found it difficult to begin the conversation to share our faith with family, friends and neighbors for any number of reasons. But everything that the world offers as stability is now shaken - and it remains true that the only sure foundation to stand on is Christ, and the only way men can be reconciled to one another is through Him. The conversation is started! Speak freely and share that in Christ, we can have not only the blessed assurance of forgiveness of sin, but also His peace and steadiness to see us through any storm.
May the love and peace of God fill your heart and home today. Let's be generous with this good news and freely share the living hope that we have in Jesus.
In March I celebrated a definitively more-than-middle-aged birthday, right as all of the mitigation practices were first being rolled out. I mention this because I have never experienced anything like this pandemic and the corresponding massive social changes, and that means no one younger than myself has either.
Certainly, we are not the first age to face pestilence or war - many still living today remember other times of war, outbreaks of disease, and financial uncertainty. History is filled with awful circumstances for the people of the given era to wrestle, and we who have come later can look back and see how well they reacted. What will posterity say of us when they look back to this time? Together, we are experiencing a sea change, and it remains to be seen how we will respond as a generation.
I would like to re-post a thought about "Storms" that I wrote in September of 2018, but have repurposed with the present Coronavirus storm in mind...
Here are two thought-provoking questions - what should life be like? What makes life, or even one day in life, good?
Most of us live under the tremendous misconception that things are always supposed to be easy, pleasant, and “right”. We are continually and completely surprised and distressed when things don’t the "right" way. This is probably some shadowy memory in our cellular structure from the Garden of Eden, and of the way things were supposed to be before the fall of mankind. But the world is fallen, and unfortunately, awful things do happen all the time. One great struggle that many people face is the question of why terrible things happen to good people. If God is so good, then why does He let such bad things happen, especially to people who live for Him?
The Book of Job is an attention-grabbing book in the Bible, and I encourage you to read it again or for the first time. It tells the story of a man named Job, who was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” It actually says he was the greatest man among all the peoples of the East. He was wealthy and blessed and had a beautiful, large family. In verses 6-12, however, we read that Satan comes into God's presence and accuses that Job would never worship God if all of the good things were taken from his life. That passage catches my interest! It goes on to say that God responds to the Enemy in verse 12. “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Satan then proceeded to destroy everything Job had and loved - his family, his possessions - everything.
There are so many things to notice in this account. First, I want to remind us that the starting place for understanding anything in life is to realize that the character of God is eternally and entirely without fault. The Bible teaches that we are created in His image - not the other way around. He is not just a magnified version of us. God is always good and always chooses for the highest good. Second, notice that the terrible things that happen to Job were not God’s idea, they were Satan’s idea. Third, remember that we do not have the perspective that God does - He can see everything without constraint of time or location. The things we do not understand and which seem devastating from our perspective are not unclear to God, and we truly can trust Him to work all things for good. (Romans 8:28)
Like Job, some of us have been through some awful things. People suffer and endure hardships like abuse, betrayal, or horrible traumas at the hands of wicked people. Other troubles take us by surprise - illness in our own body or in that of a loved one, the death of someone close, addictions, marital problems, rebellious children, or a terrifying pandemic and corresponding economic instability. The list of life’s storms is long, and I am in no way belittling any of those things.
I do want to challenge our thinking. Storms have a few interesting qualities:
We know storms are going to happen, we know life is not always going to be easy. What if we stopped letting life’s storms render us unable to help anyone, and started seeing them as a great opportunity to minister to others who are hurting? What if we started treasuring hard times as a way to become more like Jesus? The Bible says in James chapter 1: 2-4, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Listen to this powerful thought from Samuel Chadwick, who lived and ministered over 100 years ago :
“Sometime in the country I have stood and watched the village blacksmith at work, and for a long time could not make out the use of the little trip hammer. The big hammer I could understand, but why should the smith strike in turns the anvil and the iron puzzled me. One day I ventured to ask an explanation, and found that the little hammer regulates the stroke of the big one. The smith holds the glowing metal, turning it lest the stroke fall too often upon the same spot, directing the blows that they may descend at the right moment; turning, tempering, regulating till the metal is fashioned to the desired shape. So God holds the soul and regulates the stroke. Sometimes He makes the Devil His hammer-man . . . Satan strikes to smash. God regulates the stroke, and turns his malice to our perfecting, and the Devil sweats at the task of fashioning saints into the likeness of Christ.”
That horrible thing that happened in your life - the very thing that the Enemy meant to use to destroy you - God can take it and use it to make you better and stronger than you could have been before. This trying time we are facing as a nation can make us better families, friends and neighbors than we ever have been before. We can become more empathetic, more caring, more aware of others, more mature, more wise, and full of steadiness and help for the hurting all around us.
Read the end of Job’s story. God was right - Job was not just serving Him because of the good things in his life. Job trusted God and refused to curse or turn away from Him during the difficult times, even though that is what many advised Him to do, and God “blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part.”
The storms of life are going to come on this side of Heaven. Let the devil sweat, and let God make all of us stronger than ever.
We are experiencing something so unusual and unique, certainly as a nation, but truly as a world. There have been pandemics before our time, and we can read about them in our history books. We know just a little about the Black Plague that swept pre-printing press Europe, we know a bit more about the global Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918, But now we have such amazing techonology which allows us to have instant updates each day, then endless commentary about each update in real time. We certainly know just about everything about this Coronavirus, even what most people are thinking about it - except the one very big unknown of where this might all be going in the immediate future.
We are all faced with just a few options for reaction:
-we can pretend nothing is wrong and ignore all of the news and all of our neighbors
-we can give into fear and panic, and sink into despair
-we can turn to God and see what He has to say to us in a time like this.
We are learning in real time why it is so important to practice a healthy devotional life in “peacetime.” A real devotional life is letting ourselves have minds that are fully engaged in and in love with God, and it includes daily prayer and study of the Bible, and a healthy diet of reading books written by and about Christians who have gone before us. If you have not been in the habit of a praticing a regualar devotional life, there truly is no better time than the present to start!
All year long, day in and day out, we practice this spiritual discipline of learning and thinking deeply about the things of God. It is like an athlete who spends all year training for the big championship game, or - even more true to our current situation - like a doctor who spends years in school learning how to treat a sick person or a soldier who spends months in boot camp to prepare for war. All of the thousands of hours of preparation serve them well when the stakes are high and the situation is no longer simulation.
It is the same way for us as Christian people. We have faith in God (for more about this, please look back to my first blog post in August of 2018), and we practice our faith day in and day out, year after year. We have been so blessed and most of us have lived rather peaceful and protected lives, and have not had much opportunity to have to lean in on our faith or on our God. But this is what we have been practicing for - the world needs us to show them what people of faith know about God and the reality of life and death. In a time like this, full of tumult and turmoil, we are able to quickly turn in our minds and spirits to what is real and what is true. The Word of God is true, and more real than anything we can see with our natural eyes alone; the ways of God are steadfast, much more real and steady than anything and everything else.
Today, let’s dig into one of my favorite passages, found in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Philippians 4: 4-13, to find comfort, truth and direction for this season…
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
This is an amazing exhortation - even more wonderful when we realize that though it was written long ago to a specific group of people, it remains perfectly applicable to our 2020 situation. The Bible says, "Christians, rejoice! No matter what, and let me say it again…rejoice! Don’t fall into anxiety about anything, but thank God for everything."
Wait, don’t be anxious and give thanks, even for a scary pandemic? Yes, even for this. We may not understand how this can be happening, but we know that God is good and we can trust Him to lead us through this (Psalm 23). And we can bring everything to Him - our fears, our hopes, and our prayers for others. We can pray, and that truly is a great work that brings real change through the power of God. Worrying accomplishes nothing; prayer accomplishes much.
As we choose not to give in to anxiety, and as we choose instead to be grateful and give thanks and pray, a miraculous thing happens. “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Ask Paul and Silas, who were able to wholeheartedly worship Jesus in prison. Ask Corrie ten Boom, who survived a horrendous concentration camp in World War 2 - the peace of God was with her and her sister Betsy, even as they lived in hell on earth. It does not make sense to the natural mind, but it is real - God is real, His peace is real. The peace of God will guard our hearts and minds all the time, but especially in times like this. Our friends and neighbors need to know this.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.
And the God of peace will be with you.
Most of us are home, and the power is on - which means that the temptation is there to watch tv or stay online all day and just watch and read news and commentary. While I do think that we should be informed and know what is going on in the world, I also know that too much internet and television consumption is very bad for us right now. Most of the people writing and commenting on current events know just as much about what is going on as you and I do - which is not much! Do not dwell on negative, fruitless, doom-filled thoughts. This will do nothing to bring you peace and will do nothing to help anyone. Make some limits for yourself - maybe just plan to spend 30 minutes a day catching up on the news and then turn it all off.
The rest of the day, as we all sit at home waiting, follow this scriptural advice to think about noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable things. Put these good things into practice, and watch the fruit of this action be born in your heart and mind. As you dwell on these lovely things of truth, the peace of God - what we need so desperately right now! - will flow in your heart and mind. If your have never shared Bible reading or praying in your home, now is a wonderful time to start.
Speak the Word of God to one another, read great books out loud together, encourage one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (that is Ephesians 5:19). Connect with your church online - most of our churches are making sermons and prayer meetings available, and what a wonderful way to stay connected with our church families. Use some time to call and connect with your neighbors and friends, to speak life and encouragement to them, and to pray for them. We all hope and pray that this disruption will be over very soon, but in the meantime we can make the most of it to bring some peaceful and healthy new habits into our homes and families.
…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
This is such a sobering time for us. I am afraid that most of us took for granted how much we had and how good life was. We were beginning to grumble and complain so much about so many silly things, but almost overnight everything has changed. We as a society have an excellent opportunity to turn our hearts, attention, and gratitude back to God - the Giver of all good things. We have an opportunity to turn away from selfish ways, to thank God for life and to treat it with reverence again, to love our neighbors and to help one another.
As we walk through this season, we can learn this lesson of contentment that Paul learned. We do not need more things or money or activities to make us happy and content. If and when all of that is taken away, we still have God, and He is sufficient; He is and always has been all we need. This is an important lesson to learn in life, and we will be wise to remember it.
So many Christians have been praying that God would help us to share the Good News of Jesus, and that we could see change come to an obviously broken and hurting world. None of us would have expected a pandemic to open doors of conversation for us that just weeks ago were slammed shut in our faces, but the mystery is that, "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).
May the Lord bless and keep you and those you love - may this be a rich time in His presence for you and your family. I pray that God gives you many opportunities to share His love and peace with others over the days and weeks to come.
TRY THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK...
It is amazing how tempting that phrase is. Advertisers continue to use it frequently, which means that it must work, and most of us would have to admit that we actually would like to know any shortcuts which lead to health, wealth and happiness. Truthfully, most of the time there is no shortcut at all, just a lot of hard work and consistent smart, unselfish choices. However, occasionally there really is one trick that makes a big difference in outcome.
For example, I played 18 holes of golf with my parents last weekend. They are very good at this game, and I am…not. Actually, I am not bad until it comes to putting, and then everything breaks down quickly. On one hole, my mom happened to watch my method closely and said, “I think you turned your wrist there right at the end of your swing. Keep your wrists steady as you follow through on the put.” The next hole, I tried her advice, and she was right! I was much less horrible at putting from then on out. It is amazing what one small shift in thinking can do.
Similarly, there is one shift in thinking that can dramatically reduce conflict and misery. This change in perspective was a theme in the writing of Anne Ortland, and it has been so revolutionary in my own life. Her premise is that so much negativity in thought and action comes from the fact that many often enter each day, each room, and each conversation with the idea, “Here I am - what can you do for me?” It is like wearing my feelings right on my sleeve. Then, when people do not care sufficiently that I am with them, my feelings are easily hurt. When my husband or my children or my coworkers or the people in my church do not rejoice and drop everything to pay attention to me, my day is ruined.
What if we were able to start with any tragedy in relationship and work backwards from the explosion to find exactly what caused it? A man and a woman are divorcing. They can no longer stand to be in the same room with one another, and can not say or think anything but vile and hateful thoughts towards one another. Bitter arguing and accusation is the only form of communication left in their relationship. If we pick up the thread and trace it back, we could see that at some point, each decided that the other was no longer for them, but against them. At some point, each of them decided that “here I am” was the only important thing in the relationship.
It can be argued that all of the trouble in the world comes down to how we treat one another and respond to one another. Certainly, on a global scale there are vastly different worldviews that clash, but in the day-to-day, hurt feelings often come down to one person believing that they have been overlooked or slighted by another and then choosing to take offense. Families break apart over this, children are damaged forever because of this, churches fracture because of this - and it is remarkably easy to fix.
Instead of entering each interaction with, “Here I am - what can you do for me?”, everything changes if we enter each interpersonal interaction with, “There you are! How can I help and encourage you today?”
I can handle it if that guy at church says something slightly rude again - perhaps he does not mean to sound quite so condescending. I can handle it if my coworker snaps at me - perhaps she is going through something difficult that I do not know about. I can handle it if my spouse or child is in a grumpy mood - I know that I feel grumpy sometimes, too and do not have to add drama to the situation by reacting poorly. I cannot control what other people say and do, but I can refuse to retaliate, and instead sow only kindness and mercy into the relationship. When a choice is made to focus on the other person’s well-being, everything changes. It is amazing what one small shift in thinking can do.
As Christian people, there is just One whose approval matters. Our security comes from Him, our hope comes from Him, our worth comes from Him, our purpose comes from Him. No one else can take any of that away. If we have the sure foundation of the love and approval of Jesus, then we can face everything and everyone else with a selfless and giving posture - the same selfless and giving posture that Jesus modeled to us...
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” - John 15: 9-14
Jesus has loved us so beautifully; He laid down His very life so that we could have forgiveness and eternal life. Because He has shown us the way, we can follow Him in "there you are" love.
Andrew Murray said this so well in The True VIne…
“Love one another. Let your interaction with the Christians in your own family be holy, tender, Christlike love. Let your thoughts of the Christians round you be, before everything, in the spirit of Christ’s love. Let your life and conduct be the sacrifice of love - give yourself up to think of their sins or their needs, to intercede for them, to help and serve them. Be in your church or circle the embodiment of Christ’s love; let the life in which you live it out be all love.”
Happy Valentine’s Day to you! There is no better day to remember the great love that God has shown to each of us in giving us life, salvation, and a tremendous future. There is so much hope and life in Christ!
God so loved the world, that He gave His Son to save us. When we were yet sinners, God rescued us from our helplessness. It seems almost too good to be true, yet it is true. And this reality is what so many lovely fairytales are based upon - a wonderful king who leaves everything to save the one he loves.
Jesus Himself told many stories about the True King and His Kingdom. Our family favorite has always been that tremendous parable Jesus told about the Good Shepherd...
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
Luke 15: 1-6
I am mindful today of a meeting we attended a year or so ago, in which the superintendent of the Assemblies of God fellowship from a war-torn nation on the other side of the globe addressed us. He told many stories of the bravery of the believers in his nation, where it is actually illegal to convert to Christianity. The men, women and children who have given their hearts to Jesus there are in constant danger from the government, their countrymen, and even their own families. Still, many are putting their hope and trust in beautiful Jesus, who truly does bring real hope and peace even in the midst of suffering.
One story in particular was about a little boy, whose believing parents had been killed. He was suddenly homeless, and had to forage the filthy streets of their great capital city to find enough to eat to stay alive. Thankfully, another believing family found him and took him in - but what might have become of him?
The gentleman finished addressing us, and the congregation joined in a time of worship. We sang this song, which has been a popular chorus in our fellowship lately, which again tells the story of the Great Shepherd…
There's no shadow You won't light up
Mountain You won't climb up
Coming after me
There's no wall You won't kick down
Lie You won't tear down
Coming after me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God -
It chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine.
I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still You give Yourself away,
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.
We have sung this song many times, but this time was different for me. I could not get the image of that little boy, homeless and alone in the gutters of a town I cannot even easily pronounce. I wept as I sang, wondering how many boys and girls, men and women exist right now that desperately need to know the Good News of a King who loves them and who would leave everything to save them?
But then, I remembered that the song is true - there truly is no shadow He won't light up, or mountain He won't climb up coming after precious souls like that little boy. There is no wall He won't kick down, or lie He won't tear down coming after His dear lost lambs all over the world.
How does He do it? How do they hear of this Good Shepherd, especially in places hostile to Christianity?
God sends His message through our friends and co-laborers who have responded to His call to serve all across the globe - our great missionary family. There are so many missions fellowships and agencies that are mobilizing many thousands of people from all over the world to go and tell the Good News of Jesus. These courageous souls have left behind everything that is familiar and comfortable to take the message of the Cross to God's lost lambs everywhere. At great risk to themselves, they daily climb mountains, light up the shadows, kick down walls, and tear down lies to bring one more home for our King.
This Valentine's Day, would you join me in praying for our missionaries all over the world? Pray for their children on the field with them, their families here in the States, and for their budgets and their safety. Pray that everyone they are meeting and befriending would be open and responsive to the Good News of our Great Shepherd. Pray that the wicked spiritual forces and also wicked people who might be conspiring against them would be thwarted. Pray that all of Heaven will be able to rejoice today as many more lost sheep are brought home.
To all of our missionary friends who might be reading this, please know that you are remembered and covered in prayer. Thank you for your great sacrifice for Jesus, and know that you are dearly loved!
Hi! I'm Mary - mother to two wonderful grown daughters, wife to an incredible husband, and loving our life in the piney woods of Texas... (read more!)