Free, Not Forsaken

We’re barely a week into the New Year and I imagine that many of us have already given up on our resolutions for 2019. Those broken resolutions are a reminder of how hard it can be to change. And as we grapple with our failures regarding diets, exercise, and attitudes, we begin to wonder if we can indeed really be any different than we’ve always been. Our failures just seem to reinforce to us that nothing will ever be any different.

As I read the book of Ezra this morning, I was struck by a verse in chapter nine. It says:

For we are slaves, Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love… (Ezra 9:9, ESV).

This context of the verse is the return from exile. The people of Israel had been in exile for decades and now many of them have returned to Jerusalem and were rebuilding the temple. And, as they did, they acknowledged that God had been with them, even in the midst of their captivity.

This verse reminds me of two other portions of Scripture. The first is the book of Exodus. There, centuries before their exile to Babylon, the children of Israel were slaves in Egypt. And, they cried out to God and He delivered them from their slavery under the leadership of Moses. (Exodus 3:7-8). The second is in the book of Romans. In it, the apostle Paul also uses the language of slavery and dominion, but he’s not speaking of captivity by any human masters. Rather, he tells us that we are captive in our sin until Jesus sets us free. And, since Jesus has set us free, sin no longer has dominion over us (Romans 6:14).

Now, let me tie all of this together. In our bondage and captivity…in our inability to change from the inside out and really begin to live differently, God extends to us His steadfast love. He has not forsaken us in our slavery to sin. Instead, through Jesus, He has set us free. We are no longer held hostage by who we were before Jesus. In Him, we are free. Free to be the person God created and redeemed us to be. We can be different. Our anxieties and fears no longer have to control us. Our selfishness no longer drives our efforts. Our rebellious passions no longer control our behavior. Our sin no longer has dominion over us. We are free. God’s steadfast love has pulled us out of our bandage and enabled us to walk joyfully with Him. So, let Jesus fuel your efforts. Be different in His power and for His glory. Remember who you are in Him and what He’s done for you. Read Romans 6 and rejoice that God has set the captive free.

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Even Though They Feared

Most of us know what it is to wrestle with what others think of us. This was true long before the days of social media, and it’s especially true in this age of likes, hearts, and thumbs ups. We’re not the first people to wrestle with such fears. In the book of Ezra, the children of Israel have returned to Jerusalem after exile and have begun to rebuild the temple in order to restore their worship of God. As they rebuild, we read this verse:

They set up the altar on its foundation and offered burnt offerings for the morning and evening on it to the LORD even though they feared the surrounding peoples. Ezra 3:3, CSB

I love the sheer honesty of this verse – even though they feared the surrounding peoples. Their neighbors had no interest in seeing the Jewish people restore their worship. Nonetheless, the text says they worshipped. They pressed on regardless of their fears and anxieties. They did the right thing regardless of what others thought.

As Christians, we live in an age where we are often misunderstood and maligned. To be fair, some of that is our own doing. But, a good bit of it has to do with the fact that we are called to live very differently than the world around us. We are challenged to forsake our love for the things of this world (1 John 2:15). We are called to be light in the darkness (Philippians 2:15). We are commanded to live lives that reflect the change Jesus brings, to walk worthy of our calling in Christ (Ephesians 4:10; Colossians 1:10), and to bring glory to God in all that we say and do (1 Corinthians 10:31). Let us resolve in this new year to do just that. Let us stay connected to Jesus, who is the One who enables and empowers us to live right and to do right. Let us strive to glorify God in everything we do. May we fight through our fears and anxieties and do the right thing…do the biblical thing…do the God-honoring thing…regardless of what others may think.

The Truth Binds Us Together

20180820_155458458_iOSThey say brevity is the soul of wit. If that’s the case, the apostle John should win a prize for 2 John. At only 245 words in Greek, it is the second shortest book in the New Testament. Despite its brevity, John packs a great deal of insight into these thirteen verses.

To the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth—and not only I, but also all who know the truth— (2 John 1:1, CSB)

His letter begins the way most letters began in his day. John identifies himself as the “elder” and the recipient of his letter as “the elect lady and her children.” Commentators differ as to whether or not John is writing to a church and its members or a lady and her family. It makes little difference for our purposes here because we are focussing on what John says to his recipients.

John says he loves these individuals (whomever or how numerous they are) in the truth. Not only that, but all who know the truth love them as well. Truth is more than a philosophical concept. It is a theological one. Jesus identifies himself as the truth (John 14:6). Furthermore, He identifies God’s Word as truth (John 17:17). The truth of Christ and His Word, the truth of the gospel, unites us as believers. In essence, John is saying that as believers, we know the truth. And, as believers who know the truth, we love other believers who love the truth.

In a world filled with so much division, there is no room for it in the church. We can disagree. We can be diverse. But we must not be divided for Christ has bound us together. Jesus is the One who unifies us. It is in Him and through Him we love all who are in Him, regardless of whatever other differences we may hold. We are one in Him. We are one in His Word. We are one in the gospel. All who know Him love those who know Him.

So, if we are in Christ, let us strive by His grace and His power to love those in the truth. Let us love our brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever our other differences may be.

 

Guarding Our Devotion

Book heart

When Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away to follow other gods. He was not wholeheartedly devoted to the LORD his God, as his father David had been. 1 Kings 11:4 CSB

Solomon’s heart was pulled in many different directions in his old age. As a result, he was not wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord. This is a temptation we all face as we age. While the impetus for our drift may be different than Solomon’s, we all know the pull of the world as we get older. Family, financial pressures, worry, career, health, leisure, and so forth all beckon us to make them the priority in our lives. As they do, we are caught up in a tug of war for our time and energy. Sadly, for many of us, our devotion to the Lord is the first thing we lay on the chopping block. Our commitment wanes and our attention is pulled in new and important (or so it seems) directions. Thus, we too find ourselves not wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord.

What do we do about such things? It would do us well to regularly examine our hearts for the things that erode our devotion and pull us away from the Lord. These things are idols of our own making. A good place to begin this is to evaluate how we spend our time and resources. These expenditures often reveal the true priorities of our lives.

When we discover the distractions in our lives, we need to pull down those idols. We need to begin to make changes in how we do things. We manage our time and steward our money differently. Often, our idols good things given wrong priority. If that’s the case, let’s shift some things around so these good things are once again slotted in their proper place.

If we find that our family has become an idol or our penchant for recreation pulls us away from the Lord, we need to do make some adjustments. We probably don’t need to eliminate our family time or we quit taking vacations. But perhaps we do re-evaluate how we are engaging these things. Perhaps we find ways to deepen our devotion to the Lord with our family or use some of that down time for ministry or personal growth.

The last thing we want to do is rest on our past devotion while letting our hearts grow cold and our passion for the Lord wane as we move through life. Let’s be on guard that we finish well. May our greatest days and deepest devotion be ahead of us.

A Hopeful Calling

20180607_164412000_ios.jpgLife has a way of stealing from us. Among other things, it can steal our joy, our energy, and our hope. When it does, we can draw strength and encouragement from the Scripture.

In the opening paragraphs of Jeremiah, God calls the prophet to serve Him. His call is recorded for us in these verses:

The word of the Lord came to me:
I chose you before I formed you in the womb;
I set you apart before you were born.
I appointed you a prophet to the nations

Jeremiah 1:4-5, CSB

Now, I grant to you that it’s not the eighth century B.C and that you and I are not called to be a prophet to the people of Judah. With that said, however, when we reflect on these verses, we see can draw a great deal of encouragement for our lives today. For in God’s calling of Jeremiah, we see some truths worth embracing.

You have worth.

God made us. God tells Jeremiah that he formed him in the womb. The Bible says that each of us is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and that God has knitted us together (Psalm 139:13-14). The fact that we are formed by the hand of God speaks not only to the value and worth of life but also to the fact that God has shaped each of us to be used by Him. Your worth is not dependent upon your bank account or your career. It’s based on the fact that God made you in His image. He formed you. He shaped you. And thus, you matter. You have value.

You are known.

Second, the text says God chose Jeremiah. The English Standard Version says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” We are not strangers to Him. He knows our strengths and our weaknesses, our fears and failures, our hopes and dreams. The psalmist reminds us that God knows everything about us (Psalm 139:1-4). How wonderful is it to know that the God who made us is intimately aware of who we are? We are not some hit and run job. And, despite the fact that God knows us, He still wants to use us warts and all. He chose us even though He knows us. His knowledge and his choosing go hand in hand. Our next truth is inherent in this idea.

You are usable. 

Knowing includes the idea of being chosen. God not only knew Jeremiah, He also chose Him. He selected him to serve Him in a special way. Jeremiah had been set apart (“consecrated” in the ESV). The apostle Paul understood this to be true in his life as well (Galatians 1:15). If we are in Christ, we too have been set apart by God. God has a purpose for us.

In addition to being set apart, God appointed Him. He gave him a task to do. God has something for us to do too. We may not be a prophet per se, but we are called to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). We are commanded to love one another (John 13:34). We are commissioned to be witnesses and tell others about Jesus (Acts 1:8). We are challenged to do all things for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). Whether we are a sales clerk or a homemaker, a student or an executive, we must strive to do our best for the glory of God. We live out our lives intent on bringing honor to God. You don’t have to be special or famous to do this. You just need to be faithful.

Jeremiah spent his life doing exactly what God had shaped him to do. He spent his life doing exactly what God had set him apart to do. He spent his life doing exactly what God had stationed him to do. May we do the same as we remember these wonderful truths.

Grace for the Days Ahead

20171228_191029510_iOSIt’s been a rough year. Like you, I’ve faced my fair share of challenges in 2017. And, as this year winds down, I’ve had a number of people say to me that hopefully, 2018 will be better. But, every time I hear that phrase I have this one nagging thought run through my mind. What if it’s not?

What if 2018 is no better at all? Or God forbid, it’s worse? Whatever lies ahead, my prayer is that the One who brought me through this past year will bring me through the next. I pray that His grace will abound in the coming days just as it has abounded in the last 365.

Please don’t hear arrogance or some sense of false bravado in this. My fears and anxieties are as real as yours. Like you, I spend far too much time worrying about things I can’t change and fretting about things I can. My point is that the only way I was able to move through and deal with 2017 is by the grace of God. I’d like to say I managed a perfectly executed plan or exhibited the triumph that comes through sheer willpower. I’d like to be able to tout how devoted I was by praying in deep faith and expecting God to move mountains. Oh, I had a plan. Several in fact. None of them worked. I had willpower. For an hour or two. I prayed, but not nearly like I probably should have. No, grace is what brought me through this past year. Grace kept me alive. Grace helped me move through grief. Grace helped me deal with a family in transition. Grace. Grace and more grace. Grace upon grace. And, I’m confident I’ll need that grace in the coming days too.

As you enter a new year, please don’t think that some change in attitude or a self-help article or two will give you the greatest year ever. A fresh set of resolutions won’t do it on their own. Attitude is important. So is growing in your ability to manage things. And, goals are great. But grace is what you need. Grace to handle what you know and grace to move you through what you don’t. Grace to forgive and to restore and to empower and to guide. Grace that only comes from a God who loves you and holds this world and all that transpires in it in His hands. Grace that is deep and unending. So, as you bid farewell to 2017 and look forward to 2018, may the grace of God touch your life in more ways than you can possibly imagine.

And God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9:8, CSB

Greater than the Blanks

My kids used to love to do Mad-Libs. If you’re unfamiliar with them, Mad-Libs are just simple short stories with blanks in place of certain words. The fun came when you solicited words from the kids to fill in the blanks and then read the story aloud. When you did, you’d end up with a car flying to the moon or a whale walking into a grocery store or some such silliness. And, since there were kids involved, you did have a good number of references to boogers and other bodily functions. It was the blanks that made the story personal.

When we read Psalm 6, we find David struggling. He’s in a difficult season where he speaks of being weak, shaken, and filled with terror. He pleads for rescue. He describes sobbing all through the night. But, there is a big blank in the story. We’re not sure of the reason David is so distraught. Some commentators suggest he was battling some type of illness. Others say his struggle came from his enemies. Truth is, none of them are certain.

I like the uncertainty in the context. It allows us to see our circumstances in the psalm. How many of us can identify with the struggle David shares? Most of us I imagine. We all know what it is to cry ourselves to sleep and wake up the next morning with our eyes swollen from grief. We know what it’s like to be so tired from weeping that the only thing keeping us awake is our weeping. The context may vary from person to person. Our circumstances may be different than David’s, and your situation may be different than mine, but we know the heartache that comes with being overwhelmed by something.

Regardless of how you fill in the blanks, whatever circumstances may be buffeting you right now, know this: God hears your cries. You are not alone in your sorrows and troubles. You are not without help and solace. The situation you are in may seem hopeless, but God accepts your prayer. Through Christ, we have access to our Heavenly Father to find mercy and grace to help in time of need. David knew God heard his pleas and would work in the circumstances of his life. He was not alone. And, neither are we. God knows our trials. He hears our cries. He works in our circumstances. He’s greater than all of the blanks in our lives however we may fill them in. Look to Him today.

I am weary from my groaning; with my tears I dampen my bed and drench my couch every night.  My eyes are swollen from grief…the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. The LORD has heard my plea for help; the LORD accepts my prayer.

Psalm 6:6, 9 (CSB)

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The Right Path

It’s easy to go the wrong way. When we read the open verse of the songbook known as Psalms, we are reminded just how easy it is.

How happy is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked or stand in the pathway with sinners or sit in the company of mockers! Psalm 1:1 (CSB)

The psalmist tells us that blessedness (or happiness) is found by avoiding the wrong img_4800paths in life. The person who is truly happy avoids the advice of the wicked. He avoids the direction of the sinner and does not engage in the company of mockers. To be blessed is to listen to the right counsel. It’s to journey in the right direction and connect with the communities that encourage one towards godliness.

 

Furthermore, note the progression of the verbs used for the journey. A person wrapped in godly happiness does not walk in wicked advice. She does not stand along the paths of the sinful nor does she take a seat in a group of those who reject God and His ways. When we pursue sin, we walk towards it. Then, we pause, linger, and stand in its presence. Then, we pull up a chair and sit. We go from just passing through to taking up residence.

So, let’s seek the happiness only God can give. Let us turn a deaf hear to the counsel of the wicked. Let us travel along the narrow path of the righteous and avoid the pathway of the sinner. And, let us not join in and become part of the company of mockers. If by God’s grace, we refuse to walk the wrong direction, then we won’t linger there. And, if we don’t linger, we won’t take up residency. No walking. No standing. No sitting. That’s our mantra when it comes to going the wrong directions in life. Rather, let us embrace the joy that comes with walking, standing, and dwelling with God. Let us relish His ways and His Word.

Difficult Seasons

Apparently, I’m middle-aged. At least that’s what the folks who categorize these things tell me. As I move deeper into middle-agedom, I’ve slowed down. I’ve lost hair. I talk about the good old days more and I have a growing desire to yell “get off my lawn” for no reason. In addition to all of these, I’m also learning to deal with aging parents.This past spring, my mom fell. And, while she didn’t seem to suffer any serious injuries at first, time has proven that the fall has indeed marked her life. Since June, she has been through two hospital stays, two rehab stints, and a couple of weeks in an assisted living facility. In addition, during the same period of time, my dad has also had two hospital stays, three surgical procedures, and a rehab stint of his own (sadly, my dad passed away right before I published this). It’s been quite a summer.

As I’ve walked through this journey with my parents over the last few months, I have been reminded of a few things.

Plans are great, until they blow apart. 

James writes:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring — what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15, CSB

More than once over the last several weeks, I’ve made the two-and-a-half-hour trek to my hometown to be with my parents. I came with my clothes, my iPad, and a plan. And, almost without fail, those plans never worked out. I’d get dad out of the hospital only to have to put mom back in. There were falls, insurance issues, and unforeseen events at every turn. And, while I continued to try to plan out the next week, something would always happen today to completely wreck everything. As a result, I’m trying to take each day as it comes. Yes, I still like to try and plan things out, but by God’s grace, I’m slowly learning to focus on today and not be anxious about tomorrow.

In the movie Apollo 13, Tom Hanks stars as Jim Lovell. In one scene, the crew is worried about the re-entry plan to come back to earth. As the stress and tensions mount, Lovell says, “All right, there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order, we are on number eight. You’re taking about number 692.” I’m trying to learn to deal with number eight before worrying about what’s down the road.

Friends are precious. Over recent weeks, I’ve received countless texts and calls. Friends (and family) have reached out to offer their prayers, help, and encouragement. I’ve had people offer to help transport my parents to appointments or to bring them meals. I’ve walked into gatherings and had people drop what they’re doing to come and pray with me and for me. My church family has been incredibly gracious in all of this to allow me the time to minister to my parents. All of this really makes a difference. I’ve been reminded that friends are really a blessing from the Lord.

Prayer is vital. I know we all know this…or at least give lip service to it. But, I’ve been reminded anew about the importance of prayer through all of this. I like to think I can control most of the events in my life (I know, I know. Go back and read James 4 again). But, the events happening in my parents’ lives are well beyond my control. I can’t make bodies or brains heal. I can’t make bureaucracy work faster. I can’t open up beds in facilities where there are not or make resources magically appear. All of this has driven me more and more to the only One who can.

God is sovereign. The sovereignty of God is a great theological truth. We read of it in theology texts and expound on it in theological conversations. But, there are times in life when sovereignty has to become more than a concept in a book. It has to be a reality that pierces the circumstances of our lives. Romans eight tells us

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28, CSB

This verse is meaningless if God is not sovereign. If He’s not sovereign over the circumstances of life (both good and bad), then the best we can do is hope things work out for the best. But, if God is in control and He is working and His promise is true and meaningful, then we have the confidence that He is accomplishing something. We may not understand it or even agree with it, but we know that while things are hopelessly beyond our control, they are not beyond His.

I love these words from Tenth Avenue North:

“As I walk this great unknown
Questions come and questions go
Was there purpose for the pain
Did I cry these tears in vain
I don’t wanna live in fear
I wanna trust that You are near
Trust Your grace can be seen
In both triumph and tragedy
I have this hope
In the depth of my soul
In the flood or the fire
You’re with me and You won’t let go”

As I enter this new chapter with the people who molded me into who I am, I’m resting on this Sovereign Lord. I’m looking to Him more in prayer and drawing strength and encouragement from the people He brings into my life. I’m learning to adapt to His plan for today rather than trying to force my plan for tomorrow. It’s not always easy, but I’m trying. Like they say, getting old isn’t for wimps.

Maybe you too are in a season of struggle. Perhaps your season, like mine, involves helping the people you love navigate the difficulties of aging. Or, maybe your struggles fall into a completely different category. Whatever the context of your life right now, I imagine the lessons above still have relevance for you. Learn to focus on the step in front of you. Be encouraged by the people around you. Dive deep into the pool of prayer and trust confidently in a sovereign God. May He help each of us move manage the difficult seasons of our lives.

The Depths of Anguish

desperate-prayer“Can I help you?” It’s a common question. We hear it all the time. Whether it’s in our local store or on the phone with a customer service rep half way around the world, we all have heard some well-meaning person ask us how they can help. And, much of the time, these folks do a great job providing us assistance. They point us in the direction of the item we’re looking for or they help us solve an issue with our computer or with our phone bill. It’s great to get the help we need. But, where do we go with the stuff that bigger than all of these kinds of things? Where to we go with our fears and our heartaches? To whom can we turn when the stuff of life is just too much for us to bear?

In the opening chapter of 1 Samuel, a childless woman name Hannah is in the temple praying. As she pours out her heart, she silently mouths her prayer. The priest on duty accuses her of being drunk and asks her to leave. Hannah replies, “No, my lord…I am a woman with a broken heart. I haven’t had any wine or beer; I’ve been pouring out my heart before the Lord. Don’t think of me as a wicked woman; I’ve been praying from the depth of my anguish and resentment” (1 Samuel 1:15-16, CSB).

I’ve been pouring out my heart before the Lord…I’ve been praying from the depth of my anguish and resentment.

Hannah knew where to take her heartache. She knew who to call with her anguish and resentment. She poured her heart out to God. She cries out of the depth of her anguish, so caught up in it that she’s oblivious to the fact that others are even watching her.

Many of us can identify with this kind of struggle. We know what it is to feel so burdened and overwhelmed that it’s hard to know what to do or we to go. Paralysis sets in and we find ourselves stuck in place with no idea what to do next. Whereas Hannah took these burdens to God, so many of us let our burdens crush our souls. We carry that weight and brokenness like a badge of martyrdom, completely unwilling (or perhaps unable) to let them go. We talk to friends and family about it. We post about it on social media. We might even ask others to pray about it. But for some reason, we fail to truly take them to God praying from the depth of our anguish and resentment. God is the one who can truly work in these heart-breaking, gut-wrenching situations. He’s the one who can offer help when we feel so helpless.

So, open up with God. Be honest with Him. Pour your heart out to Him. Be vulnerable. Show your brokenness. Pray from the depth of your anguish and resentment. Take these things to your loving Heavenly Father and trust that He will work in them for your best and His glory. Whatever the burden, however large or overwhelming it may seem, He can help you. He may not move in the way you’d like, but you can go to Him. Don’t be hesitant. Cry out to God, praying from the depths of your emotion and heartache. And, as you do, trust that He is able to help you in your despair. Have confidence in Him because he is bigger than whatever it is we bring to Him. He indeed can help.

Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need. Hebrews 4:16, CSB