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.

 

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Guarding Our Devotion

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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.

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.

You Mad?

angry-mob-pitchforks-torchesLike many, I’ve watched the news over the past few weeks with a bit of amazement. Without making any commentary on what has been done by our new president, it is a bit surreal to watch people react. Every day there is a new angry outburst of one kind or another. This anger isn’t new. During the campaign season, commentators kept speaking about the anger of the American people. If anything, that anger has only intensified. It seems as though many are angry without even knowing why they’re angry. We’re like little children throwing a tantrum and when asked why by our parents, we cry out “I don’t know. I’m just mad!” The volume is turned up, the shouting is more intense, and the barbs are more pointed and personal.

How do we are Christians respond in an age filled with such hostility? Obviously, we should be praying, loving, and sharing the gospel. But, I want to go beyond that to one specific admonition from James for us as believers. James writes, “My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness” (James 1:19-20, CSB).

Perhaps in this age of shouting and tantrums, we as Christians would do well to listen more, take time before we speak (or post), and ask God to help us lengthen our fuses just a bit to keep from being angry all the time. When we listen less, talk more, and are angry all the time, it just seems to make matters worse.

I’m reminded of an old episode of the original Star Trek. An alien entity took over the Starship Enterprise and trapped Klingons (enemies of the Federation for all the young, non-nerds out there) on board. The alien then fed off the anger and the hostility between the Enterprise crew and the Klingons. The anger-fueled alien could not be defeated until the hostility between the two subsided.

I wonder what might happen in our circles of influence if we listened a bit more, took a little more time to speak, and got angry a lot slower than we do now? I’m sure it wouldn’t solve all the problems nor make the disagreements go away, but I have a feeling it would be an awful lot easier for those around us to see Jesus.

 

Don’t Go Back

you-cant-go-backPatton is one of my favorite movies. The 1970 biopic won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and George C. Scott won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the controversial general George S. Patton (although he had it returned the next day). Patton was a advance at all costs kind of guy. He challenged his commanders to be audacious and to keep moving forward at all times. In one scene, Patton is encouraged to stop his advance in order to allow his men to regroup. He replies, “Not me…I don’t like to pay for the same real estate twice.” Patton understood that retreat is not usually the best option.

In the opening book of the Old Testament, God calls Abraham to leave his homeland to follow Him. Abraham did so, and God eventually fulfilled His promise to Abraham and gave him a son named Issac. Years later, Abraham is lying on his death bed and making arrangements for his son to secure a wife. As he does, he instructs his servant to “go to my land and my family to take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:4, CSB). He then issues this stern command: “Make sure that you don’t take my son back there” (Genesis 24:6, CSB).

Abraham’s words remind us of the danger of retreat when we are following God. It is so tempting for us to go backwards…to return to the familiar and the comfortable, particularly when God is pushing us beyond our comfort zone. As He moves us forward, it’s easy for us to want to go back. But, we can’t. We can’t go back. We can’t walk away from all the new things God is doing in us and through us. We can’t settle back into the comfortable when God has so much more in store for us. We must fight the urge to retreat into the familiar. We can’t return to our old way of thinking and doing. We must continue to press ahead. We must continue to advance by God’s grace and by His power.

The Apostle Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14, CSB). Don’t pay for the same real estate twice. Keep moving forward. What ever you do, don’t go back.

God Remembered

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On more than one occasion in my life, I’ve had to confess that I’ve forgotten something. I forgot about a deadline or an appointment or an assignment of some kind. More and more, I find myself having to use the reminder app on my phone to help me remember what to take where and who to call when. In our busyness and frailty, we often forget. We forget dates, events, promises and sometimes even people.

Frailty and forgetfulness seems to go together. We know that deep down. After all, we forget…and we have been forgotten. Someone has let us down in one way or another. A forgotten anniversary or birthday. A forgotten lunch date. A forgotten promise. We are not only forgetters. Sometimes we are forgotten too.

When we read the story of Noah and the great flood, we read of a man named Noah and his family building an ark, loading up animals, and surviving a deluge. After the rain falls and the storm subsides, the Bible says, “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1). God remembered. What comforting words.

Those words struck me one morning as I was reading this text. In the face of all the fears we have, we do not need to fear that we are forgotten. We’re not. The God who created everything has not lost track of us. A hectic schedule and a full calendar have not squeezed us out of God’s mind. His omniscience is not impacted by the frailty that robs us our memory as we age. God had promised Noah to bring him through the storm safely. God not only remembered Noah, but He also remembered His promise to him. The winds came. The waters receded, and Noah stepped out onto dry land. And as God remember Noah, He remembers us. As God remembered His promise then and He remembers His promise now. In Christ, we are not alone. We are not forgotten. When those fears arise let these two words encourage you. God remembered.

Bug Control

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One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong. If you have ever paid a visit to Sesame Street, you’ve heard that song. It’s a catchy little jingle. So catchy in fact that I still recall it to this day. I imagine that if you’ve ever heard it, you do to. As a matter of fact, it’s probably playing in your head right now.

Back in the day when Oscar, Grover, and the gang sang about differences, they did so to help children learn to compare similar things. And, as we sang along, we learned that one bowl was bigger than the other three. A triangle was different than a square. Blue was not green. So on and so forth. We learned to compare.

In some ways, comparison can be a good thing. We compare products before we purchase them to determine the best deal. We read reviews and take test drives before we buy a new car. We check out the blogs and the online reports before we pick up a new computer. We compare neighborhoods before we buy a new home, and we visit colleges with our kids before we send them off to campus. Comparisons can be a good thing.

But with that said, comparisons aren’t always good. As a matter of fact, there are times when they can be downright unhealthy. We see this when our young girls start comparing themselves to the idealized women of movies and magazines. We see it when our young athletes start taking shortcuts and put themselves at risk because they are comparing themselves to mature, world class athletes. We see it when we start looking around at everyone else and what they have and become dissatisfied with our own lots in life. And, we see it when we start comparing ourselves with others in a way that devalues who we are.

It’s easy for us to let comparisons rob our sense of worth. And sadly, this happens to us more than we like to admit. We look at supermom and all she does for her kids and we feel like complete parental failures. We see that guy at the gym and determine we’ll never be anything more than a slightly more attractive version of Jabba the Hut. We visit with friends and hear of their trips and see their new cars and we sink into despair because we’re such losers.

The destructive power of comparisons gone too far impact our ministries too. I’ll never be as good a teacher as that guy is. I can never sing like her. My devotion life is nowhere near theirs. I’m such a failure. Sound familiar?  Even pastors and ministry leaders get in on the action. I can’t preach like that guy. My church will never be as good as their church. I’ll never be as smart or as talented as that person is. I could never write or get published like they did.

We’re not the first people to do this. In the book of Numbers, the children of Israel sent spies into the land God had promised them to check it out. When the came back, they said,

“And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Numbers 13:33, ESV).

In other words, they said, “They are so great and we are tiny little bugs. We’re nothing compared to them.”

Now, here’s the problem with their assessment. All they saw were people bigger and more capable than themselves. They had forgotten who they were. More importantly, they had forgotten whose they were. The belonged to God. He had created them and set them apart as His people. He had delivered them from bondage in Egypt. He had provided for them every step of the way during the exodus. And, He had promised to be with them as they claimed the land He had promised them. Simply stated, they had taken God out of the equation.

When you and I look around at everyone else and we take God out of the equation, we too will see ourselves as grasshoppers. Like the Israelites, we forget that God created us and set us apart as His people. We forget that He has delivered us from the bondage of sin (Romans 6:6-7). We forget that He has given us everything we need in Christ along the way (Ephesians 1:3). And, we forget that He has promised to be with us until He fulfills His promise to us (Philippians 1:6).

In Christ, you are not a grasshopper. You’re not some tiny insignificant bug less valuable or less cherished than someone else. You’re not inferior to someone who is bigger or more successful. You’re not worth less because you have less. So, quit with the unhealthy comparisons already. It’s fine to look around and let others inspire or help motivate you to grow or improve in some way. But, stop letting your comparisons to others rob you of the worth you have in Christ.

Perhaps you’re not like the others and maybe you feel like you just don’t belong. That’s okay. So, you’re not as big or as talented or as popular. Forbes doesn’t know your name and you’re not going to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. You won’t be leading any seminars on managing an unruly preschooler and the Ivy League isn’t calling begging your kids to come. Your church isn’t the most prominent in your state or your city…or your street for that matter. Your house is small, your car is old, and you weigh more than you did in high school. It doesn’t make you a grasshopper. It doesn’t mean you lack worth or value in God’s eyes. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. The Scripture is filled with ordinary people who are loved and used by an extraordinary God. Let Him count you among that group.

Getting There

20120930-201318A couple of weeks ago, I had a meeting in a place that was new to me. I typed the address into my iPhone and let that digital voice lead me to my destination. When I left, I tapped home on my maps app so my digital guide could get me home. I was surprised to find out that I was going home via a different route. I’m not sure why my phone made the change. I don’t know if the traffic patterns changed or the second route was slightly quicker than the first or what. All I know is that I got where I needed to be by following the directions, even when they took me to a route I did not expect.

Life is like this. It seldom goes the way we plan. It’s filled with twists and turns and unexpected routes. We plan on going one way only to find ourselves headed in the opposite direction. Circumstances change. Stuff happens. Detours abound. Our direct route ends up looking like some obscure geometric design with a name no one can pronounce.

When life hits us with its inevitable route changes, we can respond in a number of ways. We can get agitated and lash out. We can pout and just pull over. We can stubbornly take control and try to forge our own way. Or, we can trust that God is guiding us and He knows more than we do.

The Bible tells us “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit. Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:2-3 ESV). It is far more productive for us to surrender to the guiding hands of a loving God than to defiantly insist on following our own directions. We do not know what lies ahead, but He does. He has far more insight to the productivity of His path and the peril of ours.

Years ago I was asked to take someone to the airport. As I dropped him off at his hotel room the day before, he asked me if I knew how to get there (this was before the days of smart phones and GPS). “I don’t,” I said, “but I’ll find out.” The next morning I picked him up and he told me he had gotten directions to the airport. When I told him I didn’t need them, he said to me “You’re a real man. Not only will you not ask for directions, you won’t follow them when you get them.”

Many of us are like that. We stubbornly hold onto what where we want to go in life despite the fact that God may be leading us in a different direction. Let go. Listen to His guidance. Surrender to His direction and commit your way to Him. He is far more knowledgeable and far more able than we are. He is the one that weighs our spirits and establishes our plans. We can trust Him to take us the right way.

Just Keep Running

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The other morning, I went for a walk around my neighborhood. As I made my way down the street, I noticed a couple of runners coming towards me. I stepped aside as they passed and I noticed they were teenagers. I didn’t think anything of it until a couple of minutes later when three more headed my way. I again stepped aside and put two and two together and realized it must be track practice or something. As I kept walking, I noticed one last runner. He was a bit behind all the others and all by himself. His running was much more labored and his facial expressions revealed his struggle. For a brief second or two I felt bad for him. But then his dedication inspired me. Although he wasn’t as fast or as smooth as the others, and even though he lagged behind his teammates, he kept running.

As I passed him, I couldn’t help but see a picture our lives in his morning run. As we run the race of life, many run faster than we do. They run smoother and more eloquently than we ever could. They seem to stride effortless and keep moving forward while we stumble and stagger around. And, as they glide ahead, we labor and struggle as we try to keep moving forward. We fall way back of the pack all the while wondering if the race is worth it. But, we have to keep running.

The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV).  His words remind us that the Christian  life calls for endurance. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. It’s a cross country race with hills and valleys and twists and turns. The terrain is difficult. The challenge is real. Our lungs burn and our legs ache. But, we must keep running. Don’t worry about how far behind the others you are. Don’t give up because your pace is slower. Don’t quit because your form isn’t as good or your stride isn’t as graceful. Don’t stop. Dig deep. Breathe hard. Put one leg ahead of the other. Just keep running.