Saturday, January 19, 2019

A ROBIN IN WINTER


                He shouldn’t have been there, but he was. As I walked by, securely bundled against the cold, I caught movement in the corner of my eye. I turned my head to see a robin glide to a stop on the snow. There was no doubt of his identity. His red-orange breast stood out against the blanket of white snow. In his beak was some prize, firmly held. As I stopped to look at him, he flew under the low hanging branches of an evergreen and disappeared. In my experience, robins migrate south in the winter. The sight of a robin has always been a sure sign of spring. So, what was this out-of-place bird doing here on this sub-zero morning? How could it possibly survive?

                One of the things I enjoy about my morning walk is looking for little surprises. This was surely one. The path I normally take leads me over a foot bridge that spans the narrow river that winds its way through our town. As I cross the bridge, I slow my pace and look down at the snow-covered ice that covers the water below. It is crisscrossed with countless small tracks; the hurried scampering of squirrels and rabbits crossing the open space between trees or cover.  I always look to see if I can spot them, but I have yet to catch sight of one of those little creatures making their mad scramble from vulnerability to safety. I can see the places where the deer have made their way down to the river, looking for an open spot of water, but I have not seen the deer either. But on this day, I saw what I wasn’t looking for; a robin in winter.

                Years ago, I heard a speaker talk about encouraging his family to watch for God sightings during the day. They were to keep their eyes open for things that would suggest the presence of God in their world. Each evening, as the family gathered around the table for supper, they would report what they discovered. Together they would give thanks for all of the ways that God had made Himself known to them. That experience has prompted me to be more observant of my world. Where have I seen God today?

                One of the things I have learned is that God often reveals Himself in surprising ways, like a robin in winter. We tend to look for God in all of the obvious places. There are definitely hints of His presence, like the rabbit tracks in the snow, but it feels like God had been there and was gone. Then, out of the corner of our eye, we catch a glimpse of the presence of God right beside us, in a way we do not expect.

                Elijah’s experience comes to mind. He was running away from Jezebel, who was determined to take his life. Elijah was discouraged and afraid. He felt alone, abandoned, and defeated. God led him to a mountain cave where He made His presence known to Elijah. God revealed Himself, not in the ways that Elijah may have expected, but in a way that he did not.
                 
    The Lord said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by."
    Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
    Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 1 Kings 19:11-13

                Many people are looking for God. They are looking in all of the obvious places, yet, at best, they are only discovering hints of His presence; tracks in the snow. For those who are earnestly seeking Him, He surprises them by revealing Himself in ways they did not expect. An unexpected act of kindness. A chance encounter with a friend at just the right time. A line in a novel that turns their eyes off of the story and onto the glory of God. God is never far from us. He wants nothing more than for us to lift our heads, open our eyes, and see His glory all around us. If we will keep our eyes open, we will be surprised by what we see, like a robin in winter.
               
Proverbs 20:12
    Ears that hear and eyes that see--
        the Lord has made them both.


   


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

SATURDAY MORNING QUIET


Psalm 46:10
    "Be still, and know that I am God;
        I will be exalted among the nations,
        I will be exalted in the earth."

                It seemed peaceful and strange at the same time. As I walked to my office on Saturday morning, nothing seemed to be stirring. I walked through quiet streets. The main intersection in town was completely empty. As I looked north and south along the road, I could see no cars moving into the intersection, no movement at all. It was an eerie feeling, like the town was deserted, yet at the same time it felt peaceful. By the time I walked home at noon, the streets were again alive with movement.

                One of the reasons that I enjoy getting up early is for the quiet solitude. I have always valued the times when I could get up ahead of others and, in a sense, have the world to myself. I have made it a habit to arrive in my office at least an hour before others arrive so that I can have some quiet, uninterrupted time. Most mornings I use this time for my personal devotions. It is a time for me to be alone with God. If I am not intentional about this, the busyness of life will crowd out my time with God. I have discovered that busyness is the enemy of quiet.

                One of the things that I have been learning in my new position is how I have become programmed to be busy. Being the pastor of a medium sized church meant that there was always something going on. I had regular responsibilities that filled my schedule every week. When I wasn’t busy, I looked for things I should be doing to fill the time. In my position as the interim pastor in a small church, the demands on my time have been drastically reduced. To be honest, I have struggled with this slower pace. I have felt a little guilty for not being as busy as I used to be. I believe God is trying to teach me what it means to be still and know that He is God.

                We live in a society that has made busyness a virtue. Anything less than living at full throttle is seem as shirking our duty. The consequence is that we are running ourselves ragged. I recently read a chapter in “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” about Sabbath. Sabbath is a concept that God ordained to keep us emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy. Today, the concept of Sabbath is almost nonexistent.

                The idea of Sabbath is that we are to take one day a week to pull away from the regular demands of our busy lives and spend time in rest and worship. God gave us this as a command for our good. If we become legalistic about this, we can turn it into a burden instead of a blessing, just as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had done. The point is that we need to find regular times to get off of the tread mill and be quiet before God. We all need time to push the pause button and allow our batteries to recharge. There are many ways to experience Sabbath. We don’t all recharge in the same way. The question is, do we trust God enough with the demands of life to take the time to be still?

                Jesus regularly got away by himself for the purpose of recharging his spiritual batteries. He would get up early in the morning and go to a quiet place to pray. Jesus could have very easily been pushed into a 24/7 style of ministry. But He refused to let the demands of his ministry overwhelm him. On several occasions, it is recorded that Jesus called a time out and pulled away from the crowd to be alone. At the end of His life he was able to pray, I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. (John 17:4) It is obvious that Jesus didn’t do everything He could have done. He did everything that the Father wanted Him to do.

                Busyness is a part of our life. There are many things that make demands on our time and energy. These are not necessarily bad things, although, at time, they can become overwhelming. In the midst of the busyness of life, we dare not buy into the idea that busyness alone is the goal. What we need is discernment to determine what is the best use of our time. We need the courage to embrace our limits. We need to give ourselves permission to take the time to be still.

                I value my Saturday morning quiet. It gives me the time to truly prepare myself for Sunday.

Philippians 1:9-11
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ--to the glory and praise of God.

   

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

TRACKS IN THE SNOW


                I enjoy walking to work in the morning while it is still dark and quiet. There is something energizing about hearing the crunch of the crisp snow under my feet. It reminds me of my days working in the dining hall at college. Because I was the dining hall manager for breakfast, I had to get up early and make the trek from my dorm to the dining hall before most others were awake. During the winter, I would be the first one to leave my tracks in the new fallen snow. For some reason, that was exciting to me, as if I was breaking some new trail in the wilderness.

                As I have walked to work on these cold, crisp mornings, I have discovered that I am not the first to make tracks in the snow. There are others who have forged through the drifts before me. Their tracks are very different from mine. There are the split, oval tracks of the deer. These illusive creatures routinely make their way through our neighborhood, yet I have rarely seen them. One night driving home from church, my headlights captured a lone deer crossing the street and heading for the cover of the trees.

                I routinely encounter another set of tracks, much different from the deer. They look like thin fingers pressed into the snow. They belong to a relatively less elusive creature; the wild turkeys that inhabit the fringe along the river. Unlike the deer, they are bold and travel in groups. But in the early morning, when the air is frigid, they are tucked away in some sheltered place. The only evidence of their presence is the multitude of footprints left behind from their daily parade.

                There is another set of tracks left in the snow that is harder to see, yet just as real. They are the tracks of the creator. If you have the spiritual awareness to look closely, you can see the telltale tracks of the Master. You can see them in the clear, dark morning sky as the stars and planets penetrate the darkness with their light. You can see them in the crystalline structure of the snow under foot and the crisp bite of the cold air. You can see them reflected in the unique footprints of the creatures God has created to inhabit our amazing planet.

                King David marveled at the tracks of God in our world.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:1-4a

                The Apostle Paul declared that the tracks of God are evident for all to see, if they would but open their eyes and look. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. Romans 1:20

                I have been enjoying reading “The Singing Wilderness” by Sigurd Olson. It reminds me of how much I like the outdoors; the rare, unspoiled havens of wilderness that are still available to us. Living in our man-made cities and towns, we lose sight of just how amazing this world really is. Our towns and cities may be full of activity, but they are sterile and static. At first glance the wilderness looks empty, but it is full of dynamic life and energy. God has given us tracks in the snow to awaken us to His presence. Like the deer that silently slip through our neighborhood, He invades our man-made world, leaving tangible evidence that He is still actively involved in the world He created.  

                There is only one way I can see the tracks in the snow. I have to slow down and pay attention. I could drive to work in the morning. It would be faster and warmer, but much less interesting. If we want to see God’s tracks in the snow, we need to slow down and pay attention. We need to take the time to hit the pause button and marvel at the amazing world all around us and the amazing God who brought it into being.


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

ARE WE ADDICTED TO SIN?


Romans 3:23
    for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

                Several times recently, as I was watching TV, I saw a commercial for an addiction recovery program. The speaker was inviting people to take the first step toward recovery. The first step is to admit that they are addicted. I was struck that the first step to dealing with our sin is to admit that we are addicted to sin.

                It is human nature for us to rationalize our addictions. We convince ourselves that we are in control and that our particular addiction is not really a problem. But we are only fooling ourselves. Those who know us best, can often clearly see the things that control us.

                The Bible tells us that the first step to our redemption is recognizing that we are slaves to sin. Sin has control of our lives. It dictates how we act and think. It taints everything that we do. It dominates our lives. When we allow something to become a major influence in our lives, we come under its control. Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey--whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? Romans 6:16

                Through our faith in Christ, we can break the power of sin in our lives. Sin is no longer our master, calling the shots in our life. Sin no longer is the dominant influence in our lives. But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. Romans 6:17-18

                Here is the rub; although we are no longer slaves to sin, the influence of our addiction remains. A person who is a recovering alcoholic knows that they are never totally free from the addiction. One drink can be enough to hurtle a person down the spiral of addiction again. Because we have the Holy Spirit living within us, we can never again become slaves to sin. But we still can fall into the negative effects of sin. Like the alcoholic, we cannot dabble on the edges of sin and not get drawn back in. Sin is like a powerful suction that can pull us in a direction that we do not want to go.

                Praise God, there is still grace. When Jesus was asked how many times we had to forgive someone who sinned against us, He responded that we are to forgive 70 X 7 times. That is the forgiveness that God offers to us. I John 1:8-10 is both a challenge and a great encouragement to us. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

                Like the alcoholic, we will never be totally free from the allure of our addiction. We can never let down our guard. But when we do stumble and fall, it is not the end of the story. If we will be honest with ourselves and with God, there is forgiveness and restoration. Our goal is to live free from sin, but when sin creeps into our lives, we need to deal with it honestly and quickly.

                One of the problems with our addiction to sin is that it is often so subtle. It a sense, it sneaks up on us. Satan is a master at taking advantage of our vulnerabilities. His attacks are rarely frontal attacks. Most often they come at us from our blindside. In an unguarded moment, we can find ourselves spiritually sacked for a major loss. If we are going to win the battle with our addiction to sin, we need to be fully aware of what is going on in us and around us. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8

                The good news in our battle with our addiction to sin is that we are not in this alone. Christ comes along side of us to be our guard and our guide. No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. 1 Corinthians 10:13

                We will battle our addiction to sin all of our lives. But praise be to God, we have the ultimate victory through Jesus Christ. Our cause is not lost. Instead, we are being refined for the day when we will stand holy and blameless in His presence. So let’s determine all the more to win the battle each day for the glory of God.

Philippians 2:12-13
    Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

   


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

KICKING OFF THE NEW YEAR


                Our New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day were pretty quiet. New Year’s Eve kicked off with -16 degrees and a blizzard warning, which pretty much materialized. Suanne was called in to work to fill in for someone who could not make it in. She got home about 8:00 PM. We hit the hay by 11:00 PM. New Year’s Day was spent at home. We began with a family tradition; watching the Tournament of Roses Parade. I pretty much watched football the rest of the day. After all, New Year’s Day is the day of the “Big” college bowl games. Of course, I was waiting for the Rose Bowl and the match-up between Ohio State and Washington. Today we move on.

                The idea of starting a new year is always a little exciting and a little challenging. There is a sense in which we get to start fresh, even though this is rather artificial. I start my reading list over at New Year. My goal each year is to read twelve books related to ministry. I exceeded my goal in 2018 by reading 20 books. At the beginning of each year, I also try to outline what I will focus on in my preaching. That has been a great exercise for me over the years and has made my preaching far more intentional.

                The challenging part of beginning a new year is setting some honest, personal goals. I have three recurring goals that I tend to renew every year. I want to lose some weight, exercise more (primarily running) and be intentional about writing. I believe these goals are realistic, but they are not automatic. They will take discipline and intentionality. They are perpetual goals because I will never come to a time when I can say that I have completed them.

                I think about the new year, I have been personally stirred by some things I have been reading. I was reminded this morning, in my devotions, that we were created in the image of God. There is much debate about what that means exactly, but a part of being created in the image of God is that we were created to be creative. The exciting and freeing thing about this truth is that each of us can express our creativity in very personal and unique ways. For me, creativity comes out in writing and woodworking. In writing I work with my mind and in woodworking I work with my hands. I believe I can glorify God in both ways. God has given each of us certain gifts and He delights when we use them for His glory. Paul addressed this idea in Romans 12:6-8. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. One of the greatest gifts God has given to each of us is the gift of creativity, which is expressed in a multitude of ways.

                For Christmas this year, I received a book by Sigurd Olson; “The Singing Wilderness.” Sigurd Olson was a naturalist and an avid outdoorsman. He primarily wrote about his experiences in northern Minnesota; primarily his adventures in the Boundary Waters Canoe area. He writes about the wilderness in ways that make me want to strap on my backpack and head out into the woods. He has stirred within me a desire to spend more time out in nature this year. As we look for our next “permanent” home, I want to find a place that will give me easy access to nature. I spend so much of my time in an office. There is a stirring inside of me to get out into nature and experience it firsthand.

                Every time we come to a new year, we have to balance the reality of our life with the dreams and desires that we have. The primary reality of my life is that I have been called by God to serve Him as a pastor. Right now, that means serving the people of Cavalier Baptist Church in the best way that I can. It means helping them decipher God’s will for them as a church and helping them to select the next pastor who will lead them into the future. But I also need to carve out some time to pursue my dreams. There is room for both. As David says Psalm 37:4. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.

                It is good to take some time at the beginning of the year to reflect upon where you want to go. Time can easily slip through our hands. Our time on earth is short, and is getting shorter every day. God wants us to make the most of the time that we have. Part of God’s plan for us is that we would be fully engaged in life; not just marking time until our time is up. Whoever we want to be in the future, we need to start becoming that now. Whatever we want to accomplish in the future, we need to start accomplishing it now. Whatever we want to experience in the future, we need to start to experience it now. God has given each of us a unique set of dreams and desires. It is up to us to do our part to make those dreams and desires a reality.

Psalm 90:12
 Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.


   

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

LIVING CHRISTMAS


                For most of us, the story of Christmas is just that, a story. When we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, everything seems so neat and clean. We can sit in the comfort of our home and read the story and feel all sentimental and warm. In fact, most of our images of Christmas are of families gathering together in joy, peace, and harmony. Christmas is a time when people generally treat each other well. We actually go out of our way to be nice to others. There is much to be said for the positive influence that the Christmas season has on us, even if it is short-lived.

                The reality was very different for Mary and Joseph. They didn’t get to read the story in a comfortable setting; they lived it moment by moment. They did not know how the story would end. They didn’t know what would happen along the way. They had to step out in faith and trust God to lead them.

                For Mary and Joseph, Christmas was a total disruption of their lives. It would be an understatement to say that the news of Mary’s pregnancy or the edict of Caesar that set them on the road to Bethlehem was inconvenient. The realities of that first Christmas were life changing in every way.

                In a day when a girl could be stoned for becoming pregnant outside of marriage, Mary was placed in an extremely vulnerable place. In a time when the marriage covenant was taken far more seriously than it is today, Joseph risked everything to take Mary as his wife. In a time when God had been silent in Israel for 400 years, to believe that an angel from the Lord had spoken directly to you was an enormous leap of faith. The reality of Christmas was anything but comfortable or warm and cozy. Mary and Joseph staked the rest of their lives on the message they had received from God, knowing that no one else would or could really understand.

                We are in the enviable position of being able to be spectators to the Christmas story. We can watch it unfold, without the drama of having to face the difficult steps along the way. But I believe that God is inviting us to not just observe Christmas, but to live it ourselves.

                John 3:16 tells us, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God sent Jesus into the world to radically change our lives. To have eternal life is to allow God, through the Holy Spirit, to take up residence in our lives. When we place our faith and trust in Jesus, the trajectory of our life is changed, just as it was for Mary and Joseph. The message of Christmas is that God is calling us to carry Jesus into our world.

                Mary and Joseph were entrusted with Jesus. It was their responsibility to care for him. They were given the enormous responsibility to prepare Jesus for the day that He would step out of the shadows and into the spotlight of His public ministry. In a similar way, we have been entrusted with the task of taking Jesus into our world. Our job is to prepare the way so that others might encounter Him. As Jesus said in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

                The Christmas season gives us an awesome opportunity to carry Jesus into our world. We do not have to settle with being observers to the Christmas story. We can live out the Christmas story through our lives today. Just as Jesus invaded our world so long ago, He continues to invade our world through each one of us. The message of Christmas continues to ring loud and clear. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

IT IS OKAY TO BE AVERAGE


1 Corinthians 1:26
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

                I have been average most of my life. For the most part, I was an average student at school. I graduated from college with an average GPA. I wasn’t inept at sports, but I wasn’t great either; I was average. I have always been of average height and weight for my age (except at birth, when I weighed in at over 10 pounds). The last half marathon that I ran, I crossed the finish line in the middle of my age group and in the middle of all of the runners; average. There are a few things I do very well and many things I don’t do so well. On balance, I am a pretty average guy.

                I have sat through a number of talks from key, church leaders who have told me that unless I am excellent at what I do, I am wasting my time. At one of those events the speaker actually informed the crowd of pastors that the majority of us should quit because we were, at best, average.

                Larry Osborne, in his book “Accidental Pharisees”, reminds us that, by definition, the majority of us are average. It is impossible for everyone to be above average. If you are familiar with the Bell Curve, you will remember that the big bubble is in the middle and not the ends. As human beings, we tend to congregate in the middle.

                One of the problems that we have in the Church is that we elevate certain aspects of ministry and downplay all of the others. A person who excels at preaching or teaching is seen as a more excellent Christian than a person who cannot speak in front of a crowd, but is excellent at showing mercy. We elevate the evangelist who stands in the spotlight, while we forget the sound guy who sits in the shadows and makes the big guy look and sound good.

                You can make a compelling case that we should strive for excellence in everything that we do. Afterall, if we are serving Christ, shouldn’t we give Him our best. But the dark side of striving for excellence is pride and arrogance. There is a difference between striving for personal excellence and measuring your excellence against others. In truth, everyone who proclaims the goal of excellence in their area of giftedness is often blind to how they are less than excellent in a number of other areas.

                One of the reasons I like to compete in long-distance races is that everyone is a winner, not just the person who crosses the finish line first. When I run, I am not competing against all the other runners, I am competing against one runner; me. In the Christian life, we are not in competition with one another to see who is the better Christian. We are competing for the goal of being the best Christian we can be.

                The truth is, in an age that worships excellence, we will not all be excellent. As believers, we will not all attain the level of excellence of Billy Graham or Rick Warren or John Piper, and that is okay. The Bible is full of average people, who put their faith and trust in Christ, and faithfully followed Him. That is what Jesus is expecting from each of us. It is okay to be an average Christian as long as you are being the best, average Christian you can be.

                Paul reminded the Corinthian believers that they were nothing outstanding or special, but God used them to do some amazing things. As Paul said: But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." 1 Corinthians 1:27-31

                It is a good thing to strive for excellence in your life. Be the best you can be, but then be content with that. There is some God-given ability in all of our lives where we will excel beyond the norm, but in the majority of our lives we will be average. Too often the quest for excellence puts the focus on us instead of God. We need to think less about ourselves, our personal score card, and think more about glorifying God in all we do.

Romans 12:3
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.