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.