Thursday, May 23, 2019

A LESSON FROM A RAINBOW


                It is raining today, a needed refreshment of the parched earth. If the sun peaks through the clouds before the rain ceases, we can expect to see a rainbow. I have always been fascinated by rainbows. No matter how many times I see them, they never become old hat. They always manage to capture my attention. Sometimes they are vivid, sometimes faint. Most often there is a single rainbow across the sky, but on rare occasions there will be two.

                This morning in my devotions, I read the story of the rainbow in Genesis 9. After the great flood, God promised Noah that He would never destroy the world in that way again. As a sign to Noah and to every subsequent generation, God gave us the rainbow. It is intended to be a sign of the grace of God.

    And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth." Genesis 9:12-16

                People have always been fascinated by rainbows. They have been incorporated into myth and legend, story and song. Scientists have studied the conditions that cause the rainbow to appear. They discovered that as the light passes through the droplets of water, they act as prisms, which separate the white light into its colorful component parts. The colors of the rainbow are always in the same order because they represent the spectrum of light as we know it.

                Because we can describe how a rainbow is formed, many people have dismissed the Biblical account of its creation. In our scientific world, we have done this with many things. Because we are able to describe a process or explain a phenomenon in scientific terms, we think that we no longer need God in the picture. In our arrogance, we have assumed that we have unlocked the secrets of our world and mastered them. But have we really?

                Just because we can describe something or explain how something works does not mean that we fully understand it. It does not mean that we have discovered the final word on a subject. All we have done is stated the obvious. The real question that needs to be answered is, why do things act the way that they do? Someone might answer, the rainbow is caused because of the refraction of light. That is true, but why does the refraction of light always result in a rainbow? Being able to describe something does not explain its origin, it only explains how something works.

                What the story in Genesis 9 makes clear to us is that it is God who created the phenomenon that we observe in our world. The rainbow didn’t just happen, God made it happen. The best that science can do is answer the question “How”. It can never fully answer the question “Why”. We can describe in detail how a rainbow is formed, but we cannot answer the question, why is it there in the first place?

                All of the phenomenon that we marvel at in our world are there for one purpose, to point us to the one who created them. Paul made that crystal clear in Romans 1:20. 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. Let he who has eyes to see, see!

                The rainbow is an enchanting, marvelous display. It causes us to pause and stare, in part because it is not always there. It often marks the end of the storm. The rainbow is worth marveling at. But it is only a sign, a reminder that God so loved the world that He sent a Savior.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

NO UNDO BUTTON


                I am not a big video game person. I dabble in them from time to time, but they are not a regular part of my life. The exception would be what are called casual games. These are games like solitaire that you can play on your phone. They are relatively simple and can be played in a short amount of time. Although, beware. They can consume quite a bit of time if you are not careful. One of the features in these casual games is the undo button. It allows you to undo the last move that you have made. It comes in handy when you realize that you have just made a fatal mistake.

                I have often thought it would be amazing if there was an undo button in life. All of us, from time to time, make choices that we wish we could undo. In a rash or unthinking moment, we choose a course of action and then realize that it was a mistake. Unfortunately, there is no going back. Once the choice has been made, once the action has been taken, it is too late. We must live with the consequences.

                In our Tuesday morning Bible Study, we have been working our way through the book of Ecclesiastes. This morning we were in chapter 10, which is a contrast between being wise and being foolish. The foolish person rushes ahead in life without much thought about the outcome. Consequently, they find themselves in negative situations. Solomon gives a rather graphic example to make his point in verse 18. “If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks.”
 On the other hand, the person who is wise considers the outcomes before he or she acts.

                The book of Proverbs is filled with vivid comparisons between the wise person and the fool. Here are just a few examples.
Proverbs 10:8
    The wise in heart accept commands, but a chattering fool comes to ruin.

Proverbs 10:14
    Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin.

Proverbs 12:15
    The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.

                The Apostle Paul challenges us to pay attention to the way that we maneuver through life. Be very careful, then, how you live--not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:15-16)

                It would be great if we always chose wisdom over foolishness. Our lives would be richer, happier, and more fulfilling. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Even the wisest of us make foolish choices from time to time.  It is at those times that we wish there was an undo button for life. Alas, it is not to be. We cannot go back and change the past. But that does not mean that all is lost. God has offered us, not an undo button, but a fresh start option. It is found in 1 John 1:8-9.

    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.

                The truly wise person is not the one who never makes a foolish choice. The truly wise person is the one who recognizes what he has done and takes ownership of it. Instead of denying or ignoring the reality, he accepts it and brings his failure to God. In doing so, God promises not only to forgive, but to restore and redeem. The real beauty of this promise is that it is not a limited time offer. There is no expiration date and no limit on the number of times that a person can use it. It is always available.

                Jesus expressed this in a conversation with His disciples, recorded in Matthew 18:21-22.  
    Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"
    Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

                In this exchange, Jesus is not only challenging His disciples to forgive others. He is expressing the extent to which God will go to forgive us. God’s forgiveness goes beyond anything we can imagine. This does not give us the right to be foolish, but it assures us that when we are God will be there to restore us.

                When playing video games, the better a person gets at them the less they need the undo button. In the same way, the more that we grow in our faith and our commitment to Christ, the less we will need His refresh button.

Proverbs 3:13-14
Blessed is the man who finds wisdom,
the man who gains understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
 and yields better returns than gold.

   


Thursday, May 16, 2019

ROUTINE: A MIXED BAG


1 Corinthians 14:40
    But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

                Routine is a double-edged sword, a blessing and a curse. Our lives are managed by routine far more than we realize. Without routine our lives would descend into chaos or immobility. Think about all of the decisions that you do not have to make each day because of your routine. Routine brings order to our lives, but it can also drain the vitality out of our lives.

                Wherever we look in our world we see routine. Routinely the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Routinely we progress through the seasons of the year, each coming in the same order. Routinely the earth revolves in its daily and yearly cycle. Routinely the grass (and the weeds) grow. Routinely birds make their nests and have young. Routinely migratory birds make their way to the right place at the appropriate time. Our world is filled with routine. So is our life.

                Routine is a blessing in so many ways. Routine frees us from making mundane decisions on a daily basis. Without thinking about it, I follow the same routine every morning as I prepare for my day. My week is ordered by a basic routine that places me where I need to be when I need to be there. Much of the routine of my day is under my control, although not all of it. I have established a basic routine that guides me through my week. Each day that I am in my office I begin with a time of prayer and devotions. I reserve the rest of my morning for study and creative work. After lunch, I engage in meeting with people and working on projects that take less creative thinking. As I go through my week, my routine leads me to a culmination on Sunday morning. Although each day is not filled with the same activities, each day follows a similar pattern, a familiar routine.

                Routine frees our minds to focus on things of greater significance. Routine creates a rhythm to our life, like the underlying theme in a piece of music that is not always evident, but holds the piece together. Routine can smooth the choppy waters of daily life.

                Routine also has a dark side. Unexamined routine can dull our senses and drain us of vitality. The sameness of routine has a way of placing us on a treadmill that continues to move, but with little or no purpose. We can be so caught up in our routine that we mindlessly go through our day without ever thoughtfully examining what we are doing. I have become aware lately of how easy it is to fall into the routine of sitting in from of the TV for several hours after dinner. If we are not careful, routine can lead us into an unproductive, unexamined life.

                Routine that is never altered can also drain us of our energy. For many people, the routine of their lives is slowly killing them. They feel trapped with no exit in sight. Their senses have been so dulled by routine that they are no longer living life, they are just enduring life. Many have given up hope of breaking free. Others have rebelled against routine in destructive ways.

                Like most things in life, routine can either be a tool that enhances our lives or a burden that imprisons us. The question that we all have to ask on a regular basis is, are we in control of our routine or is our routine in control of us?

                Jesus regularly challenged the established routine of the Pharisees. God had established a system of worship that was intended to enrich people and draw them closer to Him. The Pharisees had taken that system and turned it into a heavy burden that weighed people down and crushed their spirit. In Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees, recorded in Luke 11, Jesus specifically addressed their abuse of the people. Jesus replied, "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. (Luke 11:46)

                One of the heaviest burdens that was laid on the people was the many requirements attached to the Sabbath. What God intended to be a day of rest and freedom became a day of stress and confinement. Again, Jesus challenged how the Pharisees had taken what God had established and turned it on its head. Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27)

                Jesus was not against routine. He was against routine becoming a person’s master. Jesus had his own routine. He routinely got up early in the morning to be alone and pray. He routinely taught in the synagogues in Galilee. Jesus routinely responded to the needs of the people, both by teaching them and healing their diseases. In all of this, Jesus was always in control of his routine. When something unexpected came up, he was free to vary from his routine. He was not flustered by interruptions or a change in plans. He was always flexible, able to adjust to what was needed at the time.

                None of us can live routine-less lives. Our human nature always nudges us toward routine. The thing we need to do is to be intentional about our routine. When our routine starts to become a burden, we need the freedom to alter our routine. It is good, from time to time, to take a break from our routine. On a regular basis, we should examine our routine to see if it is still moving us in a positive direction. Above all, routine should always be our servant, never our master.

Ephesians 5:15-16
Be very careful, then, how you live--not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

   

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

WALKING IN THE WIND


John 3:8
    The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

                As I left my office for the walk home, it was bright and sunny. I walked to the corner and turned north, heading up the main road. As soon as I turned the corner I was accosted by a stiff wind. I had to hold onto my hat to keep it from blowing off of my head. The wind blew grit and sand into my face. I tucked my head down and leaned into the buffeting wind.

                Later I mentioned the wind to a friend. I told him that I had not gone for a run because of the wind. His remark was telling. In North Dakota, the wind is our hills.  I didn’t catch his meaning right away, and then it became clear. Running into the wind is hard, just like running up hill.

                Several years ago, I wrote an essay titled, “Running into the Wind Makes You Stronger.” As a runner, the wind can be both your ally and your adversary. When the wind is at your back, it assists you. When the wind is in your face, it puts pressure on you.

                In the Bible, the word for wind in both the Old and New Testament can also be translated spirit. Jesus used this play on words to equate the workings of the Holy Spirit with the dynamics of the wind.

                Wind is a constant reality here in North Dakota. Scientifically we can explain the wind. More and more we have discovered how to harness the power of the wind. But we will never be able to control the wind. You could say that the wind has a mind of its own. This reality about the wind is true about the Holy Spirit as well. We can understand the theology behind the Holy Spirit. We can tap into the power of the Holy Spirit. But we cannot control the Holy Spirit.

                In my younger days, I had the chance to experience the thrill of sailing. Sailing is dependent upon the wind. If a sailor desires to move his craft in a particular direction, he must adjust his sails to catch the wind. If he does this correctly, the wind will carry him along at an exhilarating pace. If he does this incorrectly, the wind will stop him dead in the water. In the same way, our spiritual journey is dependent upon cooperating with the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:25, Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. When we set the sails of our life correctly the Holy Spirit carries us along in amazing ways. When we set our sails incorrectly, the Holy Spirit works against us.

                As we grow in our faith, the Holy Spirit works like the wind to both assist us and to challenge us. Sometimes the Holy Spirit empowers us to accomplish things far beyond our capacity. Like running with the wind at our back, the Spirit carries us along in an almost effortless fashion. On the other hand, there are times when the Holy Spirit intentionally pushes against us, like running into the wind.

                Sometimes He pushes against us to warn us of potential danger ahead. He puts up a spiritual stop sign to keep us from yielding to temptation. He also makes us aware of sin that has entered our life. (John 16:5-11)
               
                Sometimes the Holy Spirit pushes against us to redirect our course. On one of Paul’s missionary journeys, he was trying to go to a certain place, but the Spirit prohibited him. (Acts 16:6-10) The Spirit will do the same for us, if we pay attention.

                Sometimes the Holy Spirit pushes against us to make us stronger. When I was training for a half marathon, I came to appreciate the wind, because it made me a stronger runner. We grow and mature in our faith more when we face resistance than when all is going smoothly. Paul drew that conclusion when, instead of healing Paul of his thorn in the flesh, God told him that His grace was sufficient to carry the burden. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) Although we don’t like it when the Spirit pushes against us, it really is for our benefit.

                God created the wind for a purpose. It helps to shape our world. Without the wind our world would be dead. But the wind is an untamable power. It can refresh us as a gentle breeze, or terrorize us as a tornado. God has sent us Spirit to us for a purpose. It is the Spirit that shapes our lives as believers in Christ. Without the Spirit we would be dead. (Romans 8:9) But we must always remember that the Holy Spirit is untamable. Instead of fighting against the Spirit, we need to learn to yield to Him and allow Him to carry us to the place where God wants us to go.

John 16:13
    But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.


Tuesday, May 7, 2019

CELEBRATING READING


2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

“Books are the training weights of the mind” –Seneca
*******

                I did not begin my life as a reader. I came to be a reader later in my life, and I am very glad that I did.

                My Aunt Mil lived with us. I can never remember a time growing up when Aunt Mil was not a part of our household. Aunt Mil was an avid reader. Each night she would make her way to her room with a cup of Nescafe and a book. As my brothers and I grew up, Aunt Mil kept up a constant campaign to make us into readers. On a regular basis, we could expect to receive a book for our birthday or for Christmas, usually something that she hoped would capture our attention. But like most young boys, I was more interested in playing with my toy soldiers or exploring the vacant lot behind our house. Aunt Mil passed away before she could know that her efforts had finally paid off. She never knew that I had crossed the Rubicon and had entered into the ranks of those who love books.

                My love of reading did not come to full form until after I was out of Seminary. Up to that time, reading was a chore. Throughout my many years of school, I read what I was required to read, and I often found that laborious and boring. It was only when I was given the freedom to begin to choose for myself what I would read that reading was transformed from a chore to a delight. Being freed from the obligation to read for a specific purpose, I discovered that I could read for fun. Learning to read for fun opened the way for me to read for my enrichment. Learning to read for my own enrichment has played a significant role in shaping and transforming my life.

                Early in my ministry, I challenged myself to read 12 ministry related books a year; just one a month. For some people that is not a very adventurous goal. For me it was monumental. That simple challenge propelled me into an amazing adventure of learning and discovery. Books became my friend and ally instead of my enemy and nemesis. Some years I have fallen short of my goal, while other years I have far exceeded my goal. But making the commitment to be an active reader has enriched my life in so many ways.

                Books have become the tools of my trade, just as hammers and saws are the tools of a carpenter. Through reading I have been able to sit at the feet of people who are far wiser and more experienced than I am. They have challenged me to examine my life, my beliefs, and my practices. They have brought me comfort and encouragement, as well as needed rebuke and correction. God has used books to awaken me to things I have been blind to. He has used books to stretch me personally and spiritually. He has used books to expand my understanding of this world that He created, and in so doing, has expanded my understanding of Himself.

                Of course, the greatest and most influential book we can read is God’s Word, the Bible. The Bible holds the keys to understanding God, ourselves, and our world. The Bible gives us a realistic window into the human experience. It exposes every aspect of who we are as human beings. It also gives us a window into the spiritual realm. It gives us eyes to see what we cannot see on our own. Most of all, the Bible gives us a glimpse of God; His character, His purposes, and His plan for us.

                Reading is a significant key to unlocking the mysteries of our world. Reading fiction can stimulate our imagination and our understanding of humanity. Reading history can help us put our life in perspective. Reading theology expands our understanding of God. Reading practical, how-to books gives us a chance to expand and refine our skills. Reading classical literature expands our vocabulary and stretches our comprehension. Reading can expand our horizons in so many directions.

                For many years now, with the rise of all forms of technology, the demise of books has been predicted. I pray that it never happens.

*******

1 Timothy 4:13
    Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.

“You can find magic wherever you look. Sit back and relax, all you need is a book.” – Dr. Seuss


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

SPEED vs. ENDURANCE


let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1

                As I was running the other day, I was feeling the effects of a long winter with no running. At one point I told myself, for me, running is not about speed, but about endurance. The goal is to persevere and not give up until I had finished my run. It got me thinking about the difference between sprinters and long-distance runners.  

                There is a major difference between sprinters and long-distance runners. Sprinters are all about speed. Long-distance runners are all about endurance. A sprinter will dominate a long-distance runner in a short run. But a long-distance runner will keep going long after a sprinter has run out of gas.

                We live in a society obsessed with speed. We want everything fast. The faster the better. For example, a particular sub sandwich place advertises that their delivery is freaky fast. Amazon will ship your package overnight, or even within hours, if you live in the right place. We have been programmed to be impatient. We do not like to wait. In a similar way, the Church has become obsessed with speed. We have become impatient with this spiritual journey. Things need to change and quickly. We are challenged to become spiritual sprinters.

                In my experience in ministry, I have encountered many spiritual sprinters. They are full of energy and nothing seems to hold them back. Early on they appear to be spiritual rising stars, yet many of them flame out before they really get going. They are all about moving forward as fast as possible, yet they rarely think about what is sustainable for the long haul. Many young Christians fall into this trap. Their enthusiasm for they faith propels them forward at breakneck speed. Then they run out of gas and wonder what happened. Enthusiasm and idealism are great, but they are not enough to keep you going for the long haul.

                One of the lessons I have learned from running is how to pace myself. When I am preparing to run a half-marathon, I determine in advance what my target time is for the race. Then I determine what pace I will have to maintain to achieve my goal. If I start out too fast, I will not have enough strength to finish the race. If I start too slow, I will miss my target.

                Just as it is in running, so it is in the Christian life. As exciting as it is to move forward at speed, appropriate pacing is the key to a successful Christian life. When I was in college, someone put it this way. God does not want us to burn out, or rust out. He wants us to hold out until the end. The key to a truly successful Christian life is godly endurance.

                James talks about this in James 1:2-4. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

                On this journey of faith, we will face all kinds of challenges. These challenges will put our faith to the test. James tells us that God uses these trials to refine our faith and to produce perseverance. The only way to become mature and complete in our faith is to develop spiritual endurance.

                Perseverance and endurance are not dragging our feet and going as slowly and cautiously as we can. They are moving forward in the face of challenges with an intentional, sustainable pace. A long-distance runner runs as fast as he or she can at a pace that can be sustained until the end of the race. So it is with our journey of faith. We keep pressing forward at a pace that we can sustain.

                Just as there are different runners, with different abilities, who run at different paces, not all believers will keep up the same pace. Some will move faster and some with progress slower. But all truly mature believers will persevere. Peter includes perseverance as an essential component of living a productive Christian life.

    For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. (2 Peter 1:5-9)

                In the world of track and field, the glory goes to the sprinters. The highest goal is to be crowned the fastest runner in the world. Yet the greatest test of a runner’s abilities is the marathon. In many ways, the Church today has put its focus on the spiritual sprinters.  We shower them with glory and honor. We hold them up as the model that everyone should emulate. But long after the spiritual sprinters have run out of gas and have faded to the sidelines, those who have developed endurance continue to steadily move forward toward the goal. Their ministry may not be as flashy or as cutting edge as the sprinter, but over the long-haul, they will accomplish far more for the Kingdom of God. The greatest test of a believers faith is their ability to endure to the end of the race.

                The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. If we want to live a life worthy of our calling in Christ, then we need to learn to pace ourselves for the long-haul. It is those who have developed patience, perseverance, and endurance who, when they cross the finish line, will hear those words, well done good and faithful servant.

    And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:10-12)


   

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

NO STANDING STILL


1 Timothy 4:8
For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

                When I crawled out of bed this morning, my legs were stiff and sore. I was a feeling that I do not like, but I understand. Throughout this winter, I was unable to get out and run. Yesterday, with the sun shining and the air warm, I laced up my running shoes and ventured out. I felt the strain the entire way, as I forced my legs to propel me forward. At the end of two and a half miles, I leaned over in my driveway, with my hands on my knees, and panted for breath.

                Over the past few weeks, I have been reminded of a universal truth. That truth is that you never really stand still in life. You are either moving forward or slipping back. For a significant period of time before I left Mankato, I was either running or working out at the gym regularly. During that time, my weight was stable and my waistline was shrinking. Then we made the move. I cancelled my gym membership. My running became more sporadic and eventually ceased. The consequence was that my weight and my waistline began to increase. I am now back to trying to reverse the trend.

                Most of us understand that if we fail to take care of ourselves physically, we will face negative consequences. All of the hard work that I had done in the gym disappeared when I stopped going. But we do not often think that way when it comes to our spiritual health.

                Too often we settle for minimum spiritual effort, then wonder why we are not making any progress. Just like with our physical health, we never really stay the same. We are either growing spiritually or regressing spiritually. We can never really stand still.

                Paul challenged the Philippians to actively pursue spiritual health. 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. (Philippians 2:12-13)

                When I was going to the gym, all the equipment that I needed to be physically fit was available to me. But just having a gym membership was not enough. I actually had to use the equipment. In essence Paul is saying the same thing to us. God has provided for us everything we need to grow strong spiritually, but it is up to us to actually use the resources we have been given. It is not enough to just belong. We need to stretch and train our spiritual muscles.

                If we have been complacent for a while, using our spiritual muscles might hurt a little. We will feel the strain of flexing unused muscles. But the strain and pain are the cost of spiritual strength. If we persevere, and don’t give up, our spiritual muscles will grow stronger. The initial pain will subside and we will again experience the joy. The more that we actively exercise our spiritual muscles, the stronger and more resilient we become.

                When I first went to the gym, a friend set up a routine for me to follow. I was pretty clueless, so I needed a guide to help me make the most of my time. In the same way, we need a guide to help us get the most out of our spiritual exercise. There are many helpful guides available that explain how to use the classic spiritual disciplines in your life. I have learned a few general lessons that can help you get the maximum benefit from what ever “program” you decide to follow.

                Be intentional about what you want to accomplish. People who work out at the gym usually are intentional about what muscles they want to work on. One day they might work on their legs. The next day they might work on their arms. The next on their core. In a similar way, we need to be intentional about what aspect of our spiritual life we want to work on.

                Be consistent. The secret to any exercise program is consistency. The same is true for our spiritual growth. I recommend that at person establish a consistent time and place to engage in the various spiritual disciplines. Having a regular time for prayer, Bible study, and reflection trains our spiritual muscles more effectively. Being engaged in regular times of service allows us to test our spiritual strength. Consistency is the key to genuine growth.

                Use variety. I have been told that if you do the same exercises over and over again, your body adapts and you cease to get the benefit. But if you vary your exercise, you will have greater results. I have found this to be true spiritually as well. We can get into a rut, using the same approach or resources over and over again. After a while they lose their power to challenge and transform us. The key is to add variety to your spiritual exercises. Try different spiritual disciplines at different times. Change how you study the Bible. Use different styles of devotional guides to keep your times with God fresh and alive.

                Keep pushing forward. I began by referring to running. Over the years I have learned that I need to keep pushing myself to go a little farther. Over time I was able to progress from barely running one mile to running a half-marathon. Spiritually we need to keep pressing forward. This will mean accepting new challenges, risking doing things we have never done before, pushing the limits of what we think we can handle. I can tell you from experience that we can accomplish much more that we think we can. God wants to push the limits we place on ourselves to show us His power.

                In life, we are either moving forward or we are moving backward. There is no standing still. We can not stand still in our spiritual life either. If we want to have strong spiritual muscles, we will need to actively work at them.

Philippians 3:12-14
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

   

Saturday, April 20, 2019

BIRD SONG


Psalm 104:10-12
He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the air nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.

                You know that spring has arrived when the birds begin to sing. As I have been walking to my office in the mornings, the air has been filled with bird song. There is something uplifting in listening to the various songs of the birds as they serenade one another. It is a natural competition to out-sing the other birds, to be recognized, to stand out. Instead of trudging along, as I have throughout the winter, I experience a new spring in my step.

                Birds are one of those fascinating creatures who cohabitate with us. Although they keep a safe distance from us, yet they live out their lives in our presence. Many of us have placed bird feeders in our yards to entice our feathered friends to grace us with their activity, color, and song. If we are fortunate, we may be able to watch them build a nest, lay eggs, and produce a new generation.

                Birds are fragile, yet resilient. Many of them have the ability to withstand both harsh winters and scorching summers. Their movement in the air is magical. They soar and swoop seemingly effortlessly. They can change direction in a split second to avoid an unfortunate collision. I have often marveled at a flock of small birds flying amass is unison. They seem to make a single, coordinated organism as they create breathtaking patterns in the sky.

                Jesus pointed us to the birds of the air to remind us of just how much our Heavenly Father cares for us. There is so much of life that is out of our control, yet God constantly is watching over us, just as He does the birds of the air. In Jesus’ teaching about worry, He tells us to rest in the constant and intimate care of our Heavenly Father. Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matthew 6:26) Jesus’ point is that, if God takes such care of the birds of the air, we can trust Him to take care of us as well. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we just sit around and expect God to feed us, but it does mean that as we do our part to meet our basic needs, God will provide.

                I think there is another way that the birds of the air direct our thoughts to God. It is through their song. The songs of the birds are a glorious concert of praise to God. The variety and intensity of their songs rivals any human choir. They are unconcerned about being in tune or in rhythm. Their song is a spontaneous response to their creator.

                The Psalms challenge us to lift our voices in joyful song to God.

Psalm 33:1-3
Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the Lord with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy.

                Singing and making music is one of the ways that we can actively praise God. Music has the ability to engage all of our senses, all of our emotions. It can transport us beyond mere words to a profound experience of standing in the very presence of God. Music is a gift that God has given to us that we, in turn, can give back to Him.

                Our world would be a much poorer place without the birds of the air. Their color, their activity, their song all add life and vitality to our world. Too often, we take their presence for granted. We pay little attention to them as they flit from tree to tree, or soar high above us, or form a line on the telephone lines. Yet our lives are enriched by their presence. They are a constant reminder that God is actively involved in our world. They are a reminder that the God who cares for the birds of the air cares for us as well.
  
Matthew 10:29-31
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

IT’S HARD TO BE HUMBLE


James 4:10
    Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

                During my devotions this morning I was directed to read Psalm 23. Psalm 23 is probably one of the most well-known passages of scripture in the world. It is often used at funerals as a source of comfort.

                As I read this familiar passage today, I was reminded of an incident that happened to me while I was serving as a chaplain at our local hospital in Mankato. To put things into context, I was an on-call chaplain, which meant that I was usually being called in at a critical time for the patient and their family. Although I served in that position for over a decade, I was always apprehensive and a little unsure of myself when I was called in.

                On this particular occasion, I was seeking to give some comfort to a family who had just lost a loved one. Not knowing what their spiritual background was, I asked is I could read the 23rd Psalm for them. They agreed. After I finished, they asked if we could say the Lord’s Prayer together. We bowed our heads and I began, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

                I was puzzled by the fact that the others were not praying with me, so I stopped. Sheepishly, one person pointed out that I was not reciting the Lord’s Prayer but the 23rd Psalm. To say the least, I was embarrassed and humbled. I’m sure the people wondered what kind of a pastor would mix up the 23rd Psalm with the Lord’s Prayer. As I left the room, I could not believe that I had made such a blatant mistake. My focus was totally on me. I had forgotten why I was in that room in the first place.

                Most of us are not outwardly arrogant, but we can allow complacency to blur our vision. We can fall into a comfortable routine, which tends to put the focus on our needs and wants, and lose sight of those around us. We can become the center of our own world without realizing that we are doing it. At those times, God will often slip some incident into our lives that makes us aware of our frailty.  Those embarrassing mishaps are often God’s way of getting us to take another look at where we have placed our focus.

                James tells us that we should intentionally humble ourselves before God. When we do that, He will put our life into proper perspective. True humility is not looking down on ourselves, downplaying our strengths and exaggerating our weaknesses. True humility is having an honest and realistic view of ourselves. It is recognizing our faults, without letting them dominate our thinking. It is fully embracing our strengths, without drawing undue attention to them. True humility is turning our focus away from ourselves and looking outward, in a positive way, toward God and others.

                True humility begins with having an honest estimation of ourselves. Paul challenges us to look in the mirror to gain a realistic image of ourselves. 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. (Romans 12:3)

                True humility also creates an honest image of those around us. Paul challenges us to take the focus off of ourselves and place it on others. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

                True humility brings with it the blessing of God. God created us not to be doormats, but to be His masterpieces. Like a proud parent, God is delighted when His children use their gifts and abilities well. Like a wise parent, God is ready to confront self-promoting arrogance in His children. But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." (James 4:6)

                It is hard to be humble in a world that has made self-promotion a virtue. Yet, if we are to follow Christ, we must follow the path of true humility. During this Holy Week, we are reminded that Jesus willingly humbled Himself on our behalf so that we might have life eternal.

Philippians 2:5-11
    Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

    Who, being in very nature God,
        did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
    but made himself nothing,
        taking the very nature of a servant,
        being made in human likeness.
    And being found in appearance as a man,
        he humbled himself
        and became obedient to death--
            even death on a cross!
    Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
        and gave him the name that is above every name,
    that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
        in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
        to the glory of God the Father.



Tuesday, April 9, 2019

LIVING WATER


John 7:38
 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”

                It was a relatively warm day yesterday, so I decided to go for a run. Actually, I have been aching to get out and go for a run all winter. I could tell that it had been a long time, as my legs and lungs began to protest, but it felt good to be stretching my muscles again.

                As I was running, I crossed a foot bridge over the Tongue River. I have crossed that bridge multiple times during the winter. Each time, I would look down at a frozen sheet of ice covering the water underneath. Obvious on the surface of the river were the tracks of animals seeking out the life-giving water. It was different yesterday. I looked down on a freely flowing stream. There were still pockets of ice here and there, but the river was flowing freely again. Now the animals can come freely and drink to quench their thirst.

                In ancient Israel, running water was referred to as living water. Running water was viewed as purer than a pool or pond. Running water was seen as life giving. Running water was always being refreshed.

                One day, while Jesus was traveling through Samaria, he encountered a woman at Jacob’s well. A well was the center of life for any town or village. The women of the village would gather in the early morning and in the evening at the well to draw water and to interact with one another. In a sense, the well was the social hub of the community. On this occasion, it was midday, not a normal time for a woman to be drawing water from the well. We can speculate why this woman arrived at the well when she did, but I have the suspicion that she was trying to avoid the other women. For her, the well was not a live-giving place, but a life-draining one. So, she was most likely startled when she arrived to find Jesus sitting there.

                Jesus engaged this woman in conversation, which also took the woman by surprise. Jesus was violating several cultural norms of the day. Jesus asked this woman to provide him with a drink of water. This led to an exchange that confused and unsettled the woman.

    The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
    Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." (John 4:9-10)

                This woman came seeking water from the well. Jesus offered her living water. This confused the woman even more. There was no stream nearby, no place to get “living water”. So, she challenged Jesus. His response completely changed the dynamics of the conversation.

    Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." John 4:13-14

                In her eagerness to avoid the conflict in her life that the well represented, she asked Jesus to give her this living water. The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." John 4:15

                Much later, in another setting, Jesus promised to give living water to all who would come to Him in faith. On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. John 7:37-39

                We live in a thirsty world that is seeking to quench its thirst from stagnant pools and dry wells. People’s souls are parched and dry. They are looking for something that will satisfy them. Yet, like the woman at the well, they keep going back to the same, unsatisfying places. Speaking for God, Jeremiah expressed what is so common in our world today. "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. Jeremiah 2:13

                Jesus came to meet our deepest spiritual thirst, a thirst for a sense of purpose, meaning, and hope. He is the source of living water that leads to eternal life. Jesus promised to give us the Holy Spirit who becomes that living water within us. He is constantly giving us new life. He is constantly refreshing us. He flows in us and through us. Jesus is the life-giving water that quenches our spiritual thirst.

                All winter long the Tongue River has been encased in ice. Now that spring has arrived, the ice is melting and the water is freely flowing again. Many people live their entire lives as if their soul is encased in ice. Jesus has come to melt aware the ice that traps our soul and to replace it with the free-flowing, life-giving water of His love, His grace, and His presence.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

A Birthday Reflection: April 2


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

                Today I crossed a line, albeit an artificial one. Today I turned 65 years old. Today I entered the ranks of Medicare, although not yet Social Security. Today is one of those benchmarks of life.

                When I was growing up, I thought anyone who was 65 was ancient. By the age of 65 a person was heading out to pasture, life was basically over. All of the jokes about being over the hill flourished. It was time to retire, move over, and let others take your place. Today I turned 65 and I do not feel ancient or over the hill. I willingly will encourage others to take their place beside me, but I am not ready to move over and get out of the way.

                One of my favorite quotes about aging came from Satchel Page, one of the elite Negro League baseball players who broke the color barrier and entered the Major Leagues. When asked how old he was, he responded, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?” As best as anyone can tell, Page pitched for the Cleveland Indians into his 50’s.

                Getting older is a matter of both the passage of time and our attitude. There is nothing we can do about the passage of time, but we do have a choice about our attitude. I have known people in their 50’s who were “old” and people in their 80’s who were not. The difference was their attitude toward life.

                In Psalm 90, Moses challenges us to be very careful about our life. He tells us to number our days in the right way, so that we can gain a heart of wisdom. Wisdom comes as we are able to look back over our life, determine the lessons that we have learned, and then live accordingly. It is possible for us to live our lives in the past and turn our back on the future. It is also possible for us to live each day as an isolated event, unaffected by yesterday and with no thought for tomorrow. Or we can see our life as a journey that is leading us in a particular direction. Each day is informed by the past and has an eye on where it will lead in the future.

                Paul challenged us, in his letter to the Ephesians, to take the days of our lives seriously. Be very careful, then, how you live--not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:15-20

                As I reflect upon “crossing the line”, I am determined to make this next phase of my life the very best. I have made mistakes in the past, learned a few lessons, and now it is time to live out of a heart of wisdom. I do not look forward with apprehension, but with anticipation of how God might use me. And so I resonate with the words of Paul in Philippians 3:12-14. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

   


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

THE FIELDS ARE ALIVE!


Psalm 42:1
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.

                I have never seen anything like it before. Suanne and I were driving home from having dinner with some friends in another town. It was early evening and the sun was low on the horizon. At that time of the night, I always become very watchful for deer along the side of the road. We were following a railroad line in northern Minnesota, heading back to North Dakota, when I caught sight of a couple of deer grazing along the railroad cut. As we get closer, it turned out to be a dozen. Not much farther down the road we came on another large group of deer. This time we counted 40! We began counting in earnest and by the time we hit the North Dakota border, we had counted 115 deer. If that wasn’t enough, just on the other side of the border, we came upon a field with at least 100 deer grazing! It was an amazing sight.

                When I was a boy growing up in northeastern Ohio, seeing a deer was a rare and exciting experience. To see three or four deer together in a field was amazing. My experience yesterday blew away every other experience I have ever had of seeing deer. The experience that I have had that comes the closest is when we were in Custer State Park, in South Dakota, and saw the buffalo herd. Seeing a field covered with deer was beyond anything I have ever imagined.

                It has been a long winter here in North Dakota. Now as spring is beginning to make its presence felt, the world is coming alive again. In addition to the many deer that I observed as we drove, I also saw two Bald Eagles, a Peregrine Falcon, and a fox. The animal kingdom is coming alive, even if the snow refuses to release its grip on the countryside.

                There is something about the coming of spring that revives us as well. Through the long months of winter, we endure. We go about our lives with determination, but also a certain heaviness. But when spring arrives, it is like a weight is taken off of our shoulders. Our spirits are lifted. There is more bounce in our step. We begin to shed layers of clothes like animals shed their winter coats. We start to feel freer and our spirits rise.

                When I saw all of the deer out in the field, I thought of the opening line of Psalm 42. The deer have been living in survival mode for a long time. As the snow melts and the temperature rises, they are revived. In a similar way, the long winter can drain us emotionally and spiritually. We can slip into survival mode, putting our heads down and enduring life. We long for a spiritual spring, a renewal of our sense of God’s goodness. It is time to awaken from our winter hibernation and encounter our world again. Early spring gives us an opportunity to refresh our spirits before the busyness of summer takes over again.  

                Our world is coming alive. Soon the grass and fields will be green There will be new life all around us. Just as our physical world is coming alive, so it is time for us to come alive spiritually. It is time to let the warmth of God’s light to penetrate our hearts and melt away the hardness caused by the harshness of our world. It is time to see our world through fresh eyes, with hope and joy. It is time to revel in the goodness and the grace of our God.

2 Corinthians 4:6, 16-18
    For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

    Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

   

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

LEGACY


Matthew 6:19-21
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

                This morning in our men’s Bible Study, we looked at Ecclesiastes 2. The passage outlines all of the ways that Solomon sought to find meaning and purpose in life. In the end he declared, “This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Solomon’s conclusions about life are pretty depressing and demotivating. When a person lives life only for themselves, in the end, everything is meaningless.

                We live in a world that has bought into Solomon’s philosophy, whether they recognize it as such or not. The prevailing feeling today is that life is ultimately meaningless, so live for the moment and experience as much pleasure as you can. We are only cosmic accidents that have no real purpose. Purpose is something we create for ourselves. When our life is over, it is over.

                Jesus put a very different perspective on life. He raised our collective eyes from what is temporary to what is eternal. He made it clear that we were created with both purpose and meaning. We were created in the image of God. We were created to experience and reflect His glory. And we were created to live in relationship with Him forever. Our life is not limited to 60, 70, or 80 years on earth. This life is only the prelude to eternity.

                When we begin to look at life from an eternal perspective, it changes everything. Our life has meaning and purpose because what we do now will make a difference for all of eternity. If we choose to invest all of our time, energy, and resources into the pleasures of this temporary world, we will lose everything in the end. That is what Solomon discovered. But if we choose to invest our time, energy, and resources into making a difference for eternity, we will gain everything in the end.

                Suanne and I spent this past week visiting family in North Carolina. While we were there, we celebrated my Dad’s 91st birthday. There were four generations present at the party. Earlier in the week, my brother Paul shared information with us about our heritage, going back multiple generations. All of this reminded me of the legacy I have been given and the legacy I now have to pass on to the next generations.

                The greatest investment we can make is not in pleasure, possessions, or power. It is in people. The only thing that will last for all of eternity is people. All of our stuff will pass away. All of our accomplishments will fade away. But the investment we make in others will pay dividends for eternity. That is why Jesus said to invest in that which cannot be destroyed or taken away.

                All of us leave behind a legacy. For some that legacy is hollow and meaningless. But for those who have placed their faith in Christ and have invested their life in service for Him, their legacy continues to bare fruit. Our life is not a meaningless blip on the timeline of history. It is an opportunity to build an eternal legacy to the glory of God.