Thursday, December 19, 2019

A CHRISTMAS GIFT


James 1:17
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

                At the heart of Christmas, for the majority of people, is the giving of gifts. It is what children dream about and what parents often agonize over. Gift giving has taken center stage during the Christmas season. So, it is valid for us to ask the question, why do we give gifts to one another at Christmas?

                Some relate the gifts that the Magi gave to the Christ child as the origin of our practice of giving gifts. The problem with that is that we give gifts to one another, not to Jesus. So, is it wrong to give gifts at Christmas? Some people have come to that conclusion and abstain from the practice. Rightly or wrongly, I am not one of them. The giving gifts is one of the things I enjoy the most about Christmas. I believe that there are many reasons why we give gifts to one another, especially at Christmas. Some of these reasons are good and some are not so good.

                Let’s begin with some of the negative reasons for giving gifts. Some people give gifts out of a sense of obligation. It is a part of the Christmas tradition. Although their heart is not in it, they comply in order to fit in with the general expectations of others. They usually are looking for the minimum they can do and still meet expectations.

                Some give gifts as a way to draw attention to themselves. They make a point of being the giver of “the best gifts.” They may slip in a mention of what the gift cost or how hard they had to work to find just the right gift. Although they are the giver the attention is squarely focused on them.

                Some people give gifts for the purpose of receiving gifts. Here again, the focus is on the giver not the recipient. They are very calculated about gift giving and weigh each gift received against what they themselves have given. They become upset if they feel like they gave more than they have received.

                Still others give gifts as a way of winning approval or influencing others. This is often seen in broken families where each side tries to win the hearts of the children by the gifts that they give. It can take place in other families as well, as one person exerts their influence over the others by the gifts that they give. They want everyone to know that they are the most extravagant. They also want others to feel, in some way, obligated to them.

                No one would openly admit to having these negative motives for giving gifts, yet in their heart the focus of gift giving is always inward.

                Although there are negative reasons for giving gifts, there are also positive reasons for giving gifts. Gifts can be an honest expression of our love for others. Personally, my love language is giving gifts, whether that be in some material thing or in some service I might provide. Giving to the ones we love is a tangible expression of our love for them.

                Along with the motive of love is the motive of joy. Giving gifts is one way to bring joy to others. I very much enjoy seeing my children and grandchildren light up when they open the gift that I have chosen for them.

                And giving gifts can be an extension of giving oneself to others. Since I became a serious woodworker, I have delighted in making special gifts for others. I have made furniture for my children, toys for my grandchildren and grand nephews, and other items for coworkers and friends. Each piece that I create and give is a part of me, an expression of my love and care for the other person.

                God embodied all of the right reasons for giving gifts when He sent Jesus into the world. He gave us Jesus because of His great love for us. God wanted to express His love in a way that people would understand.

John 3:16
    "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.

                He gave us Jesus to redeem us out of spiritual darkness and restore our joy in Him. When God created humanity, His desire was that we would enjoy a close relationship with Him. Sin damaged that relationship and robbed us of our joy. Jesus came to restore that joy to us.

John 15:11
    I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

                God gave us Jesus as a way of giving His very self to us. Throughout the Old Testament, God was honored and revered, but was seen as distant and unapproachable. More than feeling drawn to God, the people were afraid to get too close. There is a story in Exodus where God reveals Himself to the people of Israel through a powerful demonstration of fire and cloud. The people were so afraid that they told Moses to talk with God and then he could relate God’s message to them. But when Jesus came, God came near. Jesus made the intangible God tangible. He made the unapproachable God approachable.

John 1:14
    The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Col. 1:15
    He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

Hebrews 1:3
    The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

                Most of us will be caught up in the giving and receiving of gifts this Christmas. Done well, it can be a time of great joy and delight. But let us never forget that the real gift of Christmas is Jesus. Just as He give Himself to us, the best way for us to respond is to give ourselves back to Him. It is the gift that He desires above all others.
   

A TEAR AT CHRISTMAS


John 11:35
Jesus wept.

                Christmas is an emotional time for me. It has been that way most of my life. There are times when I can hardly make it to the end of Silent Night without choking up. Every time I read the Christmas story, there is a catch in my throat. Most Christmas movies, no matter how corny, catch me off guard and cause me to hide a few stray tears. For whatever reason, Christmas is an emotional time for me.

                This week I received an email from Bethel University President Jay Barnes and his wife Barb. The email contained a short video message. Throughout the video the song Auld Land Sine played in the background as Jay and Barb expressed their gratitude and their joy. What made this message so powerful to me is that it is the last Christmas message that Jay will send out as the President of Bethel. He will complete his tenure at Bethel at the end of this academic year. Because of my involvement with the Converge Board of Overseers, I was able to develop a friendship with Jay. I am happy for him and Barb but sad that he is leaving Bethel. By the end of the video the tears flowed down my cheeks. Christmas is an emotional time for me.

                I struggle with showing my emotions publicly. Because I have been manipulated by emotions in the past, I resist showing my emotions to others, especially when I am preaching. Having said that, I often find myself choking up during a sermon or singing a particular song. I fight to control my emotions, but periodically the leak out. There is no time of the year when that is truer than at Christmas. Christmas is an emotional time for me.

                There is so much about Christmas that tugs at my heart strings. I clearly remember a particular Christmas when I was a boy. On Christmas morning I suggested to my parents that we read the Christmas story to “put Christ back in Christmas.” I’m pretty sure I saw a tear in their eyes. I cannot help but be caught by the joy of children at Christmas. I revel in giving gifts and seeing delight on each recipient’s face. But I cherish most that we are together as a family sharing this special day.

                It has been many years since we were able to share Christmas with my family, although my parents spent Christmas with us two years ago. The distance between us has become a tangible barrier. I have many fond memories of Christmases past. Spending Christmas Eve with the Green family and Christmas afternoon with the Banfields. Those times were always highlights of the year for me.

                Two years ago, we celebrated our last Christmas in our home in Mankato. Everyone was there including my parents, Suanne’s mom and Amin. I so wanted it to be one of the best Christmases even. It is fair to say that it will be a Christmas long remembered, but not for the best of reasons. The stomach flu made the rounds through all of us. We took turns feeling miserable and staying close to the bathroom. Yet, we still had many moments of joy and celebration. It was an emotional Christmas for many reasons.

                This year we will be celebrating Christmas in Michigan with our immediate family. I have looked forward to this for many months. I know that it will be an emotional time for me. I don’t know what our time together will hold, but I already cherish the thought of being together for Christmas. This year will be a new beginning for us, in a new home, in a new stage of life. Above all else, I want Christ to be at the center of this Christmas. For it is really all about Him.

                Christmas is an emotional time for me. A time filled with joy, celebration, and more than a few discreet tears.

John 1:14
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

WALKING ON GOD’S PATH


Psalm 25:4
Show me your ways, O Lord,
teach me your paths;

                I have done a fair bit of hiking. I have particularly enjoyed hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota. That trail follows the ridge line of the Sawtooth Mountains. They are not particularly impressive, as mountains go, but they embody their name. Like the teeth of a saw blade, the ridge goes up and down, up and down. Some of the climbs are particularly steep, as well as some of the descents. Much of the path crosses over rocks and shale. There are tree roots that crisscross the path. In places there are low hanging branches or fallen trees that block the path. So, as you hike along the path you need to watch your step.

                As I have hiked the Superior Hiking Trail, I have realized that much of the time I am looking down. I am focused on the obstacles that are in my way, doing my best not to trip. But by walking with my eyes focused down, I am missing what is around me. In order to really get the full experience of hiking the trail a person has to periodically stop and take a look around. The Superior Hiking Trail cuts its way through some magnificent country. At places there are small patches of wild flowers. There are stretches where you walk through pine groves, and then you transition to birch and poplar. Because the path goes up and down, there are spots where you can experience amazing panoramic views looking out to Lake Superior. At other places you are treated with a view of the seemingly never-ending forest of the north country. You catch glimpses of lakes and rivers hidden among the trees. You cannot see these when you are down in a valley or ravine, they come into view only after a steep climb up to a peak on the ridge.

                On one of my trips on the trail I was made aware of the reality that my focus was often on getting to the campsite for the night. I encouraged my fellow hikers to press on so that we could make our desired destination before dark. But by always passing on, I was missing much of the beauty of the hike. The hike was not about getting to a designated campsite, but about experiencing what was to be seen and felt along the way. The journey itself was the goal.

                The Bible speaks of our relationship with God as a journey, a walk. Each of us is on his or her personal, spiritual hiking trail. Like the trail along the Sawtooth Mountains, our trail is full of peaks and valleys. There are places where, for a time, the trail is level and easy. There are other times when the trail descends into some valley. And still other times when it leads us up to some amazing peak. To walk our particular path takes effort, often determined effort.

                Along our trail there will be obstacles that get in our way. These obstacles, if we are not careful, can trip us up and cause us to stumble and fall. So, as we hike along with God, we need to watch our step carefully. Paul writes, in Ephesians 5:15-16, Be very careful, then, how you live (how you walk) --not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Paul is literally saying, watch your step. It is when we get over confident that we are most likely to trip and fall. Again, Paul warns us in 1 Corinthians 10:12, So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!

                While it is essential that we keep out eyes on the path before us, if we focus only on the obstacles, we will miss the glory of God all around us. There are times when God brings us to some spiritual peak and invites us to take in the amazing vista of His grace. At those times, if we will lift our eyes, we will be overwhelmed and amazed at the beauty and glory of God. But we need to periodically take our eyes off of the obstacles even as we walk along the even path or even in the valley, for all around us is the amazing grace of God. Jesus often said to the crowds, those who have ears to hear, let them hear. I would paraphrase that to say, those who have eyes to see, let them see. The blessings of God are not always huge, mind-blowing vistas. There are multiple smaller blessings that we often pass by daily without even noticing them. On one of my backpacking trips on the Superior Hiking Trail, I was so focused on the path before me that I completely missed a Lady Slipper in bloom; a rare and beautiful sight. One of my companions had to get my attention to point it out to me. So, it is on our spiritual journey.

                But there is one more area where we need to reorient our walk. We can become so goal oriented, task focused, that we miss the journey itself. If our goal is to move as quickly as possible through this life so that we can attain our ultimate camping spot, heaven, we will miss much of what God has in store for us. I would venture to say that we will lose some of the reward that God is storing for us in His presence. God has invited us on this journey, not just to get us to heaven, but to shape and mold us as His people. The journey itself is a major part of God’s plan for us and a major part of His gift to us. The journey matters.

                A person does not have to be hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail to experience the beauty and awe of God’s creation. We can experience it on a simple walk through our neighborhood or on a trail in a local park. Most days I walk to my office and I have tried to always keep my eyes open. There is always something that will catch my attention, if a am looking. The tracks of deer in the snow crossing the street and heading across a back yard toward the woods. The small, delicate imprints of the squirrels in the snow as they scurry from tree to tree. The changing stream that I cross every day, from flowing water to a sheet of ice dusted with snow. God continues to leave His fingerprints throughout His world.

                Most of us will not live the dramatic lives of missionaries or have the public exposure of a popular evangelist. But all of us are on a spiritual journey, which God has invited us on. He has challenges for us to face, valleys to traverse, peaks to climb, meadows to cross. He wants to use our personal hiking trail to make us strong, to develop our skills, and to enhance our walk with Him. God is not in a hurry for us to get to the end of our journey. He is far more concerned that we get the most out of our journey. So, He daily invites us to lace up our hiking boots and take a walk with Him.

Hebrews 12:12-13
Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. "Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.


Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Ultimate “Believe It or Not”


John 1:1-2
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

John 1:14
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

                When I was a boy, I was fascinated by the Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” cartoons that were printed in the newspaper. Robert Ripley was a cartoonist and an amateur anthropologist. He began his career as a sports reporter. From a young age, Ripley was fascinated by the odd and the weird. Through the years he collected hundreds of examples of oddities that were true but hard to believe. The “Believe It or Not” franchise continues to amaze people today.

                The ultimate “believe it or not” story is found in John 1. It is more fantastic than anything that Ripley recorded. The very Word of God became flesh and lived among us. God became incarnate; taking on our humanity so that we might know Him personally.

                Throughout the ages, God has been seen as unapproachable and distant. Many people today still see God as unknowable, unapproachable, and unavailable to them. For the Jews, this idea was reinforced by first the Tabernacle and then the Temple. At the very heart of these sacred spaces was the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could go, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. The people of Israel worshiped God from a distance. God was unapproachable and a mystery.

                All of that changed with the birth of a child to a young couple from Nazareth. Christmas is the ultimate “believe it or not” story. When the angel came to Mary to tell her that she had been chosen to bear the Messiah, she was informed that this would be not ordinary child. This was Mary’s “believe it or not” moment.

Luke 1:29-35
    Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
    "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
    The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

                When Joseph found out about Mary pregnancy, he was rightly upset. He knew the child was not his and so he looked for a way out of the marriage, without totally disgracing Mary. Instead, he received his own “believe it or not” moment.

Matthew 1:20-21
    But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

                John fills in the rest of the story, when he informs us that this was not just a miraculous birth, it was THE miraculous birth. The very creator of the universe was embodied in an infant. The very creator of the universe took up residence on earth. He didn’t come in all His power and glory, but came in vulnerability as a child. He chose to live our life. He chose to make Himself knowable.

                Paul summarized this amazing “believe it or not” story in Philippians 2:6-8.  

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!

                Christmas has become many different things to different people. For many it is simply a secular celebration of family and friendship. For some it is a religious observation. For most it is a mixture of the two. But at the heart of Christmas is the ultimate “believe it or not” story.

John 1:14
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

                Through the years Ripley asked people to believe the unbelievable. God asked Mary and Joseph to believe the unbelievable. Every Christmas He asks us the same question. Will you believe in who Jesus is or not?

                At the end of John’s gospel, after he had chronicled Jesus amazing life, he summarized his work with these words.

John 20:30-31
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

                Christmas is not about Santa Claus and gifts under the tree. It is about the most miraculous event of all of history. God became a man and lived among us.

Believe It or Not!

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

THE SEASON OF LIGHT

Isaiah 9:2
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

                On Saturday evening, Suanne and I braved the cold and the snow to gather with others in downtown for the annual Santa Parade. What makes this parade special is that all of the entries are decorated with lights. There were several creative light displays that made their way slowly down main street. At the conclusion of the parade, the official Christmas tree was lit, as well as the lights which decorate the city park. For the next month, our little town will be a city of lights.

                Christmas lights are one of the features of the season that I particularly enjoy. As the days grow shorter and the darkness dominates, the lights of Christmas transform our world. The gloom of winter is dispelled by the lights that decorate our homes, our streets, and our community. Just seeing the Christmas lights can uplift our spirits.

                In some communities, the lights of Christmas are taken to an amazing extreme. Sibley Park in Mankato, MN is bedecked with thousands of lights, which bring delight to everyone. Downtown Duluth boasts Bentleyville; an amazing light display that draws crowds from many miles around. There is just something inviting and compelling about the lights of Christmas.


               It is not without reason that lights play such a large role in our Christmas celebration. Light is at the very center of the Christmas story. When Jesus came into our world, it had become a very dark place. The people of God were living under the oppressive rule of the Romans. Sin and evil seemed to be winning the day. Jesus penetrated the darkness of our world with the very light of Heaven.

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
    Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5)

    The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

                The very creator of the world took on human form to bring the very light of life to a dark world. He didn’t come as a warrior or a great king, but as a vulnerable baby. He slipped into the world under the radar of Satan in a way that no one expected. Yet even at His birth, His light could not be hidden. The glory of God appeared to the shepherds in the form of an angel, followed by an angel host. The Wisemen were guided to Jesus by the light of a star.

                When Jesus came into the world, a conflict was set up between light and darkness. The dominion of darkness was openly threatened by the light of God. The battlefield was, and still is, the hearts of people. People were confronted with a choice; to embrace the light or to run from the light.

    This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:19-21)

                This conflict continues to rage today. Those who choose to live in darkness are doing whatever they can to extinguish the light. But the light cannot be extinguished, for light always wins over darkness. When Jesus was born into our world, He set in motion a spiritual revolution that continues to spread today. The light of Gospel continues to transform the lives of countless people. The light is not growing dim, it is growing stronger.

                Without necessarily knowing it, our world celebrates that light of Christ every Christmas. As we put up our illuminated Christmas decorations, whatever their form, we are being pointed back to the true light that has come into the world.

2 Corinthians 4:6
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.

   




Tuesday, November 26, 2019

GENUINE GRATITUDE


Psalm 107:1-3
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say this--
  those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,
those he gathered from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south.

                Is there a difference between saying thank you and being genuinely grateful? When we were children, we were taught to say thank you when we were given a gift. At first, we had to be reminded to say thank you. After a while, it became an automatic response. We know longer even thought about it, we just said it, because it was the expected thing to do.

                There is a huge difference between a person saying thank you when someone holds the door for them and when a person says thank you because they were just rescued from a burning building. In the first case the person is being polite. In the second case the person is expressing gratitude.

                As we approach Thanksgiving, it is a good time for us to stop and examine our own attitude. Has our thanks to God become just a polite response or is it genuine gratitude for all that He has done for us? The level of our gratitude is a measure of our understanding of just how much Jesus has done for us. Did Jesus just hold open the door to heaven or did he rescue us from sin and death?

                When the Psalmist encourages us to give thanks to God, he always points us to the reasons for doing so. In the opening lines of Psalm 103, David calls us to a depth of gratitude that we often fail to appreciate.

Psalm 103:1-5
Of David.

Praise the Lord, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits--
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

                David calls us to remember what God has done for us. And the things that he focuses upon are not the things we usually focus upon. Our thankfulness is most often focused on the material blessings of life. David redirects out attention to something far more important, the spiritual blessings that come from God.
                David calls for a depth of expression of gratitude. Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul. There is nothing superficial about the gratitude that David is espousing. He calls us to express our gratitude from the very depths of our being and with all of our being.

                Then David turns our attention on the thing above all things that we are to be grateful for. God forgives our sins, heals our lives, and redeems us for our life of sin. In essence, God transforms us and makes us new. Paul expressed it this way. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) From being trapped in the pit of sin, God raises us up into His love and compassion. Our relationship with Him is restored. In contrast to the things of this world that do damage to our lives, God fulfills our desires with good things. Instead of being constantly torn down by the weight of sin, our strength is renewed so that we can soar.

                It is possible for us to say thank you mindlessly, without much thought about it. But genuine gratitude can never be mindless. Genuine gratitude looks beyond the gift to the giver. Genuine gratitude expands the breadth of the gift. Genuine gratitude acknowledges the generosity of the given and the unworthiness of the recipient. None of us are worthy of God’s grace and yet He gives it to us freely.

                We have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. We have been so materially blessed by God that we have taken those gifts for granted. We enjoy on a daily basis what much of the world only longs for. But the greatest reason for us to be thankful is wrapped up in an all too familiar verse. “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.” (John 3:16) The thing that we should be the most thankful for is that God gave us Himself.

                We live in a world that constantly focuses on what we do not have. We are constantly told to be discontent and to want more and more of the things the world has to offer. As followers of Christ, we are called to focus on what we do have. Not only to be content with the blessings that we have, but to be genuinely grateful. God has blessed us beyond measure.

                This Thanksgiving let us genuinely give thanks to God for all of the material blessing we enjoy. But above all else, let us thank God for His love, which He has lavished on us, and the new life we have in Christ.

Romans 5:8
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

1 John 3:1a
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

   

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW


1 John 3:2
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

                As we go through our lives, we go through different stages of knowledge and incite. When we are young children everything is new and exciting. We are like sponges absorbing all of this new information. For us, life is very black and white. What is, is. Then we hit adolescence and life becomes full of gray. Certainty is replaced by doubt. Acceptance is replaced by questioning. At some point in our adolescent journey we think we have it all figured out. We enter into a sophomoric state. The word sophomore literally means wise fool. To be sophomoric means to be conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature. Unfortunately, some people never quite graduate from this stage of life. But for those who intentionally continue on to maturity, we enter the stage where we begin to know what we do not know. We come to grips with the reality that the mysteries of life are beyond our total comprehension. It is not that we know nothing. On the contrary, we realize that what we know has only scratched the surface of what there is to know. The mature person doesn’t stop learning and exploring, but they are comfortable with open-ended questions and unresolved issues.

                Just as it is in our normal intellectual development, so it is in our spiritual development. When I was a child growing up in church, I received what I was being taught as the truth. Everything was very black and white for me. When I hit my early teens, I began to struggle with doubts and questions. In one way my faith became more real, yet it also became cloudier. My first year at college, I was challenged to really examine my faith and make it my own, which I did. At that point I thought I had arrived at a mature faith. I was being sophomoric. When I entered Seminary, I discovered how far I really was from a truly mature faith. At that point I began a journey of discovering and exploring what I don’t know. Even now after almost 40 years of ministry, I still am amazed at how much I do not know.

                At the end of what has been dubbed the love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul introduces us to an image of a truly maturing faith.

    Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:8-12

                We can all fall into the trap of thinking that we have it all together spiritually. That was the problem with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. It wasn’t that they were ungodly or unspiritual. It was that they were spiritually sophomoric. They thought that they had it all figured out. I know how they felt, because I have been there.

                Jesus challenged the rigid, “we have it all figured out”, attitude of the Pharisees. He does the same to us. When we become convinced that we have the final word on some issue, Jesus steps in to unset our apple cart. It is not that He doesn’t want us to have confidence in what we believe. It is that He doesn’t want us to have confidence in our confidence about what we believe.

                We all begin our spiritual journey as little children. Our faith is real but unexamined. As we mature in our faith, we have to struggle with the questions that inevitably arise. If we believe that we have to have all of the answers nailed down, we will stymie our spiritual growth. We need to come to grips with the reality that there are mysteries that we will not figure out until we stand face to face with Jesus. Until that time, we need to be okay with knowing what we don’t know.

                When Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi, he shared with them his desire to know Christ to the fullest. He stated that there was nothing more important than reaching that goal. Then in verse 12, he acknowledged that he did not yet know all that he needed to know.
                 
    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.
    All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Philippians 3:12-16)

                Paul assures us that we all have a great deal of learning to do. Instead of being held back by what we don’t know, it should be a catalyst for us to press on toward the goal. On my spiritual journey I have learned many things about many things, but I have not learned everything about everything. How about you?

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

NOW WE SHINE DIMLY


Matthew 5:14a
“You are the light of the world.”

                As I walked into the office this morning, the full moon hung in the western sky. It was large and distinct, but its light was obscured by a gray haze. I have been out at night when there was a full moon and it has been so bright that it cast shadows on the lawn. This morning the moon was clearly visible, but its light was dimmed by the wispy clouds of a fall sky.

                In many ways, we are to be like the moon. The moon does not have any light of its own. Its light is a reflection of the light of the sun. In a similar way, we do not have any light of our own. We are instead to reflect the light of Christ into our world. Jesus is the source of our reflected light.

                When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)

                Jesus came into this world to shine the light of God into our lives. That light has the power to transform us. It frees us from the dominion of spiritual darkness. It opens our eyes to the reality of who we are and who God is. Not everyone likes what they see, so they retreat into the darkness. But those who embrace the light of Christ are transformed by it.

                When we put our faith in Christ, we become a kind of spiritual moon to His sun. Jesus gives us His light so we can shine in our world. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

                Most often, we are like the moon this morning. The light of Christ within us is obscured by the gray haze of sin in our lives. Although our heart’s desire is to shine the light of Christ into our immediate world, our sin clouds the picture. There are times when the haze clears and we shine brightly. There are times when the dark clouds of sin completely obscure the light of Christ. But most of the time we live somewhere in between.

                Although I do not believe that the haze of sin will even be completely eliminated from our lives until we stand complete before God in heaven, I do know that we can decrease its intensity. As we become aware of our sin and deal with it before God, our light shines brighter. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

                God continues to shine His light into our hearts, which in turn brightens our entire being. But we are still imperfect vessels containing His light.

    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.
    But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (2 Corinthians 4:6-7)

                The good news is that the longer that we walk with Christ, and the more we yield to the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit, the more our lives will shine for God in our world. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

                This morning the moon was large and full and shining, even though there was a haze in the air. God wants us to be His full moons reflecting the light of Christ in our world, even if, for now, we shine dimly.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

LIVING IN THE WORLD, NOT FOR THE WORLD


John 17:15
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.

1 Timothy 6:17
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

                What does it mean for us to live in the world, not for the world? When God created the world, it was perfect in His sight. He placed humanity into this perfect world and invited them to fully enjoy all that He created. The physical world was God’s gift to humanity; a tangible expression of God’s love. When sin came into the world, the tangible world became corrupted. The relationship between God and humanity was damaged, and consequently the relationship between humanity and God’s tangible gift was damaged.

                As Paul tells us in Romans 1, humanity substituted created things for the Creator and therefore put themselves at odds with God. The created world took a place in people’s lives that it was not intended to have. Not only was God excluded from the picture, the very things that God created for humanity’s enjoyment were corrupted.

                Jesus came into the world to restore a right relationship with God and with the world that God created. Through Jesus death on the cross and His resurrection He has redeemed not only humanity, but creation itself. When a person puts their faith in Jesus, they are recreated. (2 Corinthians 5:17) As redeemed people, we now relate to God and His world differently. The gift of life on earth is restored to us, as well as the promise of life eternal with Christ for all of eternity.

                There is a struggle that we face as believers. Are we to completely deny this world and live only for eternity, or are we too fully embrace this life on earth as well as our hope in eternity? For me the latter is the correct answer. We are to live fully in this world without living for this world. Everything that we have and enjoy is a gift from God. If we constantly acknowledge that and give thanks to God for it, we can fully engage in this world. Knowing that God wants us to make the most of our journey through life, we can celebrate its joys and endure its hardships. As Paul says in Romans 8:28, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

                God does not want us to live our lives with the attitude that we have too endure life until we get to heaven. He wants us to embrace the journey through life, which will make our experience in heaven that much richer. If our focus is only on getting to heaven, we will miss all of the blessings that God intends for us now.

                I once knew a family whose idea of a vacation was to see how many miles they could drive in a week. They would stop only briefly along the way to possibly take a picture, then it was back in the car to get moving. Most of us would say, what a waste. What is the point of a journey if you don’t experience what is along the way? Yet, we can live our entire lives that way, if we are not careful. We can be in such a hurry to get to heaven that we miss the journey. The journey is important, otherwise why did God make us take it. If the only goal in life is making it to heaven, why doesn’t God just take us home as soon as we become believers? I know I am pressing the point, but it is possible for us to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.

                God has placed us on this earth for a reason. It was part of His original plan that we would delight in all that He created. We who are believers in Christ should enjoy this life more than anyone else. How we live this life matters to us and to God. It matters for now and for eternity. How tragic would it be if when we stand before God, He shows us all the gifts that He wanted to give to us, but that we missed because we were in a hurry to get to heaven.  

                There is truth in the phrase, stop and smell the roses. God created a beautiful, amazing world for us to enjoy. Each part of this amazing world points us to Him. Let’s not miss the gifts He offers to us every day.

Psalm 19:1-4
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.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

IN PLACE, OUT OF PLACE


Genesis 21:33
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the Lord, the Eternal God.

                In our monthly, men’s breakfast, we are watching a video series by Ray Vander Laan titled “Walking with God in the Desert.” The segment we watched this month focused on how God provides for desert people through different kinds of trees. One of those trees is the tamarisk tree.

                The tamarisk tree is very slow growing. It requires quite a bit of attention at the beginning to get it started. It is most often planted near places where people live. As one Bedouin man explained, we plant a tamarisk for our grand-children. Because it grows so slowly, the benefits of it will not be realized until generations after it is planted. So why plant one?

                The tamarisk tree has an extremely unique feature that makes it an ideal desert tree. It has a very high salt content in its leaves. Because of this high salt content, it captures the moisture from the air. During the heat of the day, this moisture slowly evaporates, making the shade of the tamarisk tree considerably cooler than other trees. Bedouin people love to plant these trees near to their dwellings for this reason.

                In Genesis 21, we are told that after Abraham had received God’s promise that he would inherit all of the land of Palestine, as an act of confidence in God’s promise, he planted a tamarisk tree. He knew that he would never benefit from that tree, but he was trusting God that one day his grand-children and great grand-children would.

                Vander Laan used this story to ask an important question. What are we doing today that will benefit generations to come? In what ways can we plant a spiritual tamarisk tree that will provide shade for those who come after us? In our “live for the moment” world, this is a question we should all be asking. As a follower of Christ, what am I doing today that benefit generations to come?

                But not everything about the tamarisk tree is positive. In North Dakota, the tamarisk tree is known as the salt cedar. It is an invasive species that can destroy a pasture. In the arid desert, the tamarisk tree is sparse and grows very slowly. In a fertile, well-watered land it can grow rapidly and spread. The problem with this is that because of the salt content in the tree it changes the soil around the tree, making it extremely alkali. Soon the soil can not longer sustain other forms of vegetation. It becomes a great place for salt cedar, but a bad place for everything else.

                In a spiritual sense, we can see that this is exactly what Satan has done in our world. He has taken things that God intended for our good and transplanted them into places where they should not be. What God intended for good becomes something that produces harm. Planted in the wrong place, these things act as invasive species, taking over the place and pushing out the good things that should be there. There is no better example than what has happened with human sexuality.

                God intended for human sexuality to be planted in the environment of marriage; the loving, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman. Satan has ripped human sexuality from this positive environment and transplanted it into various other environments. The outcome has been broken, devalued people. Today, human sexuality has become an invasive species that seems to dominate our society, while pushing out God’s original design.

                Before we start casting stones, we need to realize that it is possible for each of us to plant a spiritual tamarisk tree in the wrong place. We can create a legacy that will have reverberating negative effects for generations to come.

                God warned us about this. In the Ten Commandments, God made it clear that if we plant our tamarisk tree in the wrong place it will have long lasting consequences. “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Exodus 20:4-6

                As we make our way through life, we will have many opportunities to plant a tamarisk tree. If we are intentional, we can leave a positive legacy that will benefit generations to come. If we are unintentional, we may leave a negative legacy that will also affect generations to come.

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, October 22, 2019

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."

                The wind is howling outside of my office window. It began howling early last evening and continued throughout the night. It is a cold wind that cuts through a person. Tiny flakes of snow dance in the wind as it whips the trees and scatters their leaves.

                Wind is a powerful force, yet it is insubstantial. A person can not capture the wind or measure its volume. Yet the wind can transform a landscape. It sculpts the sand dunes of western Michigan and the farm fields of North Dakota. The wind has the power to tear limbs from trees or the roof off of a house. The wind can be harnessed to generate power, but it cannot be contained or controlled. The wind blows where it wants to blow and there is nothing we can do about it.

                The Bible has two words for wind. In Hebrew the word for wind is ruah. In Greek the word for wind is pueuma. The Bible uses these same two words to mean spirit. The Hebrews equated the wind with the breath of God. God was the one in control of the wind and therefore it represented the activity of God in the world.

                When Jesus was meeting at night with Nicodemus, as recorded in John 3, Jesus used a play on words when he equated the activity of the wind with the activity of the Holy Spirit. His play on words gives us some insight into the activity of the Holy Spirit in our world.

                Just as we cannot control the activity of the wind, so we cannot control the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, being God, is totally independent of human influence. The Spirit indwells every believer, but the believer does not control the Spirit. The Spirit is the moving force within the believer’s life; changing and transforming the landscape of his or her life.

                The Holy Spirit is the prime mover in the salvation and sanctification of the believer. Jesus told Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:5-6) It is the Holy Spirit who is the agent of the new birth that Jesus told Nicodemus about.

                The “wind” of the Holy Spirit is still blowing through our world today. He is shaking up Christ’s church, with the purpose of purifying it and empowering it. He is awakening people all over the world to their need for a Savior, who is Jesus Christ. He is empowering believers to be salt and light in their communities. He continues to blow away the fog of unbelief and replace it with a spiritual clarity that allows those who place their faith Jesus to understand the deep truths of God.  

John 14:15-17,25-27
"If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

"All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.


Friday, October 18, 2019

CHRISTMAS LIGHTS IN THE WINDOW


                As autumn has descended upon North Dakota, my walk to the office in the morning is more and more in the dark. I enjoy these crisp mornings as I follow my accustomed route through the neighborhoods of our little town. I was made aware recently that my daily journey is far from unnoticed. Several people have mentioned seeing me stroll past their house. Although it seems natural to me, they seem to think that I walk at a fast pace. I guess I have been walking with purpose.

                As the mornings grow darker, I have begun to observe some things that I had never noticed during the summer months. One thing is the number of homes where the glow of a TV is evident through the un-curtained windows. I don’t peek into the window to discern what is being watched, but the glow of the TV is obvious to anyone who is passing by.  

                The other day I caught a glimpse of something that took me by surprise. It was a totally different kind of light coming from the window. It wasn’t a TV on a far wall, but prominently displayed in the front for all the see. It was a lighted Christmas tree, adorned with tiny white lights. It is not unusual to see a Christmas tree in a front window in late November and December. It is odd to see one so prominently displayed in early October.  I don’t know the story behind this sight, but it has made me think.

                The focus of October, for better or for worse, is Halloween. Throughout our town there are multiple displays of pumpkins and round bales of hay decorated for this holiday. Our local cafĂ© is decked out with spider webs and other symbols of the season. If my memory serves me correctly, there will be a parade of school children all dressed in their Halloween costumes in the near future. In the midst of all of this Halloween frivolity, a lighted Christmas tree stands in stark contrast.

                In Matthew 5, Jesus tells us that, as His disciples, we should be lights in our community, standing out from the rest. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

                If I may take the liberty to paraphrase Jesus’ words, we are to be lighted Christmas trees in a Halloween world. Our lives should display the light of Christ in a world that too often prefers the darkness. Our light is to be openly displayed, not shrouded by curtains so that only a faint glow is visible.  The light of our faith should be prominent for all to see. We are not called to be a spotlight, blinding those around us. We are called to be a warm light that invites others into its glow.

                In a very short time, there will be many lighted Christmas trees in front windows. But I am impressed by the one that is there now. It reminds me that even though our world can be a dark place, the light of Christ can still penetrate the darkness at any season of the year, offering hope and love to all who will embrace it. So, I want to encourage you to put your ‘lighted Christmas tree” in the front window of your life.

“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
   


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

PUTTING FEET TO OUR FAITH

John 5:6
When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?"

                This morning in our men’s Bible Study we looked at the story of the invalid at the pool of a Bethesda, as found in John 5. As the story goes, this man had been an invalid for 38 years. It is implied that he spent most of that time at the pool of Bethesda. The reason that he was there was that it was believed that from time to time the angel of the Lord would come down and stir the waters. The first person to get into the water after the stirring would be healed. So this man spend his life trying to be the first into the pool, without success.

                Into this man’s story walked Jesus. For some reason, Jesus singled this man out from all of those who were there. Having compassion on this man, Jesus approached him with an odd question, “Do you want to get well?” On the surface, this seems like an insensitive thing to ask this man, but Jesus was probing for something deeper within the man. The man’s initial response was one of self-defense. He quickly explained why he was still in that place after so many years. He had no one to help him get into the water. Someone else always got there first.

                Then Jesus did something that the man never expected. Instead of chiding him for his lack of effort, Jesus simply told him to “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” This must have been said with such a commanding and compelling voice that the man did exactly what Jesus told him to do. When he did, he was instantly healed. This man’s reality was changed in an instant, an instant of faith.

                Most of us have things in our lives that we have struggled with for many years. As much as we want to be rid of these “afflictions” they persist. We feel trapped, just like the man at the pool. Over time we resign ourselves to this as the norm, that this is our reality and there is nothing we can do about it. For most of us, this is not a physical affliction but an emotional or spiritual one. It may be a poor self-image, or a deep-seated bitterness, or a critical spirit, or a negative habit. We have tried to break free from its bonds, but our efforts fall short and we find ourselves right back where we started.

                Into this situation, Jesus steps. He probes the depths of our soul with His penetrating question, “Do you want to get well?” He is really forcing us to consider the results of being free from whatever it is that binds us. At first blush, to be free sounds wonderful, but on further examination we realize that it means some significant changes in our life.

                The man at the pool had been an invalid for 38 years; probably the majority of his life. He had been totally dependent upon others to care for him. To be healed meant that he would have to take full responsibility for his life from now on. His entire world would be changed. Did he really want to embrace this new reality?

                The same question is posed to us. To be set free from our affliction means that we will have to change the patterns of our life. We will have to embrace a new reality, with new responsibilities. Do we really want to get well?

                Our first response when we hear Jesus’ question is to defend ourselves, just like the man at the pool. We begin to think of all of the reasons why we are the way we are. Maybe we blame our family for not setting the right example. Maybe we blame society for its negative influence in our lives. Maybe we blame God for allowing this thing to enter our life. Our first response is usually an excuse for why we cannot change.

                Jesus never argues with us. He never challenges our excuses directly. Instead, Jesus challenges us to trust Him and act in faith. Jesus didn’t address the man’s excuses, He simply told him that it was time to get up and walk. If the man had continued to give excuses for why that was not possible, he would have probably remained an invalid. But he did not. Instead, he took Jesus at His word and discovered that his faith had healed him.

                When we lay our excuses aside and act in faith, based on what Jesus has told us, we too can be healed. When we take Jesus at His word and trust Him enough to act in faith, amazing things can happen in our lives. He can and will free us from the things that bind us, if we will do what He commands us to do. He can replace bitterness with thanksgiving. He can replace a critical spirit with a spirit of compassion. He can replace a poor self-image with the amazing reality that we are loved by God. He can free us from a negative habit that controls our life with a positive habit that transforms our life.

                Jesus has the power to free us from whatever binds us, but He will not do this unilaterally. Instead, He invites us to participate in our healing by putting feet to our faith. The measure of our faith is the extent to which we are willing to pick up our mat and walk. We can make excuses and remain trapped by the pool, or we can act in faith and walk out into a new life.

Ephesians 4:20-24
You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.