Friday, February 15, 2019

DIGGING OUT


                This winter the snow in North Dakota has been relentless. Every week since Christmas we have gotten some measurable snow. It has come like clock-work. Coupled with the extreme cold temperatures, the snow continues to pile up. Currently there is between 2-3 feet of snow in my backyard, with drifts that are considerably higher. The snow is now taller than our dog, so I have had to dig a path for him to be able to get out into the yard to do his business. Several days ago, I extended his path to give him a little more space. By last night that path has been completely filled in.

                I have learned that it is essential to stay on top of clearing the snow off of my driveway. If I do not get out and clear it right away, it settles and becomes like concrete. This is especially true if we drive on the snow before I have a change to plow. At the beginning of the season, I did a good job of keeping the driveway clean down to the pavement. Unfortunately, my driveway is now covered with a significant layer of hard-packed snow. This is especially true at the end of our driveway where the city snowplow has deposited their ample contribution. At this point in the season, my snowblower is only able to skim off the very top layer of new snow. With each snowfall, the hard-packed layer at the bottom grows a little thicker. I am hopeful that it will disappear before August.

                My neighbor, on the other hand, has a pristine driveway, with only a hint of snow on it. How can this be? The answer is that he is fanatical about cleaning off his driveway. As the very first flakes have settled onto the concrete, you can expect to hear the now familiar sound of a snow shovel scraping along the surface. Even as the snow continue to fall, my neighbor continues to wage his relentless battle. Consequently, he is the only one in our neighborhood who has a genuinely clean driveway. I can imagine that people drive by his house just to admire the clean surface that has long ago disappeared at their house.

                On our journey of faith as followers of Christ, we cannot avoid the spiritual snowfalls that routinely come our way. We live in a fallen world that will constantly assail us. But we do not have to let those things pile up. Like my neighbor, we need to be diligent about digging out as quickly as possible.

                There are many things in life that can pile up on us if we are not careful. Left unchecked, these things can settle in and become even harder to deal with. Over time, they can form a hard layer around our soul. Anxiety can settle into fear. A perceived hurt can settle into bitterness. An unguarded thought about what others have can settle into envy. Once these things have solidified in our soul, they become resistant to change. It is not impossible to dislodge them, but it is extremely difficult. If we are not careful, negative things can build up to the point where they immobilize us. Instead of letting them pile up, we need to persistently dig our way out.

                Writing to the church in Ephesus, Paul instructed them to deal with things in a timely fashion.
    Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. "In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
    Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:25-32)

                All of us have things in our lives that we have not adequately dealt with. They have become like the hard-packed layer of snow on my driveway. They can be removed, but it will take hard work to dislodge them. Fortunately, we do not have to do this alone. If we will cooperate with the Holy Spirit, He will melt the hard layer from around our heart. Like the sun in the spring, He can melt away even the most hard-packed ice from our soul.

Isaiah 1:18
    "Come now, let us reason together,"
        says the Lord.
    "Though your sins are like scarlet,
        they shall be as white as snow;
    though they are red as crimson,
        they shall be like wool.

                There will be more snow to come this winter. My snowblower is gassed up and ready to tackle what may come. I am determined to keep the snow at bay. There will be many challenges that will come our way on this journey of faith. When they dump on us, we need to be ready to do battle. Whatever comes, with God’s help, we can dig out, if we don’t give up.

Galatians 6:9
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

   


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

SNOWDRIFTS


                The first time it happened it took me by surprise. We had had a fairly significant snowfall. The wind had picked up and created massive snowdrifts. The plows were valiantly trying to clear the roads so that life could continue in a normal, winter fashion. I got in my car and headed in the direction of downtown. As I came to the first intersection and looked to my right, I could see that the end of the street was completely blocked by a massive snowdrift. I continued on to the next street, only to discover, not only had that street drifted shut, the snowplows had added to the pile. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to escape our neighborhood. Much to my relief, as I turned right at the final intersection, the end of the street had been cleared of snow and I could get through. Later, I asked someone about the closed streets. They responded by telling me that it was common and that they should have warned me in advance.

                I have had plenty of experience with snowdrifts. Where we used to live, it was common for the snow to drift across our long driveway. If the drift was not too big, I would just plow through it. But there were times when that did not work. On more than one occasion I miscalculated the depth of the drift and found myself stuck fast in the snow. For me, one of the most sinking feelings is when your vehicle stops in the midst of a snowdrift and then sinks. At that point, you are sunk. On more than one occasion, I had to enlist the help of a neighbor to get me unstuck.  

                Just as there are physical snowdrifts, so there are spiritual and emotional snowdrifts as well. Sometimes these spiritual snowdrifts catch us by surprise. We are following a path that we have followed many times and then one day our way is blocked. When that happens, we need to decide what we will do. We can try to plow through, which works sometimes or we can look for a way around the snowdrift. We can seek help to clear the snowdrift, or we can get stuck and have to call for help to get us out.  Snowdrifts are inevitable, but getting stuck is not.

                When the snowdrifts are small, the Bible instructs us to persevere and not allow them to impede our progress. The emotional and spiritual snowdrifts that block our path do not need to mobilize us. With a little effort, we can make our way through.

                Timothy faced a number of spiritual snowdrifts. Rather than stay home and wait for the snow to melt, Paul instructed Timothy to press on. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:15-16)

                There are spiritual snowdrifts that pose a real threat to us. In those cases, it is wiser to seek an alternative route. There are times in our lives when we can clearly see the danger of the obstacle before us, but we plunge in anyway. We usually pay a price for doing so. Instead, when we see certain snowdrifts looming in front of us, we need to change direction. No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

                No matter how careful we are in life, at some point we will get stuck in a spiritual or emotional snowdrift. At those times, the wise thing to do is to call for help. Unfortunately, we often labor to dig ourselves out instead. Our efforts exhaust and discourage us, and prolong how long we are stuck. James challenges us to admit that we need help and then accept it when it is offered. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)   

                Writing to the churches of Galatia, Paul challenged the believers to be ready to help one another overcome the spiritual snowdrifts of life. Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2) I really appreciate that Paul warns us to not be overconfident when we seek to help someone else, because we could get stuck ourselves.

                It snowed again last night. If the wind picks up today, I can expect to encounter new snowdrifts. We live in a fallen world that is constantly placing obstacles in our way. We should expect the spiritual snowdrifts to come. We don’t have to get stuck in them.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

THE CHAMELEON SYNDROME


                 I am a reader. It is the primary way that I stimulate my spiritual and personal growth. I have been intentional about reading a broad spectrum of authors. When I find an author that I like, I try to read as much from that author as I can. But I also read authors that I know I will disagree with. I need them to challenge my thinking and unsettle my perspective. Over the years, I have greatly benefited from being an intentional reader.

                I was not always an intentional reader. As a young boy, I did not find reading easy, so I did not cultivate that skill. I had an unmarried aunt who lived with us. She was an avid reader and always tried to get her nephews to be readers. Sadly, she passed away before I embraced the joy and the value of reading. It wasn’t until I left Seminary that I began intentionally reading for both pleasure and enrichment. One of the tricks that I use to motivate myself is setting a goal to read twelve ministry related books a year, one a month. For some people, that is not a stretch. For me, it was a real challenge. I am happy to say that it has become a regular part of my life. Most years I go far beyond my goal.

                I tell you all of this because today, while I was reading a particularly challenging section in a book, I realized a trap that I can fall into. I have been aware of this trap for many years, but this morning I became aware that I was standing on the edge of it again. I call this trap the chameleon syndrome.

                Chameleons have the ability to physically adapt their appearance to blend in with their surroundings. Their ability to camouflage themselves in this way is a survival skill that serves them well. It is a skill that we as humans can develop, except the outcome is no so positive. We can become so skilled at adapting who we are to other people’s expectations, for the purpose of fitting in, that we can lose touch with who we really are.

                As I was reading this morning, I realized again how I can unconsciously begin to adapt myself to the expectations of the author that I am reading or to the group of people I am trying to lead. It begins with a challenge to my current status quo. That in itself is not a bad thing. But it can quickly move to an attempt to conform to someone else’s image. As I look back over my life, I can identify many times when I tried to be a human chameleon. The more that I slipped into chameleon mode, the less awareness I had of who God created me to be. I found myself shifting my persona with every persuasive voice that was speaking loudly in my ear. The outcome was a very confused person.

                The Bible often warns us against being double minded. We are to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us toward thinking godly thoughts and letting go of the world’s influence. But when we fall into chameleon mode, we are exhibiting hyper-double mindedness. In order to please everyone who comes across our path, we have to continually adjust to their expectations. This doesn’t have to be in the realm of worldly expectations. It can happen within the Body of Christ as we shift our outward actions to conform to each new voice.

                There is a familiar passage in Romans 12:1-3 that can be applied to the chameleon syndrome. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.
    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.

                As we yield our lives completely to Christ, we are to embrace a new reality. There are two key elements to becoming the person Christ wants us to be. First, we need to stop trying to conform to all of the outside pressures around us. Most of us can see how this applies when we look at the value system of the world. Most of us are blind to the pressure to become like our favorite preacher, author, or leader. This is especially true for pastors and other Christian leaders. We flock to the popular seminars, then go home and try to duplicate what was presented. This lasts only until the next book we read or the next conference we attend. Then we have to shift to conform to that.

                The second thing we need to do is strive to gain a clear understanding of who God made us to be. God did not create us to be spiritual chameleons. God created each of us as unique individuals, in unique circumstances. He does not want us to be arrogant and over emphasize our uniqueness. He also does not want us to under value who He created us to be. If we have an inflated view of who we are, we expect everyone else to be like us. If we under value who we are, we try to be like everyone else. Neither approach is pleasing to God.

                The antidote to the chameleon syndrome is discernment.  We need to be humble enough to listen to what others have to say to us. We need to be wise enough to make appropriate adjustments that fit with who God made us to be. We have to have both the courage and the awareness to resist the temptation to conform simply to fit in with whatever the current popular trend happens to be.

                It is time to shed our artificial skin of conformity and embrace who we really are.

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




Tuesday, February 5, 2019

FORECASTING THE FUTURE


                We were warned, but we were skeptical. They had warned us before and nothing materialized. This time they were correct. The snow began gently falling at noon, but by 6:00 PM the wind had picked up and the snow was heavier. Soon it was white out on the roads and we were facing another winter storm.

                For the past 30 years, living in southern Minnesota, I learned to not be too concerned when the national weather service predicted bad weather. Many times, for some strange reason, the predicted storm would dip below us or rise above us and miss us completely. If the storm did materialize, we were surprised. So far, my experience in North Dakota has been different. Since Christmas, we have had five major snow storms come through. I am learning that when the national weather service predicts a snow storm is coming, I had better get prepared.

                This morning, in our Men’s Bible Study, the topic of the return of Christ came up. I was reminded of how we have become dull to the promised return of Christ. There was a day when the return of Christ was at the forefront of our thinking. I remember as a child actually praying that Christ would delay His return until I had had the chance to live a little of life. I know that sounds selfish and even silly, but as a child I actually feared that my life would be cut short. During that time, there were those who boldly predicted that Jesus would return in our lifetime. Some went as far as speculating on the exact time when He would return. We were told that all the signs of the times had aligned and Christ’s return was just around the corner. Forty plus years later we are still here.

                So much focus on the imminent return of Christ has actually had a negative effect on the Church and on non-believers. So many claiming that Christ would return in their lifetime, only to have them pass from the scene, has dulled us to the message. People rarely talk about Christ’s return today, and if they do, most people aren’t listening.

                Peter understood the mind of humanity. He predicted that a time was coming when people would no longer believe the truth of Christ’s return. So Peter gave us some timely instructions for how to live in a time of widespread unbelief.

    First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. [7] By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
    But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
    But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
    Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. (2 Peter 3:3-12)

                There are some important things that we need to glean from what Peter wrote. First, we should not be surprised when people turn a deaf ear to the reality of Christ’s return. For those who choose not to trust God’s word, time dims the message and makes it sound like foolishness.

                Second, we need to remember that God always does things intentionally and with purpose. Unlike us, God is not in a hurry to bring the story of the human race to an end. He has a much more significant goal; He wants to see as many people as possible come to faith in Christ. God is willing to be patient in order for more people to come to genuine faith.

                Third, those of us who are followers of Christ need to live within the tension of two realities. We need to live anticipating the return of Christ and we need to make the most of the time we have now. Someone once told me to live as if Christ was returning today and work as if He will not return for another hundred years. Peter instructed us to live holy and godly lives in anticipation of Christ’s return.

                Matthew 24 records some of Jesus’ teaching on His return. He made it very clear that we cannot figure out the when of His return. But He made it very clear about how we should live our lives in light of His return.

    "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
    "Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,' and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:42-51)

                Jesus is not impressed by our speculations about His return. What He is looking for are those who are faithful to the task He gave them to do. Knowing that Jesus could come back at any time should be a motivation for us to make the most of the time we have. Having a clear understanding of the return of Christ should motivate us to be wise about how we live each day of our lives.

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.


Friday, February 1, 2019

THE RACE MATTERS


                Every distance runner knows that the point of the race is the race, it is not the finish line. What makes a distance run significant is that it is a distance run, not a sprint. Distance running is about endurance, perseverance, and determination. Crossing the finish line is the reward for the effort expended.

                I have struggled recently with the idea that Christianity is all about going to heaven when we die. Obviously, that is a piece of the story, but that is like saying that running a distance race is all about the finish line. Our eternal home is the motivation for running the race in this life, but it is not the whole thing.

                Over and over again, the Bible makes it clear that God cares about how we live our lives now. God has placed us on this earth for a purpose. He does not want us to just mark time until we die. Twice in Paul’s letters he specifically expressed the need for us to take our race seriously.

                 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (Ephesians 4:1)

                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, (Colossians 1:10)

                How we live our lives now matters to God. We can make the most of the life we have or we can squander what we have. The choice is ours. But a day is coming when we will have to give an account of how we lived our lives. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

                If the finish line is really all that is important in life, then Jesus really blew it. At the beginning of His earthly ministry, Jesus was led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by Satan. At the end of 40 days of fasting, Satan hit Jesus with three powerful temptations. One of those was to take a short-cut to the finish line.

                The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours."
                Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'" (Luke 4:5-8)

                It would have been easy for Jesus to give in to this temptation, if His goal was just to get to the finish line, but it was not. When Jesus said that we are worship and serve God only, He was not just refusing to worship Satan, but was revealing that there is more to the journey of life than getting to the end.

                Too often in life, we are looking for short-cuts to get us to some benchmark in life without having to run the full course. We try to shorten our race by compromising with Satan. When we do that, we forfeit the benefit we would have gained by following through. It is like beginning a marathon, jumping into an Uber at mile two, and getting out at mile 26 so we can run across the finish line. In that case, getting the medal at the end is pretty meaningless.

                As believers in Christ, we need to keep our eyes on eternity and live fully in the moment. Each leg of our life’s race is an opportunity to serve God and make a difference in our world. Each obstacle we face, each challenge we overcome enriches the ultimate reward of crossing the finish line. Paul encourages us to live life wisely, making the most of every moment of life that we have been given.

                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)

                Keeping our eyes on eternity is what gives us the strength and courage to live life to the fullest. Christians should not be less engaged in life but more. We know that our life has purpose. We know that the things we do in this life will make a genuine difference for now and for the future.

                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. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

                Our faith in Jesus Christ is not just pie in the sky wishful thinking. It is not about escaping this world and going to a perfect place called heaven. The Christian life is about living our life fully for the glory of God. Running the race matters!


Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:58