Thursday, January 30, 2014

Celebrate God's Grace

The book of Nehemiah records an occasion when Ezra the priest stood before the people and read the Book of the Law. In hearing the words of the Lord, the people "bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground." (Neh 8:6) This is a response of a people who have been in captivity for 70 years. A people who have not heard God's Word, and for the most part, have not lived according to its truth. Their only right response is to worship the One they have all but forgotten. The passage goes on to explain how certain men were appointed to take what had been read and then go to the people to teach them what it means. Once again, "they read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." (Neh 8:8) After doing this, the people have a completely different response. It says, "the people wept as they heard the words of the Law." (Neh 8:9) So why such a dramatically different response? First it was worship and then it was weeping. I think what we see is often reflected in our own life as well. We go through the routine of religious observance and find ourselves worshiping a God who is very far off. We stand before Him and exalt the holiness of His name but we don't always understand how what He says applies to our life. His truth becomes personal only when we draw near to the Lord and listen to what He says to our heart. A place where His holiness comes close enough to reveal our sin. This is where our worship turns to weeping because we are undone. Like Isaiah we proclaim, "I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips". But God's grace does not allow us to remain in this place. Ezra and Nehemiah know this to be true and so this is what they say to the people:
"Go your way. Eat the fat and drink the sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to the Lord. And do not be grieved for the joy of the Lord is your strength."
They tell them to put aside their weeping and throw a party instead. Why? Because the grace of God is worth celebrating. We are to be strengthened by the joy of the Lord who's delight is in our redemption. He wants us to see our sin in the light of His forgiveness and grace. Because without drawing near, we continue to carry the burden of sin along with us. But God wants to set us free and give us a reason to celebrate. Lord, I want to draw near to you so that your Word becomes personal in my life. I want you to search me O God and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in your everlasting way. Set me free in the joy of your forgiveness and grace to the praise and glory of your great Name! Teach me to celebrate your grace.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Rejoice in Suffering

I'll admit, I don't get it. It's counterintuitive. This whole idea of rejoicing in times of suffering is difficult to grasp. I read the account of the apostles preaching in Jerusalem as "more than ever believers were being added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women." This turn of events and the attention being given to the saving message of the gospel was unacceptable to the religious leaders. So they took the apostles and threw them in jail. Only for them to be miraculously released to go right back to the temple in order to pick up where they left off last. Once again they were captured and brought before the religious council who forbid them to continue any more teaching in Jesus name. Peter, speaking on behalf of the others said, "We must obey God rather than men." In other words, you can forbid us if you want to but we will only do what the Lord has called us to do. In order for the religious leaders to put some teeth into their demands, they punished the apostles with a beating before sending them out. And the amazing thing is, as they walk away, skin bleeding and body bruised, the scripture says,
"Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name." (Acts 5:41)
As you read closely, you'll find that the apostles didn't rejoice in their beating. They didn't enjoy their physical suffering in a kind of sadistic euphoria. They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Christ. They realized that the lashing they received was they same that was given to their Savior. After all, they (like Jesus) were not being punished for a crime. These religious leaders didn't have a problem with the apostles per se. They had a problem with their message. And so, in the end, they rejoiced because they knew that the message they were preaching was being heard. For many who were seeking a Savior, it was the good news of salvation. But for those who were doing just fine on their own, it was an irritable inconvenience to their preferred way of life. But in either case, it was confirmation for the apostles that the good news of salvation in Christ was heard and understood by all. Lord, I too desire to be in a place where I might rejoice when suffering dishonor for Your name. Where my life is so centered around your gospel that my reaction to circumstances is not judged by the presence or absence of pain, but instead, on the understanding of the message I am called to proclaim. I realize that some with respond with great joy, while others will lash out with hatred. But may I realize that the reaction, in both situations, is not based on me and what I have done. It is a response to your truth which is salvation to some and foolishness to others. In whatever I do (or not do), may it be for the glory of your name.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Practicing What You Preach

Ezra was leading a spiritual revival among the people of Israel. By an edict from the ruling King of Persia, Israel was being released from their slavery in Babylon and allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple of God. But all along the way, they were being ridiculed and attacked by enemies who were not pleased to see them return to the land. A land now occupied by those who did not believe in the one true God. Ezra knew that they had been given permission by the highest authority in the land, but that didn't mean that the people were going to make it easy on them along the way. And Ezra had made it known that God would be their true refuge and strength. But now it was time for that testimony to be put to the test. Ezra would be transporting priceless articles for the temple some 500 miles from Babylon to Jerusalem. He would be walking right through enemy territory carrying silver and gold, bowls and vessels that were certain to draw the attention of those who would be more than willing to lighten their load. But Ezra had a dilemma: He had made a claim to the king that was sure to be tested. Here is what he said:
For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horseman to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, "The hand of our God is for good on all who seek Him, and the power of His wrath is against all who forsake Him." Ezra 8:22
In other words, we've got to practice what we preach if we really believe it is true. Either we trust God to be faithful or we look for other means to help us along the way. What a dilemma for Ezra that is equally as relevant in our lives today. Here we are in the Bible Belt of America and we can recite verse after verse of things we claim to be true. But what is our response when God calls us to practice what we preach? Namely, those impossible situations in life that may seem foolish from the world's perspective (kind of like walking into enemy territory with a buffet of priceless artifacts). For example, do we trust God's ability to redeem the marriage of an unfaithful but repentant spouse? Do we sacrifice an advancement in our career to pursue a life in ministry? Are we willing to trust that God can comfort those we love who suffer from an incurable disease? In the end, is there anything in my life that is just too big for Him to handle that would require me to go my own way. Or do I truly believe that He is faithful to carry me through? Lord, help me to live a life that truly trusts in you. Give me strength in those moments when my faith is put to the test. When I am called to practice what I preach. No matter what I face, help me to keep my eyes on you. Help me to live out my faith in both word and deed as I proclaim: "You alone are my Rock and my salvation; my stronghold, and in You I will not be greatly shaken." (Ps62:2)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Living a Jet Ski Life

Every year I take a week of silence and solitude to pray, plan and prepare for what I will be teaching in the coming year. God has been so faithful to allow this to be such a profitable time for both me and the work of ministry at Melonie Park Church where I serve. But now that I've done this for a few years, I have learned to anticipate some predictable challenges. For example, I know I will need to work through the weight of loneliness that I feel most acutely when I wake up that first morning and no one is around. Right alongside the loneliness is the deafening sound of silence. Clocks ticking. The refrigerator coming to life with a steady hum and then holding its breath in silence. I've learned to anticipate the sense of panic when I look at what I have set out to do and become instantly overwhelmed with the certainty that there is no possible way to get it all done. These things I've learned to expect, but this year I encountered something new. Each day I woke up and began my work of praying, reading and studying. I stopped briefly to eat on occasion and continued my work until late at night. On average, I probably spent about 15 hours a day trying diligently to maximize the benefit of this time. But as the week went on, I realized that I was like a starving child seeking to satisfy his hunger by gorging on food recently delivered by the Red Cross. It was as if my soul had become so emaciated from the absence of silence and reflection that I felt compelled to greedily devour every waking moment. I even had trouble stopping to sleep at night in fear that I didn't consume enough time and would soon be returning home to live on the rations of a fast paced, sound bite, twitter feed, pace of life. I realized my soul was starving for the nourishment that can only be gained when I stop long enough to be still... bowing low to cup my hands into the spring of Living Water, where God alone can satisfy my soul. Stepping away has caused me to recognize the effect of living in our fast paced world. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s (yes, 50 years ago):
"Media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
That's the world we live in. And perhaps there is a method behind the madness of our highly fragmented information age. Maybe, just maybe, our enemy is behind the schemes of this world and His desire is to keep us moving so fast that we never really stop long enough to feast on the richness of God's love. Oh, we might wave as we zip by on our Jet Ski, but we no longer stop long enough to have a meaningful conversation. We don't go to the quiet place of prayer and reflection to nourish the deepest part of our soul. I think our enemy may be keeping us occupied while he is starving us to death. Lord, forgive me for falling into the enemy's trap. I'm sorry for ever believing that anything in life could possibly be more important than finding my rest in You. Teach me to slow down. Help me step away and be still before You. To listen... to reflect... to pray. I need You to speak words of life into my soul. To nourish me with Your Word... To patiently and lovingly lead me in Your everlasting way. You have my attention. I want to be all Yours. I'm listening now.