Monday, April 23, 2018

Hiding So We Can Seek

Remember the children’s game, “hide and seek”? Some of our grandkids still play it. What a simple game: One person closes his or her eyes, counts to 10, 20 – or 100 – while the others conceal themselves somewhere in the yard or the house. Younger ones get easily frustrated seeking to find the “hiders,” so after a few minutes it’s kind to let them “find” you.

While I haven’t played the hide and seek game in a long while, for a long time I’ve been playing a kind of spiritual hide-and-seek that has proved to be important to God’s growth process for me.

In the early ‘80s I participated in a discipling group using material by The Navigators. A requirement of the three-year program was to memorize the 60 verses in the Navs’ Topical Memory System, along with a set of five verses called “Beginning With Christ.” Learning 65 verses, including title and “address,” seemed daunting but spread out over many months it wasn’t too bad. Especially for goal-oriented people like me.

It wasn’t the task itself that mattered, but the forming of a spiritual “filing system” in my mind for accessing Bible passages that applied to everyday circumstances. Followers of Jesus are instructed to actively and earnestly seek Him. In Isaiah 55:6 we read, Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”  Jesus later said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). While this can apply to any specific needs, there’s no greater need than a deepening relationship with the Lord.

One effective way to do this is by “hiding” the Word of God in our hearts. Many centuries ago, King David wrote, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9,11).

The apostle Paul, writing to his protégé, Timothy, also affirmed the importance of knowing – and applying – biblical truth in everyday life: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

I sometimes hear people respond defensively, “Oh, I’m terrible at memorizing. I could never memorize Scripture.” Really? What’s your phone number? What about your spouse, or teenage son or daughter? Your Social Security number? Your home address? Or when your favorite TV shows are on? 

Can you recite the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer, or sing all the words to the Star-Spangled Banner, or your favorite pop song? How many passwords have you stored in your memory bank? 

Granted, some people find memorizing things easier than others, but we can usually commit to memory anything that’s really important to us.

The point isn’t that we can brag about how many Bible verses we know. It’s about being able to retrieve God’s Word whenever we need it, even if a Bible isn’t readily available. Dawson Trotman, founder of The Navigators, placed high emphasis on Scripture memorization and made it an integral part of discipling others. His work often took him to remote places around the world, and he found much comfort and assurance by being able to call to mind meaningful passages applicable for the need of the hour when a Bible wasn’t handy.

Today, faced with a daily barrage of negative communication, it’s helpful to pay heed to passages like Philippians 4:8, which says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Nothing better fits those descriptions than the timely, always reliable Word of God. If you’re seeking the Lord, try hiding – His Word in your heart.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Fear of God – Far from Common

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” This famous phrase had its genesis in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933. As FDR uttered these words, several people at the event reportedly muttered, “I was afraid he would say that.”

This whimsically colored version of "The Scream"by
Edvard Munch is how some perceive the fear of God.
Fear is a funny world in the English language, conjuring up many images. For children, fear can mean apprehension the “boogeyman” might suddenly pop out of a closet or from under the bed. Or that mommy or daddy might abandon them at the mall. As we get older, an expanding array of other fears supplant the boogeyman.

It’s a word we attribute to a dog cowering in a corner, tail between its legs, hoping to avoid another blow from its abusive owner. Or employees who arrive at work wary of their tyrannical boss’s unpredictable behavior.

We use a convenient word of Greek and Latin origin – “phobia” – to describe fears, often irrational, of virtually everything, including heights, spiders, snakes, crowds, enclosed places, flying, specific colors, black cats, the number 13, and red-headed people. (Is there a phobia of red-headed woodpeckers?) Politically correctness has led to the creation of new terms, like homophobia and Islamophobia. 

But when you hear the phrase, “fearing God,” what comes to mind? That’s a legitimate question, since numerous verses talk about the fear of the Lord. The book of Proverbs, for instance, gives an admonition, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). Similarly, Psalm 111:10 states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

For some, to fear God suggests being prepared to duck, hoping to dodge a bolt from Heaven the Lord might choose to throw down if He catches us doing something wrong. Is that what it really means to fear God – anticipating divine zapping when He feels inclined to do so?

Tame that down a notch, and some people regard fearing God as always being at risk of becoming the object of His displeasure and impatience as we repeatedly fail to meet His perfect, righteous, never-changing standards.

However, not long ago I talked with someone who expressed an opposite opinion. He posited there’s no reason to fear God at all, since He’s so loving that He’ll accept whatever we do. This makes Him sound like the parent who never corrects or disciplines her child, or the grandparent who delights in doting on the grandkids, knowing before long they’ll be going home with their parents to deal with the fruit of their spoiling. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Kids do the darnedest things!”

A definition of the “fear of God” favored by many is “reverent awe” or “admiring submission.” This involves understanding that while He is accessible – Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16) – the Lord is, after all, Creator not only of this planet but also the entire universe. That’s not something we should take lightly, with a casual shrug. He made everything and can do whatever He chooses with what He’s made.

The foreboding image of the Lord lurking nearby, poised to yell, “Gotcha! I knew it!” is unfortunate and stands at odds with the concept of grace – God’s unconditional favor we could never merit or earn. We’re told, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Titus 3:5 seconds this motion by declaring, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy.”

Nevertheless, this doesn’t justify an attitude by which we might regard God as “Bro,” or as our good buddy. We “fear” law enforcement officers, not because we suspect they might harm us, but because they have the power to enforce laws if we break them. I remember when I was in school, we also “feared” the teacher, knowing she or he had authority to discipline us or reduce our grades if we misbehaved or violated classroom rules. 

God is Creator of all we see – as well as everything we can’t. It reminds me of the parent who, in a peak of frustration, said, “Son, I brought you into this world – and I can take you out!” 

In most cases, because of His love, grace and mercy, God doesn’t act in a similar way. However, we know He can, and sometimes has done so. Think of those who perished in The Flood except for Noah and his family, or the residents of the sin-riddled cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Egyptian army as they pursued the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Ananias and Sapphira, members of the early Church, thought they could get away with misrepresenting their generosity. They greatly underestimated how much God values integrity.

So we worship a God fully capable of doing fearsome things. But If we truly know Him, and have an accurate, honest appraisal of ourselves, He deserves our reverent awe and wholehearted worship, praise and gratitude. As Psalm 34:9-10 tells us, "Oh, fear the Lord, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him…those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing.”

Monday, April 16, 2018

Being Tested By Good Times?

Striving for a proper balance at work - and life.
Going through difficult times, by definition, is never easy. I’ve often subscribed to the philosophy that I wouldn’t mind hard work – if it wasn’t so difficult. The same applies to life circumstances – many, often too-frequent, trying times that test our resolve, our willingness to persevere, even our faith.

But have you ever considered that sometimes the greatest tests we face in life come when things seem to be going very well?

I was attending a convention where one night the speaker talked about being tested in life. He gave some principles from the Bible and offered examples from his own life, a series of hardships he had endured both at work and in his personal life. Most could relate to what he was saying. 

However, as he spoke, a verse I had read just days before came to mind: “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives” (Proverbs 27:21). Tested by praise? Really? What does that mean? At the same convention, I had several opportunities to experience that principle firsthand.

At the time I was the editor of a CBMC magazine called CONTACT and had guided a major revamping of the publication, both in content and design. Before the changes, members who received it typically responded with a shrug. It was just another piece of mail, something they might scan, but only if time permitted. After the changes had been implemented, it became a welcomed, anticipated addition to their mailboxes, and I started to hear many favorable comments.

During the convention, several men I did not know stopped me (from recognizing my name badge, I suppose) to tell me how much they appreciated the magazine and the articles about people seeking to live out their faith in the workplace. Since writers don’t often receive positive comments on their work, my first reaction was to soak up the compliments. Then I remembered the verse about being tested by praise.

Instead, I chose to express my gratitude for the gracious words while mentally deflecting the “praise” to God, knowing that after all, it was He who had provided me with the abilities, experience and even the wisdom to make the positive changes that people were responding to. As Jesus told His followers, including me, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

This admonition isn’t limited just to writers and magazine editors, of course. When someone commends your efforts on a project at work, how do you respond – not just externally, but also inwardly? If you speak to a group, or lead a Sunday school class, and someone tells you what a good job you did, how do you feel? When a stranger compliments how well-behaved your child is, does your chest swell with pride – along with your head?

Just days ago I stopped by my highly accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon’s new office and noticed a sign posted behind the receptionist’s desk. It read, “WORK HARD and STAY HUMBLE.” Knowing my surgeon, that’s a motto he lives by. Maybe we should as well.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Experiencing the Spectrum for Easter

My wife and I had quite the spiritual day on Easter. It started with a worship service at our church, with a powerful, Christ-centered message. We followed that with lunch at a local park with one of our daughters and her family. Next we went to see the film, “I Can Only Imagine,” and finished off the day by watching the TV presentation of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The sermon addressed the “doubting Thomas” in all of us, exploring the primary causes of doubts about God – disappointments in life we tend to blame on Him; struggling with the seeming (but not actual) conflict between faith and reason; and our bent toward sinfulness, wanting to live our own way and deciding if we deny or ignore God’s existence, then it’s okay to do so.

It also considered the antidote for doubts, including evidence of Christ’s resurrection; willingness to believe (disbelief is more of a heart problem than a head problem); and ultimately, a genuine, personal encounter with Jesus. 

Even though I can still recall the days of my own disbelief and agnosticism, when I essentially acted as if I were my own god, now that I’ve known the Lord and experienced His work in my life for several decades, it’s increasingly hard to understand how anyone can live without Him.

Spending time with our children and grandchildren is a joy and privilege I admittedly take for granted too often. When I hear people beaming about becoming grandparents for the first time, my tendency is to think, “You think that’s something? We’ve got 12 of them, ranging from infancy to their 20’s. Not only that, but we have three great-grandkids, too. Top that!” I don’t say it aloud, but it’s crossed my mind a time or two.

The park outing was fun, and I was proud to pray for two of our granddaughters who were leaving for a mission trip the next morning. From experience, I knew that while God might use them to touch someone’s life, often the ones that benefit most are those taking the trip. Being exposed to how other people live, especially in other cultures and socio-economic environments, and seeing the Lord can work there, too, can be life-changing.

The film was based on the life of Bart Millard, lead singer and songwriter of the Christian musical group, MercyMe, and their hit song, “I Can Only Imagine.” Reception to the song, which ponders what it would be like to stand before God in Heaven, was phenomenal as it earned triple-platinum status in 2003. It continues to be a favorite for many today.

Millard drew inspiration for the song from the death of his father, who’d abused him severely as a child but became transformed, a totally new man, after committing his life to Jesus Christ before dying of pancreatic cancer. The film is a moving story of redemption, just the right type of movie to see on the day we celebrate Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to redeem all who come to Him by faith. 

As Isaiah 1:18 tells us, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Or to use a different metaphor, God excels at turning sows’ ears into silk purses.

Watching the NBC production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” took me back to my early adult years when it became both a popular film and best-selling album. At the time I was a “church-ian” – I believed in God and attended church sometimes, but I didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. I knew little about the Bible, so the liberties the songs take with the Scriptures were lost on me then. For instance, both Judas and Pontius Pilate come across as sympathetic characters for the most part, almost like victims of their circumstances rather than key players in the crucifixion story. That’s not how the Bible presents them.

And in portraying the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the redeemed prostitute, there’s an inference some hanky-panky might have been going on. Again, totally contrary to what the Scriptures teach: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest…Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). 

But the performances by the singers, including John Legend, Sara Bareilles and, of all people, rocker Alice Cooper (who professes to be a devoted follower of Christ), were excellent. When I first saw the musical in the early ‘70s, theology wasn’t an issue for me. It did, however, have a positive impact, one that I suspect contributed to my later desire to read and study the Bible, and discover who this guy Jesus really was, and what He was all about.

My hope is that for some who viewed the TV rendition, it has the same effect on them. 

All in all, it was quite a Resurrection Sunday. A welcome reminder for me, and perhaps for many others, that “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Not just Easter, but every day.

Monday, April 9, 2018

How Does God Speak to Us?

Several weeks ago, one of the regulars on a daytime TV talk show mocked Vice President Mike Pence for saying in an interview that Jesus speaks to him. In a brief harangue, for which she later apologized after many complaints were lodged, this person questioned the Vice President’s mental state – and by inference, anyone else that believes God can speak to them personally.

I won’t comment further on what she said, but this brief verbal kerfuffle did raise an important question. Does God speak to us, and if so, how?

Without hesitation, I can say He has spoken to me numerous times, although never in an audible manner. However, in the Scriptures we do find God speaking audibly whenever He chose to do so – to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; to Noah, Abraham and Jacob; through a burning bush to Moses; on numerous occasions to the prophet Samuel; to Saul (later renamed Paul) on the road to Damascus, and many other times to many other people.

Today, we have the compiled Word of God – Old and New testaments – through which He can speak to us powerfully and clearly. Hebrews 4:12 assures us, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Writing to his protégé, Timothy, the apostle Paul asserted, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And King David, who understood what it was like to get sidetracked when he wasn’t heeding God’s direction, observed, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9,11).

Unlike people of biblical times, who couldn’t go to their neighborhood Christian bookstore or go to an app or online to read the Scriptures, we have ready access to God’s revealed truth, precepts and principles for everyday living.

So people don’t talk as much about the Lord speaking with a voice we can hear aloud, although I’ve talked with some who attest they have experienced that at least once when it was important for Him to get their attention.

In the Middle East, however, it seems God is speaking authoritatively to spur an unprecedented spiritual awakening in that region. Missionaries serving there attest to many men, women and children turning from Islam and receiving Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, even at risk of their lives. In many cases, it was not a missionary who spoke with them about the gospel of Christ, but Jesus Himself, appearing to them in dreams and visions.

God can – and obviously does – speak audibly even today whenever He wishes to do so. But in addition to reading the Scriptures, and having the Holy Spirit within us to help us understand and apply what we read, God speaks to us in other ways.

I could never recount all the times He has spoken to me through other people, not only a pastor or Bible teacher, but also godly friends who pointed me to appropriate Scripture passages when a need arose. Proverbs 27:17 states, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Many times that “sharpening” has come through someone citing or reminding me of just the right verse for my particular circumstances.

This has proved especially helpful in making crucial decisions. As Proverbs 15:22 states, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” More often than not, this has involved not just their own knowledge and experience, but drawing from the vast storehouse of wisdom God has given us in His Word.

Finally, the Lord often speaks very clearly through circumstances. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight,” (Proverbs 3:5-6). At times I have prayed for God’s wisdom and direction, having no clue about what I should do or where I should turn. Occasionally – perhaps because I wouldn’t have been smart enough to recognize His direction any other way – He has closed doors He didn’t want me to walk through, opening only a single door of opportunity so I wouldn’t agonize over which way to go.

So, to that individual who thought the idea of Jesus speaking personally to His people sounded ludicrous, I’d respond He does indeed speak today, but relatively few people seem willing to listen to what He has to say. For that reason, like the apostle Paul, we should pray “that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains” (Ephesians 6:19).

Thursday, April 5, 2018

What’s in Your Bucket?

Have you ever walked along, carrying a bucket (or even a cup) containing liquid – maybe water – and stumbled, or it got bumped, spilling some of the contents on the ground, or even onto your pant leg or shoe? A bit annoying, maybe, but not a big problem, right?

The credit card commercial asks,
"What's in your wallet?" Better yet,
what's in your bucket?
Imagine, however, if the bucket had contained hydrochloric acid, or lye, or perhaps smelly, spoiled milk. That would have presented much more of an issue for you, wouldn’t it?

Most of us don’t spend a lot of time carrying around buckets or pails, but we each tote around an inner “bucket” we wherever we go. This bucket is filled with attitudes, emotions and feelings that swirl just below the surface of our consciousness. Most people observing us never know what’s there – we might not either – until we get “bumped” and the contents of our inner bucket comes cascading out.

When my friend’s neighborhood homeowners’ association decided to make some changes to enhance safety, one of the residents didn’t respond in a very neighborly manner. Upon hearing about what was being done, this woman called my friend, who heads the association, repeatedly, berating him for implementing changes she didn’t like.

My friend tried to remain patient and cordial, but it was obvious this “neighbor” had no interest in being conciliatory. The neighborhood changes had bumped her “bucket,” spewing its caustic contents out over the phone.

Who knows what set this lady off? Maybe it was something other than the safety changes; they might merely have been the camel-breaking straw that released a bucket full of pent-up anger. Observing what’s happening in our society today, it seems many inner buckets are being bumped with all manner of vitriol spilling out.

Over time I’ve learned to be more even-keeled, but if there’s anything undesirable in my “bucket,” it’s likely to come sloshing out while sitting behind the wheel of my car in traffic, surrounded by folks who seem to have learned to drive just yesterday. Even then, that’s no excuse for losing control emotionally. So how can we avoid being like “Angry Agatha” who verbally abused my friend?

The secret, as the Scriptures teach us, is to make certain we’re filled not with negativity, but with the fruit of God’s Spirit. As Galatians 5:22-23 tells us, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” If this “fruit” – evidence of God living in us spiritually – fills us, even when adverse circumstances arise, these are what spills out.

Rather than exploding in anger when a child makes a mess, we’ll be more disposed to respond with kindness and understanding. We’ll treat people that annoy us with gentleness and love, not hatred, ire and disrespect.

We’re also instructed to be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18-19). Another passage expresses it this way: 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” (Ephesians 4:29).

Ultimately this is only possible through a daily, deepening relationship with the Lord that results in “out with the old, in with the new.” Ephesians 3:17-19 speaks of the desire, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpassed knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Just as fighting fire with fire is futile, attempting to battle the angry world around us with anger is also pointless. Instead, we can have the greatest impact when we reflect the character and qualities of the God we know and serve. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 4:16).

Let’s make certain that the next time our buckets get bumped, as they certainly will, what pours out is the love and grace of God, rather than something else.