Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Division and Multiplication

   I kinda like my car. It's not flashy or really expensive. It doesn't turn heads or make the neighbors jealous. It's just a simple little Ford SUV. I bought it almost 5 years ago for some very specific reasons. You see, I was playing in a band at the time, which meant that I needed something to load all of my gear into and still be able to drive it without my knees up in my chest. I was concerned about gas mileage, and the larger SUV's where horrible in that department. Adding together these plus a few other criteria that any car I owned needed to meet, the one I now own became the perfect choice to accomplish what I needed to accomplish. It's really been a perfect fit for me.
   One thing I didn't expect to enjoy so much was the 4-wheel drive. I'd never owned a 4-wheel drive vehicle before. Growing up and spending most of my adult life in the Chicagoland area, I've driven through some of the most extreme winter conditions one might imagine. I've done so in a very wide range of vehicle types. From a little Toyota Corolla 4-speed to a big ole Buick to even a mail truck, I've pretty much owned em all. I have to say that this one has been the best at getting me through some pretty deep snow that many others sat and spun their tires in or slid off into ditches because of.
   Last February, I had a problem. When the great blizzard of 2011 hit, I was on my way to the store. I turned on the 4-wheel drive, and the car absolutely lost it's mind. I heard clunking and grinding. It surged forward, slid sideways, spun a few times, and came to a stop. I took it out of 4-wheel drive and hit the gas. Everything worked fine again. I put it back into 4-wheel drive, and it just spun like a top. I was extremely confused.
   I took it to a mechanic the following day and had him check it out. What apparently happened was this: The electronic "brain" that tells every part of my car to do what it's designed to do so that everything works well was being ignored by the various parts that were supposed to take their orders from it. So, when I turned on the 4-wheel drive, all 4 wheels decided they'd go their own direction - wherever they felt like going. One went left, one went right, one went forward, and one went backward. With all of them being perfectly designed by Ford to push or pull the car at a moments notice, and with the 4 brand new tires digging into the snow, they sent the enntire car into a tailspin when they decided to do their own thing.
   Fortunately, that was a fictional story. It never happened. But I wrote it to emphasize a point. When we look at the churches we attend, when we look at other churches in our neighborhoods, and when we look at the worldwide church as a whole, there's one thing we can all agree upon. Every single church that God ordains has a specific purpose. It's always His purpose, not ours. Together, we fill a need in the world as He directs us - first by the words and actions of each member, up to the words and actions of the individual church, then up to the churches in each community, and on it goes.
   But here's the key..........To be most effective in being the church at any level, we must all make a firm commitment to listen to our "brain" - the one part that tells each of the others what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Within the church, that brain can only be God Himself as He leads us via His Spirit. This becomes absolutely imposibble if we ever allow ourselves to become 4 wheels pulling in opposite directions.
   In Matthew 12:25, we read;

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand."

   He said this in response to the Pharisees who, not wanting to believe that His ability to cast out demons came from God, but from the devil, began to see His deeds as evil instead of good.
   Here's the incredibly beautiful thing about any church - within every single church, worldwide, that has been ordained by God Himself to simply "be the church," you will find everything and everyone that church needs to be exactly what God Himself designed it to be within that community and within the world, at that very time. Why? Because God doesn't make mistakes. He doesn't pull together incomplete churches, or a group of incomplete people, and then ask them to do His work.
   By that very definition, there is no such thing as a church which is "in transition." While being believers, we are technically all in transition at all times, that transition is one of becoming more like Christ as individuals. It's a process that has no end. But together, as the body of Christ, we are complete. We are whole. We are perfectly capable of doing exactly what we are called to do at the present time.
   But there's only one way this works in any church - we all, as individuals, have to keep our focus on Christ Himself, asking Him continually what His role for us is within our church is, asking for His guidance, through His Spirit, on a continual basis. If we can all simply keep that mindset, to do that first, He will do works within us as a whole that we never dreamed possible as His vision for the church as a complete body begins to work toward changing lives. Our view and our vision must always be vertical, not horizontal.
   Within whatever church you might attend, ask God what your specific role is. He'll tell you if you ask. If you follow through in that, while also appreciating the roles that others are called to play, thanking God for their gifts and abilities as well as your own, miracles are on the very near horizon.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The eyes have it

   When I was a young boy, I learned that my step-father suffered from an eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. It's a pretty horrible condition which, over a long period of time, leads to complete blindness in it's victims. It begins with reduced peripheral vision that gradually works it's way toward the center of one's field of vision, steadily growing darker and darker as time goes by. There's no cure for the condition, and complete blindness will occur gradually, over a few decades, like a lamp slowly burning out.
   What I learned during my teenage years was that even though his vision grew worse and worse, I seemed to be able to get away with less and less. Not that I would ever do anything wrong or disobedient. After all, those who know me well know that I was downright angelic as a young man.
   What I saw first hand was the way that one's body reacts when one of our senses are lost. The other sense become more keen to compensate for the loss of another. My step-father couldn't see me if I stood to his side, but it always seemed as though he could hear me blink 4 miles away. If one of my buddies were to twist both of my arms behind my back and force me to drink or smoke a cigarette, (Because I would never have done any of those things without being severely threatened first) he could smell it on my breath up to 6 weeks later.

   Of course, I'm exaggerating, but that's how it seemed at times.

   Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation with someone and found yourself completing their sentences for them as if you had the ability to read their mind? We all have, haven't we? Maybe it's because we've known that person for a very long time, and we believe we know where they're going with a thought before they even say it. Sure, there are times when that's very true, but how many times have you done this only to find out that you weren't even close?
   I saw a picture a few weeks ago that made me laugh out loud. It was a picture of a man pointing at himself with a surprised look on his face, and underneath was written: "Oh, I'm sorry. Did the middle of my sentence interrupt the beginning of yours?" Funny as that may be, it's really embarassing when we get caught doing that to someone. It makes us feel rude, and it makes them feel unimportant at the least.

   As I was thinking this over, I began to wonder if, just like my step-father felt his sense of hearing and smell improve as his vision grew worse, how much more would we see and hear if we just stopped talking and began to really listen to others? To really hear their words, see their body language and facial expressions as they spoke, and allowed ourselves to sense what they might be feeling? How would that change our relationships?

   As I write these things, I feel a great deal of conviction in saying them. I have been so incredibly guilty of not listening, not seeing, not hearing. Anyone who knows me well knows that, well, I can talk until I pass out from lack of breath. If you're able to get a word in edge-wise when I'm on a roll, congratulations..........you've joined a very rare and elite group. But I remember conversations I've had when I've failed to understand someone's heart - not because I wasn't capable - but because I just didn't stop long enough to really listen. This has led to many regrets and misunderstandings in my life, as I'm sure it has for you also.

   Jesus felt the frustration many times when those around Him, for whatever the reason, were so locked into what they assumed He was saying that they missed the point completely. In Mark 8:18, He said;

"Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember?"

   You see, this isn't a new problem in our world. It's been going on since the beginning of time. People assume, but fail to ask. People have eyes, but fail to see. They have ears, but fail to hear. They don't remember.

   We all want to feel as though we're understood. But before we can be ever be fully understood, we truly need to take the time to listen, to hear, and to understand. This not only applies to our relationship with others, but also in our relationship with God.
   Make an effort to really hear those around you, and take some time to be silent and still, and really listen to God. Our prayers, while very well intended, can often be just a matter of us reciting our laundry list of cares and concerns. But that's not a relationship. That's dictation. Be stiil, be silent, and simply ask God what He wants you to hear. You'll be amazed at how He may respond.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sowing Class 101

   A boy sits in his science class one day, and listens intently as his teacher holds up an apple seed between her thumb and index finger, showing it to the whole class as she explains how that single seed, if planted and cared for, could grow into an apple tree which could bear fruit for many years. “Literally thousands of apples” she explains, “could grow from just this one, single seed.” She goes on to explain how the meat of the apple is actually perfect fertilizer for the seeds as they begin the transformation from seed to plant.  

  This thought stays with him throughout the day. You see, he really likes apples. In fact, they’re his favorite fruit. He decides he’s going to plant an apple tree of his own, right in his own back yard. He runs home after school and opens the refrigerator. “Hmmm……..Just one apple left.” He says to himself with a sense of disappointment. After all, if there’s just one left, he can’t eat it and plant it at the same time.

   He decides to act on the faith that what his teacher said was true. He grabs a shovel out of his garage, then walks out into his back yard with the apple in hand. He finds a safe place to plant it, away from the main traffic areas, and digs a hole big enough for the apple to fit. He covers it with soil, clears the grass and weeds away, then brings the garden hose over and waters it.

   For the rest of the summer, he walks out to where he buried his apple and looks for any sign of growth. He see’s nothing on the surface, but he waters it anyway. The winter comes, and the ground remains covered with snow for most of the season. He looks out the window from time to time, hoping that it’s ok.

   The following Spring, after the ground had thawed, he walks over to where he planted it. His heart begins to pound as he notices a small sprout coming out of the ground. He begins to tell all of his friends about this sprout that will someday be an apple tree, and one which will supply him with all the apples he would ever need.

They laugh and begin mocking him, saying that he was nuts to wait for a tree to grow to get apples. After all, he could find all the apples he could want at the grocery store. They tell him to forget about his stupid ole tree and just go buy some. But in his heart, he knows that these apples would be different. After all, they would be his apples, grown from just a small seed that he had planted.

   The following summer was extremely tumultuous. Wave after wave of violent thunderstorms pounded his small town. The following summer brought on a severe drought. He began to wonder if maybe God didn’t want his small tree to survive, and at times, he doubted it would.

   What he couldn’t see was what the inclement weather was doing to his little tree underneath the surface. It wasn’t killing it. It was instead driving it’s roots deeper into the soil, giving it a firm foundation from which it could grow even taller and stronger than it would normally have grown.

   After many years had passed, the boy was a young man with a small family of his own. He had bought his childhood home from his parents, and was living there with his own children.

   As he relaxed in a hammock under his apple tree, reading a story to his daughter about seeds and plants, he looked up and realized that this tree had given him far more than just apples. It had given him shade from the hot summer sun. In the Fall, he would see the beauty of it’s leaves as they changed color. Every Spring, it would burst to life with beautiful flowers.

   That’s exactly how God works with the fruit we plant in our lives.

   We plant a seed, in faith that it will grow. At times we’re mocked by friends or relatives who don’t see the value of the seeds we are planting. We can’t blame them. After all, our seeds are not theirs. We see the storms that God sends into our lives and at times we begin to wonder if He’s trying to destroy what we’ve planted because we can’t see beneath the surface where the roots are reaching downward, giving us a firmer foundation.

   What we also can’t see is what God will grow that into over time. We think we’ll just get apples, if He chooses to bless us with them. We have no way of knowing what beauty we’ll eventually see as the leaves change and the flowers bloom. We also can’t imagine the comfort we’ll eventually find in the shade of that which we’ve nurtured.

   In Galatians 6:7-11, Jesus said;

“ Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

  With every word we say, in everything we do, we are sowing seeds of one kind or another. The questions will always be; “What do we wish to find within our harvest?”

Monday, February 6, 2012

Our very best

   Chris is a young man of 17 growing up in a Christian family in a fairly average suburban neighborhood. He does what most young Christian men his age might do on a daily basis. He goes to school, plays video games, goes to church with his family, and eats like a horse. His parents sometimes wonder if he's hiding food somewhere, because they have a hard time believing that anyone could eat as much as he does.
   For all intents and purposes, he's pretty much invisible. As far as the world can see, he doesn't do much of anything that's truly noteworthy by anyone's standards. He doesn't stand out in the crowd. He just goes about his business and does what's expected of him.
   He has 6 older brothers, all of them far more outspoken than he. Three of them were atheletes on the high school football team. The other three were stellar students, for whom good grades just seemed to come naturally. Each one of his older brothers recieved either academic or athletic scholarships to prestigeous colleges.
   When he hears his parents speak of their children, he's always the last one to be mentioned, if he's even mentioned at all. Sure, they love him, but they have a hard time seeing anything in him that's worth mentioning by the world's standards. Due to their heavy involvement in sports or academics, his brothers were rarely asked to help around the house with the daily chores. They were just too busy, his parent's thought. That being the case, most of the mundane tasks that needed to be done were passed down to Chris. He didn't complain much. He just went about his business, accepting his role within the family, and doing the best job he could.
   When he has some down time, he will pick up his bible and read it to himself. He's never been given much of an education in religious studies. Sometimes he has a hard time grasping the complex themes within the stories. After all, he doesn't posess the academic brilliance of his brothers. So before and after he reads, he prays and asks God to teach him. In doing so, he's always very thankful whenever he gains understanding, knowing that any understanding he may have came directly from God Himself.
   His parents are stunned one day when their doorbell rings and they answer it to see the pastor of a local mega-church standing on their front steps, along with 3 elders. They're even more stunned when the pastor informs them that, due to some personal issues, they're looking for someone to take over as pastor of the church. This isn't just any church. This is the church of all churches, with literally thousands of members.
   His parents ask what this has to do with them. Their jaws drop when they're told that, after a great deal of prayer, the pastor and elders are convinced that God told them to come to this home, because that's where they will find their next leader. In fact, one of their sons is the man God has chosen to take on this role.
  His parents are convinced that one of his older brothers must be the one. After all, they're all dynamic men, intelligent, personable, good looking, and exciting to be around. They immediately bring each of their sons into the room, one by one, to meet the pastor and elders. After meeting each one of them, they shake their heads and say "No, he's not the one."
   After meeting all of them, the pastor and elders are confused. "Are these all of you sons?" they ask. "Well, there's one more.........Chris." They respond, almost ashamed to bring him in after having introduced the others. "Bring him in, then." The pastor insists.
   As soon as he enters the room, the pastor and his elders know that he is the one. They don't know why, they just have a clear sense that God is speaking to them on this.
   As some of you may have figured out, this is not the story of Chris. This is the story of David, who was the least of his brothers by worldly standards, but who was chosen by God to be the next king of Israel. He would go on to become not only one of the greatest kings in Israel's history, but also one of the most beloved of bible characters.
   Pastor Steve spoke this week on "Giving our first fruits to God." He mentioned our posessions, all that we have been blessed with, and our daily behavior, wanting to make good choices by God's standards so that we might live a life that is pleasing to Him. In his words, "Our very lives are our first fruits, belonging to God, and to be given to Him freely and completely."
   As I sat and listened to his message, another angle occurred to me. Within each of us, God has placed certain "gifts and abilities." These are things that just seem to come naturally to us that don't necessarily come naturally to others.
   Why were we given these "gifts and abilities?" For one reason alone - that God might be glorified through how they are used.
   As David walked through the fields, caring for his sheep, what he probably didn't know was that God Himself was in the process of teaching him everything he would need to know once he was king. Within what seemed like simple, mundane tasks to David and his family were lessons about life and leadership, given to him by God.
   As Steve said on Sunday, God has placed you where you are right now for a reason. Don't ever look at where you are as a temporary annoyance that you'll be freed from as soon as God brings you where you're supposed to be. You already are where you're supposed to be. Look for ways to use your gifts and abilities, offering them up to God as your "first fruits," and be stunned and amazed when you see how God uses them. After all, the gifts and abilities you posess are there to be used no matter where you find yourself. If God wants to take them to a higher level, in an area that appears to be more prestgious, you'll be the first to know. As Jesus Himself said in Luke 16:10-11:

 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?"

    Begin today in being faithful with what you have already been given, and wait upon the Lord to show you when and if He will give you more.