Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Is God really in control?

We will all face times in our lives when we ask "Where is God?

   It's not an uncommon thing for believers to face trials in our lives that make us question if God is hearing our prayers, or if he's even paying attention to what's happening in our lives. I've experienced times like these on numerous occassions, as I know you have too. We come up against a set of circumstances that cause us a great deal of pain, and we just don't understand why these things are happening. We pray and we pray, but nothing seems to change. We ask for relief, but none seems to come. At times we feel as though we can't go on another day in those places, and yet another day comes........and another.

   When we are feeling this way, a well intended verse thrown at us by other believers can cut like a knife, even though it was intended to lift us up. They may have our best interest in mind and want nothing more than to help us out of our current heartache, but their answers fall flat. When our hearts are truly broken, and someone repeats Romans 8:28 to us, (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.) or tells us that what we need is to have more faith, it can feel like a slap across the face on a cold January morning.

   Have you ever been struggling with a situation in your life that you have no answers for, and which leaves you feeling as though you're alone in a deep, dark cave with no light to guide you? Where there appears to be no logical answers for what you're experiencing? Where you trace the steps you've made that led to this situation and can find nothing you did wrong that led to your being in this place?

   Are you there now?

   Paul must have had many days like that. In Philippians 1, we find him writing to the church in Philippi, thanking them for the generous gift they had sent him while he was imprisoned in Rome. Why was he imprisoned? What did he do wrong? Did he commit a crime? No. He was falsely accused of breaking laws he hadn't broken by a crowd of people who simply didn't agree with his teachings. He was teaching the things that God himself had given him to teach. But they wanted him silenced, so they falsely accused him. He was completely innocent of any crime.

   While awaiting his trial in Rome, he remained under house arrest for 2 years........For nothing.

   And yet, while in prison, he wrote the following words:

   "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

   Being in prison for two years after being falsely accused, how many times do you suppose Paul "Presented his requests to God?" And yet..........imprisoned he remained. How many times do you suppose Paul imagined how much more work he could do for God if he were a free man? How many times do you suppose he thought about those who had falsely accused him? And yet.......while in this place.......he rejoices.........How is that possible?

   This leads to a crucial question. Why was Paul there? Did "man" send Paul to prison, or did God? From Paul's writing, it's evident that he knew God had put him there for His reasons. Mainly, that the gospel might be preached in Rome, and that God had chosen him to be the one who would preach it there.

   While there, Paul not only preached in Rome, he even preached to the guards who were charged to watch over him. He never stopped preaching. Why? Because he knew what his purpose was in life. He knew what his calling was. The circumstances surrounding him did not change either his purpose or his calling. They just changed the venue within which his calling would be performed.

   In Philippians 1:3-6, he writes:

  "I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy  because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,  being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."

   If he believed this for the church in Philippi, he clearly believed the same was true of himself, that "he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."

   Friends, we are all works in progress. None of us have all of this figured out. We will continue to grow, learn, fail, and succeed until we breathe our last breath. As we would ask others to be patient with us as we face difficult circumstances in our lives, we must also extend that same courtesy to others. We are all "works in progress" - each and every one of us. To expect that anyone would be a completed work, free of flaws, blemishes and wrinkles would be unfair at best.

   Every change that comes into our lives, be it a new job, a new vision, new goals, or even the end of a ministry at a specific locale, does not mean that God is done with us. It just means he's giving us a new perspective on what we're called to do..........Planting us in new soil that we may grow there. That being said, don't ever believe for a moment that when a believer who has been involved in a certain ministry is called somewhere else, it was the work of any man..........not even the man who is called elsewhere. God calls us where he chooses, for as long as he chooses, and he then calls us someplace else. He will continue this process to complete his will in our lives until we live no more.

   Whatever place you may find yourself in, you are there for a reason. God didn't forget about you, nor has he given up on you. He's merely brought you into a new season in your life. That season will lead to another, and another, and another. The only thing that remains constant is change. And when the time comes for him to call you home, you'll look back and see how all of these seasons, woven together over the course of your life, will have created a beautiful tapestry that only God could've created.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Speaking truth to a lying world

   Whether you are the guilty party or the victim, habitual lying will eventually suck the life out of you.

   Have you ever been around someone who lies continually? It's incredibly draining, isn't it? Maybe you ignore it for awhile, not wanting to confront anyone, embarass them, or make a scene, but you'll eventually reach a place where you have to say something. You inevitably reach a point where just can't take it anymore.
   If at the height of your frustration, when you finally speak up, the individual lies once again to cover the fact that they were lying, where do you go from there? Where can you go from there?

   If you were to count every word that came from a man's mouth, and just one of every 1,000 was a lie, would that still not be enough to make you distrust much of what he might say from that day forward?

    The damage done from one lie can destroy the reputation of a person amongst his family, friends, church, or community for years to come, and destroy any sense of a good reputation he may have spent a lifetime trying to build.

   Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

    "He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions."

THOMAS JEFFERSON, leter to Peter Carr, Aug. 19, 1785

     The book of Titus is a letter written by Paul after he had left Titus to continue building the church in Crete. If you're familiar with the term "Cretens," the origin of that term comes from this very island.
    The people of Crete had built for themselves a very unsavory reputation. In his letter to Titus regarding these people, Paul states:

"One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons. This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith." Titus 1:12-13

     When you think about someone in your life who has done a great deal of harm to you, their loved ones, and even to themselves through dishonesty, and when you think back upon the intense frustration and heartache you have felt in dealing with them, try to imagine being on an island full of people like that.......an entire race of people who were well known for that type of behavior.......On an island..........and you're sent there to build a church.......If you're anything like me, you'd be looking for the first ship out of there.

 And yet, God chose to plant His church in the midst of these people. Furthermore, He chose Paul and Titus to instruct and teach them. Why would He do this? Why would God send His best and brightest to an island full of lying, lazy gluttons?

   It's very easy to feel a sense of anger or righteous indignation toward these people. But in God's eyes, they are just as valuable as any of us. In fact, the answer to why God would send his best and brightest to this island and to this people can be found in Titus 3:3-7

 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.  But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,  he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,  whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

   In this same letter, Paul encourages Titus to live amongst these people in such a way as to not allow anyone to speak evil of him. He admonishes him to do good continually, not in a way that makes him a footstool or a whipping boy to them, but in such a way that once they see his is a man of strong moral character, they might be transformed by the example he leaves behind.

   Our world today isn't much different, is it? We look around and see continual lying in every direction. From our nations leaders, to our mainstream media, to our schools, and everwhere in between.

   So, what are we to do? We are to live in their midst, carrying out our lives in such a way that they may be drawn to the truth, and that the truth they see in us would shine such an intense light upon the darkness of the dishonest world we live in, it would be impossible to ignore.

   Will we be perfect in this? By no means. Can we take back the lies we've spoken in the past? No. But here's what we can do: We can begin to speak the truth today, and resolve to do the same tomorrow. And in doing so, we can begin to rebuild our relationships, our churches, our communities, and our world.


Monday, March 12, 2012

What is love?

   Sam sat in his car in front of a local grocery store with the motor running. He had just stopped for a few items on his way home from work. Before he put the car in reverse to back out of his space, he sat for a few moments, contemplating everything that he'd experienced over the past year. His mind raced from moment to moment as he tried to make sense of it all. It had been an incredibly tumultuous year for him. Just thinking about all of the changes he'd been through left his head spinning.
  Throughout all of his adult life, Sam had been running from God. He could think back to multiple occassions over the years when he knew beyond a doubt that God had called out to him, but he had rejected that call time after time.
   This time was different. He knew that God had shown up once again, but this time it was with such clarity it was impossible to ignore any longer. He began to attend a local church, and began to feel God's calling even stronger. Being newly married, he went home to his new wife and told her that he truly believed that God was calling him. He explained how he had felt this many times before in his life, but had ignored it. He went on to say that he couldn't ignore it anymore.
   This didn't go over well. His wife couldn't understand why he needed to follow anything. She argued that he should just go to church like most other people and not dive so deeply into his faith. After all, only crazy people believe that God truly speaks to them. What she knew deep down inside was that this changed everything. Hearing him say that from now on he was going to ask God what the next step in his life should be and then follow His instruction as it arrived meant that there could be no major decisions made unless it was clear to him that God had spoken to him. This sounded like absolute insanity to her.

   Within a few months, and after many heated arguments, Sam had come home to find his new wife with another man. She had decided she'd rather pursue a new relationship with someone else than to stay with a man who believed that God spoke to him. She was convinced he had lost his mind. A few months later, she moved out and filed for divorce.

   Sam shook off these thoughts, put the car in reverse and backed out of the parking space. As his car came to a stop, he realized that he was facing his ex-wife's car which was stopped at the intersection next to the store. He sat and watched as she made a left turn, drove a few blocks, then turned into the apartment complex where Sam knew her new boyfriend lived. Sadness gripped his heart as he thought about how much he'd loved her when they met, how he would've given her anything she'd ever wanted, and how she had now left him for someone else.

   He pulled out of the parking lot with tears in his eyes and looked up. "I really didn't need to see that, God.......... That really hurt." he said under his breath.

   It was at that very moment when he felt as though God spoke directly to his heart, saying: "Sam, that's exactly how I've felt everytime you've turned from me and chased after things you believed at the time were more important."

   Sam pulled over, feeling an incredible sense of guilt and remorse. He'd never imagined that his ignoring God would hurt God as much as seeing this had hurt him. He bowed his head as tears began running down his face. "I'm so sorry, Lord.......I'm so sorry......Please forgive me. I never thought I was hurting you." he whispered through shallow breaths, his heart breaking as never before.

   This week, we heard Pastor Steve speak on Proverbs 31. If you're as familiar with this chapter as I am, you'll know that it's the story of "The Godly Wife." In his lesson, he spoke of how we can have this incredibly intimate relationship with God, very similar to what we might find in a marriage. I'd never read that chapter with that perspective before, but the more I thought it over, the more sense it made.

   Over the past 24 hours, countless bible stories and verses came to mind as I dove further into this subject. In Romans 8:38-39, we read:

" For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

   Furthermore, in Matthew 22:36-40, we read:

 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

   And, of course, in John 3:16, we read:

"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."

   I have to confess to you that I've read these verses many times. I've been told countless times that God loves me. I've believed that too. But I never once allowed the depth of His love for me to really sink in to the level that it has over the past 24 hours. Why? Because I never once considered that the love He feels for me is the same type of love we might find within marriage. While I fully understand that it goes even deeper than that, and that nothing here on earth can even come close to describing God's love for us, this still gives us something tangible, doesn't it?
   Have you ever loved someone unconditionally? Have you ever been loved unconditionally? If so, that's as close as we can ever come to understanding. If not, then it makes it even more difficult to absorb. But it's still there if we can just take a moment to allow that thought to settle in.

   What feelings do you have for the one person you love more than anyone you've ever loved in your entire life?.............Don't move past that thought..........linger there for awhile. That's the closest we will ever come to understanding how much God loves us.

   So, what would you do for this person you love? What wouldn't you do for them? How would you speak to them? What would you say? That's how God loves us. That's how He wants us to love Him. If we can just rest in that.............It would be beautiful beyond words.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Alter building

   Every once in awhile, on a nice summer day, I've been known to jump in my car and drive down to my old neighborhood in the city. Not with any particular goal in mind to speak of, just to get out of the house for awhile and enjoy the day. It's about a 45 minute drive to get there, but I'm never in a hurry.
   Once I arrive, I'll pick a sidestreet to turn down, and within minutes my mind is recalling countless memories. Some are good, some are bad, some hilarious, some heartbreaking. These memories wouldn't mean nearly as much to anyone else as they would to me. After all, they weren't there. They didn't see what I saw. They don't share those memories.
   It's usually a building of some sort that sparks these memories. An old friend's house, my grade school, high school, a corner grocery store where my friends and I were known to hang out, etc..
   As crazy as it may sound, I've even been known to park my car somewhere in the neighborhood and just walk around for awhile. Sometmes it's the smallest of things that spark a memory. A small metal sign next to a parking lot, an enormous old tree that I remember trying to climb, or one that I laid under staring up at the Fall sky through brilliantly colored leaves.
   If I linger long enough on these thoughts while staring at the objects that brought back the memories, my body literally reacts as if I were there. I'll laugh out loud at the funny memories, feel my heart warmed by the loving memories, or become saddened by the heartbreaking ones.

   We all have places that bring back such memories. The vast majorities of these places were not intentional. We didn't show up at a certain location saying to ourselves: "This will be a place I will always remember because something incredible will happen here." More often than not, these places only become important to us well after the events occur.

   What these places become within our hearts and minds are alters, which, every time we see them, will remind us of past memories, be they good or bad. What's an alter?.......Funny you should ask.

   In Genesis 12:1-9, Abram was told by God to take all of his posessions and move to a foreign land based solely upon a promise from God.

  The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 
   I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

  So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.  He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
  Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.  The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.
  From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD.
  Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

   One of the reasons Abram (Later known as Abraham) built these alters was to always remember. For many years, every time he'd walk past one of these alters, he'd recall a time when God led him, where God met him, or where God had done something absolutely incredible in his life.
   He could stop at any of these alters and teach these things to his children, or his children's children, always confirming God's love and care for them as he shared these stories.

   While it's easy to see one of the buildings - or alters - of our past and immediately recall some very distant memories, it's not always as easy to do so in our hearts. We face troubled times, financial crisis, illnesses, etc., and we forget about all of the times when we knew for certain that God had shown up in our lives in the past. But if we could somehow build something that we could look at, and suddenly remember all of the times when God simply showed up in our lives, how far would that go toward restoring our faith in Him when difficulties arise?

   Here's a project for all of you. When you find yourself with the time to do so, take a pen and paper, and write out a list of the times in your life when you know beyond a doubt that God showed up. If you're feeling creative, draw a picture, or a group of pictures that bring these memories back. It doesn't have to be a great work of art. You can even use a crayon. You'll know what each picture represents, no matter how poor the atrwork. Hang it on your refrigerator with a magnet. Put it in your purse, your wallet, or your glovebox. Have it framed and put it on your desk at work.

   Maybe it will be for your eyes only, which would definitely be enough. But maybe it would be something so silly looking that others who see it will be forced to ask the question "What is that?" If they do, you'll be just like Abraham, standing in front of the alter with his grandchildren.

   After all, God has not forgotten us, and He never will. What small token can we create to help us to always remember Him?