Friday, November 30, 2012

My rotten, no good neighbor

   I have a neighbor who lives next door to me. He calls himself a Christian, but I'm not so sure about that at times. You see, he says all of the right things when asked, but I see how he acts and I hear how he talks when nobody else is around. I sometimes wonder why God would ever listen to him when he prays. I mean, he says and does some pretty rotten things at times.
   I know many of the people who attend his church. They seem - for all intents and purposes - to have their lives together. There's a clear indication that these people are truly following their beliefs with all of their hearts. They smile, they're compassionate, and it seems as though they really love their God.
   There's a lot of happy Christian couples in his church who show up every week and really seem to work well together. They're committed to each other, and to their faith. They sit next to each other at church, intently listening to whatever the lesson may be, and then really appear to put what they've learned into practice.
   But my neighbor? Not so much. I've seen him at his church. Often times, he looks really distracted, as if there's a million things on his mind that are drawing him away from learning anything. And while everyone else stands up to sing, he looks around the room, half-heartedly mouthing the words to the songs without really considering their meaning. His heart just isn't into it.
   In fact, on the surface, it looks as though he sits through the service every week, then immediately forgets what he was taught as soon as he hits the door and comes back home. He agrees that what he's being taught is true while he's sitting there, but then lives out his daily life in complete opposition to what he knows he should be doing................What a horrible hypocrite this guy is.........I gotta tell ya, he really disgusts me at times. I mean, how can this guy even call himself a Christian???

   Yeah, the more more closely I watch him, the more convinced I am that he's not a Christian, and the more convinced I am that God wouldn't possibly want to hear what he has to say. I'd be willing to bet that he spends a lot of time "praying to the ceiling," because there's no way that God hears him. I mean, why would He even bother?  Furthermore, I don't see any way that God could possibly use him - being the person he is.

   Do you think I'm being too hard on him? Do you think I'm being far too critical? Well, I have to disagree with you whole-heartedly. In fact, If you'll let me, I'd like to point out why my thinking is absolutely biblical, and why I am absolutely on the right track when I condemn him right where he stands.

    I'm simply following Jesus' directions in Matthew 22:37-39

 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.’

   You see, this isn't really about my's about me.

Did the light bulbs just go off??.......You see, if I truly "loved my neighbor as myself," while at the same time listening to the self-talk that sometimes goes on within my own mind, I wouldn't think very highly of him, would I? 

    I've heard it said that if we had a friend who talked about us the way we talk about ourselves within our own minds, we wouldn't be friends with that person for very long.

   We tend to condemn ourselves right where we stand on many occassions. How can we possibly love our neighbors as ourselves while we're continually condemning ourselves in our own minds? That shouldn't be. The only way we can possibly love our neighbors as ourselves, and to do so in the way God intended us to is if we first remember these words:

   "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." - Romans 8:29-34

   It's been said that before we can love others, we have to first learn to love ourselves. Those are very true words, but not from the perspective of thinking we're somehow better than or superior to others. Before we can truly love others the way that God intended, we have to believe that God loves us just as we are. Does that mean we shouldn't always strive to be better? Not at all. But right where we stand today, just as we are today, God loves each and every one of us more than we could possibly imagine.

   Don't ever let your own negative self-talk prevent you from believing that.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Why does this guy write so much?

   I can still remember the first time I became involved in writing on a regular basis. It began innocently enough. I was involved in a football pool at work, and I thought it would be a clever idea to write a brief and exceptionally sarcastic newsletter to all of the members each week, explaining the various reasons why anyone would make the kind of rediculous picks that some of them had made the previous week.
   I covered everything from apparent psychological disorders to temporaray insanity, marital problems, and even down to what could only be explained as a lack of blood flow to the brain of the member who decided to pick the teams they had. After all, nobody in their right mind would've picked that team over the other one. I took a great deal of pleasure in offering up my own explanation as to why they had suffered from such an incredible lapse of reason.

     I wrote the fiirst one, and then passed it out to each member along with the results of the previous week. What began as my having fun (at the expense of the pride and dignity of the other members) eventually became the high point of the week for many of us. The guys involved couldn't wait to see who I tore into this week, and I know that, over time, a few people joined the pool just to become part of it.

   It was during this time that it became clear to me that I might just be good at that sort of thing. I knew this because I received very positive feedback from everyone who would take the time to read what I had written. In a very odd way, my success there eventually involved into my writing many short articles, this blog, and has even led to an effort on my part to write a novel, which is still a work in progress.

   I've written more things in my life than I can count, but I still have this deep drive to keep writing more and more. It has rarely, if ever, felt like work to me. It just seems to come naturally to me, and I enjoy doing so more than the vast majority of things I'll do on any given day.

   I've never been paid a dime for anything I've written, and that's ok with me.

   Since taking my writing in a different direction - that being writing for the sole purpose of inspiring and encouraging others within their faith - the rewards I've experienced have been exceptional. There are very few things that mean as much to me as hearing someone say: "Steve, thank you so much for writing that. I really needed to hear that today." It brings a sense of joy and fulfilment to my heart that I can't even begin to describe.

   So, what are you - the reader - supposed to take away from what I've written so far?

   It's very simple. Every week, we sit in our churches........or come up with reasons why we don't belong there. We hear people take the pulpit and talk about giving. We naturally assume that they're only talking about giving financially. This frustrates us at times, because many of us are struggling to a great degree financially. We hear the words, but we can't think of any way to give at the moment.

   But there's a gift you've been given freely, and it's one that can be passed to others with little or no effort on your part. It's the gift of who you are. It's the gift of who you were created to be.

   It means more - to someone - than you could ever possibly imagine.

   I remember way back when I was just a teenager. (Yes, I can still remember that far back) I was considering getting involved with a project that I was certain I'd be good at, but one which I wasn't sure anyone would appreciate. The mother of a very good friend overheard me talking about this, and said the following:

   "Do you truly believe that you have a gift in that area? Because if you do, refusing to move forward in it is not only robbing yourself of the opportunity to use your gifts, it's also robbing the people around you from enjoying them...........and that is extremely selfish of you."

   Those words have stayed with me for over 30 years, and they still ring true to me today.

   I have seen first hand what God can do with our gifts, if we'll just take the first step of using them for Him. The rewards we experience personally when we do so are far too great to even begin to explain. I won't know the full extent of those rewards, or how far God can take what I offer up, until my work is done here and I move on to be with Him.

   But this much, I do know: Using my gifts has never felt like work.

   What gifts do you have? How can you use them? Where are they needed most? If you ask those questions, then act upon the answers you receive, your life will never be the same, and you will never regret acting upon them

Monday, November 19, 2012

Squirrels of Worry

                It was a crisp, Fall day, and I decided to take a long walk in the park across the street from my home. Having nowhere that I had to be, and no pressing issues at hand, I wasn’t in much of a hurry. I was just enjoying the weather and getting some much needed fresh air. It’s a fairly large park, with walking paths that wind through play areas for children, soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and heavily wooded areas. There were very few people in the park, and I found myself alone with my thoughts as I walked at a casual pace, taking in a deep breath every so often to enjoy the scent of nature all around me. There was a slight chill in the air. Not enough to make me feel uncomfortable, but enough to cause me to keep my hands in my jacket pockets. If I stood still and exhaled heavily, I could see just a slight trace of my breath in the chilly air. It was, in short, the kind of beautiful Fall day that many of us who’ve grown up in the Midwest have learned to love.

                As I walked along the path, I began to hear the squirrels running across the dried leaves that covered the ground. There were no outside noises from traffic or people or construction of any kind, so the sound of the leaves crunching under the feet of the squirrels as they ran across the wide open fields became more and more apparent to me.

                I then began to notice a different sound  - the sound of the nails on the squirrels feet digging into the bark of various trees as they scurried up the sides. When I first began my walk, I barely even noticed the sounds. But the longer I walked, the more obvious these sounds became. In fact, as my ears became more in tune to these sounds, the more constant they became, and what felt like almost absolute peace and quiet when I had started out had become a near symphony of sounds - some very near, some farther away, and some way off in the distance.

                As I continued to walk, I knew that these furry little creatures were running through the fields and up into trees because they had become startled by me and were simply trying to keep their distance. But as I stopped for a moment and looked around, there seemed to be literally hundreds of them. The thought occurred to me that – had they banded together and decided to take me out of the game, I wouldn’t stand a chance. I could never possibly defend myself against such a great number of these small, nimble animals with their sharp nails and teeth.

                It was at this point that an extremely valuable life lesson dawned on me. These little squirrels that surrounded me were very symbolic of the worries we all face in our day to day lives. We’re walking along, trying to enjoy all that life has to offer, and we suddenly become very aware of all of the little worries that scurry around in our lives. In fact, the more we focus upon them, the more we see and the louder they become. We sometimes begin to add them up in our minds, turning them into larger than life threats that keep us locked in fear of moving forward and enjoying our lives the way that we should. In fact, we can become nearly paralyzed in fear as we imagine all of the things that could possibly go wrong on any given day.

                It is during times like these that Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25-34 can feel like a breath of fresh air to us.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

            The next time you find yourself walking down whatever path you may be on, and you realize that you’ve suddenly become very aware of the sheer volume of things that cause you to worry, take a deep breath and remind yourself of Jesus’ words. Don’t allow the “squirrels of worry” to change the direction of your path, or to take away from you the breath of fresh air you’ve just stopped to inhale.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I'd rather just sit on my hands

   We have busy lives here in America. It's astonishing to think about - all of the time we spend chasing down various pursuits, sticking to schedules, etc.. There are many days when we feel as though we started working the moment we climbed out of bed, and didn't stop until our heads hit the pillow at night.
   Sometimes days, weeks, months, and even years go by so quickly we don't even notice how much time has passed, and in the end, another day, week, month, or year has passed and we wonder what we've done that has really made a difference in our lives or in our world.
   It's not that the things we wrap ourselves up in aren't important. We need to eat, we need to clean, we need to be productive members of society. We pour countless hours into these pursuits, many times feeling as though - in spite of our best efforts - we've ended up right back where we started the day before. It is at times like these that we can fully relate to Solomon's words in Ecclesiastes 1:2-8.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

  What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
  Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
  The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
  The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
  All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
  All things are wearisome,
more than one can say"
   As I look at my own life, and when I look at the preponderance of unecessary garbage that fills my thoughts, my hopes, my fears on a daily basis, I sometimes feel as though I've missed the whole point. In fact, when I truly focus upon that side of my life, I begin to feel an incredible draw toward getting back to basics - a draw to eliminate all that is unecessary and start over again, focusing intently on what truly matters.
   Here in America, we tend to want a quick fix for everything that ails us. We want fast food to cure our hunger, strong medicine to heal our pain, and who wouldn't love it if scientists were to invent a single pill that would cause us to lose weight, grow back our receding hairlines, eliminate all of our various sagging, wrinkles, and gray hair?
   What if I were to stand here today and tell you that if you truly wanted to do something that would change your entire focus - something that would immediately release your heart, mind, body and soul from all of the garbage that has beaten you down throughout this entire week, and something that would energize you and release a mighty work of God's Spirit within your life - it could happen for you in just 15 minutes per week? Would you laugh? Would you think I'm insane? Would you say that nothing is that simple?
   Well, it's true. Every Sunday, in every church across America, people gather together for various reasons. Some come to be taught, some come to be entertained, and some come simply because they believe that doing so will somehow gain them favor with the Lord. But there's something very wrong within many of our churches. We have somehow become a church filled with spiritual "consumers." People come with the mindset that they want to be taught, enlightened, moved, or instructed, but the vast majority of us have never been taught about the most important reason we're there.
   We can be taught countless lessons, we can be led to countless passages of scripture, we can bow our heads and agree in our hearts with what other people pray, and we can still walk away feeling little or no change in our hearts or minds. So what are we missing? What is it that we tend to disregard without much thought? The answer can be found if we ask ourselves just one simple question: What is the main purpose of our gathering? The answer can be found in Psalm 100:1-4
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
     Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
       Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
     Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name
   We are to come together with one simple praise......our.....God. How important is this, and how does God respond when we do this? The answer can be found in 2 Chronicles 5:13-14. Solomon had spent many years building the temple, but when did the Spirit of God actually make His presence known within the temple?
"The trumpeters and musicians joined in unison to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang:
“He is good;
his love endures forever.”
Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God"
   Years of hard work and preperation had gone into building the temple, but the Spirit of the Lord didn't show up until ........."Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang:
“He is good;
his love endures forever.”
   Many of us go to church every week without ever fully understanding what true praise and worship can mean in our lives. It is the true, heartfelt expression of love, honor, and respect directed toward the God we serve, and nothing moves His heart more than when His people gather with that sole purpose in mind, raising their hearts, voices, and hands in truly heartfelt praise that rises up from the core of their souls.
   I sometimes wonder how it must break God's heart to see His people sitting in His church, not feeling even remotely moved to join in singing praises to Him as those around us do. To see us sitting on our hands, looking around, waiting in the lobby until it's over, reading our bulletins, or thinking about all of the completely unecessary things that fill our minds. He is God. He has blessed us in ways we never could've imagined. Our very existence depends solely upon Him..........and yet, we don't feel any need to sing His praises. 
   We have many reasons why this isn't a part of our weekly experience at church. We don't have good singing voices, we don't feel comfortable singing in front of others, we don't care for the style of music, the volume of the music, and the list goes on and on. Many of us even feel so uncomfortable about this, we'll arrive late every week simply to avoid the whole experience. But God doesn't care about how our singing voices sound. He doesn't care if we sing off key. He doesn't care if we prefer old hymns or newer music. He simply wants us to offer Him praise from the core of our souls - and doing that for a mere 15 minutes, once per week, can and will draw Him more near to us than we've probably experienced at any time during the week. And that, my friends, can be an absolute game-changer.
   Do you want to get back to the absolute basics? Would you love to have a starting point for the upcoming week that can absolutely center you, ground you, draw you more near to God and provide you with a spiritual "ground zero" from which you can build your next week upon? It all starts there. Worship and praise is the absolute center of where we're called to be. It should continue throughout our week, but it has to start somewhere. Why not make it start this coming Sunday?  

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Election of Fools

   There are things we hear on a daily basis that we've heard so many times, we just slip right past them without giving them much thought. It's not that we necessarily believe these things to be true. We've just become numb to them.

   One of these statements jumped out at me over the weekend. During a report on the upcoming election and the impact of Hurricane Sandy is having on it, the reporter said; "Mother nature really threw us a curve ball on this one. Suddenly, all of the things we've been fighting over have become meaningless. The economy, abortion, gay marriage, none of those things matter when communities are coming together while fighting for their lives."

   Mother nature??? Really???

   I don't claim to have any inside information on what God is doing in this world, or why. God doesn't let me know ahead of time what His plans are, nor does He ask my permission before He acts. But I do know this: We have seen more catastrophic natural disasters in the past 10 years than we've seen throughout the rest of my lifetime.
   As these events occur, we hear the blame being placed on everything from global warming to Mother nature. As I've watched these stories break on the news, I've never once heard a reporter say; "Hey, this might sound crazy, but is anyone else getting the impression that maybe God is getting a little ticked off with us?"

   Before I start getting hate mail with people asking me why God would be punishing good, honest, hard working people, families with young children, etc., let me respond by saying this: We are one nation, under God. We stand together, and we fall together. We argue and debate where our country should be heading, but in the end, the leaders we elect make those decisions for us based upon what we tell them we want. If God chooses to discipline us as a nation in an effort to show us the error of our ways, He will do so wherever and whenever He chooses to do so. And yes, innocent people will be hurt.

   We've all watched as this upcoming election unfolds. We've had the negative campaigning up to our eyeballs. We see a government that refuses to deal with the REAL issues, but one that instead fights with party politics, with the only goal being re-elected for their next term. Our government, which was created with very strong Judeo-Christian underpinnings, has become utterly useless due to greed, dishonesty, and a lust for power over the people it's supposed to serve. As believers, we can see the unmistakeable truth in these words:

"For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
   For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools."  Romans 1:20-22

   Yes, our nation has sadly become a nation of fools - claiming to be wise.

   Do I personally believe that Hurricane Sandy is God's way of trying to get our attention? Yes, I do. I don't think it's any coincidence that a "freak of nature" hurricane would strike at the heart of our country's economy, taking a path that hurricanes simply don't take, and right at Washington D.C., within days of what might be the most important Presidential election we've seen in our lifetimes.

   So, what can we do about this? Of course, we can vote, and we will. But the most powerful thing that any of us can ever do is to pray for our country. Pray for our leaders. Pray that God would move in a mighty way to put the people in office who will follow Him, not the most recent, trendy polls. Pray that Godly men and women will be lifted up during this election, and that we can begin the process of moving our nation back to the place where we can proudly announce that we are "One nation, under God."


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Eating the Wounded

   When I was growing up, I had some very stubborn thoughts about what I would eat and what I wouldn't. Most of the time, I wouldn't eat certain things simply because of how they looked or smelled. Sure, I would hear the advice of others. "How do you know you don't like it if you've never tried it?" seemed to be the most common response to my culinary prejudices. But I always had my reasons for not eating certain things, and my gag reflex was seemingly convinced that those prejudices were valid.
   Sometimes it was as simple as seeing someone I didn't care for eating those things. I would watch them enjoying certain foods and think "That's just disgusting." Somehow, in my twisted way of thinking, my distaste for those individuals would transfer to a distaste for the food they ate. Hey, don't judge me.........We all have our quirks.

   It wasn't until I was in my early 20's that I decided to try to put these culinary prejudices behind me and to start trying foods I had never tried before. In an exceptional burst of bravery, I began trying to eat things like lobster tail, sour cream, halibut, broccoli, cauliflower, etc..

   I'll be the first to admit that I was uneasy at first.......... I didn't just dive right in with a mountainous fork-full..........I took a small taste..........then waited. What I found was that I had missed out on some very good food for a very long time. So why did I wait so very long to try these foods? The answer is simple.........there was something I had seen, or heard, or felt, that made the idea of even trying these foods repulsive to me. There were experiences in my life that had shaped my thinking about these foods. There were people in my life who had said and done certain things that cemented those beliefs in my mind. There were also people in my life who had no idea how to cook or present these foods to me in a way that seemed palatable.

   I believe there are a great deal of people who feel the same way about the church.

   How many times have you heard someone say they would never step foot in any church because the people inside are hypocrites? How many times have you had someone attack your beliefs, and then immediately share with you a story of how someone, at some point in their life, had believed the same things you believe and had treated them horribly? Or had done some really horrible things to others?

   As bible-believing Christians, I believe that we sometimes act in ways that cause those who don't share our beliefs to point their fingers and say: "I would never be able to follow a God who treats people the way that I see you treat others."

   Have you ever heard anyone say: "Those Christians just think they're better than everyone else?"

   Why do they say those things? Because many times, that's exactly the way we make them feel through our words and actions. Many times, and in many ways, we reject nearly everything about them. We reject their judgement, their abilities, their thoughts, their accomplishments, you name it. We sometimes feel justified in doing so because they are not using their gifts, talents, and abilities in accordance with our own beliefs. But are they not valuable in God's eyes, regardless of their beliefs?

   In Psalm 139:13-14, it's written;

 "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well."

   Do those words apply only to those who believe what we believe, or do they apply to every single person on this planet?

   In Matthew 11:28, we read;

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."

   I don't read anything in there that says; "But until you do that, you hold no value as a person."

   You see, every single person on this planet is exceptionally valuable to God whether I agree with them or not. If God has created them, and.........."Knit them together in their mother's womb"........ and then tells them "Come to me, and I will give you rest".........then who am I to condemn them where they stand?

   There are millions of people walking this planet right now who have been wounded in unthinkable ways by people who have claimed to believe what we believe. They have experienced "Holier than thou botulism" at some point, and their belief in God has been colored by what they've experienced from those who claim to follow Him. They don't need to be rejected for feeling hurt and angry about this. We do no good in "eating the wounded."

   Every single person on this planet has exceptional gifts, talents, and abilities. They were created that way. If they come to faith, and God begins to empower those gifts, talents, and abilities with His Spirit, then we will watch in awe as we see those gifts, talents, and abilities used in ways that will have eternal spiritual significance.............But those gifts, talents, and abilities still live within these people regardless of what they believe. Why? Because that's how they were created.

   It is not our job to judge the hearts of others. It is not our job to determine whether or not their gifts, talents, and abilities are useful. It is our job to accept them, love them, appreciate them, and live our lives in a way that makes them say "Wow........there's something very different about this person......I want some of that in my life." Declaring war on them will never make them feel all warm and fuzzy about sitting next to us in church and singing songs with us.

   It is our job to show that the lives of faith we lead are palatable...........and to do all we can to avoid giving them a "gag-reflex" when they think about stepping into our churches.