A Dangerous Place to Be

A friend of mine shared in a small group that she thought she probably would be safe from idols in an atmosphere alone with no distractions: no TV, no radio, all alone. She said people wouldn’t distract her from her spiritual life and worldly music or television programs wouldn’t do it either.

Listening to her, the concept sounded good. But at that time, my situation was pretty much what she described and I was still in danger of idolatry on a regular basis.

I have an active imagination. I have a good mind. And sometimes I believe they are sincerely out to get me.

Other people I know who are seriously trying to change from lifestyles of addiction to being “clean,” tell me it’s important to change playmates, playthings and playgrounds. To live the life of obedience to Christ, I pretty much need to do the same thing. That doesn’t mean I sequester myself away from the world. It doesn’t mean I don’t engage with people who don’t believe what I believe about God and Jesus. Doing that is hiding my lamp under a bowl. And Jesus says I’m to let my light shine before men.

However, scripture does tell me it’s dangerous for me to wander the playground of my mind without Jesus. I must “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”

Not every thought I have is sinful, but some of them can lead to sin. My addictions are waiting in the sidelines if I fall prey to just one ugly thought. Or a twisted, selfish emotion. As a matter of fact, being alone can be a hindrance in my relationship with God if I let myself get lonely. I need my friends to help me, so I reach out.

A mind, they say, is a terrible thing to waste. Sometimes, it can be a dangerous place to be.

“Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (James 1:14,15).

How Sweet It Is

twain-forgive-violet-quoteSometimes, for me at least, the idea of forgiving someone leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Over the years, with help from God, forgiving others isn’t the drawn-out, dreaded process it used to be. Matter of fact, I forgive fairly quickly now. Wait. Perhaps I should insert “sometimes” in that sentence as well.

One thing I do know is when I’m in a situation where I need to forgive, I find a good starting point is remembering “I’m that person too. If I haven’t done that thing they did or said, I’m guilty of doing or saying things as bad or worse.”

That reminder is the jumping-off point for extending mercy to others. Just as God extended mercy to me. And how sweet that is.

Strength Over the Long Haul

“Just like a tree that’s standing by the water, I shall not be moved.” ~ traditional Christian hymn

How we respond when trouble comes into our lives does two things, in my estimation. Our responses can reveal our character. They can also develop our character. How we respond also reveals what we believe about God. In other words, how we see his character; his personhood, if you will.

At my age, I’ve been through numerous troubles. Some of them never happened–they were all imaginary and caused by nagging worries and fretting. Some of them were hardly worth mentioning. I was acting spoiled and being petty to think I had it so bad (Insert ‘pet peeves’ here). But in truth, I’ve also seen troubles hard enough to put my faith in God to the test.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The way I see it, whether I’m 21 or 61 (as I am now), those troubles come not to test my maturity at a chronological age, but to test my spiritual maturity. I believe our growth in spiritual maturity begins the moment we respond to the initial promptings of the Holy Spirit. We may not know who that is when we first respond, but later, we realize that it was him speaking to us and drawing us to God. Twilight tree Jeremiah 17

I’ve been slow to move at times, needing to repeat an experience to finally understand what God wants me to know about him. Over the years, however, I’ve kept in mind something I read early on from A.W. Tozer’s, “The Knowledge of the Holy.”

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

Even after reading that book almost 20 years ago, that truth stays with me. Look in the table of contents of Tozer’s book and you’ll see he included each thing that makes God who he is. We can’t separate holiness, goodness or majesty from wisdom, love or justice. God is. Period.

May I go out on a limb and say his immutability–the unchanging nature he owns–explains why we can’t leave out any of his attributes? Nor can we forget that God will always be who he says he is. This unchanging nature is one reason I’ve discovered that God gets me through those troubles better than I can do it myself. (Insert “I change my mind” and “I can be moody” here.)

He guides me, comforts me, has each situation under control. And he gives me strength. I’ve seen it over the long haul, and that strength is only equal to the faith I have in him. Whether it makes sense at the time or not, I have to believe he’ll do what he says he’ll do. Formerly, when my faith was less strong, the realization that he was involved so intimately in my trouble often came later. Now, that knowledge is instinctive.

Trusting him has helped me get through some trouble recently. I wish I could tell you how safe I feel because of it. But it’s beyond words, and that’s probably what God intends. He doesn’t need to be understood as I sometimes think I should be.

Agree with me that Jeremiah the prophet is right when he says a person who trusts in the Lord and has confidence in him is blessed. Does that necessarily mean God gives us gifts so we can make our lives better? I think not.

I believe it means the blessing is the gift of God himself. The God who–because he is who he is–gets us through our troubles and gives us strength for the long haul.

Know and Grow

For the past year, Dallas Theological Seminary has been kind enough to offer me some of their classes. I get the notifications in my email and I get to decide if I want to take the course by watching a series of videos.

The first course I took, a study of the gospel of John, was with Dr. Mark Bailey. Dr. Bailey is president of the seminary but likes to stay involved in classroom instruction. He’s a fine professor.

This past week I began another study with Dr. Howard Hendricks, “How to Read the Bible Like a Seminary Professor.” Dr. Hendricks passed away in 2013, but his teaching (so far as I’ve seen) is relevant and direly needed.

Dr. Bailey was quotable. His sense of humor and authenticity shined. He’s been around a long time and obviously lives what he teaches. Dr. Hendricks is no different. Here’s something he said, which I need to remember at all times:

“God’s Word was not written to make you a smarter sinner.”

In other words, reading and studying the Bible aren’t meant just for information, but for transformation, according to Dr. Hendricks. “You can’t grow without knowing,” he says, “but it’s possible to know and not grow.” (Read that sentence again if you need to; I did.)

After my decision to follow Christ, I ate the Word like a little kid devouring an ice cream cone. I enjoyed having Bible knowledge. Other people enjoyed it too; they often asked for information because I did know the Word. They weren’t always so quick to ask me about how to live the Word. That’s disturbing to me because it means I wasn’t allowing God to make that transformation a reality.

If you’re interested in getting started with this particular study, lesson 1 is posted on YouTube here. Once you bring that video up, you’ll see subsequent lessons on the right-hand side of the screen. They’re numbered and titled so you know where you are.

You can also find the course on the DTS site (as long as it’s listed there) to sign up and receive the first lesson immediately.

I hope you’ll enjoy studying with Dr. Hendricks. It’s a blessing to know DTS is willing to share the wisdom, experience and caring of its people.

Thinking About Spring and “Fruit”

apple-tree-blossoms-john-brink

I’m thinking “Spring” and remembering the beautiful flowers on the apple trees in the yard of my childhood home.

The pink and white blossoms smelled so sweet when you stood close to the tree. Then it seemed all at once, the driveway was covered in petals. First, they showed off their potential for the fall harvest. Then, we waited for those apples to emerge and ripen.

I’ve come to understand that we must all undergo challenges in life so that we may grow and bear fruit like those trees. Struggle. Obey God in the struggle. Then move forward in spiritual maturity.

For the fruit to grow, we must first lose the bloom.

This is a Test

When I was a kid, it was common to receive messages from the Emergency Broadcast System through television broadcasting. Our show would be interrupted by a voice announcing the message and then a grating, buzzing sound would come on for a few moments.

That warning sound was so disturbing, I remember times we covered our ears so we wouldn’t hear it.

When the buzzing stopped, that voice would come on and let us know that the pause in our regularly televised program was “only a test” of the system. Had it been a real emergency, the voice said, we would have been given instructions on how to proceed further.

Sometimes I wish God would let me know ahead of time when he’s testing me. It seems that I often don’t know a situation occurring in my life has been a test of my faith until the whole thing has passed.

It’s true what they said about hindsight.

But I wonder. If God gave me fair warning of an upcoming trial and the manner in which I’d be tested, would I listen to it? Would I consider it a grating sound in my ears and cover them so I could ignore that warning?

Frankly, I don’t remember one time when I received advance warning of a trial coming in my life. A test, so to speak. But I remember times when, further into the difficult situation, I realized it was probably a test.

God wants to know how I’ll respond when things get a little “testy.” He wants to see if I’ll trust him through it to do the amazing things he can do in that situation. Will I respond to people and events as Jesus would?

Will I pray, seek his direction and stay out of his way?ex cu woman praying

A little over a year ago, a friend gave me the opportunity to leave a situation in which we both felt frustrated and somewhat angry. Another individual had entered our happy circumstance and jarred it with an annoying presence. He was only doing what he’d been asked to do and the permission he was given to do it was given by someone who had authority.

Still, the situation was “testy.”

When my friend said, “You can leave if you want,” I told her I’d stay. In this situation, which actually wasn’t a big deal compared to some, I realized immediately that God might have something for me to learn. And that’s what I told her.

While that situation was one in which I knew right off that God could be testing me and watching to see how I responded, that’s not always the case.

Often times, as I said, it takes me a while to recognize that God has a hand in the situation and that his hand is large and in charge. He wants me to do some footwork in most cases, but ultimately, he’s in control.

In the letter Jesus’s brother, James, wrote to Jewish Christians, he said

“You know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete” (James 1:3, 4)

When I read scripture, I’ve learned to pay attention to the places where it says, “so that.” Those two words tell me there’s a good reason for the direction I’m being given by the writer. Because I know the writer’s words were inspired by God himself, I trust them.

Trusting those words, however, doesn’t mean it will always be easy to follow through on the directions. God’s ideas are usually simple ones, but he doesn’t make things necessarily easy for us.

That means if we’re to grow in our faith in God and what he can–and will–accomplish in our lives, we can’t cover our ears when he tells us “This is a test.” Listening–and follow-through–will keep us humbled. It will help us to grow. Listening and follow-through will keep us safe. Just in case of a real emergency.

Elisabeth Elliot on Discipleship

“In order to be a disciple we must deny ourselves. This is to exercise authority over our own spirit. We must take up the Cross. This is to submit to Christ’s authority. And we must follow. This is continued obedience.”

E Elliot with childElisabeth Elliot (December 21, 1926 – June 15, 2015) was a Christian author and speaker. Her first husband, Jim Elliot, was killed in 1956 while attempting to make missionary contact with the Auca (now known as  Waodani) of eastern Ecuador. She later spent two years as a missionary to the tribe members who killed her husband. Returning to the United States after many years in South America, she became widely known as the author of over twenty books, including “Through Gates of Splendor” and “Discipline: The Glad Surrender” She was also in constant demand as a speaker. Elliot toured the country, sharing her knowledge and experience, well into her seventies

Follow Your Heart?

Often, I hear the phrase “Follow your heart” as an encouragement to people to do whatever they think is best based on ‘gut feelings.’ They might also say “Follow your gut.” I believe we all have a conscience given by God and our conscience along with leadings from the Holy Spirit will help us to make decisions based on right and wrong.

And I admit the idea of following my heart used to be something I didn’t think too much about. I know I’ve let even major decisions be based on emotions. Then I became familiar with the Bible and what it had to say about just how poorly my heart acts as a leader in such cases.

Here’s some biblical wisdom I’ve picked up over the years

Jesus speaking in a short sermon: “For each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs aren’t gathered from thornbushes, or grapes picked from a bramble bush. A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.” Luke 6:44,45

“The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick–who can understand it? I, the LORD, examine the mind, I test the heart to give to each according to his way, according to what his actions deserve.” Jeremiah 17:9,10

“All a man’s ways seem right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the motives.” Proverbs 16:2

In addition to heeding what God says in his Word about our actions, words, thoughts and attitudes, I like this advice from Oswald Chambers.

“The only test as to whether we ought to allow an emotion to have its way is to see what the outcome of the emotion will be. Push it to its logical conclusion, and if the outcome is something God would condemn, allow it no more way.” From “My Utmost For His Highest”

Most of the time, I know exactly what God would like me to do. I know his heart. Since a person’s heart is the seat of emotions, following God’s heart is always the best decision.

Father, I know my selfish tendencies. I ask you to constantly remind me that, giving over to my emotions, I’ll often fail to make right decisions. I want to please you. Guide me with your Truth. Test my heart and lead me in the way everlasting.

 

Cookie Cutter Christians

An acquaintance of mine said when she first began her walk with God that she didn’t seem to fit the same mold as the women at church. She was grateful that they were patient with her as she grew more spiritually mature, but still believed she would never be quite like them.

That’s probably a good thing. I’m quite sure that God planned ahead of time for that.

Her remarks got me thinking about my own ability to relate to other Christians. My thoughts turned to trying to figure out why we’re all so different. While a sincere heart change and character growth are what we’re after, I don’t believe God wants cookie cutter Christians.gingerbread-man-cookie

He wants us to be exactly who we are; what he created us to be. Naturally, if we come to him with severe character defects, his Spirit will work in us to change us into people who exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22, 23).

But God created us with unique talents and personalities. His purpose for us in his redemptive plan means he’ll use those talents and personalities for his own purposes. He refines our personalities, but he doesn’t change them.

For example, the apostle Peter was obviously an impulsive sort of guy. He seemed to act and speak sometimes without thinking first. Jesus even rebuked him for it at one point.

“Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men'”(Matthew 16:23).

Yet Jesus knew the potential in Peter and chose him to be the “rock” on which the Church would be built. Peter’s impulsiveness was refined into a boldness which was used to preach the Gospel, winning many people to faith in Christ.

Being handpicked for a purpose is true of everyone who chooses to believe and follow Jesus.

Isn’t it great knowing that God can use even your personality to serve the kingdom?

My observations have seen God using people who are shy and people who are bubbly and enthusiastic conversationalists. I watch as both introverts and extroverts take on ministry and glorify God. Some of us are stoic; others more laid back.

I admit there are times when I meet someone whose personality seems to jive perfectly with mine. Still, there are plenty of differences in us to make our individual service unique and to keep the relationship we have refreshing.

God knows that we need the connections of those similarities. He also knows that our world would be boring if we were cut from cookie cutters or poured from the same mold.

That’s why God celebrates that there’s only one you. You can celebrate it as well.

Digging Into The Bible

Over the years I’ve sat in many small groups of people studying the Bible in some fashion. Every group included at least one person who was unfamiliar with scripture and had no regular Bible reading plan.

I’ve always been passionate about helping people read and understand the Bible better. The reason for my passion is because I know if they keep reading, they’ll get to know God better. They’ll get to know Jesus, his Son. Over time, they’ll even begin to appreciate the Holy Spirit’s role in their lives.

We all enjoy forming relationships in a small group and that’s important. But I believe the small group experience will be enriched when people also form a growing relationship with God. To someone new to it all, even talking about a relationship with God can be confusing.

I understand that because I had questions too. I was too proud to ask them so for a long time I stayed ignorant about a lot of things God wanted me to know and do. Pretty much like I did everything, I relied on myself. I thank God for some good people who gently taught me that I didn’t know it all.  Often, I didn’t even know what I thought I knew.

If you know what I mean.

Today, I love to hear people speak up and ask questions referring to things they don’t understand about God or the Bible. It inspires me, knowing that they want the enlightenment scripture can bring. More than just trying to answer questions, however, I like to point them to Christ by encouraging them to dig into the Bible themselves.

In these cases “Where do I start?” is a common question.

Not a list of Ten Ways to Get to Know Your Bibleman-reading-bible

Rather than being clever and offering a quick fix and a list, here’s a Bible reading plan that doesn’t take much time. It’s pretty comprehensive, covering some significant stories and points in scripture. Even better, it just may give a person with lots of questions enough of a taste to want more. The result of completing the forty days might be that an individual–maybe you–begins a daily Bible reading routine.

Seasoned readers of the Bible might also give the forty-day plan a try. If how you’re doing it now has become a little stale (and it can; don’t feel guilty about that), go ahead and stop how you’re doing it. Reading passages which are seemingly unrelated might put some kick in your relationship with Christ as well. You can always return to the method you were previously engaged in.

God comes near when we draw near to him. Reading the Bible, meditating on what we read and praying for understanding open us up to hear his voice. And that’s something all of us often ask about.

“How do I hear God speak to me personally?”

A Suggested Forty-Day Bible Reading Plan

Day 1: Genesis chapters 1-2 (The Creation Account)
Day 2: Genesis chapter 3 (The Beginning of Sin)
Day 3: Genesis chapters 15, 17:15-27 (God’s covenant with Abraham)
Day 4: Genesis chapter 21:1-7; chapter 22 (God’s faithfulness and Abrahams faith)
Day 5: Exodus chapters 3-4 (God Calls Moses to deliver His people)
Day 6: Exodus 6 (The Ten Commandments)
Day 7 Joshua 1 (Conquering the Promised Land)
Day 8 1 Samuel 16-17 (David and Goliath)
Day 9: 1 Kings chapters 3; 8:1-9; 9 (King Solomon’s wisdom and the Temple)
Day 10 1 Kings 18 (The prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal)
Day 11: 2 Kings 25 (The Siege of Jerusalem and the Exile of Judah)
Day 12: Daniel 2-3 (Daniel in Babylon: The fiery furnace)
Day 13: Ezra 3 (Rebuilding the temple)
Day 14: Isaiah chapters 9, 53, 61 (Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming Messiah)
Day 15: Luke chapters 1-2 (The birth of Jesus)
Day 16: John 1:1-18 (Who Jesus Is)
Day 17: Luke 4:14-44 (Jesus begins his ministry)
Day 18: Matthew 5-6 (The core of Jesus’ teaching)
day 19: John 3 (God’s Love for the world)
Day 20: John 5 (Jesus’ Miracles and Authority)
Day 21: John 11 (Jesus’ Power Over Death)
Day 22: John 15 (The Christian Life Defined)
Day 23: John 17 (Jesus’ High Priestly prayer)
Day 24: Matthew 26-27 (The arrest and crucifixion of Jesus)
Day 25: John 20 (The resurrection of Jesus)
Day 26: Luke 24 (The ascension of Jesus )
Day 27: Acts 2 (The coming of The Holy Spirit)
Day 28 Acts 9 (The conversion of Saul)
Day 29 Acts 16 (The Gospel spreads to Europe)
Day 30 Acts 26 (Paul’s defense of the Christian Faith)
Day 31: Romans 3 (Justification by faith alone)
Day 32: Romans 7-8 (The battle with sin; Life in the Spirit)
Day 33: 1 Corinthians 13 (The way of Love)
Day 34: 1 Corinthians 15 (The power of the resurrection)
Day 35: Galatians 5 (Freedom in Christ)
Day 36: Ephesians 6 (The whole armor of God)
Day 37: Philippians 1:18-2:18 (Christ’s example for us)
Day 38: Colossians 3:1-17 (Putting on the new self)
Day 39: James 1 (Pure religion)
Day 40: Revelation 21-22 (The New Heaven and the New Earth)

Bible reading plan copyright 2005, Crossway; Value Compact Edition, English Standard Version (ESV)