Monday, December 30, 2013

No Wasted Pain - Through the Flood and the Fire: Part 2

“No wasted pain, no wasted pain.” I heard my wife whisper that many times when the pain was nearly unbearable. I found myself calmed by her courage, and came to believe the truth of Isaiah 43:1-3 because I saw her living it out, even when her health was at its worst.

We Christians are not spared suffering and heartache, but we have God’s word to interpret our pain and His presence to sustain us through it. That’s what Isaiah 43 has meant to Dionne and me.

Here’s the passage again, with my own highlights: But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior (Isaiah 43:1-3a).

Last time I spoke of three simple lessons my wife and I learned (and are still learning) from this ancient prophecy. The first is that we belong to Him. When the flood waters rise or the fires threaten, courage comes from knowing that we are His, and that He is in control.

Here’s the second truth: The flood and the fire are inevitable. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Please notice: it says when you pass through these hard times, not if.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Through the Flood and the Fire: Three Triumphant Truths - Part 1

Sometimes Bible passages become more than good advice or practical principles. In times of heartache and trouble, God’s word can be a foundation on which to stand when everything else starts crumbling. So let me begin by telling you why Isaiah 43 means so much to me.

In 1998 a tornado nearly destroyed our home. We were trying to sell our house, but in one afternoon the storm did so much damage that we thought no one would ever want it. Both our house and garage were smashed up and our acre property was strewn with the destroyed remains of a dozen trees that had been snapped off in the wind.

In the middle of the night God led my wife to Isaiah 43:1-3. It was incredibly comforting to us both. And the next day, despite the devastation, we sold our house.

God used the same passage in our lives in 2006. Dionne’s “simple out-patient procedure” became a health catastrophe that nearly took her life. In the middle of great pain, she asked me to quote Isaiah 43:1-3. The Lord used His promises to enable to hang on. 

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior (Isaiah 43:1-3a; my highlights).

The Lord taught us three very simple, but quite wonderful, lessons from this passage. They gave us strength to walk through “the flood and the fire.” In the next few posts, I’d like to share them with you.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Four Prophetic Themes That Point Unmistakably to Jesus' Birth

Someone has said that prophecy is history written in advance. This is particularly intriguing when it comes to the birth of Jesus. There are hundreds of prophecies that relate to the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and return of our Savior.

This post is longer than I prefer, but the subject is too important to abridge. Here are four prophetic themes that point unmistakably to Jesus’ birth.

First, God’s overall plan for a Savior. Genesis 3:15, set in the Garden of Eden, is a curse God pronounced over Satan. But in the process He gave strong hints about the birth of Jesus. "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

The Lord speaks of two distinct lines of people – the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman. Spiritually, there are only two kinds of people in the world. The enemies of God, whom Jesus described in John 8:44 as “of your father the devil,” and the spiritual descendants of the Messiah, who was born of a woman.

The prediction is that, in conflict with the serpent, the woman’s “seed” would mortally wound the devil – a wound to the head. But the Messiah, though grievously injured, would recover. All of this – Christ’s virgin conception, atoning sacrifice, resurrection, and victory over Satan, is expressed in only 16 Hebrew words, penned 1400 years before Jesus’ birth!

Second, a series of prophecies about the lineage of the Savior. God promised Abraham that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18). Though both Abraham and Sarah were elderly (and Sarah unable to conceive), a miracle child was born. ..."you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him." Genesis 17:19

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My Best Christmas Present Ever

I've had some memorable Christmas presents. But the best one of all was given to me many years ago by my girlfriend.

We had been dating for over a year. We were both 19 years old, full-time students, and too young and too poor to consider marriage except for the distant future. I had at least five more years of college and graduate school before I would have anything close to a career. In the meantime I worked part-time in a warehouse and she did house-cleaning. We both lived in the dorms.

So I never planned to ask her to marry me. If I had planned it, I would have tried for romantic. I would have parachuted down in front of her on a Maui beach at sunset, wearing a tuxedo and holding her ring in a white glove. Or drawn her portrait in sky-writing, with the plane pulling a huge banner that said, "Marry me?"

Instead, I asked her over the phone. About as romantic as a telemarketer, I suppose.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Maybe you saw the report last week of a truck hijacking in Mexico. It would have been a pretty routine story, I suppose, except for the fact that the thieves ended up with a capsule of cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope that will kill you if you open it up to look in. The lead-lined protective container was found abandoned in a field.

The latest report I saw claims the cobalt-60 has been secured by government officials, who now say there was no threat to the residents. (Riiiiiiiight!) 

It probably sounds strange, but that ominous story made me think of Christmas.

Remember how afraid people were on Mt. Sinai when the Lord came down to deliver the Ten Commandments? (My emphasis added in the following...)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

How to Get What You Want from God

The only way you can get what you want from God is to want what He wants instead of what you want.

That’s it. That’s the whole deal.

Submit your will to His. Seek His kingdom first, desire His glory first, and let the rest of it go. And you’ll get what you seek and desire. Guaranteed.

He is committed to exalting His Son. So that’s what’s going to happen. Jesus will be lifted up. You and I better be in the “lifting up Jesus” business. Because any other business is going to crash and burn.

I hope you don’t think I’m playing word games with you. But the truth is, you and I, puny human beings, will not manipulate the Almighty God of the universe. There is no secret formula of faith and optimism that will make the Lord of glory do anything. Everyone and everything will bow to Him.

The secret of answered prayer is to figure out what God wants, and then pray for that. Not to bamboozle Him into giving you whatever your outrageous little heart desires. That’s not going to happen.

He’s God, Creator, King, Sovereign, Lord, Absolute Ruler, the Beginning and the End. Not a genie in a bottle.

Our selfish hearts will always think that God should do what we want. That’s called magic. It’s called paganism. That’s part of what’s wrong with us, and anybody who tries to layer it with spirituality is a false teacher. Our pride is ugly to God. It’s another way of saying, God, you should worship me. And who does that sound like? It’s what got our adversary kicked out of heaven, and it will do us no good.

Jesus promised, If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)

Exactly. If we live our lives in Him, if His words take root in us to shape our minds and transform our hearts and conquer our wills, then whatever we ask will flow out of our adoration of Christ and our desire to see Him lifted up. You better believe God will always answer prayers like that.

Don’t waste your time on people who purport to tell you how to get what you want from God. Concentrate on submitting to Him, lifting up His Son, and all will be well with your soul.

And now, a few verses of Scripture...

  • For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.  (Psalms 18:27)
  • He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.  (Psalms 25:9)
  • The LORD lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground.  (Psalms 147:6)
  • For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.  (Psalms 149:4)
  • Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.  (Proverbs 3:34)
  • When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.  (Proverbs 11:2)
  • All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)
  • But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  (James 4:6, 7) 
  • Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,  (1 Peter 5:5b, 6)
  • And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14, 15)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Christ's Triumph, Part 3

The Sweet Smell of Victory

At the end of your life, how will you measure success? What would you call a "victorious life?"

The Scripture defines success and even guarantees it. But it is a particular kind of victory.

When Paul promised that Christ would "lead us in triumph," he used the imagery of the “Roman Triumph,” a victory parade honoring a conquering general. It was a celebration everyone could see, hear, and smell.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 2:1-17, NASB; my emphasis)

The general led his army through the streets of Rome, heading for the arena. For his soldiers, this was a day of highest honor and joyful celebration. Toward the rear of the parade were the vanquished enemy soldiers. Defeated and downcast, they trudged along in chains, knowing they would be killed when they reached the Coliseum.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Christ's Triumph, Part Two

The Hero of the Story

One of the most colorful figures in American politics was our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. He was an adventurer, hunter, cowboy, and author, as well as a politician.

Like many people in public life, he loved the spotlight. His daughter said of her famous father, "He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening."

What might be charming in a politician is a tragic flaw for the rest of us. We all want to be the hero in our own story. But Scripture's promise of victory is Christ's triumph. We are victorious in Him. But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. ( 2 Corinthians 2:14, my emphasis)

When Paul wrote those words in the original Greek, he referred to a “Roman Triumph,” a first century "ticker tape parade" for a victorious Roman general. The "triumph" wound through the streets of Rome, with the general afforded the place of highest honor, while his troops followed him, celebrating his victory.

Only a general of extraordinary accomplishment was awarded a "triumph." First, he must have actually led his troops in combat. Directing the battle safely from the sidelines was not enough. Second, he had to have completely conquered the enemy. And third, he must have advanced the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Simply defending Rome did not qualify.

We are confident in Christ because He far exceeds the exploits of any human conqueror. How we love our Savior, and honor Him, for the greatness of His triumph!

Our Lord Jesus placed Himself in the middle of the battlefield. The eternal Second Person of the Trinity took upon Himself human flesh, entered history, and has been tempted just as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

Like the Roman general (but of course much more!) Christ has conquered all. For God has put all things in subjection under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:27). In His death and resurrection, Christ our Lord extended the rule of the Kingdom of God to the darkest corners of humanity.

God always leads us in triumph, but that doesn't mean the establishment of all our goals or the realization of our agendas. It's about Christ. He is the hero of the story, and we get to be part it.

For next time: The Sweet Smell of Victory

Monday, December 2, 2013

Christ's Triumph, Part One

The Promise

When I was still in college, God began to call me to church planting. A few years later in seminary, I tried to get prepared with a research project in which I surveyed all the church planters in our denomination. I asked them various questions about methods they used. The last question was open-ended. What advice would they give me, a future church planter?

One veteran church planter’s only advice was to claim the promise of 2 Corinthians 2:14. But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. (NASB)

At the time I wasn’t familiar with the passage, but I began to study it. Now, all these years later, the truth of this wonderful passage has been an encouragement to me for over 35 years. I'm hoping you might be encouraged, too, through a short series of posts.

Here’s the background: Paul, traveling from Ephesus, came to the port city of Troas, a place he sensed was ripe for the gospel. But his plans had included meeting his colleague and protégé Titus, who was returning from a trip to Corinth.

Titus failed to appear and Paul was filled with concern, both for his young disciple and for the Corinthian church, which had been dealing with many problems.

Life is like that. Your best plans may be interrupted. People may disappoint or worry you. Challenges you never anticipated change everything.

All these things were heavy upon the Apostle Paul. But that’s when he burst forth in confidence: But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ!

This is both Paul's testimony as well as a promise for you and me. Despite sin, setbacks, stalls, and even spiritual warfare, God leads us in triumph. But the most important thing to know about this promise is that it's Christ’s triumph, not ours.

For next time: The Hero of the Story

Friday, November 29, 2013

Walking Among the Giants

I’ve been re-reading Altogether Lovely, a book of sermons by Jonathan Edwards. Edwards, who lived in Colonial America, was perhaps the greatest theological mind since Augustine. But beyond a brilliant intellect, he had a warm heart toward Christ. R.C. Sproul, who compiled the book, said “Edwards’ pursuit of the knowledge of God was never an end in itself. It always served a higher purpose: to move the soul to adoration and the heart to obedient faith.”

Jonathan Edwards’ sermons are a challenge; they are long and thought-provoking. They wouldn’t find a place in most pulpits today, where humor, bullet points, video clips, and “four steps to success” are the order of the day.

The message I’m reading now is called “The Excellency of Christ.” Here’s a quote: His wonderful and miraculous works plainly showed Him to be the God of nature in that it appeared by them that He had all nature in His hands, and could lay an arrest upon it, and stop and change its course as He pleased. In healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, unstopping the ears of the deaf, and healing the lame, He showed that He was the God who framed the eye, created the ear, and was the author of the frame of man’s body. By the dead’s rising at His command, it appeared that He was the author and fountain of life, and that He was God the Lord, to whom belong the issues from death. By His walking on the sea in a storm, when the waves were raised, He showed Himself to be that God spoken of in Job 9:8 that treadeth “on the waves of the sea.” By his stilling the storm and calming the rage of the sea by His powerful command, saying, “Peace, be still,” He showed that He has the command of the universe, and that He is that God who brings things to pass by the word of His power; who speaks and it is done; who commands and it stands fast (pp. 32-33).

I remember the first time my family and I camped in the redwoods. We parked at the ranger station, paid for a campsite, and then wandered through a little museum. We saw a diorama of tiny plastic redwood trees and watched a slide show about the history of the park. It was interesting.

But the real wonder came when we left the museum and set up camp in a grove of old growth redwoods. And then we started hiking trails that wound through 200-foot giants, sunlight streaming through a forest sprouting huckleberry bushes, azaleas, manzanita, and madrone, a primordial woodland carpeted with redwood sorrel, ferns and wild orchids.

How sad if we had thought the redwood forest was all about the museum, with its miniature forest, cheesy slideshow, and stuffed bobcat.

Edwards gets me out of the museum and causes me to look up, into the trees. I wonder how many Christians know only the Jesus of the museum. Because just beyond the parking lot is another world full of breathtaking beauty. But you may have to hike.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


I think of heaven quite often. I know more and more people who are already there, people I am looking forward to seeing again. And of course I long for the day when those I loved then and love now may meet.

Nobody on this side of glory knows exactly what heaven will be like. Believers in Christ will be immediately in the presence of the Lord when they die (2 Corinthians 5:8), which is the most important thing to know. But then in God’s timing there will be resurrection, the reuniting of soul and body. And creation itself will be re-created; this fallen, broken old planet will be the New Earth (Revelation 21:1). 

I wonder if that doesn’t mean that places we once loved will be remade, more than restored, new but still familiar. I was thinking about all that, and about my dad, when I wrote the following.

            I’m standing in the pasture west of the farmhouse and I can smell apple blossoms.
I remember this as a small field, planted in alfalfa. Now it seems huge, as big as a football field. The alfalfa is growing, knee high, with large purple clusters. I can see and hear a chorus of bees sampling the blossoms.
The orchard just beyond the field is bigger too, the trees taller and fuller than my memory, more like oaks than apple trees. They are covered in enormous pink and white blossoms. I remember old black and white photos of this orchard from my childhood. The trees looked like they were blanketed with snow.
            And then I see him, striding toward me through the trees and into the pasture. I hurry to meet him.
            He’s dressed in Levis and a denim shirt with open collar and sleeves rolled up. He walks quickly like he’s been expecting me, old laced work boots clogging through foot-high alfalfa. He looks pleasantly winded, like a man just taking a break from hard, but enjoyable, work. He’s not wearing a hat—he always liked the sun on his face.
            He looks about the same age as in that old picture I got from my mother—early 40’s, I guess. Shoulders square and broad, big hands curled from a lifetime of work.
            I wonder how old I look to him. A lot older than fourteen, the last time we were together.
            His blue eyes twinkle as he walks toward me. He has that big smile—the signature gap between his front teeth. I’d know him anywhere.
            I’ve dreamt of wrapping him in an embrace, of feeling his strong arms around me once more, the scratchiness of his whiskers against my neck.
            I kiss him on his lean, sun-browned cheek. Not like the last time, lifetimes ago, when I was trying to grow up and be a man, when I thought men used handshakes to seal their affection instead of little-boy hugs and kisses.
            Now I don’t worry about such things.
            I hear his voice again. “Hi, Boy.”
My memory flickers like a camera shutter, old snapshots of pleasant days, the ranch as it used to be, walking with him from the milk barn to the house, and this very orchard. No one ever called me “boy” like that, and it feels good now, though I haven’t been a boy for a very long time.
            That’s how I envision it, anyway. My imagination falters a little on the details.
I don’t know what we’d talk about. Maybe we’ll both have questions. I’m not sure what he’d already know about me and my life in all the years since we’ve been together. I want to tell him—I’ve always wanted to.
            I’ll promise to introduce him to Dionne. He’d want to know about her, I’m sure. And of course, the boys. My boys. Men--now, old men, too, I guess.

            And maybe after we have hugged and cried a little and laughed and talked, they will come walking through the trees, the light of Christ at their backs and in their eyes.
            One is brown and lean and bright, coiled with energy and fun. Dark eyes ready to laugh. The other is blond and muscular, intense and interested. Careful and controlled and calm beside his older brother.
            “Dad, here’s Andy. And Zach. Boys, this is my dad.”

Monday, November 18, 2013

Politics, Broken Promises, and Trust

“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.”

Well, as everybody knows, the President broke his promise – millions of times. As the number of individual policy cancellations escalates, so does the outrage. The President was re-elected  based on a trust factor that is slipping away.
The word of God warns about this: 

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God. Psalm 146:3-5

My day planner has a pithy quote on each planning page. A couple days ago it was a Spanish writer, Baltasar Gracian y Morales, from the 17th century, who said, The sole advantage of power is that you can do more good. I had never heard of Senor Morales before, but he could have been an apologist for the Affordable Care Act. I wrote in my planner under this absurd statement, But you won’t want to, dummy.  

People on the political left trust that a big, centralized government will help more people, and do more good. As attractive as this idea apparently is, in the real world it has been disproven over and over, throughout history.

Give a few people power over the lives of others, and the “good” they do ends up being defined by their own selfish interests.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Red or Black, You Better Stop

I’d like to think I was just distracted. My wife and I were driving home, and the route we take goes over the freeway. On and off ramps guarantee that the street is usually packed with cars.

I stopped at the light, as cars streamed through the intersection. I continued an anecdote I was sharing with my wife. At this point my brain apparently clicked over into an alternate universe, and I concluded that I was not at a traffic light, but a stop sign. Which, as everyone knows, means you come to a complete stop, look both ways and proceed through the intersection.

So that’s what I started to do. Despite the fact that approximately fourteen thousand cars were still zooming through the space our Corolla was about to occupy.

My wife, watching in disbelief as I began moving confidently forward, started screaming, “It’s black! IT’S BLACK!” while gesturing wildly at the red light.

This shocked me back into the Land of Trafficular Reality, and I slammed on the brakes. “Black!? Where black?” I yelled incoherently.

So we sat silently, waiting for the light to change, watching cars whizz by, with our vehicle sticking out about two feet into the intersection. After a moment I said quietly, “Black?” while squinting up at the red light above us. We both began to laugh, all the way from when the light changed, until we pulled up to our house.

I even thought of some morals to the story...
  • We are all capable of dumb mistakes. Sometimes a simple dumb mistake could end in disaster. We need people around us to help stop us before it does.
  • Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so it doesn’t matter whether you call it red or black. When the light says stop, you better stop.
  • Laughing at ourselves is a sign of humility. It also makes life a lot more fun.
  • In the end it is only the grace and sacrifice of our Savior that keeps us from an eternally fatal crash.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Atheist Churches?

I just read an article about “Atheist Mega-Churches,” which claims that humanist gatherings that look like church but disavow any belief in God are popping up throughout the U.S., Australia and Great Britain. I did a Google search and found seven or eight article links.

These “unbeliever assemblies” are the brainchild of a British couple, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Their goal, apparently, is to offer the best of church without the God part.

Here's a quote from Mr. Jones as he reflects on his experience at Christian churches: "There was so much about it that I loved, but it's a shame because at the heart of it, it's something I don't believe in. If you think about church, there's very little that's bad. It's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?"

So the “atheist assembly” is basically the good parts of church: “singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping others people.” Just don’t bother with the Jesus stuff.

You know what? That sounds a lot like what some Christian leaders believe we should do to make church better, more “seeker sensitive.” You’ve got to get on the wavelength of unchurched people. Give them an experience they’ll really like. Present awesome music that doesn’t sound religious, help them connect with other people like themselves, and when it comes time for the sermon, make it a funny, interesting talk about self-improvement and helping other people.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Contentment and Christ

If you were making a television commercial about contentment, you’d probably show a guy lying in a hammock, sipping a cool drink and looking at a sunset over the ocean. Or maybe you’d picture a happy couple holding hands before a roaring fireplace, with big snowflakes falling outside. You probably wouldn’t have a man sitting in prison, deserted by friends, and facing execution.

But if the Bible offered an advertisement for contentment, I’m convinced it would be exactly that scene: the Apostle Paul, chained to a Roman soldier, awaiting a death sentence.

Paul wrote to reassure the church at Philippi that whether he was released or executed, he was full of  joy and peace. He had learned to be content. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need (Philippians 4:11-12).

We have a lot more to learn about contentment from Paul than we do from someone relaxing in a tropical resort. Paul demonstrates that contentment doesn’t come from circumstances, possessions, or even from other people.The heart of his lesson about contentment comes in the next verse: I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Contentment and God's Timing

Imagine you’re on death row, awaiting execution for a crime you didn’t commit. You have no family, your friends seem to have deserted you, and the impact of your life seems questionable. Would you be content?

This was the Apostle Paul’s situation. Chained to a Roman soldier, he was a despised enemy of the state. The next event on his timeline, as far as he knew, was execution. His life’s work has been preaching the gospel and starting churches, but it all seems to be crumbling around him. F.B. Meyer described him: “Deprived of every comfort and cast as a lonely man on the shores of the great strange metropolis with every movement of his hand clanking a fetter and nothing before him but the lion’s mouth or the sword.”

But he said he was content. One of his church plants, the church at Philippi, discovered he was in Rome in prison, and sent an emissary (Epaphroditus) along with a financial gift. So Paul said, I rejoiced greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity" (Philippians 4:10).

At length you have revived your concern. It had been over ten years since Paul started the church in Philippi, and they had apparently lost touch with him. He had moved on from Philippi to Thessalonica, and the Philippian congregation had helped him there. But after that, nothing. Ten long years. And now he’s in prison, and they’ve contacted him again.

How would you respond to them? Would you be tempted to say, “Finally! I thought you guys forgot about me. It’s only been ten years since you helped me. I’m probably going to die, but thanks for finally noticing!”?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Learning to Be Content

I have a friend who has served as a missionary in Africa for nearly 40 years. He and his wife have lived through civil war, family crises, and fluctuating financial support. A few years ago he remarked that if his ministry ended right then, he was content. I thought that was an amazing statement.

Are you content with your life? For me contentment has been elusive. I’m at an age when the road ahead is a lot shorter than the road behind. I see the wrong turns I’ve made, the missed opportunities, time I’ve wasted, with great clarity. Yet contentment doesn’t seem to come from relishing accomplishments or achieving goals. I think contentment is more about a certain inner peace, an attitude about life.

The greatest example of contentment I know is another missionary, the Apostle Paul. When he wrote to the Philippian church, he talked about being content.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:10-13

When he penned these words, he was chained to a Roman soldier and facing likely execution. Yet he was content.

I’m heartened by his comment that he learned to be content. That should be a priority lesson for all of us. So what is there to learn? What is contentment, anyway?

Monday, October 28, 2013

What Keeps You Going?

My friend Bob told me about attending a conference at his church where a panel of veteran missionaries were asked, What keeps you going? 

Bob was intrigued with the question, and posed it to his small group Bible study. During our week in Dallas with Bob and Nancy, that question became part of the dinner conversation one night.

It’s a good question because it admits that life is hard. We need to figure out how to keep on keeping on. Certainly missionaries who serve God cross-culturally need special endurance, but so do all of us Christians. It's also a good question because when we share our answers, we help one another find more ways to keep running our race.

So what is it that keeps us from tubing out? How do we continue to walk in holiness when enticements to impurity assault us at every turn? How do we keep trusting Christ when God allows or allots suffering and heartache? How can we finish our race when it would be far easier to drop out and sit on the sidelines?

I’ve been pondering Bob’s question for a week or so now. I know that ultimately my perseverance is God’s gift and not my effort. Without His steadying hand and sustaining power, I would surely stumble and fall. [He] will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:8).
But here are some of the ways He keeps me going.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Justice, Mercy, and Twisted Steel

My wife and I are in the Dallas area for a week, visiting our dear friends, Bob and Nancy, thanks to a tenth anniversary gift from our church. It’s been wonderful to see our friends, whom we’ve known since seminary days.

Yesterday they took us to the newly opened George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of SMU. I was unprepared for the emotions that welled up within me as we wandered through the displays.

The whole library gives an intimate look at Bush’s presidency, and especially the decisions he had to make. You can even explore an exact replica of the Oval Office, and President Bush will give you a personal tour via your own iPod.

The most riveting, and emotional, display for me was a gigantic twisted piece of metal, parts of two girders, ripped from the Twin Towers during the 9-11 attacks. The room housing the display is devoted to the unfolding crisis in the aftermath of that terrible day. I stared at the steel beams, fused together by the inferno of exploding planes and people, and I felt like weeping.

I asked the docent if I could touch it. He said I could.

Tentatively I stretched out my hand and laid it on the bare metal. Tears filled my eyes, and I suppressed a sob. Was that ugly steel vibrating with the screams of people whose normal day at the office became their last day on earth? Did those beams still tremble with hatred and fear and death?  

I thought of the thousands who perished that day, passengers on the planes, office workers, cops and firefighters who ran into the flames to try to bring others to safety. I remembered the horrific photos of people who chose to jump from those collapsing buildings.  I thought of thousands of men and women who have died in the war on terror since 9-11. I gave thanks that my own son, called up a month after his wedding, came home to us after standing a post for over a year near the Pakistani border. As I slowly withdrew my hand, I realized that our nation and the individual families within it were forever changed.

Sobered and reflective the rest of the day, I tried to think why the display had such an impact on me. Three conclusions came to me, unmistakable messages from that crooked steel.

  • The misshapen metal in that room is a terrible testament that all of humankind is marred by evil. From Cain’s crushing the life out of his brother Abel to six million Jews killed by the Nazis to the persecution of Christians in Syria to the legal holocaust of abortion – evil runs like a putrid stream through our race. And it’s not just about terrorists who fly planes into buildings, but it’s also the twisted potential for unspeakable sin that lives in the hearts of all of us.
  • Terrible times cry out for leaders of character, courage, and godly optimism. Nations need men and women who will stand, steadied by eternal convictions, ready to lay down their own lives for others. We need such men and women for the nation, but also for school boards, neighborhoods, churches, and families. I want to be that kind of man.
  • Justice and mercy for human tragedy will never be established apart from Christ. War may be necessary, but it will never bring peace. God calls us to stand against evil, to sacrifice for others, to strive for a better world. But the only lasting peace comes from another monstrous injustice, memorialized not in twisted steel but in rough wood, iron spikes, and the shed blood of God’s own Son.
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace...Ephesians 2:14-15

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Where Do You Find Buried Treasure?

In the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption, a banker named Andy Dufreyne spends nearly two decades in Shawshank State Prison for murders he did not commit. After years of painstaking planning and effort, he tunnels out of his cell, escapes through the prison sewer system, and heads to Mexico with a fortune he has embezzled from the corrupt prison warden.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie comes near the end when Red, Andy’s best friend in the prison, is finally paroled after 40 years of incarceration. Before he escaped, Andy gave Red specific instructions about how to reconnect with him after Red got out. Go to a certain farm outside the town of Buxton, Maine. Look for a field with a big oak tree at the end of a stone wall. Find a large volcanic rock that seems out of place, and look under it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Don't Just Say Amen (The Lord's Prayer - Part Six of Six)

When I was in high school, I was one of the Smart Kids. Meaning, I was not cool. (And yes, we did have high school in colonial times. We just spelled it differently: Ye Olde Hye Schoole).  

Anyhow, as uncool as I was, you can imagine my surprise when "Tiffany," one of the popular girls, approached me between classes. She was all friendly and smiley and eye-lash batty, and I wondered if my nerdy soul had somehow been swapped into the body of Trevor, the Football Hero. Normally Tiffany would not have dripped her Fresca on me if I had been on fire.

So I was pretty excited. But, as it turns out, and I bet you would have seen this coming, my new potential girlfriend was only interested in my ability to write an English paper for her. Which, of course, I did. 

A few days later, as I handed over a complete research paper, Tiffany rewarded me with a great big “thanks” and a brief smile. After which we did not hang out or go the prom.

But from this sad story I offer a lesson on prayer: We should not treat the God of the Universe like Tiffany treated me.

I think that’s why Jesus included the last phrase of His model prayer: For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. Matthew 6:13b, NKJV

Each part of the Lord’s prayer has a specific purpose: 
  • Praising Him – Our Father in heaven, hallowed by Your name. 
  • Rendering allegiance – Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
  • Asking for daily needs – Give us this day our daily bread. 
  • Yielding confession of sin and forgiveness to others – And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. 
  • Expecting guidance and protection – And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
  • So this last phrase is about Re-focusing on Him - For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Many people draw near to God when they need something or when trouble comes, but then drop Him from their focus and obedience when they get what they want or the crisis is past. This is shallow and selfish behavior when directed toward a high school kid, but it is wicked and blasphemous when directed toward Almighty God.

He demands and deserves first place in our lives. We should not just "sign off" our prayers with a quick "Amen," without pausing again to admire His greatness. Ultimately prayer is not about getting everything we want, but about our giving Him all we have, in worship, submission, and obedience.

Lord, thank You for listening to me again. And may Your kingdom come in my life today. May Your power flow in my weakness. And may everything I say and do today bring You glory. Now and forever. Amen.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

He Will Lead and Deliver!

One of the most sobering lessons I’ve learned about myself, and I don’t think it’s just me, is that, given the “right” (I mean” wrong”) circumstances, I am capable of all kinds of sin. Though I’ve been a Christian a very long time, I know that if I put myself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong kind of temptations, I can and will fall.

One of the keys to my walking in victory is not getting close to the things that tempt me. I think this is why Jesus teaches us to pray in The Lord’s Prayer, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Matthew 6:13 

This statement poses a problem for some people, because the Bible teaches that God never tempts us to sin (cf. James 1:13). So why would Christ tell us to pray, “don’t lead me to be tempted?”

Jesus is teaching us to acknowledge that our God controls all things. Our path tomorrow, the people we meet, the circumstances we face, the opportunities and blessing, the trials and tragedies, the victories and triumphs, all are under His control. Were we to wander into the wrong place at the wrong time, we might stumble, to the discredit of God and our own shame.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Forgive Us, As We Forgive

In the last 24 hours I’ve had conversations with several different people who are each struggling with injustices done to them decades before. Sadly all three remain bitter and angry, unable to live a full life today or to plan for a fruitful tomorrow because of what happened to them yesterday.

It’s not easy to forgive. Yet if we don’t, the original offense done to us metastasizes, spreading poison through more and more of our life. To be spiritually healthy requires that we both receive and give forgiveness.  

Our Lord’s Prayer models this receiving and giving. In the acrostic I use for my devotions, P-R-A-Y-E-R, this is Y – Yield confession and forgiveness. Jesus said we should pray, and forgive us our sins, as we ourselves have forgiven everyone who is indebted to us (Luke 11:4).

“Forgive” means to send or put away. The debt of our sins is “put away” because Jesus paid it. The only basis for receiving forgiveness is the sacrifice of Jesus.

Friday, September 27, 2013

How to Pray the Lord's Prayer, Part Three of Six

Before we go any further with this post, take a moment and go look in your refrigerator. Seriously. Go ahead, we’ll wait.

You’re back? (Bonus points for any of you who actually looked in your frig. But deduct points if you brought back a piece of cheesecake. The rest of you who just kept reading, where’s your team spirit?)

Okay. Most of us who actually checked our refrigerator found enough food for a small army. Granted, some of it is old and turning an unusual color, but that’s because we decided not to eat it. We just made or bought some more.

So why did Jesus teach us to pray, Give us this day our daily bread? In the P-R-A-Y-E-R acrostic, this is A – Ask for daily needs.

But why? Why ask for something we already have in abundance? The majority of us have never had to miss a meal. Our major question at mealtime is about options. Should we get fast food? Reheat the chicken from last night? Order a pizza?

If you have enough food, and have always had enough, it’s easy to take it for granted. The same goes for clothing. (I could have asked you to go check out your closet, too). Or housing. Most of us don't have to worry about having a roof over our heads. We have the blessing of clean water to drink and relatively pure air to breathe.

So if we have these things, we may not pray for them. But we should. Jesus said so.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

How to Pray the Lord's Prayer, Part Two of Six

I heard a sermon on prayer from a seminary professor who said that prayer is basically asking God for stuff. I think he's right,  but the problem is that most of us ask God for the wrong things.

If we’re honest, we treat prayer as a wish-list, a mixture of needs and wants, often centered around our comfort and security. Jesus’ pattern for prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, is like other prayers in that it does consist of a series of requests.

But what makes Jesus' prayer so different, and revolutionary, is that He teaches us to pray for what we really need. Last time I mentioned an acrostic summary of His prayer: P-R-A-Y-E-R. (I included a copy at the end of this post.) The P stands for “Praise Him,”and is actually the first request.

When we pray “Hallowed be Your name,” we are asking God to help us praise Him  Our request is that He might enable us to set apart, hallow, His name in our lives. The NET Bible puts it, “May your name be honored.”

Today’s post is about the second letter of the acrostic: R, which stands for “Render Allegiance.” Jesus teaches us to pray: "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This, too, is a request. We ask that the Lord would rule over us and that we would bend to His will, rather than our own.

Monday, September 23, 2013

How to Pray the Lord's Prayer, Part One of Six

The only thing His disciples ever asked Jesus to teach them was prayer. Of all the spiritual disciplines they saw Him practice, prayer is the one that stood out to them. “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Jesus’ response to their request is what we often called “the Lord’s Prayer.” (See Luke 11:2-4 and Matthew 6:9-13). Some churches, like the one I grew up in, recite it every Sunday as a part of congregational worship.

I’m not a fan of just reciting it, because I think Jesus gave us a pattern to follow, not a rote prayer. And for a long time I have used “the Lord’s prayer” as an outline to guide and shape my daily devotions.

Years ago I came up with a simple acrostic, P-R-A-Y-E-R, to help me remember the specific focus of the different parts of Jesus’ sample prayer. (I’ve summarized this in a little chart, included at the end of this post). Over the course of the next several posts, I’d like to share this outline, with the hope that it might be helpful in your prayer life.

So the first part of the Prayer is the P: Praise Him. Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Joy of the Lord

"Faith may dance because Christ sings; and we may come in the quire [choir] and lift our hoarse and rough voices, and chirp, and sing, and shout for joy with our Lord Jesus."
--Samuel Rutherford

Have you ever been happy because someone you love is happy? You so identify with them that you enter into their delight and victory.

That's what Rutherford means, I think, when he speaks of our joy "because Christ sings." We are in Him, the Scriptures say. His death, burial, and resurrection become ours. And it is His joy that is our strength (cf. Nehemiah 8:10).

Pursuing Him, we may enter His victory and that brings joy. By faith to see the satisfaction in His eyes, to feel Him full of power and triumph, to know He knows He has won everything and that everyone He loves will come home and be with Him forever - there is joy.

The hollow alternative is to look for joy somewhere else: the fleeting affirmations of others, the pleasures of the flesh, our own temporary successes. In the end this is the way of despair.

I would rather try, and pray He gives me a greater vision, to see the light of His face, to imagine His voice like thunder, to settle in with all the great and small, the rulers and kings and shepherds and shopkeepers and soldiers and construction workers and single moms and little kids, to adore Him together, with never a thought of any glory but His. O, what joy, to shout and sing and laugh and clap and whistle and stomp and pray, all together: Worthy is the Lamb!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Where is Pikes Peak?

My wife grew up in Colorado Springs, and the stately presence of Pikes Peak to the west helped her to orient herself in the city and to keep her directions straight. If you want to know where you are and where you’re going, just find Pikes Peak.

Sometimes life can be a confusing blur of pressures and opportunities, a swirl of daily routines and appointments, a collage of images and events and people. What am I doing here, and where am I going?

The other night I felt that vague sense of disorientation that comes from fatigue and stress. Not a crisis, but a sure sign that I needed to look again to the mountain.

I wrote in my journal: “What I know for sure.” Then I turned to Colossians 1, and starting at v. 13, I listed the following. Not particularly insightful, I admit, but a good reminder of who I am, where I'm going, and who I serve.
  1. Jesus has a kingdom – 1:13.
  2. He is beloved to the Father – 1:13.
  3. He is the Son – 1:13.
  4. In Him is redemption – 1:14.
  5. In Him is forgiveness of sins – 1:14.
  6. He is the image of the invincible God – 1:15
  7. He is the firstborn of all creation – 1:15.
  8. He is the agent of creation – 1:16.
  9. He is the goal of all creation – 1:16.
  10. He is eternal – 1:17.
  11. He holds all things together – 1:17.
  12. He is the head of the church – 1:18.
  13. He is the beginning – 1:18
  14. He is the firstborn from the dead – 1:18.
  15. He deserves first place in everything – 1:18.
  16. He is fully God – 1:19.
  17. He reconciled all things to Himself – 1:20.
  18. He makes peace by His blood – 1:20.
  19. He reconciles sinners – 1:22.
  20. He plans to perfect us and get us safely home – 1:22.
  21. He is worthy suffering for – 1:24.
  22. He is the great mystery revealed 1:27.
  23. He is the subject of our preaching – 1:28.
We all need to look again at Christ. Though I believe the whole Bible is about Him, certain passages provide an immediate, rich, and detailed focus. I continually return to Isaiah 53, John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1. They're even better than gazing at a mountain.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Illusion and Reality of Control

He was the picture of health, never sick a day in his life. Now he’s gone, in only six months.

I bet you’ve known someone who fits that description. I certainly have. And when a friend or loved one who seemed invincible succumbs to a sudden illness, it reminds us of the fragility of life and how we are not in control of it.

The other night I sat around the table with a group of leaders from our church. At the end of a long meeting we all shared personal prayer requests. One man made a light-hearted comment about losing control of his boisterous Sunday School class, and someone else joked that he only had the “illusion of control” in the first place.

That’s true, isn’t it? We have only the illusion of control, not just in leading a Sunday School class but in everything. Without Christ, this realization could lead us into despair. But we who follow Him take great comfort in knowing that our lives are in the hands of a sovereign God.

Our God exercises sovereign control over –
The weather: fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! (Psalm 148:8)
The rise and fall of nations: He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding (Daniel 2:21)
Human government: For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God (Romans 13:1).
Human Disabilities: Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? (Exodus 4:11)
Wealth: You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth… (Deuteronomy 8:18)
Life and death: “See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded, and it is I who heal; and there is no one who can deliver from My hand (Deuteronomy 32:39).
The days allotted to us: My times are in your hand… (Psalm 31:15).  …in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:16).
Those who are saved and brought to heaven: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6:37); “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…” (John 6:44).
Everything! Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases (Psalm 115:3). Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps (Psalm 135:6)
I suppose some people look at verses like these, and conclude that, if God controls all things, our decisions don’t matter. But though we don’t fully understand it, God both holds us responsible and gives us responsibility.

Someone has said, “Responsibility = my response to His ability.” Maybe that sounds trite, but it’s also true. Since His ability, compassion, and wisdom are infinite, my responsibility is to trust and obey Him. And knowing that the hands which hold all things bear the marks of the nails gives me peace beyond measure.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Power Corrupts? Absolutely!

Last night, on the eve of the twelfth anniversary of Nine-Eleven, President Barack Obama addressed the nation and tried to explain the Syrian crisis and how it involved, or did not involve, the United States.

In related news from the New York Democratic primary:
  • Serial tweeter/exhibitionist and former Congressman Anthony Weiner garnered only 5% of the vote in his attempt to become the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City.
  • Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 because of his own immorality, failed to become the Democratic nominee for city comptroller.
It was the British historian Lord Acton who said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

If you elect an inept or morally deficient leader to a minor position in city government, the damage he can do is minimal. But if that same incompetent or ethically challenged person becomes Governor or President or Prime Minister, millions of people may suffer.

For Christians, our confidence is that the only incorruptible leader is the one truly and ultimately in charge. 
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
In these troubling times, when we are often dismayed or ashamed of those who end up being our leaders, it does our hearts good to remember, and to be able to say, "All Hail, King Jesus!"

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Broken Plant, Revisited

A few months ago I told you the tale of The Broken Plant,  which you can read again with much hilarity by clicking here.

Or I could summarize, with less hilarity: I sat on one of my wife's house plants and broke off a main stem. Since my wife inexplicably likes these things, sitting on one of them was not the smartest thing I have ever done. To be honest, it joins a very long list of "probably not the smartest things" I have been compiling over the course of our marriage. So I suppose she should be used to random acts of plant-breakage.

But I immediately took the coward's way out and stuck the broken branch back into the dirt. My granddaughter, who witnessed my horticultural mayhem, counseled me to come clean and tell Nana. "Just say you're sorry." This proved to be great advice. As King David said, "when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long." Of course he had committed adultery and murder, and all I had done was murder (so I thought) a peace lily. 

But the principle is the same. Fess up, throw yourself on the mercy of the court, tell your wife you busted a cap in her plant, so to speak. And I did, and Dionne wasn't mad at me. 

Actually she started watering my hastily buried branch, and now, five months later, the whole plant is doing great. Go figure. This picture, which I took with my dumbphone, shows the actual plant, with the actual branch, growing like a weed. Or a peace lily. (I added the arrow. We don't really have a literal red arrow floating above our hearth.)

Anyhow, I'm sure there are lessons to be learned here. For example, my wife did an internet search for "peace lily," and found out this plant has, and I quote,"resiliency and a forgiving nature." No kidding.

But, no, I mean spiritual type lessons. So here are three:

1. Don’t trust your instinct to cover up brokenness. Truth and humility are always a better way to go.

2. Listen to little kids, especially your grandchildren. They can be pretty smart.

3. Maybe what you think is irreparable might not be. If Christ can forgive people like you and me, busted plants can grow again. And who knows what else He might fix?