Monday, December 30, 2013

Grace and Truth...

Week 1:

John 8:9-11 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, sir,” she said.  “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Note:  This is the longest and quite possibly the most difficult article I have written.

I have been following the Phil Robertson story over his comments he made in a recent magazine interview.  As many know, Phil quoted the Bible when answering a question about what he thought about homosexuality.  He was removed from future episodes of Duck Dynasty by the A & E Network where the show is aired.  He was re-instated due to pressure from both Christians and advocates of Freedom of Speech.  I have really wrestled with whether or not to blog over this topic or not.  In fact, I even have had dreams around this issue over the last few days.  I took that as a prompt to write on the issue.  I realize that with this topic, I will both offend some readers and make other readers happy that the subject is being talked about again.  Do recognize, I have views based on what I read in the scriptures, and I am trying to live my life by those scriptures daily as I also attempt to give grace like Jesus did and does.  I fail miserably daily, yet I have the blood of Jesus to cover me.


Let’s start with a brief summary of how this controversy occurred.  I read the GQ article (you can read it here; Beware!  The writer is from a very secular background; writing for a very worldly magazine…the language is strong at times).  GQ decides they want an interview with Phil Robertson.  These days, many do.  Now, this writer is admittedly not a believer in Christ.  And, he even adds in some poking fun of Christianity in his article.   Yet, he is drawn in by Phil and in my opinion the Holy Spirit within Phil.  He asks Phil a question around the sinfulness of our country and Phil gives first some personal opinion about his beliefs (and yes, it was somewhat crude and unfiltered).  Then Phil begins to quote scripture.  All throughout this exchange, Phil speaks of grace, how it’s not his place to judge…but God’s, and how all can benefit from a life in Christ.  GLAAD, probably the largest homosexual advocacy group takes much of the article out of context and begins asking for Phil’s head on a platter.  This eventually leads to Phil’s dismissal from the show and subsequent re-instatement.  Both due to political pressure and I believe a fear of losing money.


So, here is where multiple thoughts come up for me.  I hope that in some way this makes sense and ultimately God’s truth comes forth.  First of all, Biblical truth does not make total sense to those who use it as just part of their box of truths.  Many in this culture quote Jesus’ teaching alongside many other considered wise sayings.  There are many who choose to use what they want out of Jesus’ teachings and discard the rest.  This includes the churched and non-churched both.  Jesus preached, practiced, and/or lived grace and truth…both.  Over the last few years there has been a great debate among believers and non-believers alike on whether homosexuality is sinful.  As I read many opinions about this, I notice people quote part of the above passage dealing with the woman caught in adultery leaving out the rest.  The quote is, “Then neither do I condemn you,” (Grace) and the left out part is, Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’” (Truth).  Phil not only quoted truth from the Bible, he also talked about grace and how important it is.  In other articles, Phil has talked about loving all (including gays) and letting scripture and Jesus do the rest.  Many times throughout the Gospels, Jesus would show grace and speak truth.  He directed on more than one occasion after healing someone to leave his/her sin. 

This leads me to the second point.  We as Christians will rarely, if ever, draw those in sin closer to Jesus without relationship.  Quite honestly, Phil’s quotes only strengthen those of faith and push further away those who argue against faith and Christianity.  Until those who oppose my view of the Bible walk alongside me and see me live out what I believe…and…I look into someone else’s life and see where he/she is coming from, I will not be living the grace of Jesus and therefore will not draw them closer to truth.  We had a preacher who described how the modern western Church has tried to convert people:  We call them to behave, and then believe, and then they can belong.  This is actually pushing people away.  Those who feel strong anger toward Phil’s comments and with Christianity as a whole have likely experienced Church this way.  When you look at Jesus, he helped them feel a sense of belonging, then they believed, and out of that belief, they began to behave differently.  I have strong opinions about certain sins.  When I just blast those opinions as if I’m trying to win a debate without first considering the relationship I have with those I am working with, I usually send them the other way.  A sometimes over used quote sums this up well.  “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Jesus started with love and grace and spoke truth from there.  We have to get away from a “Preach and they’ll show up” mentality and move to a “Create a loving relationship first.  Then preach.” 

A third thought may be a little out there…bear with me.  Basically, we are Gentiles.  The children of Israel had thousands of years of history with God as His chosen people.  The woman caught in adultery knew she was in sin if not for any other reason than a nation’s history with God.  The Pharisees, although misguided, knew God’s law.  Yes, we are a nation founded on Christian principles, yet we as Gentiles basically only have a 2000 year history with God.  We are only God’s chosen through Jesus.  What does this mean?  For many in our society, there still is not a history with God like the people of Israel.  The Bible does not make sense to many and even becomes a book of do’s and don’ts.  A challenge for us, for me, is how do I take the Gospel of truth to a group who are skeptical of the Bible or don’t even think the Bible to be truth?  I noticed one of the comments to the GQ article saying:  Personally, I don't understand how anyone can believe in the Bible or God. It's all a made-up fairytale, and if you can't see that, then you need to do some serious research into the subject. The Bible was written by mere mortals who really didn't know very much about the world. And there is not one shred of proof that God even exists. After all, if you were born in a different country, there's a good chance you would be worshiping another God altogether. God is just something man created to try to make sense of where he came from and where he will go when he dies. It's just incredibly sad that in these United States, we are still so backwards and can't see the truth. And it's very sad that we are still using quotes from the Bible as an excuse to ruin the lives of good and decent people based on who they love.”  To reach someone in this mindset is a difficult task.  It is a daunting task to break through barriers to truth.  Next week, I will touch on those barriers to truth.  I don’t want to give excuse, but reaching those who believe there is no God and is backed by a history of no personal God in their lives is something I as a Christian have to consider as I approach them with grace and truth.

Fourth, what about the sin of homosexuality?  As I read the whole of the Bible, it is one of many sins that God inspired His writers to list.  What is worth noting is that it is a sin like many other sins.  Sin is missing the mark of God’s holiness.  There is no sin in God.  He did not create sin; humankind chose sin when we decided we knew better than God how to live.  God allows us to have choice so that our love and worship of Him is real and not forced.  Homosexuality is listed with several sins.  In God’s eyes, sin is sin.  Phil noted this in the article.  The leaders of GLAAD took offense upon reading that Phil had placed the sin amongst terrorism and the like.  Sin is sin.  I know there are those that say that one can continue in his/her sin due to grace.  Like Phil, only God can judge.  However, I choose to try and eradicate as much sin from my life as I can based on the Apostle Paul’s quote in Romans 6:1-3: What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  I struggle with those who continue to live in a sin claiming grace and/or that God created me this way.  It’s my opinion.  It’s an opinion based on my limited knowledge of the Word.  Yet, that is where I stand.  I hold myself to that standard as I attempt to lead others under that same standard.  Does this mean that I condemn those in my life who choose to live in their homosexuality claiming God’s grace?  No, I am not able to condemn.  Only God can judge the heart.  I must continue to love them even if I disagree with them and hopefully, out of that love, they will see the Holy Spirit of God and find the love of Jesus.  At this point, those of my readers who do not have a relationship with me may be offended by my belief and opinion.  Those who do know me; know I speak from love and years of study.  And, these are not years of study in order to point out sin in others.  These are years of study in order to be convicted of my own sin and in some way better my relationship with God through Jesus.

As far as the Robertsons and Duck Dynasty is concerned.  I struggle between hoping they would leave A & E and hoping they stay.  I hope they leave because of so much of what the network stands for is so ungodly and to have a group of believers be associated with that is difficult for me.  However, I also realize that the Robertsons are using what God has opened them up to as a platform to further the Gospel and the love of Jesus.  All along Phil has used this avenue to preach the good news of Jesus.  And for those who have developed a relationship with Phil and his family due to the show have not regretted what Jesus has done for them through this family.  God’s plan will prevail whether or not Phil, or I, or anyone else joins Him. 


Questions/challenges:


1. Write down what has come up for you emotionally around the above article?

2. How do you personally categorize sin?

3. What did you think of Phil’s stance?

4. What changes do you need to make in your life to live a belong, believe, behave style of drawing people to Jesus?

5. Over the next few days and months, pay attention to how you handle others sinfulness. How are you going to improve your relationship in order to live out the Gospel before their eyes?

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Parable of the hearers...

Week 52:

This week’s Devotional Thought comes from guest writer Mark Dean.  Mark is a former missionary to Santiago, Chile.  Mark is currently a Bible Teacher at Midland Christian School in Midland, TX.  For several years, Mark has been a student of Ray Vander Laan, a Jewish Roots Scholar.  Mark studies the Hebrew Jesus and shares unique insights into whom Jesus was and is.

Matthew 13:3-9 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Jesus told parables. As Western, modern Christians, we tend to think that his parables are significant because they originate with him and He just happens to be the son of God.  Even when we don’t understand his parables, (and a parable was meant to be a version of the main point even a child could understand) we believe them to be important by proxy; that is, they are significant because of who said them.  But to consider Jesus’ parables important without understanding them is counter-intuitive. 
To what may the understanding of Jesus’ parables be compared?  Take, for instance, a man who owned an orchard of apple trees.  As the man grew older, the harvest each year grew less and less.  The worse his senses grew, the worse the produce.  It was as if he and the orchard were connected.  Nearly blind, his aged wife accompanied him to the eye doctor one day.  He was issued a pair of glasses.  Suddenly that year’s harvest was overflowing.  Truth be told, the harvest never decreased, only the man’s ability to see the green apples against the backdrop of green leaves.  The only apples he was able to see before he got his glasses were the red ones.   

Sometimes, the only words we see as important in the Bible are the red ones.  But to only harvest the red ones is to miss a large portion of the harvest.  In other words, reading the New Testament without the Old is tantamount to giving someone the last three chapters of a novel and expecting them to understand and appreciate the entire story.  The parable of the sower may have originated with Jesus, but the structure he used did not.  In the sower parable, Jesus is speaking to his talmidim (disciples) about four types of hearers.  The number four in rabbinic teaching is the number of hearing/doing.  Hearing is equivalent to doing in Jewish thought. 


I used to picture the field where the parable of the sower took place like the huge cornfields of Nebraska.  I imagined a wide road separating fields with large rocks on one side and thorns on the other.  It wasn’t until I actually saw the fields in Israel that the sower scattering the seed made sense.  The fields are very narrow and long and the rocks, which form a boundary between the fields, are relatively small.  And the thorns, the thorns are everywhere.  In the rocks, on the narrow paths separating the fields and in the fields themselves.  So it’s all right there together.

The entire parable of the sower is not about the sower.  It’s about the soils.  There are four types of hearers or receivers of the word...and if the seed only takes root among the good soil to produce a crop.  And if in order to get to the good soil the farmer has to burn of the thorns, remove the rocks and fertilize it, what are the implications of getting our hearts to become good soil? 

Some of you may have heard of Ray Vander Laan or RVL.  He’s a Jewish Roots guy from Michigan, an author, historian and passionate teacher.  My wife Denise and I got to go with him to Israel in 2009.  While walking through grain fields in Nazareth, we stopped at a certain field.  The faith lesson was on the parable of the “sower.”  That is a misnomer, which leads us to think it has something to do with the seed caster when in reality, it has little to do with him and everything to do with where the seed lands.  Thus, as author Brad Young suggests, it should be called the parable of the hearers. 

After RVL told us how much work it is to prepare a field for planting, what with burning off all the thorns and thistles that have grown up with the previous season’s wheat and then digging out all the rocks the rains have revealed at the surface of the top soil, all 60 of us stepped into the field and began to remove the rocks.  Rocks were a picture of those things in our lives that hinder the rooting and growth of the seed.  And let me tell you from experience, there were thousands and thousands of rocks in that one little field.  While digging out fist-sized rocks and chucking them into the piles that form the field’s boarders, RVL told us the story of a man in their group on a similar trip a few years earlier.  He started to dig up what he thought to be a fairly small rock.  As he brushed the dirt away, more of the rock was discovered.  Undeterred, he began to frantically sweep soil and pull weeds out of the way until the rock he was uncovering showed its immense size.  After about half an hour, others in the group noticed that the man was sobbing.  They offered to help him but the man refused.  He finally unearthed the huge rock and by himself hoisted it up and staggered over to the rock pile with it.  After he dropped it he told the group that he alone needed to do it because it was “his” rock.  That rock represented for him the broken relationship with his father that he had let decay to the point of no return.  He was determined to remove that rock no matter what and only he and the Lord were capable of restoring the relationship to its proper place.  It was an amazing lesson told in picture of how our hearts are also fields.  The word of God cannot be fully sown or produce a good crop until we do the hard work of removing the thorns and rocks from the soil of our hearts.
Questions/Challenges:
 



1.      How much work is it to prepare our fields?
 
2.      What kinds of things in our lives would be represented by the thorns or rocks?
 
3.      Some rocks are too big to remove by ourselves and so a community is needed to help.  Do you have a community that is willing to do the hard work of digging up and casting out rocks in your life? 

4.      How easy is it to sit back and criticize the sermon on a given Sunday, after lunch or at home after church?  My question to you; how much work did you first do on your own field to prepare it to receive the word that Sunday?  My guess is that if little work was done to remove your thorns and rocks in your field, what right do you have to criticize the man who spent the entire week preparing the seed of his sermon and praying for the hearts who would receive it!


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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A renewed mindset...

Week 51:

Proverbs 14:15 The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thought to their steps.

Romans 12:2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

At first glance, you may wonder how these two verses can be in relation to each other.  I was reading through some Proverbs recently and Proverbs 14:15 just seemed to land for me.  As I reflected on the passage, the “renewing of your mind” from the Romans passage came to heart.  I wrote the two passages down on a slip of paper and occasionally I would look them both up and do some reflection.  Here is what has come to mind. 



Over the last few years, I have been on this transformational journey.  Since becoming a Christian, I have been a good Church attender, Bible class teacher (both at Church and at the Christian school where I work), listen to Christian music, attend Christian functions, etc.  I had done many different Bible studies, attended a Christian University, learned about God in multiple ways, and occasionally experienced His Spirit through some mountain top experience.  However, there were parts of my soul empty.  There were pieces of my character that just seemed to be stuck in neutral.  There were struggles that seemed no matter how hard I worked, they just would not go away.  Therefore, I began to search for more.  It started around 10 years ago when I worked through Henry Blackabay’s Experiencing God and began to see God in a different way.  Somewhere in here I also went through Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life material as well.  With this, I not only saw God differently, I began to look at where I fit in within this journey. 

As I continued this journey, I began to see how life was changing for me.  It was not always pleasant, but God was helping me to renew my mind.  Four years ago, God opened up another piece of transformational work for me through The Crucible Project.  As a result of these sparks in my life, I began to pay attention to what God was doing around me and how I fit into His plan.  I noticed how life looked different and I had been given the power through God’s Spirit to change me.  A couple of years ago, my wife and I went through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace class.  Dave’s way of managing money can be quite simple.  The success of the whole process is changing our mindset.  This is truly where it all begins.  I have to want to change then I begin to change my mindset…the way I think.  The want and the mind change are simple, but the process, the shift, and the actual action is more difficult. 

 
What must I do?  First, I have to want transformation in my life.  I have to get beyond liking the idea of a change and really want to change.  Without this step, I am just repeating life and spinning my wheels.  Second, I must ask God to reveal for me the what, when, and where.  This is the scary part.  God may place me in front of things I may deny about myself or have hidden from in order to avoid pain in my life.  I must face them, repent where I have missed the mark, deal with the pain, and let God’s grace flow in.

Third, I have to begin the renewing of my mind.  I pay attention to what is worldly and what is godly.  Where in my life am I influenced by the world?  What shifts do I need to make in my life?  What lies from the evil one am I believing about myself?  Where do I need God’s truth spoken into my life?  Fourth, I am to discern between what is of God and what is not.  The Proverb talks about how the “prudent give thought to their steps”.  The Romans passage talks about testing and approving God’s will.  To discern is to avoid the captivity of hollow or deceiving philosophies.

Finally, I take action.  I intentionally put myself in situations where I am stretched and can grow.  I surround myself with those are on this same journey.  I look for where God is working and join Him.  I wrestle with what keeps me from this transformational journey.  I stay in touch with God and check in regularly to see where he is leading.  I take responsibility for where I fall short.  I am to live authentically and hold myself accountable to the commitment I have made to grow in God.  All the while, I come back to these two passages and remember that it begins with the mindset. 

Questions/challenges:
 
1.      What connections did you see between these two passages?

2.      Where do you perceive you need a change of mindset?

3.      What is getting in the way of your transformational journey? 

4.      What is a measurable first step for you to take on your journey?

5.      This week, spend time in reflection.  Reflect on where your walk with God has been.  Notice where God has transformed you over this year.  Give thanks and ask God, “What next?”

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Choices and consequences; is God that harsh...?

Week 50:

2 Samuel 6:6-7 6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

Numbers 20:11-12 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.  12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”

1 Samuel 15:26-29 26 But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!”  27 As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. 28 Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you. 29 He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”

For many, these three passages seem to show a harsh God who punishes those who do not follow His commands.  Throughout the Bible there are examples of swift and strong consequences for those who made a choice to follow human direction instead of God’s.  However, I ask, “Is this punishment or is it consequence…or some of both?” 

I would say some of both.  However, we need to know something about the above consequences and their connected punishment.  In each case, there were some clear guidelines set out before each man took action.  No one was to touch the ark of God.  Moses was to speak to the rock instead of striking it.  Saul was to kill everything (man, woman, child, animals).  Each man made a choice to do something different than was commanded.  Albeit, Uzzah acted impulsively, yet he acted out of a lack of faith in God.  He still made a choice.  Each man could have chosen to obey, keep the agreement, and/or follow what God had laid out. 

Our choices have consequences.  Some consequences are desirable and positive.  Some consequences are punishing and negative.  However, we make the choice.  One of the things I have tried to do through my life is to apply scripture to my life wherever possible.  Along with that application, I have tried to answer the question, “Why?” both for myself and for others.  I have often looked at what God is guiding me to do and what the consequences would be if I do not.  In many cases, there are natural consequences that God knows will occur yet we do not see as we act…hence the reason for some of His commands.   


Our consequences not only affect us but also others.  In the case of Uzzah, David was so distressed by the instance, that he sent the ark away.  Saul’s choice affected his family.  Jonathan, who was much like David could have been king.  Moses’ choice cost Israel a continuation of his leadership.  My choices affect my family, my co-workers, and others in my realm.  God knows that our choices affect those around us.  That is part of the reason why God gives us the guidelines in His word. 

We must own and take responsibility for our choices.  Notice how when Samuel pointed out to Saul that God was taking the kingdom from him, Saul was more worried about his image than losing the kingdom.  Saul also deflected responsibility for his action to a false sense of servant hood.  Saul acted as if he thought he had done the right thing to keep some of the animals for sacrifice.  Samuel points out that God required obedience.  On the converse side, David has a contrite heart when he had sinned with Bathsheba.  David took responsibility for his sin and understood the consequences as they would unfold for the rest of his life. 

 
When we do not own our choices, they begin to own us.  They shackle us and leave us powerless.  By taking responsibility we find release in a gracious God.  This is not to say that we will not suffer the consequences.  However, God is there the whole way as we walk through the difficult times.  It was here in David’s life where he wrote many of the Psalms that we use today for comfort.  It is because of our choices and consequences that in many ways we can serve and walk with others.  We become wounded healers, mentors, advisors, prayer warriors, and comforters for those who are approaching or coming through a poor choice in their lives. 

So, as I close this week out; I realize that sometimes God seems harsh in His dealings with His people.  However, if I look back on the commands and standards that God set in motion, I realize that it is the choices that His people make that places them in the situation they deal with.  When I begin to blame others or my situation, I need to take a step back and look at what choices I can take responsibility for.  I need to repent for sin, and ask God to walk with me as I deal with the consequences.  The consequences may be harsh, but God is the loving Father helping me learn and grow and heal.


Questions/challenges:

1.      Do you see God as harsh in these passages?  Why or why not?

2.      Describe another Bible story where God’s consequences were somewhat severe?

3.      Where have you blamed God or others for your choices?

4.      Describe a choice you made that you have struggled to take responsibility for.

5.      This week, pay attention to your choices and consequences.  Notice where God is in these.  Notice where you want to blame.  Take ownership and see what God has for you.

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Heed the warning signs...

Week 49:

Genesis 4:3-8 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.  6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”  8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.  ”While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Cain.  We hear very little about him in the Bible.  In fact, only a few verses are written about his life.  He is mentioned later in reference in a few places; otherwise, we know just this story.  However, I can learn a lot from this story of Cain.  What stands out the most to me are the warning signs that God pointed out to Cain and Cain’s choice to ignore the warnings. 

 
So, let’s look at Cain and what led up to his downfall.  It is obvious that Cain’s offering did not please God.  For whatever reason, Cain had offered, quite possibly, a half-hearted sacrifice to God.  I see this in the language of the two offerings.  Cain’s offering was “some of the fruits” and Abel’s was “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.”  Notice that Abel’s was more detailed and fit within the criteria of the future offerings by the people of God.  That detail tells me that Cain had given less than God desired.

Besides Cain offering less that his best, he began to be angry with God because the offering did not met God’s standard.  Now, to be angry about not hitting the mark is okay.  But, apparently, Cain’s anger went deeper.  Perhaps he felt shamed by God.  Or maybe, he just did not want to own his shortfall with God.  Whatever conclusion we could come to, Cain projected the anger he should have had with himself onto God and the situation.  I believe this is why God asks Cain why he is angry.  Furthermore, God gives Cain an opportunity at redemption by asking him, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?”  Not only does God give Cain a chance at redeeming himself and getting himself back into integrity with God; God also warns Cain what is going on in his heart.  God recognizes the warning sign of Cain’s misguided anger and what may follow. 

What is Cain thinking during this period of time?  Maybe Cain knew beforehand that he was cutting corners with his offering.  Once God called him on it, he did not want to feel any guilt for his action.  It appears that Cain refused to take ownership for his choice and begins the blame game.  By making this choice, Cain may have started to feel like he is not measuring up to his brother’s righteous offering.  Cain starts to believe he doesn’t have what it takes to meet God’s standards.  He is angry and refuses to be angry at himself about his own choice.  Now Cain has created a playground for unhealthy anger and turns it on the only source he can control, his peer and brother, Abel. 

Wow!  How many times in my life do I miss the mark somewhere?  I know I am missing the mark, yet I refuse to take responsibility for myself and my choice and blame other things, project onto others, and act out of unhealthy anger.  From that act of unhealthy anger, I sin in some way; further doing damage to my heart and circumstances.  Yet, all along, God is there giving me a redemption opportunity and a warning sign. 

How do I avoid going the way of Cain?  Several things come to mind here.  One, when I know I am or may be missing the mark, I need to take a step back and take responsibility for me and my choice.  This requires some humility and submission.  So what if I do not realize I am missing the mark?  This leads me to the second thing I need to do.  When I become angry with the response I received for my action, I need to stop and look at the anger.  Is my anger healthy?  If not, why?  Who do I need to be angry with (usually myself around my choice)?  Once I have recognized my anger, I can trace it back to my original choice.

Once I am at this place, I need to recognize the opportunity for redemption that God has offered.  This may be clouded by my guilt and shame feelings around my choice.  It is here that I need to take a step back and listen for God and what he is showing me.  Beyond recognizing the redemption opportunity, I need to pay attention to the warning sign from God.  For me to do this, I must draw my attention back to the source of my anger.  Once I am there, I can see my anger for what it is and hopefully take responsibility for my choice and choose a better path, a path of integrity with God.  One way to do this is to simply stop and ask God to shed His light on my situation.  When I do this, I must listen and pay attention to what happens next.  This is quite possibly the most difficult thing for me due to my lack of patience.  For me, silence and reflection is the key. 

Even though there is very little written about Cain, we can learn a lot from his story.  In our fast-paced society, we/I need to slow down and look inward at what needs to change in order to bring a favorable offering to God.  I must heed the warning signs. 

Questions/challenges:

1.      Where have you missed the mark and become angry?
2.      When you miss the mark, what do you believe about yourself?
3.      Who in your life has suffered from projected anger for your choices?
4.      Think of an example where you missed the redemption opportunity and the situation went further than you desired.
5.      Looking back, what was the warning sign God was showing you?
6.      This week, reflect on this story and how it may apply to your life.    

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Equip us with everything good...

Week 48:

Hebrews 13:20-21 20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Equip us with everything good.  The writer of Hebrews gives us such an encouraging statement of the work we do in the kingdom.  All of the good comes from above.  I, like the writer of Hebrews ask that God give me His measure of goodness to do the work He calls me to do.  I ask that God not only equip me, but give me equipment for good. 
 
Notice the two places from where God grants this goodness.  First of all, God comes from a place of peace.  The writer calls Him the “God of peace”.  The people of the Old Testament had several names for God depending on the work He had done in their lives.  It appears that the writer follows this path to some degree and labels God the “God of peace”.  My good works come from the peaceful side of God.  I don’t always see work as peaceful.  However, when I think about work in the kingdom, I realize that I have an underlying peace about me as I go about His good works.

A second place from which God grants His goodness is mentioned twice.  It really is not a place but a person.  All goodness comes through Jesus.  First of all, the goodness is related to the eternal covenant we have promised through Jesus resurrection.  And it is neat to notice that Jesus is the “great Shepherd”.  Secondly, anything pleasing to God is through Jesus.  It is because of Jesus that I do good works.  Jesus is glorified through any good works I do according to God’s will.

I think about Philippians 4:7-9 when I reflect on the above passage.  This list of all the good things that we are to think upon, come through the God of peace and through Jesus.  From this I learn that the God of peace will equip me for the good I am to do and that He will do this through Jesus.  The writer speaks this blessing on his readers.  His hope is that God will continue to equip the saints with everything good.  That is my hope as well.  I hope this for myself and for those around me. 

Take this blessing with you this week.  God of peace, through the blood of the great Shepherd, Jesus; equip your servants with everything good in order to fulfill your will through your great son, Jesus.

Questions/challenges:

1.      What good things do you see God working in you right now?
2.      Where have you noticed God being glorified through your good things?
3.      Who in your life might you speak this blessing over?
4.      Spend time this week in silence and reflection around the good things God has equipped you with.  Touch on your thankful heart and give God thanks. 
5.      Look for others to speak this blessing over. 

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Justice, mercy and humility...

Week 47:

Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

For me it is hard to strike a balance of these three actions.  I might be able to pull two off at the same time, but to practice all three is difficult.  When I am interested in justice, I find myself lacking in mercy and humility.  When I am acting out of mercy, justice seems to fall to the wayside.  I can see myself mixing humility in with either of these two at times.  But, to balance the three takes some work on my part. 
 
So, how do I strike that balance?  I have been practicing some methodology around this balance.  When I rely on the Spirit’s leading and really work at being present with the situation I am dealing with; I see this balance at work. 

First of all, when I am dealing with an individual I am leading, I separate the action and choices from the core of the person.  For me, and for the person I am guiding, it is important to see him/her as a created child of God.  When I set up our encounter with this thought in mind, it creates an environment for applying the three actions.  If I do not do this, then two things happen:  One, I am out of balance, not present with the person, and I project my judgments onto the person.  Second, I put the person on the defensive because she feels an attack on her character.  When I acknowledge her as a person who is in the middle of a choice, I really take me out of the picture and she has a sense of being seen and heard.

Next, I begin to point out consequences and/or possible consequences for choices and actions.  This is the justice.  There is justice for the choice/action.  I am able to help him to see the natural consequences for the choice as well and structural consequences that may occur.  This justice is actually a gift for the individual.  By pointing out consequences, I have helped this person to look into his life and see where this might be a pattern that may need to change.  This can help him live life justly moving forward.

Third, is the practice of mercy as it relates to the justice she has experienced.  To me, this part is the compassion and empathy for the person experiencing the justice.  A reminder of the separation between her goodness and her choice is helpful here.  In some cases, any added consequence beyond the natural consequences may be waived.  The key to the mercy is a sense of, “We’re going to walk through this together.”  It is important for me to be her cheerleader as she walks through whatever she faces next.


Finally, the application of walking with humility:  Throughout the whole process, I will periodically point out how what the person is experiencing is in some way a mirror for me and how I live my life at times.  This is where I relate times in my life where I have taken part in similar actions and choices.  I may even summarize the consequences I faced.  The humble part of this is me telling on myself.  Why does this work?  I think of the part of this verse that says, “…walk humbly with your God.” creates that environment.  To walk with God and His holiness requires humility.  The expression of that God-driven humility; creates an authentic space for connection. 

I am sure there are other interpretations of this verse.  There may be some who disagree with my view.  However, for me, as I reflect back on recent application of God’s word in my life…I see this verse coming to life how I described it above.  My challenge to my readers is to ask you to leave comments on how this verse applies to your everyday life.  Where do you fall short in this application?  Where are you successfully applying this verse in your life? 

Questions/Challenges:

1.      What is your definition of justice?
2.      What is your definition of mercy?
3.      What is your definition of humbly walking with God?
4.      How has this verse made you think about these three actions?
5.      Take notice this week how these three actions fit into your everyday life.  What are you doing well?  What needs improvement?

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Monday, November 11, 2013

When to speak and when not...

Week 46:

Proverbs 17:28 Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.
 
My Grandmother used to say, “It is better to stay silent and thought stupid then to open your mouth and erase all doubt.”  That phrase has stuck with me for years.  There are times I am successful at the practice of this thought.  Sometimes I am not.  When I read this proverb, her words came back to me like the wind. 

How many times in my life could I have just stayed silent and stayed out of trouble or turmoil?  Notice how the verse says, “Even fools…”?  Many times I would be in the right with my response to someone; yet made matters worse by speaking.  My words would dig a deep hole that I may never get out of.  If I would have just kept my mouth shut and waited, or even never voiced what I was thinking at all, things would have been fine. 
 
James 3 talks about the tongue being a fire.  It is so untamed.  Even within our right to speak, silence may be a better option.  What are some of the reasons I speak when I should be silent?

First, I feel like I have to be right.  There are times where a person is informing me about something I have done or someone close to me has done.  I become defensive and start to speak in order to put myself into a better light.  This does not help the conversation at all.  One, I am not allowing another to have an opinion or feel his/her emotion.  Second, I have made this conversation about me when most of the time it is about the other person’s expression.  This deep need to be right gets in the way and my impatience gets the best of me and I speak. 

Second, I feel like I have to fit in.  Many times I will interject myself into a conversation before my time.  I just feel like I need to belong and use other’s time to push my way in.  I especially do this by explaining a similar experience of my own in comparison to the person speaking and his/her experience.  In essence, I take away from his/her time and sharing.  I do all of this just to connect and belong. 

Third, I feel like I have to give advice.  I am a helper by nature.  However, I can take that gift to the extreme and at times become a “fixer”.  Most people do not want to be fixed and in some way resent my efforts to do so.  And, ultimately, I am not really fixing them.  I am just fixing my discomfort with his/her situation.  I need to keep my advice to myself until I am asked.  At the least, I need to ask permission before speaking further. 

So, what do we learn from this Proverb and James 3?   First and foremost, silence can be a virtue.  Just listening can be all that is needed in many situations.  Lately, I have been working harder at just listening and connecting with the person speaking.  Part of the challenge has been to listen without formulating my answer.  When I have practiced this, I have found that the conversation goes better and the person I am with leaves feeling like a person…not an object. 

Secondly, my wisdom does not have to be shared.  Until I am asked what I think, I need to keep my judgments and comments to myself.  There may come a time where someone wants to know what I think.  When that happens, then my words should fit the situation.  A practice to go hand in hand with this is to let the person I’m speaking with know that these are my words, and that he/she may not feel the same way.  This leaves it open for my opinion to fall back on me.  With this I am also acknowledging them as a person. 

Thirdly, to stay silent when needed is to practice discernment.  Notice how it says, “[the fool is thought] discerning if they hold their tongues.”?  This tells me that there is discernment about when to speak and when not for the wise in conversations.  The better part of wisdom is to know when and where to speak. 

As I take inventory of my conversations, I must watch my tongue.  I need to pay attention to when to speak and when not.

Questions/challenges:

1.      What does this passage say to you?
2.      Which one or more of the reasons do you feel you need to speak when it is not warranted?
3.      How do you feel when you realize you have spoken where it was not wise to speak?
4.      Give an example someone you know does this.
5.      How does it make you feel?
6.      Where do you do the same thing when conversing with others?
7.      Pay attention this week to your conversations.  Notice when you have the urge to speak.  Challenge yourself to stay silent and reflect on how that goes for you.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

Gifts from God...

Week 45:

James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
 
As we begin this holiday season I just want to take time and note where all good things come from.  Over the next few weeks, many will be spending time in thankfulness around Thanksgiving.  Many will also be spending time thinking of others as we enter the Christmas holiday with giving on our minds and hearts.  And, as the year ends, many become reflective on what another year has produced; both the good and the bad. 

 
While we are in this mindset, I would like to take time to note the passage above.  All gifts come from God.  What gifts are we talking about here?  Are we talking about material gifts?  Are we talking about spiritual gifts?  Are we talking about abilities?  I look no further than the word “Every” at the start of the passage.  God is at the source of every good gift we are blessed to receive. 

First of all, there are the material gifts.  I have been blessed with more “things” than others.  Still, I have been blessed with less “things” than others.  Sometimes I have to stop in amazement and wonder why God allowed me to be born into the life I have.  I could have been born into some other society or culture that has little to nothing as far as materials.  I have never wanted for anything really.  This is a gift from God.  I had no choice over my birth or birthplace.  Why was this gift given to me?  God has a purpose in this life for me.  I need to acknowledge His gift to me and use that gifting for His kingdom.

Secondly, I have been gifted in certain ways spiritually.  As I read through 1 Corinthians 12, I recognize some of the gifts God has given me.  There are times where I am envious of other’s gifts and how they use them.  However, I need to recognize that I am gifted in certain areas where I can serve the kingdom of God.  These are gifts given me by God to use and glorify Him.  I am compelled to pay attention to what God has in store for my use of the spiritual gifts He has blessed me with.

A third part of us that God has gifted is in the area of ability.  I have both physical and mental abilities that are useful in the kingdom.  I share my abilities with many yet, my abilities are unique to me.  This is an area of my life where I tend to not always give the God enough credit or thanks.  When I rely on my abilities as if they are from me alone, I am reminded about the passage in Numbers 20 where Moses and Aaron did not give God the glory and misused the power and abilities given them when bringing water from the rock.  The result was neither man would lead the people or enter the promise land.  This is a sobering thought for when I have used or misused the abilities and/or power of God and have not given proper credit as to where I received this power.

These gifts that God has given us are that…gifts.  These are gifts from an unchanging God.  These are gifts to use for ourselves, for others, and for His service.  Let us use them to His glory being ever thankful that He has granted us whatever portion we have received.

Questions/challenges:

1.      What are some of your spiritual gifts?

2.      What are some of your material gifts?

3.      What are some of your gifted abilities or power?

4.      In what ways do you use these gifts for God’s kingdom work?

5.      In what ways have you fallen short of using His gifts for kingdom work?

6.      What needs to change for you to move in a direction of using God’s gifts?

7.      This week, take time to write out a list of your gifts.  Notice where you have used them.  Notice where you need to use them more.  Be sure to pray a prayer of thanks to God over that list.

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