Sunday, November 30, 2014

Complaint Department

I know what it is to be poor or to have plenty, and I have lived under all kinds of conditions. I know what it means to be full or to be hungry, to have too much or too little.

-- Philippians 4:12

The Old Testament book of Exodus is where we read about God's plan for leading the Israelites to the Promised Land after freeing them from slavery in Egypt. But instead of taking them on the shortest route to their destination, God made His people wander in the desert wilderness for 40 years.

Have you noticed that God takes us on detours rather than the most direct path in our walk of faith? That's because He's more concerned with who we're becoming than where we're going. But when we can't see what's over the hilltop or around the bend, things don't make much sense to us. In fact, we might think that our situation is unfair. However, what would our journey be like if the road of life were always wide and smooth? And what would happen if we never had to work for anything worthwhile? For example, would it mean anything if we got straight A's in school without ever having to study? Or what if we were given a high-paying job with an impressive title...but had no real responsibilities to go with it?

Receiving everything on a silver platter might be nice for a while. But without experiencing challenges, responsibilities and even tragedies, we would quickly become lazy, self-centered and ultimately fail to reap some of life's greatest rewards. Just ask anyone who has worked their way through college or taken a second or third job to pay the mortgage--or send their child to a better school. It can be a real struggle. But it can also pay off in the long run.

The Apostle Paul knew a thing or two about enduring tough times along the journey:

"Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea," he wrote in 2 Corinthians. "I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers."

If anyone had something to complain to God about, it was Paul. Yet his heart was full of thanksgiving and joy. But this wasn't a reaction to something external--like landing a dream job or tickets to the Super Bowl. Instead, Paul could see the true picture though the most difficult of circumstances.

Looking back now to Exodus, we read that the Israelites grumbled constantly about many things, even after God had freed them from their back-breaking existence in Egypt. Thousands of years later, not much has changed for modern-day believers of the same loving Creator. After all, complaining--justified or otherwise--seems to be part of the human experience. But Christ-followers should know better. We can give thanks that all of our wrongdoings in life have been wiped clean through our faith in Jesus Christ. God remembers them no more. And a blessed future as literal sons and daughters of The King awaits us at the finish line! 

The road of life is often narrow, winding and difficult. But regardless of the detours we face along the way, let's never forget to give thanks.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Talking with God

Stay awake and pray for strength against temptation. The spirit wants to do what is right, but the body is weak."

-- Matthew 26:41

We read in Luke's Gospel that one day Jesus was praying in a certain place. After He had finished, one of His disciples made a simple--yet profound--request that Christ-followers remember to this day.

"Lord," the follower began. "Teach us to pray, just as John (the Baptist) taught his disciples."

Jesus' famous response is what Prayer2we know today as The Lord's Prayer:

"When you pray, say: Father, help us to honor your name. Come and set up your kingdom. Give us each day the food we need. Forgive our sins, as we forgive everyone who has done wrong to us. And keep us from being tempted."

Jesus wasn't teaching His followers some magic formula to make God grant their wishes. Instead, He was modeling an intimate, ongoing conversation with His Father. And the religious leaders of the time were highly offended by the notion. "After all," they said, "Who dares go before God but our High Priest?"

The answer, of course, was much closer to them than they could imagine.

Jesus also taught His 1st Century disciples that He could do only what he saw His Father doing. That's a reminder to 21st Century Christ-followers that to do God's will in our communities--and the entire world for that matter--we need to be in constant conversation with Him. Through ongoing prayer, our hearts, wills and vision become closer to the Father's. And His ways become our ways.

Prayer evokes different images to different people. If you grew up attending a traditional church, you might recall kneeling on pews (with eyes closed and heads bowed) between the sermon and the choir's stirring rendition of How Great Thou Art. To others, prayer is something done aloud with hands outstretched and eyes looking skyward. But Jesus' lesson to us is that prayer boils down to the simple act of talking with God. And it's a remarkable concept. The Creator of the Universe--the One Who knows the number of hairs on our heads--wants a personal relationship with you and me!

In these dark days marked by distant wars, economic uncertainties and infectious diseases, it's reassuring to know that every Christ-follower has a direct line to the Father.

"I was in terrible trouble when I called out to you," wrote the Psalmist. "But from your temple you heard me and answered my prayer."

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Recipe for Joy

Go to the flock and get me two healthy young goats so I can prepare them as the delicious food your father loves.

-- Genesis 27:9  
The H.B. Reese Candy Company is a subsidiary of Hershey Chocolate Corporation and the holder of the best-selling candy brand in the United States. Best known for its peanut butter cups, Reese produced a series of TV commercials in the 1970's and 80's depicting unlikely situations where a chocolate bar would become embedded in a jar of peanut butter. "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!" exclaimed Candythe peanut butter lover after his collision with the equally careless owner of the chocolate bar. "No," his adversary responded, "you got your peanut butter on my chocolate."

Both parties then took bites of the peanut butter-smeared chocolate bar, exchanged knowing glances and nodded in approval. For them, this accidental mixture of two simple ingredients had turned into a recipe for sweet, tasty joy.

A similar principle applies to our journey as Christ-followers. That's because we need certain ingredients in our faith-walk to experience the joy-filled life that our Creator desires for us. But before we look at that, let's define the word joy by explaining what it's NOT.

First, joy isn't the result of a particular action like buying a car, getting a job or receiving jewelry. Those are nice and can make us happy (for a while), but they're external made-made things that have little to do with authentic joy. Instead, joy is an internal source of gladness and thanksgiving that helps us persevere though the most difficult of circumstances. As Christ-followers, our relationship with Jesus grants us literal access to our Creator--a loving Father who hears our prayers and looks for ways to bless us. So no matter how bad things get for us, we can rest assured that ultimately, our story will end on a very positive note. And that's something to feel joyful about.
Nothing can bring us down when we're filled with joy. The Apostle Paul, perhaps Christ's greatest follower, spent years in prison chained to his guards while under constant threat of execution. But he always prayed with a spirit of thanksgiving. And instead of feeling sorry for himself, he used his circumstances joyously to change the lives of fellow prisoners and his jailers alike--and all while writing much of what we today know as the New Testament.

What's the recipe for a joy-filled, Christ-centered life? The Bible tells us that it's one part unity with other Christ-followers and a measure of regular prayer. Then mix it well with a heaping helping of discernment--the ongoing intentional functions of living, thinking and acting constructively. It's all about habitually looking for the good and dwelling on the positive.

Want to cook up some tasty joy in your life? The right ingredients make all the difference.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
-- 1 Peter 2:9  

We live in a nation that's blessed with choices. Need a cell phone? There are dozens of companies offering feature-packed devices from Apple, Samsung, Nokia and a multitude of other manufacturers. Well-stocked supermarkets have 10 or more brands of bottled water on the shelves. And the local Cineplex shows movies for everyone's taste--from cartoons to romantic comedies to horror flicks. And while you're driving to your favorite shopping mall (the one with more than 100 different stores), try counting all the makes and models of cars in the parking lot.

Yes, Americans like to sing the praises Praiseof choice. So it should be no surprise that we also have options for religion. Like the sandwiches displayed on a fast-food menu board, there's something for every taste and preference. What's more, many who consider themselves "spiritual" will assure you that which religion you choose doesn't really matter--just so long as you're sincere in your beliefs and it makes you happy. After all, one person's truth isn't someone else's. It's all relative. And we're all worshiping the same god. Right?

Not really! Jesus made some startling claims that clearly oppose the easy-going beliefs of our modern-day culture. And He also backed them up. For example, the Bible accurately predicted Jesus' birth--even the name of the tiny village where it would happen--centuries before the fact. And in Christ's brief time on earth, He cured the sick, raised the dead, forgave sins and became a living sacrifice to pay the price for all the wrongs of the world. His Resurrection from the grave--just as He predicted--proved His ultimate power over death. And 2,000 years later, Jesus' words continue to change lives and make an eternal difference.

"I am the vine; you are the branches," we read in John's Gospel. "If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."

Many people--even those who aren't Christ-followers--agree that Jesus was a "good" man and a "wise" teacher. But the hot-button question is whether or not He's really the only way to God. The short answer is...YES! Jesus declares that no one can come to the Father (God) except through Him. Of course, that's a claim that makes people uncomfortable these days. It's a claim of exclusivity. And many call it intolerant.

Or maybe it's not quite so exclusive after all. Jesus' death and Resurrection make it possible for anyone who accepts God's free gift to have eternal life! No one who wants a new life through Jesus is turned away. And unlike man-made religions, the way to God isn't about keeping certain rules, saying special prayers or eating (or not eating) particular foods. Instead, being a Christ-follower is about having a personal relationship with Jesus, accepting what He already accomplished and letting Him live through us.

By some counts, there are today about 20 different major world religions...and not to mention thousands of related beliefs and their offshoots. And they all have something in common: their emphasis on doing. But Christianity--the simple faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior--is instead about what's already been done. We can't earn our salvation or perform enough good deeds to earn our way to God's favor. Christ has already taken care of it--and paid it in-full on the cross. All we need to do is come to Him in faith.  

"It is finished!" Jesus proclaimed as He hung from the cross. And it is worthy of our praise.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Solitary Confinement

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

-- Revelation 21:4 

It was a place of suffering known to this day as The Rock.

It's Alcatraz, the infamous maximum security prison situated in the midst of San Francisco Bay. Originally a pre-Civil War era military outpost and later a military prison, Alcatraz was the last stop for society's worst-of-the-worst when it re-opened in 1934 as an escape-proof penitentiary.

The Rock's ultra-strict code of discipline Jailhelped the facility earn its nickname "Hellcatraz." In its infamous "D" block, prisoners lived in 4' x 8' cells and were allowed out just once a week for a 10-minute shower. "Harsher punishments," reports the Legends of America website, included "solitary confinement, in total darkness, for days without any release, or confinement in the dreaded steel boxes."

Alcatraz finally closed its doors in 1963. But today there are still millions of Americans suffering in solitary confinement. Not in a prison or jail--but through loneliness. Even in a crowded nation of more than 300 million, too many people are on their own without close friends or family. They know all too well that it's possible to be lonely without ever being alone.  

This was never God's plan for His people. But we all to some extent have trouble forming relationships--with each other and with God. If you go back to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God put the first man and woman in a perfect, carefree existence called Eden. There were no job deadlines, traffic jams, illnesses or broken marriages. And it was a place where God literally walked with His creation. But when the man and woman intentionally disobeyed God's instructions and sinned, things were never the same. Adam and Eve's eyes were opened and they realized the damage they had done. And then they literally hid from their Creator. Their sin had built a wall between them and God.

We're no different today. In addition to our own sins, we also run from relationships because of what others have done to us. We're determined to avoid being disappointed or hurt again. It's too easy to be let down. And it's much easier to run.

The good news is that God has a two-fold solution to this problem. First, He re-established a relationship between Him and us through His Son, Jesus. As Christ-followers, we're literally God's sons and daughters. And there's an incredible inheritance awaiting us. Second, there's the Church, which is made of all the Christ-followers around the world. It's a body of imperfect people like you and me who are all looking for the same thing: a safe place to rest from the world, heal our spiritual wounds and make lifelong relationships.

Are you in a place of suffering? You're never alone in Christ.