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Hopeful

I love to read the Bible because it is active. I can be reading along and then suddenly a thought leaps off the page and calls for my attention. It keeps me reading with anticipation of what God will use next to keep my life on track and inspire my mind to think more like Him. As you can imagine, that happened this morning and two thoughts will be now be my companions throughout this day.
Thought 1: Christ became a servant so He so could fulfill two very important missions. “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” (v. 8-9) The first mission was the promises of God. Throughout the Old Testament, God had given assurances to the nation of Israel. These included a ruler who would lead the nation forever, the land of Israel which was promised to them as an inheritance, forgiveness for their sins and peace on all their borders. Each and every one of these guarantees needed to be fulfilled or God would become a liar and that was simply unacceptable. Since every man in history had fallen short, it was up to the Son of God. Either He volunteered to humble Himself, become a man, and do for us what we could not for ourselves or the history of mankind and the honor of God would be forever ruined.
The second mission was to bring mercy to the Gentiles. The primary focus of the Old Testament was the relationship between God and the nation of Israel but God is the creator of all people and He has equal amounts of love for both Jewish and non-Jewish people. Out of compassion, He longed to give eternal life to all who would receive it but a payment for sin had to be made by someone. Jesus realized only He could give a sacrifice of unlimited value that would cover all sin for all people for all time. His humble act of service on the cross opened the flood gates of mercy for people who had been otherwise locked out of the promises.
Thought 2: Where peace and joy are present, hope abounds. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (v. 13) Hope is that conviction that things will turn out okay. It is the assurance that God sees all and is actively working to guide and protect my life. It is the ingredient of life that prevents me from feeling defeated when circumstances are difficult. Hope does not operate in a vacuum, however. When God fills my life with joy and peace, hope overflows. It appears the human heart is wired in such a way that peace plus joy equals hope. Today that seems like good news because it kind of shook me up. I tend to build hope on clarity. If I can look to the near future and see that things will work out, I find it easy to have hope. The problem is that I can’t see very far ahead in life so it can be elusive. Rather than subject me to the expectation of knowing what is going to happen later today or early next week, God puts heavy doses of peace (the truth that I am secure in my relationship with Him) and joy (the celebration of the heart that comes with that secure relationship) which provide hope that is independent of circumstances.
Jesus, give me grace to follow your example as a servant to others so they can have this same hope.

No Filler

I had one of those small world experiences this week. The brother and sister-in-law of an individual who had been on our volunteer youth staff in Bakersfield, California attended the family camp I spoke at in Cannon Beach. I had met them once before at a wedding about twenty years ago but would not have recognized them if they hadn’t introduced themselves again. They had called his sister to tell her they were at camp and that I was speaking. In the course of the conversation, the question came up, “What did you learn so far that stuck with you?” Her response surprised me.
“The thought that I cannot get out of my mind is, ‘God didn’t create any filler.’”
It was a supporting statement I made in the midst of one message. It was not the main point and it was not something I emphasized although I do include in many messages because I get the sense from lots of people that they think they don’t really matter and I know it is not true. The idea touched something within her and she quickly identified three people in the past week that were encouraged by time spent with her.
Her response to this idea also got me thinking about all the people who are necessary to make my life work. Just in my return trip home from that same family camp the following people made my journey possible:
• The people who prepared my breakfast and lunch
• The man who drove me from the Oregon coast to the airport
• The lady at the ticket counter who tagged my luggage and printed my boarding pass
• The people at the security checkpoint who insured we would have a safe flight
• The individual at the gate who directed traffic during the boarding process
• The support personnel who filled the plane with fuel, cleaned the interior, and stocked the galley.
• The flight attendants who took care of the passengers
• The pilots who flew the plane
• The ground personnel who helped us park at the gate
• The baggage handlers who moved our suitcases from the plane to the baggage claim area
And those are just the ones I could think of. There are a myriad of others who built and maintained the road to the airport, serviced the landscaping, cleaned the carpets and the bathrooms, washed the windows, and policed the streets.
It helped me gain a new appreciation for Romans 12:5-8, “so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.”
Whatever you do today, do it with all your heart because your efforts are making other people’s success possible. There really is no filler!

A Healthy Heart

There is a lot of talk these days about heart health. I browsed the cereal aisle this week and was amused at the variety of health promises I encountered:
• “Can help lower cholesterol”
• “Helping to support your family’s immunity”
• “Nurturing people, nature and spirit”
• “Fiber has never tasted better”
• “Help Boost Your Body’s Probiotics”
• “Part of a heart healthy diet”
It sparked a question in my mind, “What are the traits of a healthy heart?” I have been aware for years that the bottom line issue of life spiritually, emotionally and socially is the condition of my heart. When my heart is soft and teachable, stress is lower, friendships work better, and my relationship with God is responsive. So, how can I know if my heart is in good shape? I found a couple of clues in Romans 11 this morning.
A soft heart can connect intellectual truth with spiritual commitment. “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” (v. 4) This was God’s response to Elijah when he felt like he was the only one left in Israel who truly believed in God. Paul used this example to teach that there is always a remnant of people who remain faithful to truth. Intellectually, the issue was not difficult. Baal was an idol, an inanimate object which had been arbitrarily assigned spiritual powers. It was no more powerful than a chair or a desk. God, on the other hand, is living, powerful, and actively interested in His people. Those whose hearts were soft (7000 plus Elijah) were able to put their conclusions into action. Sadly, most of the people accepted the lie that God had a rival in Baal. There is no way to explain this intellectually because it is nonsense to choose an idol over the living God. It is fully a function of the heart.
A soft heart longs for others to discover the truth. “I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” (v. 13-4) Paul had a highly effective ministry to the Gentiles of his day. His evangelistic efforts were impressive and he planted churches everywhere he traveled. He could have easily been content with his productivity among non-Jewish people. He could also have easily been critical of his Jewish brothers who were not willing to grasp the simple truth that their Messiah had paid the penalty for their sins and defeated death by rising from the dead. It would not have been healthy for his heart, however, to complain about the people he cared so much about. His heart broke over the fact that his kinsmen could not see what was so clear. He knew he couldn’t argue them into a soft heart or push them into spiritual tenderness and yet he longed for it to be a reality in their lives.
Lord, keep my heart soft before you. Give me grace this week to courageously commit myself to what I know is true and to earnestly pray for the salvation of those I would naturally be critical of.

The “Good” Journey

Haystack Rock – Cannon Beach

I just returned from another teaching session at Cannon Beach Christian Conference Center in Oregon. It is one of my favorite places to partner with. The leadership is genuine, the program is solid and the crowds are consistently eager to learn. In one of the presentations I described the agony and injustice of the crucifixion of our Savior. I pointed out the blood that poured from Jesus’ body because of the flogging and the insertion of a thorny crown into his scalp. I explained that the position on a cross caused the weight of the body to crush down on the lungs of the accused making it hard to breathe. In response, the one hanging on the cross would push up with his feet to get air in his lungs before slumping back down. Eventually, he would no longer have the strength to rise up and would suffocate in the open air. To speed up the process, it was common to break the legs of the dying so they could not lift themselves to gulp the precious oxygen.
My main point, however, was not the agony itself. It was that Jesus went through all of this unjustly and unfairly. He didn’t deserve it and there was never a charge that stuck that would have warranted this kind of mistreatment. He was abused, victimized and maltreated because of the evil in the hearts of others. Because of this, He knows firsthand what it is like for anyone living on earth who has been betrayed, abandoned or abused. Not just in an intellectual sense either. He knows the physical, emotional, intellectual and social trauma that goes along with the horrendous acts of men and so He offers a special kind of friendship to people who have had to endure agonizing circumstances.
I then requested that the crowd close their eyes so everyone could have privacy and I asked anyone who was in the midst of, or had been through, a situation that no one should ever have to endure to raise their hands. I pointed out that I wasn’t looking for the difficulties of life that we all face such as financial setbacks or confusing decisions. I was looking for those who had been through the unfair, unjust, unimaginable journey. Much to my surprise, 1/3 of the crowd raised their hands. I then prayed over them, “Jesus, thank you for each of these individuals. I am sorry they have had to endure experiences that no human should ever have to face. In the midst of their journey, I thank you that you understand because you have experienced the same thing. You know what it is like to be betrayed by the people who love you. You know what it is like to be abandoned at your greatest hour of need. You know what it is like to be mistreated and abused. Please reach out to these people today as a friend who understands and give them confidence that you will walk every step with them and you will, somehow, bring good out of each and every situation. Amen.”
It gave me a new perspective on Romans 8:28, “and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The crucifixion wasn’t a good thing but God caused it to work for good. Being falsely accused and deserted by his friends was not a good thing but God caused it to work for good. The bad things that happen in our world are not good but in the midst of the struggle, Jesus causes it to work for good by offering a friendship with Himself that is deep, intimate and trustworthy to those who are willing to accept it.
Paul understood the depth of this friendship so he finished Romans 8 with these words, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Thank God that Jesus always finds a way to make the journey good.

What Can You Do in One Day?

What is the most you have accomplished in one day? I was lamenting yesterday over all the things on my to do list that didn’t get done. I had two small writing projects I was going to finish but didn’t. I had a spreadsheet to create on which I never got started. I was going to check online for future flights but had to leave the house shortly after I logged in to my account. It got me to thinking, what has a really productive day looked for me?
If I had to present a day from my life for a “productivity competition” I would probably put up the day we finished our first “in house” curriculum. I had remarkable clarity that day. We had been working on the project for a couple of months and it was very clear to me the steps we needed to take to get it ready for printing. I coordinated the efforts of two other writers, a graphic designer, an office manager and two interns. In addition, I did a final edit on the content and wrote 8 pages of additional assignments to add based on a brainstorming session we had in the morning meeting. Everyone was busy all day and we were proud of the final product. It was a strenuous day but we loved the results.
I got to thinking about my most productive day because I read Zechariah 3:9, “See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.”
This statement was written about 550 years before Christ came to the earth. It would have been a stunning statement for the people to hear. They were back in Jerusalem building the temple which would end up being the largest structure in the city. An entire tribe of Israel was set apart to be priests and temple workers. They had an elaborate system of sacrifices that were to be offered on a yearly basis to deal with the imperfections in their lives. It would have been impossible for them to imagine that in one day the sin of the land could be removed eliminating the need for the temple, the priests and the sacrifices. And yet there it was. They didn’t really understand how it could be done so they pondered the thought and trusted that God knew what He was talking about. It was too big, too impossible, however to make sense to their limited minds.
Then came Jesus. In one day He died on the cross and paid the penalty for all sin for all time. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) And that one act in one day “resulted in justification and life for all people.” (Romans 5:18)
The next time I have a frustrating day where I don’t get as much done as I was hoping, I am going to take a few minutes to marvel that in one day Jesus secured salvation for everyone who is willing to trust in Him. What a day!

The Tension I Welcome

There are times I read something that gets my attention because it bothers me, which is what happened this morning when I read Romans 2:1. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” This thought bothered me because the balance between having a righteous standard to live by and a compassionate heart of grace toward people has always been difficult to maintain. I am fully convinced that we are “saved by grace through faith alone.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) I wholeheartedly believe that “apart from Christ we can do nothing.” (John 15:5) These verses motivate me to be patient, forgiving, and hopeful that even the most unruly and selfish among us can find hope and eternal life in Christ.
At the same time, I have deep convictions about the values that should shape our lives. I am passionate about protecting my family against evil influences and manipulative schemes of unrighteous people. When public policy or private decisions are made that endanger my loved ones or threaten the stability of the environment in which they must operate, a fierce competitiveness arises within me. It is extremely difficult at those times to be compassionate toward the ones who are representing what is dangerous to the most important people in my life.
Also, at the same time, I realize I am no better than the people I oppose. I am deeply aware of my own imperfections. I live with the nagging curiosity that my own righteousness falls well short of my own expectations. It is easy to fall into the trap of not commenting on the behavior and decisions of others since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) And yet, if we don’t speak out, chaos can emerge as those “who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil” (Romans 2:8) set the pace for our society.
It will be an ongoing discussion to keep the balance but here is what I have found helpful so far in my journey:
Life is primarily a matter of the heart. When my heart is right, I do things that are right. When my heart is wrong, I do things that are wrong. We, therefore, need to address the needs of the heart constantly. Paul courageously did this at the end of chapter 2, “. . . and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” (v. 29) When an individual’s heart is cut open and revealed to God’s mercy, truth, authority, and majesty, he will respond with humility, sincerity, and diligent adherence to whatever will help the relationship thrive. Our primary message must be to soften hearts before God.
A value system based on truth and humility is the only way to keep unrighteousness in check while we wait and hope for people’s hearts to soften. Without Christ, foolishness will grip a person’s mind and will. They will think and do unimaginable things and then call them right. If there is a not a system in place to reign in the effects of this foolishness, people will be ruined by their own freedom. It is simply a substitute for the real answer that allows us to live together in harmony but it is a necessary element in a society of imperfect, unredeemed people.
I welcome the tension because my goal is to be a person of righteousness who never loses his compassion for a world of people who need to know my Savior.