Monday, May 3, 2021

Reasons, Excuses, Explanations, and Change

 Three Christians walk into a Bible study…. The teacher is beginning a lesson on Galatians 5:19-24, the fruits of the flesh vs. the fruit of the Spirit.  

 

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  24Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

 

The first Christian listens for a moment and says to his companions as he walks out the door: “This isn’t for me.  I don’t need to change; God has already forgiven me.  I am going to live by faith in His grace.”

 

The second Christian listens to the teacher a little longer.  “I know that I need to control my temper,” he says to the friend next to him.  “But that is the way my father always dealt with frustration.  I am just like him.”  He, too, walks out the door.

 

The third Christian becomes increasingly uncomfortable as he continues to listen in a corner of the room.  He runs through his personal and family history in his head, a history marked by broken relationships, infidelity, addiction, and secrets.  But as he turns his attention back to the teacher, he is struck by the foundation of hope in Paul’s message: Godly behavior is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s work within him.  It is not—and cannot be—the result of independent human effort.  

 

Christian #3 starts to listen more carefully.  “It is absolutely essential to take Paul’s words seriously, to relinquish our dependence on the deeds of the flesh to feel good and to cope with a troubling and difficult world,” the teacher states.  “But it is equally essential to work with the Holy Spirit as we seek to become free from family patterns and personal sin patterns and to become like Christ and manifest the fruits of a Spirit-filled and Spirit-directed life.  We cannot change ourselves; when we try, we give up, or make excuses.  It is only when we allow the Holy Spirit to expose our sins and hurts and allow Him to touch us and heal us can we begin to turn from the lure of fleshly desires and pursue God’s best for us.”

 

The third Christian stays to the end of the study and waits for a chance to talk with the teacher.  They talk for a long while and agree to continue their conversation over the next several weeks.  He leaves a changed man, no longer feeling destined to repeat the sins of his fathers and prepared to allow the Holy Spirit to redeem his family history as He works in the deepest parts of his heart and soul.

 


 

When we are confronted with the personal and uncomfortable truths of Scripture, we have the same choices as our three fictional Christians.  We can refuse to deal with the truth and abuse the Lord’s grace.  We can look at the brokenness of our past and make excuses.  Or, we can look at our past and see the roots of sin that need to be pulled in order for us to become more who the Lord has created us to be, more faithful in following Him.  Understanding the reasons for our sin is helpful and often necessary in the process of Christian growth.  But it is crucial that we go beyond the “reason stage.”  Reasons are not excuses.  They are explanations that can empower genuine repentance.  But as we remember the words of the Apostle Paul, we must remember to invite the indwelling Holy Spirit to help us uncover the drivers of our sin and empower us to repent.  May we choose to keep company with our third Christian and his Bible study teacher.

 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Love, In and Beyond A Pandemic

 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  (Romans 12:15).

 

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  (Galatians 5:22-23).

 

Do not judge so that you will not be judged.  (Matthew 7:1)

 

 

It has been over a year now since we have found ourselves living in a pandemic:  Masks, testing, quarantining, temperature checks, constant hand-washing, questionnaires, fear, hospitalizations, and death; isolation and separation, quiet holidays, canceled parties and vacations, remote learning and working, eating in, shipping and delivery headaches, long lines and scarce goods; derailed education and career plans, childcare challenges, job losses, and financial strain.  But there is now hope on the horizon and the promise of a gradual but steady return to “normal.”

 

For some of us, post-pandemic life will be a time to celebrate and take joy in the simple pleasures we have missed, to re- connect with loved ones, to take that postponed vacation.  For others of us, though, post-pandemic life will be a time to grieve losses of life, of financial stability, of opportunity, of health. 

 

And then there is the transition itself.  Some of us will seek vaccination as part of the process; others of us will not.  Several writers have commented in recent weeks that life post-COVID will be significantly different than life pre-COVID.  The way we define normal, our perspective about the future, and the way we negotiate this transition will be as unique as each of us.  Some will embrace the return of freedoms and opportunities and blaze a trail toward their new normal.  Others will remain cautious and tentative and move toward their new normal with some hesitation.

 

So as warm weather and gains against the pandemic bring relief from our long, cold, and depressing winter, it is nonetheless crucial that we remain committed to love others, within and without God’s family.  To genuinely rejoice with those who are rejoicing; but also to weep with those who weep; and to look upon those traveling a different transition road with love and acceptance.  I love the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to his Galatian readers to pursue the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  

 

I know of no scholar who would claim that Paul’s list is exclusive and exhaustive, and while I am not an inspired writer of God’s Word, I would love to see sensitivity make the list.  If we want to encourage others, we must cultivate an awareness that the person we are talking to in church or in line at the grocery store may have had a vastly different pandemic experience and a totally different approach to post-pandemic life than our own.  It is relatively easy to comfort someone when we ourselves are grieving.  And likewise, it is easier to celebrate with another when we ourselves are in a celebratory mood.  It is much easier to relate to someone whose situation and perspective are similar to ours.  But our Lord calls us to love beyond our comfort zone.

 

May we ask the abiding Holy Spirit to work in our hearts and mind that we might bear abundant fruit that will encourage and bless all those in our path.

 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Love Without Romance

  

It is said that in polite society, we do not discuss politics or religion.  Today, I am going to do both, at the same time.  As residents of the United States, we find ourselves in a veritable morass of political, racial, and economic divisions that reach across all religious beliefs and practices.  I am not interested in mounting a soapbox and making my case about what convictions we hold.  I am much more concerned about how we come to our convictions and how we express and exercise them.  Even though the news has been calling our current times as unprecedented, the writers of the Bible do not seem to be strangers to conflict and controversy, even among believers.  We would do well to consider their words.

 

It matters what we believe.  Both Matthew and Luke record words of Jesus that are as relevant in our no-absolute-truth culture as they were in the first century:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock.  Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.  Matthew 7:24-27.

 

No one can avoid all the storms of living as a fallen creature in a fallen world; but building our lives on the foundation of Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life can enable us to avoid at least many of the pitfalls of these storms.  Yet Scripture does not give us a blueprint for what that looks like.  The Christian life is not about religious performance; nor does Scripture provide a flow chart for us.  The Christian life is about cultivating a growing and intimate faith relationship with the Lord of the universe and then expressing that relationship in what we do and how we treat others.

 

Romans 14 has become one of my favorite passages in the New Testament.  I would encourage you to spend some time reading it and processing the words of the Apostle Paul.  In this epistle, Paul is addressing a dilemma that is causing controversy among believers living in the very secular city of Rome.  At issue is the eating of meat sacrificed to idols and/or eating meat of unknown origin, that might have originated from pagan worship practices.  Some believers are so horrified at the thought any association with idol worship that they are choosing to avoid meat altogether and eat only vegetables.  Others see nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols in whom they do not believe and who, according to their faith, are not real.  Some of us may be surprised to see Paul take the position of freedom: he sees nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols who do not represent anything that is spiritually material.

 

But Paul is not pronouncing his position in order to prescribe appropriate Christian behavior.  He does not denounce those who are abstaining from meat; nor does he exhort those who hold his “freedom” position to straighten their brethren out.  Instead, he uses the division of opinion to teach two important principles.  The first is that each believer is responsible for living before Christ, with the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  We are to develop and practice our convictions in the context of our dynamic relationship with the Lord.  Our convictions are the outworking of our faith and walk in Christ and often reflect our personal history, experiences, and maturity of faith.  The conviction held by one believer may not be appropriate for a brother or sister to hold!  So while there is the absolute truth of Christ, there is not necessarily one right way to translate that truth into our lives.  The second principle is that we are not to regard our convictions as a standard to be used to judge one another or to feel superior to someone who holds a different—and sometimes contradictory—position.  We are to be sensitive in our interactions with and behavior toward one another so that none of us is caused to stumble or is the cause of stumbling.  Paul warns us that as important as convictions of faith are, using them to achieve self-righteousness is utterly. un-Christian.

 

In his letter to the Philippians (the well-known Chapter 13), Paul reinforces these thoughts by reminding the believers in Philippi that doing great things in Christ has no eternal value if they are not done out of love.  If we speak in tongues, if we prophesy with power, if we move mountains in faith, if we give all we have in ministry, and even if we die a martyr’s death, such activity will fail to advance the work of Christ and His kingdom if it is not generated by our faith relationship with Christ, manifested in love, and expressed as the outworking of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

 

Paul calls the body of Christ to unity: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Galatians 3:28).  In these days of division, in the United States I would love to add that there is neither Republican nor Democrat; neither black nor white; neither Hispanic, Latino, Asian, nor White.  Paul underscores his point with this admonishment a bit later in his letter: For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”   But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.  Galatians 5:13-15.

 

Jesus told His disciples that the world would associate His disciples with Him not by their strident convictions, not by their self-righteous behavior, but by their love: By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.  John 13:35.

 

Our God is a God of restoration, reconciliation, and redemption.  This is illustrated no more powerfully than in Jesus’s death to cover our sins and restore our relationship with our loving Creator.  While the conflict, controversy, and division of these times could be used as tools by Satan to rip us apart, they also represent opportunities for the members of Christ’s body to prosper the work of the Holy Spirt in us and among us, to deepen our love for one another so that as a body, we may manifest God’s goodness and glory to a world desperate for genuine Good News.

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Christmas Eve Meditation

 One of my favorite Christmas books (and subsequent film) is Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas.  In this timeless classic, the Grinch, who has a heart that is two sizes too small, decides to prevent Christmas from coming in the village of Who-ville by cleverly stealing all the food, decorations, and gifts as the Whos down in Who-ville slept on Christmas Eve.

                                                            

After his hard night’s work, the Grinch was eagerly anticipating the disappointment in Who-ville when its residents discovered that Christmas had been stolen.  Much to his amazement, Christmas came anyway!  

                        Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,

                        Was singing!  Without any presents at all!

                        He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!

                        It CAME!

                        Somehow or other, it came just the same!

 

And so it was on that Christmas morning that the Grinch learned that Christmas means more than decorations, more than feasts, more than gifts.  And with that knowledge, the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day, and he was able to join the Whos in their celebration.

 

And in 2020, it may seem like the pandemic is trying to steal Christmas.  May we remember that Christmas will indeed come, just the same!

Sunday, December 20, 2020

An Advent Meditation

 Ready. Or. Not.  Christmas is coming…soon!  To be sure, the holidays are different this year.  Many of us are enduring grief, hardship, and stress.  Celebrations require a large measure of sensitivity, caring, compromise, and sacrifice.  We may not have much in the way of holiday spirit.  But that is exactly why Jesus came.

 

Jesus did not come because we—the human race—had our act together.  He came because we are—individually and collectively—a mess.  We are so in need of the Messiah.  And His coming is not so unlike the ages-old children’s game of Hide and Seek.  The hiders hide.  The seeker waits, and then shouts, “Ready or not, here I come!”  And then the seeker comes looking….

 

We may not be ready; or alternatively, we may be hiding in what we think is a very secure place or in a very good disguise.  But regardless of our location or circumstances, regardless of how ready we are or how we are doing, we can be absolutely certain that the Seeker is coming for us.

 

Of course, Hide and Seek is a game, and the coming of the Messiah is anything and everything but a game.  The advent of the Messiah is about eternal life and death.  But we can learn something important from the game: The glee in which the seeker in the game finds the hiders is a mere shadow of the joy that the eternal Seeker experiences when He seeks and finds the lost or seeks and comforts those who are already His own but are suffering and struggling.

 

 

Come, Lord Jesus…!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Quote Of The Day

 "One thing this vaccine will not solve or cure is selfishness."

                                                        Tennessee Governor Bill Lee

Sunday, December 13, 2020

An Advent Meditation

 ‘Tis the season for decorations, special music, (virtual) gatherings, gifts, parties, and…nativity scenes.  Representations of the circumstances of Christ’s birth appear as ornaments, in church plays, and on lawns.  Although we don’t know the details of this momentous event:  We don’t know if Jesus was born in a stable, a cave, or even in the stone tower known as Migdal Eder.  But we often find it helpful to imagine them so that our minds have something of substance to ponder.

 

Of course nativity scenes feature the baby Jesus with His mother Mary and human father Joseph.  Usually included is a donkey that may have accompanied Mary and Joseph from Nazareth and often a cow and a lamb.  It is a warm, rural scene that emphasizes the contrast between the glories of heaven and the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth and earthly life.  

 

There is one animal that is consistently and remarkably absent from our nativity scenes.  We never see a snake.  Modern-day Israel is home to over forty species of snakes, and ancient Israel no doubt had a robust population.  It is not in the least unreasonable to speculate that a snake was present at the birth of Christ.

 

But it is not a generic snake that is in question here.  It is the serpent of old, Satan in the Garden of Eden, whose presence deserves our consideration.  After Satan, in the form of a serpent/snake, tempted Eve and provoked her to disobey God and initiate the fall, God pronounced judgment upon all involved.  His judgment upon Satan included a promise of redemption for Adam and Eve and their descendants—the Seed of Eve would crush the serpent’s head even as he would bruise this Seed’s heel.

 

And so even though we do not know if there was an actual snake at the birth of Christ, the serpent of old plays a prominent role in this drama.  His presence—literally or metaphorically—reminds us that the wondrous birth of Christ is a scene set in the battlefield of Good versus evil, of sacrifice and suffering to defeat the serpent, to purchase redemption, and to reclaim eternity for those who believe.