Saturday, December 31, 2005

It's what's on the inside that counts!

"Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom."

The world is tired of Christians with externals only . . . strict adherence to dress code, numerous restrictions in activities, diet, etc. Convictions are fine and provide some security. But they don't protect the heart from jumping over the barricades and craving that which the outward standards were built to keep out! So let's not toss away all the external protections, but how about going for the bull's eye, the heart itself?

Psalm 51 doesn't say that God desires conformity to a set of external standards by which others will be impressed and notice our high level of spiritual maturity. Nor does it direct us to avoid particular fashions, hair styles, or all forms of popular music. It says that He desires honesty and truth in the innermost parts of our being. David asked for God to create in him a clean heart and a right spirit!

Again the outward restrictions can serve as a guard from outward influences, but do not guarantee pure motives. The internals are only transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, the supernatural effects of God alone. Psalm 15 and 24 both identify the one who will dwell with God. It is the one whose heart is pure and who speaks the truth in his heart, not the one who made the most commitments, memorized the most Scripture passages, or even struggled to keep a good attitude.

Cleaning the outside is important but represents a human work which produces pride, inferiority and frustration. Letting God grow the work he began in the heart at salvation is the only lasting motive-changer. Externals don't affect desires. Only God can produce in us desires that please Him. All the God-infused desires we need are present in the believer. When the internal desires are fed and recognized, the externals will take care of themselves. Then the outside will accurately reflect the inside.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Talk to yourself

Imagine that your family is kidnapped, all your belongings are stolen, and your best friends turn against you bitterly and threaten to kill you. Bad circumstances have quickly descended into disaster, and life is not good. What do you do?

Such was God's agenda for David on the day when the enemy ravaged his campsite. All had been lost. It couldn't have been any worse. At that point Scripture says that he encouraged himself in the Lord. Instead of cursing his predicament, he talked to himself and he prayed. Perhaps he even yelled at himself, desperately recalling God's unfailing love and sovereign plan for his life. He knew from experience the power of God at times like this. Thus he was able to draw valuable strength at his lowest moment. Could it have been this response that turned the tables for him and for his men that very night? He spoke the truth to himself even though circumstances seemed to scream at him, "give up, curse God and die, get bitter, escape from all this, get back at them, God has let you down." In fact, the Lord did not let him down, but saw to it that all was restored to David!

Every showdown like this is never without its reward, its opportunity for improvement, and its overshadowing victory. Often push must first come to shove, however, and we find ourselves at the edge of the Red Sea, between a rock and a hard place. Sadly, it is there that the best learning can take place. Sad in that we often could have chosen wisely much earlier and with less trauma. And sad in that we often fail to respond properly especially in high pressure situations! If we could only step back at the point of emotional impact and comprehend that God just might be in this, and remember that he always intends for life's pressures to improve us, not to destroy us!

The point is talking to ourselves, not a sign of senility, but a strategy, a self-coaching, an automatic recall of the truth at the moment of need. The Holy Spirit is our coach, bringing to mind those scriptures which have been implanted (treasured) for such a time as this. The more weapons we have become familiar with from our spiritual arsenal, the more effective will be our using of them in the crisis. If lies can be believed when repeated often enough, then why not speak the truth to ourselves and find protection and victory instead of defeat? "For the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Precious Cargo

Home for Christmas in the late 70's after visiting parents in New Jersey, gathering around our departing car, my dad had said, "drive carefully, you're carrying precious cargo!" With two little ones strapped in the back seat with all the items that would keep them occupied for the next 7 or 8 hours, we pulled away. Headed for Canada.

Memories had once again been rekindled of past Christmas's, especially those of early childhood,just as clear as yesterday. Relatives had been entertained again, favorite spots revisited, familiar streets seen one more time. Impromptu tours of neighborhoods full of lights, as if each house competed for a prize. School yards once full of noises, pressures, heartaches, pain, and strange excitment now stood silent and dark, shut down for the long winter's break. In a short time, the routine would resume as before. But the magic of Christmas in the 50's was never to return. All the while our precious cargo is having their 50's.

Previous chapters of life make way for new ones to be written. The familiar noises, pressures, heartaches, pain, and excitment waited for us again in the days, weeks and years to follow. Same scenario, different location. Each Christmas comes and goes. All the while our precious cargo has grown up.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Our job description

"I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, . . . "(Ephesians 4:1-3) Is the vocation our secular employment? No, it is the invitation or summons from God to order our behavior in a manner consistent with such a high calling. Who called whom? The Lord has sought us out, and has made us fit to be called saints. He loved us before we ever loved him. Therefore, he reminds us how we should walk in a manner worthy of his high calling.

If the president of the company requests to see me, I hope I would not casually saunter into his office, late, jabbering away carelessly, poorly dressed, and generally disrespectful. As an employee of his company, certain codes of behavior and dress are understood and expected, not only in his presence, but consistently. Because I have been chosen to work there, I am honored, and gladly comply. If, as I am ushered into his office, one of his choice attendants whispers urgent advice to me, I would do well to listen carefully.

So Paul gives to us our job description with the expectation that we will accurately represent the One who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light.

1. All lowliness
2. Meekness
3. Longsuffering
4. Forbearing one another in love
5. Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace

These are our first instructions from day one. They are inward attitudes that will also be displayed outwardly. Obviously, the opposite behavior cannot be tolerated:

1. All pride and haughtiness of spirit
2. Selfish and unbridled attitude
3. Short-fused, impatient, easily irritated
4. Me-first attitude, callous, inconsiderate
5. Constantly stirring up dissention, discord, rebellion

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Hardness of heart

Two passages came to the surface today. Sometimes the Scriptures seem to work like a fortune-telling eight-ball for me. (Our pastor will certainly shudder at that thought!) Anyway, the theme is the hardness of our hearts. Not a pretty sight, and perhaps not encouraging either, unless you are the kind of person that tends to take a lesson from another's struggles. We certainly don't delight in seeing them, but they can well be used for our learning and benefit. Even better is the one who can recognize his own problems and find the help needed.

When asked by his disciples in Matthew chapter 19 why Moses allowed for divorce, Jesus reminded them that that was not the original plan. But "because of the hardness of your hearts", he permitted the putting away, but only in cases of unfaithfulness during the time of betrothal prior to the wedding. The point here is not nit-picking over right and wrong divorce scenarios, but a look at the sad cause of marriage break-ups in the first place, the hardness of our hearts.

In Romans chapter 9 Pharoah is mentioned as an example of one whose heart had become calloused. As he continued to resist the Lord, God began to harden his heart to the detriment of both his family and the entire nation. The more he insisted on defying the Lord, the worse matters became. Layer upon layer of self-willed resistance becomes a thick wall which eventually chokes out all life. Ten times Pharoah had opportunity to repent, but he refused. Nevertheless he did play his part in the ultimate plan of God for his people.

I Corinthians chapter 10 reminds us of the consequences of resisting God. Ignoring God, the people had fallen into evil pursuits, idolatry, immorality, and murmering. At the end of the day 23,000 had died. We are warned in Hebrews chapter 3 about the consequences of rebellion. "Harden not your hearts, as in the day of temptation in the wilderness. . . but exhort one another daily lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin."

It must be added that the new nature does not get hardened. The inner man is renewed daily and has all the resurrection power necessary to break down any obstacle. It is the old sinful nature that can become hardened, deceiving and blinding. Hebrews 3:14 says that "we are made partakers of Christ." Christ is never hardened. So it is for the new nature. Let us exhort one another daily lest the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts for other things draw away our hearts. In addition to severly limiting our potential, it damages others, especially those closest to us.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Your ID, visible or invisible?

Violinists can be spotted easily. It is the raw discolored callous on the left side of the neck. (Too much practicing!) Brass players are likewise branded on the upper lip with a "red cheerio", the mouthpiece imprint from high-pressure playing, usually worn very proudly! Guitar players wear their left hand finger tip callouses and long nails on the right hand. I suppose every job leaves its accompanying ID marks on its workers. What about Christians? Is it bumper stickers, WWJD jewelry, fish insignias, lapel pins? What did Jesus say was to be our foremost identifying trait?

"By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." It could be expected that the Lord might well have said, if ye have love for your enemies. But instead the litmus test is right there in the church! We must remember the sober warning, "whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know where he going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes." Harboring any degree of hatred for brothers and sisters in Christ is devastating for us and for all those watching for some evidence of reality in the Christian life. James also points out the futility of duplicity. Can a fountain both yield fresh water and sweet? Should we bless God and curse men in the same breath?

Let us purge ourselves of every unkind and judgmental criticism. The implanted new nature is only capable of edifying conversation. The old nature, full of every evil word and deed, has been crucified. Why then should we act as if it still dominates our behavior? Viewing all people as God sees them will help purify our walk, and will evoke the love for one another that is the key trademark of Christ's church. "Let your light so shine among men that they may see your good works (love for each other) and glorify your Father which is in heaven."

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Proving Your God

Call it proof of profession, or proof of possession, it seems that one's ultimate allegiance can be seen under pressure.

Picture a brave soldier, well trained and equipped for any possible onslaught. To most observers he appears strong and trust-worthy. Nearby is his secure underground bunker, his obvious shelter in the event of deadly attack. All that he would need is stowed within. Also nearby is a single tall tree standing exposed in an open field. How strange it would be to witness that soldier when attacked by the enemy armed to the hilt, forsake the bunker and rush to climb that nearest tree?

For some reason the soldier at that moment revealed his trust in that which not only provided no protection, but also that which endangered his very life. How often like the foolish soldier, we shun the Fortress of our souls and choose that which soon leads to our destruction! He may have often boasted of his steadfast faith in his secure protection, only to reveal the stupidity of reality for him when push came to shove. Perhaps he forgot where he should go in the heat of battle, or maybe he was fearful, apathetic, or just didn't see the danger? Same result.

How honest is our profession? To whom do we run during storms? Is our security on the tree-tops, or in the Bunker? What easily moves us off center? How deep are our roots and shallow our faith? How is it that when we have absolute secure protection and every provision that we tend to distain it all for no logical reason? It does not have to be so. We have been outfitted and "infitted" by Christ himself, and reality for the believer is "the shelter", not the "tree-tops".

"Seeing then that we have a great high priest . . . Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. . . Let us come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need." (Heb.4:14,16) He is our shelter, our protector, and our God. Why go anywhere else?

Planting for Tomorrow

If you want to be prepared for the next concert, certain things are needful, others are not! Every skill makes its demands upon us and there are no shortcuts. There is a "weeding" process required for success as well as a time of "planting". A good day just doesn't happen. Left to chance, chances are good for failure. "Cause and effect" still rules, fortunately and unfortunately. Just as disciplines must be practiced over time, fresh inspiration and specific preparation must be in place before a successful performance can be achieved.

So it is in our spiritual walk. Victories and fulfilling ministries just don't happen by chance. Old thought processes and useless activities produce blindness and a lack of focus which must be replaced by a new direction which is aimed solely at success. Sowing to the flesh reaps failure, defeat, and death, while sowing to the Spirit yields life. The truth is that we reap what we have sown. What we are sowing today will definitely affect our future results. And what we reap tomorrow can indicate what kind of sowing has been going on.

If the Christian life were only about our diligent farming skills, we would all still be in desperate need of some government bail-out assistence! Fortunately, success does not depend upon our finite abilities. Preparing for tomorrow simply involves a genuine and consistent seeking after our life source, the Lord Jesus Christ. His Word provides the direction, focus and energy needed for each day. Faith in His wisdom for us, and remaining convinced of the superiority of His ways provides the basis for our success.

It is good to know that He maintains his grasp on his children and that our success is not based on our trying to "perform" for Him. Our success depends on our willingness to see His work played out in the hour-by-hour events of our day. He thinks upon us, takes great interest in us, delights in us, and empowers us for the success of His will. In fact, He has conquered our unwillingness to even want to participate with Him! He is totally committed to our success. A no-brainer, can't fail situation!

Planting wisely for tomorrow then, is nothing more than gaining His perspective on the events that He brings our way, and allowing Him to remove the blinders of sin that block our view of Him. This is accomplished by His Word.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mystery Contents

Wandering into an antique shop full of used household treasures, the browser surveyed many of the hundreds of items on display. He was looking for something of great value at a bargain price. (Imagine that!) Aisles and aisles of once treasured vases, pitchers, and containers of every size and shape imaginable seemed to call out to the browser for his attention. If only the vessels could talk! Where did they come from? What did they once hold, and whom did they serve? And how did they end up here?

After many rounds of the aisles of merchandise, the shopper kept returning to the same object, a curious little vase, rather unattractive, plain and simple. Picking it up he could see vaguely the price which had been scratched out . Somehow he sensed that great value had been attached to this one-time treasure. Asking the proprietor, he learned that this vase had quite a history in a family of great affluence. Not only of daily use in the household of nobility, it had contained costly valuables which had been precious to the family. The fact that it appeared plain and simple made it all the more special to the owners. No thief would suspect that such a vessel contained such valuable treasure. One time worth an enormous amount of money, it had been broken and eventually sold or given away. The sticker had apparently been marked "priceless". Now it was free.

Paul discribes a similar scenario when he wrote of the priceless treasure poured into vessels of clay. Who could imagine a plan where the God of the universe would dwell in the form of a man. And who can explain the mind of our Creator who purchased plain and simple vessels of clay in order to empty into them all the treasures of heaven?

"We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us." "Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!"

We contain precious and valuable contents! Let our outward behavior reflect who we are on the inside.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Staying in your lane

BANG . . . AND THEY'RE OFF!! Leaping from the starting blocks, the runners begin the race with lots of energy expended freely and willingly! There's loud applause and encouraging cheers from coaches and friends. You're running well the race! The training and all the disciplined preparation now begins to pay off. There's a joy and an exhileration you've not known before. The rush of running pushes you along almost above the air, and you think of how much you love this race. You are aimed clearly at the finish line which you can almost taste! Life is good!

"Remember to stay in your lane. Keep within the lines and focus straight ahead, ready for the next hurdle. Pace yourself. Don't get distracted. Expect fatigue and maybe even exhaustion. You've been equipped and prepared for every obstacle. Don't even think of giving up! It is not an option. You can do it! You have it within you. It will be worth all the effort!"

The laps mount up and the race toughens. Thrill turns to toil. Some turn aside not to compete again. Others perhaps unprepared suffer injuries and become disqualified. The path appears more difficult, turning into an uphill climb, and the winds now resist all runners. The cheers and excitement seem distant, and those emotions which had propelled the runners forward are now a force to be ignored. Some have slowed considerably and appear only to be going through the motions. Still remembering the trainer, "The Greater the Trial, the Greater the Triumph," the runner continues.

Could it be that the more that distractions and discouraging forces present themselves, the more satisfying the finish? Why is it easy at the beginning and so fatiguing during the final laps? How is the pursuit of excellence always so exhausting? Why is staying in the game so difficult?

The real test of that which lies within is truly measured only by the most gruesome conflict. Excellence is proven when it triumphs over the most abstinent foe. Confidence is produced when the training has yielded its fruit of victory. Diligence and consistency do pay off. Staying in your lane and finishing the task is the goal. Each man's purpose and deep satisfaction is found only in playing within the guidelines of the game. The finish line is the motivation.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

"But what's on the inside?"

Back in grade school my brother and I would often hear our mother say, "Looks good on the outside, boys, but how about the inside?" We were dressed for church or some special occasion, shoes polished, hair slicked, tie clipped on straight, and our sport jackets buttoned as directed. Complying as we did, and having no choice, we presented ourselves the best we could, always cleaned up outwardly, but more often than not, still messy and unwilling on the inside. Such as boys are, we were. Yet her question would stick with me.

Fast forward a decade or so, and the inside left unattended begins to make itself seen on the outside. The true heart condition is now evidenced by externals that more accurately mirror an unpleasant reality. Many would be disappointed with the visible signs of rebellion, but fail to grieve over the source, the disease of the heart not cured. It is like a fanatic zeal to conceal all symptoms of a deadly disease. At first the outward behavior seems to be under control, but eventually the masking breaks down, and the the ugly conquest of the ailment is manifested openly. Sadly, many resist help.

Good news! Where outward remedies ultimately fail, there is a real cure for the ailing heart of self-willed, obstinate sin. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds! The Master Surgeon, our Creator, is the only one with the operating instruments capable of a successful treatment. His cure is the blood of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection can empower the total transformation of the heart of every person. Disconnecting the old self-focused heart, He implants a new heart, a new mindset, new desires, a new life pursuit. The old "machine" of selfish obstinance is now replaced by a brand new "engine" which generates a willing obedience to its Maker. This inward cleansing is both thorough and lasting. It is completely His work, and our attempts to add to or take credit for the cleaning are futile and an insult.

This becomes the new reality. The inside is now changed, clean and "driven" by a new power source. Recollections of old behavior, tendencies, and thought patterns persist, but they are dwarfed by this over-riding new and more powerful nature. Furthermore, old ways are no longer controlling or enslaving, for they have been effectively rendered inoperable and obsolete! When fed, tested, and trusted, this new nature becomes the dominant force in ones life and the very reason for our existence.

Deep appreciation for my parents and the many who pointed me to the One who changes hearts! I look back and say with gratefulness, "Hey Mom, the outside is getting older, but thanks to God, the inside is clean, getting better every day, and thriving!" Thanks for asking!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Waiting for Mahler . . .

Hours of waiting backstage while the pieces I don't play are being rehearsed to death. The result: free time. How about finding a quiet corner and see what items come to my attention before Mahler 1st does! James seems to call out for someone to read there.

Didn't take long for the following to surface. (Whenever I hear that something "comes to the surface", I recall those black 8-balls with the advice for the moment bouncing to the top.) The Holy Spirit has a few more options, and a bit more relevance!

Am I remembering that whenever I endure a temptation, I am promised "the crown of life?" (1:12) Not just coal for failure, but gold for obedience!

I am urgently instructed to be "swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath." (1:19)I am taking this as something I will most certainly need very shortly. Knowing this will only profit me if I do it. (1:22) How quickly we blurt out that which we immediately regret. I think the "swift to hear" part can refer to our making the Scriptures a priority, rather than having "feet swift to run to mischief." The wrath that comes forth from our mouths never produces the righteousness of God. (1:20)

My "religion" is pointless and laughable if my speech is not Spirit-controlled.(1:26) A "vain religion" is perhaps one that serves only oneself. It is kept under a bushel, and others never see the proof of its reality.

Intermission is over. From James to Mahler . . . .