Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Wanting to Belong

I have always wondered about the ratings which determine the viability of television shows. Who are these people that named what show they were watching at any given moment? No one has ever called me to find out what I was watching. Then last week we received a postcard from Nielsen TV’s Media Research group inviting us to become a part of the Nielsen Family. They followed up a few days later with a phone call, instructing us how to fill in their booklet for one week’s worth of TV viewing. As the call came to an end, the lady on the other end of the phone told me enthusiastically: “You are going to have fun! Welcome to the Nielsen Family!”

Being included in a group can be a strong motivation, and Nielsen knows it. We used to call it the “bandwagon” technique of advertising in the fifth grade. Don’t be left out! Join everyone else who is doing it! As I finished my call with the Nielsen lady, knowing I was now part of this group which in part determines the success or fall of any given TV series, I have to admit, it did leave a bit of a warm feeling in my heart.

We all have a basic need for significance. We all want to belong. I thought about how people who become believers in Christ benefit in this way-- they suddenly find themselves a part of the church. They are warmly welcomed into the fold and are enthusiastically told of the privileges that come to one whose heart belongs to Him. Sunday mornings become something to look forward to as we meet with those who believe as we do. There is something very powerful about the fellowship aspect of being a Christian.

Yet, while the Nielsen Family may offer a bit of significance, we have been given so much more in Christ. Mr. Nielsen himself did not call me to invite me to join the family. In fact, he knows nothing about me. Not even my name. I was a randomly selected participant. However, the head of the Family of Christ searched me out specifically. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws Him” (John 6:44). The Father drew us, and before doing so knew more about us than we did ourselves. “The very hairs on your head are numbered,” Jesus told His disciples. The psalmist David remarked, “You perceive my thoughts from afar… Before a word is on my tongue, You know it completely, O Lord” (Psalm 139:2, 4).

Mr. Nielsen wanted me to join the family because of what I brought to the table. I would benefit his organization by my small contribution. God draws us into His family not for what we bring, but because He is love. His grace and mercy are an expression of that attribute. We are delusional if we think we deserve anything but condemnation.

Nielsen made no sacrifice in order that I might be declared worthy to be a part of the group. They did not offer compensation for our efforts. They figure our being part of the Nielsen Family is compensation enough, I guess. God, on the other hand, gave everything that mattered most to Him in order to provide the means with which to join His family. He sacrificed what was most dear to His heart-- His only Son-- for us.

So while being a part of the Nielsen Family is an interesting idea, it is no match for the bigger family I have been made a part of thanks to the grace and mercy of God.

“He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will to the praise and glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Ephesians 1:4-6

Monday, September 22, 2008

Honest in the Struggle

Being engaged is a stressful period for anyone. At least that was the case for me and my man, Steve. As our wedding day approached, I began to struggle with doubt. Was I really ready to promise forever?

We were traveling to CT about a month before the wedding and stopped off for an overnight with friends. The wife of this happily married couple asked how things were between me and Steve. Confessing to my frequent periods of doubt, I confided, “You know, how you see things about the other person and say, ‘Do I want to live the rest of my life with that?’”

She shook her head, puzzled. “Oh no,” she sincerely replied. “I never had one doubt.” Her response shook me more than I cared to admit. Was this a sign that we were making a big mistake? Not knowing what was normal in a healthy engagement, I was afraid that maybe my struggle indicated our incompatibility. So over the next few weeks, I talked with other young couples who were already successfully navigating the waters of marriage. I found to my relief that doubts were a very normal part of the engagement experience.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is when Paul shares his struggle in living for Christ. “There was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me-- to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

The older and wiser I get, the more I understand my own inadequacy for ministry. My weaknesses and shortcomings often threaten to overwhelm me as I stand to address an audience. I am such a sinner. I certainly don’t have it all together. Why should anyone listen to me? The above passage is what I cling to in moments like this. Then I remember: Yes, in my own strength, I am weak and inadequate. That is precisely how God is going to use me. His glory will be revealed through the cracks in my armor.

It would have been a sad thing had Paul not made his struggle public as he did. Millions of Christians would have tried to follow in his apparently perfect footsteps, and they would have failed miserably. The simple reason is there is no perfect Christian. Not even the great apostle Paul! To present a good face is to set up a phantom standard. The worst thing is, as others observe us, they might believe the façade. Then they will look at themselves and lose heart. They will never be as spiritual as that guy.

Jesus shared His struggle with others. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He told Peter, James, and John: “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.” He moved a short distance away from them, fell on His face, and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” Why did Jesus include His friends in that private moment, allowing them to see Him in His agony? Why didn’t He just show them a stiff upper lip and paste on a brave face?

I think the disciples needed to know that this event was going to cost Jesus dearly. They also needed to see it was OK to struggle. Most of all, they needed to understand that in the struggle, our most necessary response is to pray. So Jesus struggled in front of them. It would give them a memorable lesson, more than any teaching He could have verbally imparted to them.

We are grateful when we see we are not alone in the struggle. The perseverance of others against difficult circumstances serves to keep us moving in a positive direction. Only when we determine to be genuine with each other about our struggles, failures, and victories are we able to be an encouragement to the Body of Christ. Conversely, to act as though we never have doubts or problems only feeds our own selfish pride. Putting up a false façade may temporarily boost our own self-image, but we are setting others up for a fall when we do.

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Galatians 6:1-3

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Heeding the Warning

It has been fascinating to watch the aftermath of Hurricane Ike’s direct hit on the Galveston/Houston area. I am especially curious about the people who ignored the evacuation orders for the island of Galveston. As they are rescued off rooftops or come inland after wading through chest-high waters, they all have a harrowing story to tell. Mostly what they seem to say is “I didn’t think it would be that bad.”

Those of us who do not live near to a hurricane evacuation zone do not understand the mentality of staying put when a destructive storm such as Ike sets its sights on a city. We understand that weather forecasting has its problems-- just look at all of the hoopla that went on over Gustav, a storm that fizzled and disappointed all expectations. Several years ago, Houston was told to evacuate as Hurricane Rita bore down on the city. More people died in the resulting traffic gridlock than in the actual storm. In addition, it is expensive to evacuate. Where will you stay? How will your needs for food be met? With an enormous exodus of a major city, it might seem prudent to stay put.

The National Weather Service issued a warning that “certain death may be possible.” While this phrase was somewhat amusing to me-- certain death MAY be possible-- an oxymoron at its finest-- the message is clear. Get out of there. You may not live to tell the tale.

I wonder what Steve and I would have done, but not for too long. I am pretty sure we would pack up the car and head west. Why? Because if the possibility exists that the storm will be enough to take our very lives, any inconvenience seems a small price to pay to avoid “certain death.” If the possibility exists, we should take action.

Peter tells us that a judgment is coming upon the earth. “Mockers will come … saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” … But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and the destruction of ungodly men… But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up… Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless.” (2 Peter 3:3, 4, 7, 10, 14)

The warning has been given. Yet many, like the ones who refused to leave Galveston, hedge their bets. Maybe the Day of the Lord will not happen during their lifetime. Maybe they have 80 some years on this earth-- so there is time to get serious about God later.

Yet the possibility exists that it could be today. Or tomorrow. And if the possibility exists, maybe we should take action.

I once dated a boy who loved to have a good time. When his grandmother died, for a brief time he looked death in the face. Seeing a window of opportunity, I spent hours with him explaining the salvation God offers to all through the death and resurrection of His Son. In the end, he just wasn’t interested. “I’ve got too much life to live. There’s time later to get serious about God,” he told me. I am heartbroken to report he died at 28 of AIDS-related problems. So much for thinking time was on his side.

If there’s even a possibility that we will face judgment, shouldn’t we act?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Colossians 4:14-18

Day 24

Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings, and also Demas. Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house. When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming form Laodicea. Say to Archippus, “Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.” I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my imprisonment. Grace be with you.

If you have made it this far, you should be very proud of yourself!! These are the last verses in the Paul’s letter to the Colossians. There will be one concluding post tomorrow which will wrap up what we have studied these weeks in Colossians. I hope this study has been helpful to you-- I have loved doing it and appreciate what God has been teaching me as well.

Luke is with Paul in Rome during his imprisonment there. He is identified as a beloved physician. We know a lot about Luke through other scriptural references. Luke was a gentile who first appears on the scene in Acts 16:10 on Paul’s second missionary journey. He travels with Paul from Troas to Philippi, where he stays after Paul moves on. There was a medical school in Philippi where many believe Luke received his training, and it is likely that he was picked to stay behind since Philippi and its people were familiar ground to Luke. When Paul swings by back through Philippi, Luke joins him once again and stays with Paul all the way back to Jerusalem and ultimately to Rome. There he remains with Paul at least until the writing of Philippians.

Luke wrote two accounts included in the canon of scripture: the Gospel of Luke, and Acts. He got most of his information by carefully interviewing eyewitnesses. When you are reading through Acts, you can tell when he changes to a personal account, because Luke stops saying “they” and begins to say “we”. Luke was especially careful to mention women in his accounts; names and important details that some of the other gospel writers did not mention. For instance, Luke tells about a group of women who followed Jesus and financially supported Him through His three years of ministry (Luke 8:2). This is not recorded in any other gospel. His books are the only books in the Bible not authored by a Jew.

Demas is also with Paul at the time of the writing of this letter. Unfortunately, Demas’s ministry would only last a while longer. In 2 Timothy 2:10, Paul writes of him: “Demas, having loved this present world has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” How sad that one dedicated enough to follow Paul, who was in chains, to Rome, eventually lost his desire to remain faithful.

Paul also gives a specific message to Archipus (mentioned again in Philippians as a fellow soldier, son of Philemon, hometown Colossae) about his ministry: Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.” Did you notice that the ministry was not decided on by Archipus himself, but “received”? Ministry isn’t necessarily something one aspires to. Rather it is a responsibility that is handed to us from the Lord Himself. He equips us with gifts for the task and supplies the power for the work involved. Our obedience and effort are all that is required. This is a reassuring thought for me as I stand in front of an audience. God has called me, equipped me, and empowers me. The fruit of any ministry is a result of Him at work. We just need to be obedient.

Laodicea was to receive this letter originally addressed to the Colossians as well. We hear about Laodicea in the book of Revelation (chapter 3), when Christ urges their repentance from self-reliance. They were a wealthy church, and apparently eventually their wealth was a stumbling block to them in the end.

Not everyone who starts off well finishes well. We see the church at Laodicea as well as Demas somehow going sour before the last word is written in the New Testament. What made the difference between that and success? I believe it is where our focus lies. Demas became discouraged, probably with his circumstances. So he abandoned ship. Laodicea became focused on their own possessions and comfort. Suddenly the Lord was not so important in their lives.

Where is your focus drawn that might compromise your determination to finish the race strong? Prayerfully identify the things most important to you-- for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Colossians 4:10-13

Day 23

Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’s cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him); and also Jesus who is called Justus; there are the only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are from the circumcision, and they have proved to be an encouragement to me. Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bond slave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. For I testify for him that he has a deep concern for you and for those who are in Laodicea and Hierapolis.

Paul continues in his personal greetings, which is typical at the end of each of his letters. Some additional things we know about men mentioned here:

Aristarchus is mentioned several times in Acts (19:29, 20:4, 27:2). In Ephesus, Aristarchus was dragged into the theater during a riot which took place in reaction to a silversmith named Demetrius’ tirade. He was worried that so many people were becoming followers of Christ that the silver gods he and others made would no longer be purchased. The group he riled up stormed the city and dragged Aristarchus and Gaius into the theater. The cooler head of a town clerk prevailed and the men’s lives were spared. Aristarchus also traveled with Paul from Macedonia. He was originally from Thessalonica and went with Paul to Rome after his arrest. Paul identifies him as a Jew in this passage.

It is interesting to see that Mark had once again been by Paul’s side. In Acts 15:29, there is a dispute about Mark between Barnabas and Paul. Apparently on the first missionary trip, Mark deserted Paul and Barnabas in Pamphylia. Now planning their second trip, Barnabas wanted to take Mark along (who was Barnabas’s cousin). The feelings about this were so intense, Paul and Barnabas split up and went their separate ways. Paul went with Silas, and Barnabas and Mark sailed off to Cyprus. Yet we know the problem between them was eventually resolved, because in 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul writes of his desire for Mark to come to him. This is not surprising, in view of the intensity with which each of the men viewed their purpose in service-- to see Christ preached.

Epaphras was mentioned at the beginning of this letter as the one who brought news of the church at Colossae to Paul (1:7-8). He is mentioned again in another prison epistle, Philippians 1:23. Epaphras was originally from Colossae, and spend time in Philippi as well. His goal for the Colossians: that they may stand perfect (complete) and fully assured in all the will of God. He was apparently a gentile.

As Christians, we often dispute about doctrine or even less important things. Paul’s bond with each of these men is rooted in their relationship with Jesus Christ and their common goal to see Him preached. How often we let pride or a sense of self-worth interfere with the unity of the body! Paul was a man with strong opinions and a natural leader. Yet even he was able to put his own feelings aside and have unity with those he at times disagreed. Are there people in your church that make you mad? Think back over your relationship and plan for ways to show them love as Paul was able to do with his fellow workers.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Colossians 4:7-9

Day 22

As to all my affairs, Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord, will bring you information. For I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts; and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number. They will inform you about the whole situation here.

This last part of Paul’s letter is a section in which he expresses personal greetings and information. We know more about some of the people he mentions, as they are mentioned in other portions of scripture.

Tychicus was the bearer of this letter by Paul to the Colossians. He traveled to Colossae with Onesimus. We read about Tychicus in Acts 20:4. He was originally from Asia, and he traveled with Paul on his third missionary journey as Paul returned to Macedonia from Greece. In Ephesians 6:21, Tychicus is again mentioned as a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord. He was sent to Ephesus by Paul and was there during the writing of 2 Timothy. Paul promises in Titus 3:12 that Tychicus would be sent to Titus with the aim of accompanying Titus to visit Paul.

Onesimus, the one with whom Tychicus traveled to Colossae, has a very interesting story. He was a slave, owned by a Colossian man named Philemon. Philemon was a devout Christian who actually had a church meet in his home. Onesimus escaped, and while in exile, met Paul and became a believer. Paul was sending Onesimus back to Colossae in hopes that he will reconcile with his owner. Paul wrote a separate letter to Philemon, which is included in the Bible just after the letter to Titus. Paul told Philemon, “I am sending you my very heart,” and expressed that he wished he could keep Onesimus with him, since Onesimus was now “more than a slave, but a beloved brother.” Paul offers to make things right for Philemon by having him “charge what he might owe you to my account.”

Both of these men obviously meant a great deal to Paul and had stayed with him for a while as Paul endured house arrest. While Paul had a huge impact on the church during his ministry, he spent much time with individual men and women, carefully teaching them. Paul cared deeply for those with which he ministered.

So did Jesus. He dealt with people on an individual level, winning one heart at a time. And so should we. One person at a time, one heart at a time. Each one is precious in God’s sight. Not one is insignificant.

Who is God placing in your path today? What does He want you to do for them?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Colossians 4:2-6

Day 21

Devote yourself to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I might make it clear in the way that I ought to speak. Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.


There are three specific commands in this passage that Paul passes on to the Colossians.

1. Devote yourselves to prayer.
If the Colossians are going to be able to put into action all Paul has told them in this letter, prayer is crucial to their success. Christ expressed this to the disciples in John 15: “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” The Colossians must go to God frequently and remember that they are not doing anything on their own strength. They have resurrection power available to them-- and to not tap into that source would be foolish.

Paul gives specifics about their prayer:
a. keep alert
b. have an attitude of thanksgiving
c. pray for Paul: for open doors and clarity of expression

2. Conduct yourselves with wisdom.
The wisdom Paul refers to here is wisdom from above (3:2). If we conduct ourselves as the new creatures that we are, we will be acting in line with the image of Christ. Not only should the Colossians do this with fellow believers, as Paul taught in chapter 3, but with outsiders as well. Every interaction with a nonbeliever is an opportunity to show them Jesus Christ.

3. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt.
I was perusing several blogs today and was just floored at the nasty rhetoric that went on in some of the political blog talk. We have a country that is seriously divided along political lines. The venom and hatred expressed so freely is shocking-- on both sides of the debate. The world needs Jesus! They will see Him every time we give grace and forgiveness as we speak. There is no room for hatred or bitterness in a Christian’s self-expression.

All of these general commands are a wrap-up to the teaching Paul has given in his letter. We are to walk worthy of the Lord and please him in all respects. Our lives should bear fruit. Christ is God, and the head of the church. He has already won the victory on our behalf. So stop living in the past! We can live in victory, because He has already won! This should be played out in all of your relationships. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, heartily, as for the Lord.

Is my speech seasoned with grace? Do I give people the benefit of the doubt, or do I stand ready to judge?