Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Expressing Gratitude

From the outside, my friend Peter seemed to have it all together. He was a bright, gifted young man, who became a Christian during his college years. Immediately he began to study and grow, soon discovering he had an incredible gift for teaching. After graduation, Peter spent his first two post-college years in full time work for the Lord, teaching scripture and mentoring students at several local colleges and universities.

Yet as he progressed in his ministry, Peter began to be plagued with doubts. He may have been a dynamic teacher on the outside, but on the inside, he was a mass of conflict. So much of what he preached was coming back empty for him on an emotional level. He began to doubt about even the existence of God. Finally one evening, after much inner turmoil, he decided he could not live with the doubt any longer. He would abandon his faith for good.

A half-hour later, there was a knock on his door. A young college co-ed stood outside with tears in her eyes. As she entered, she explained that she had serious doubts about the existence of God. "I want to believe," she told Peter. "Please help me."

Peter stood in his doorway, uncertain of his response. He knew exactly what this girl was experiencing, since his own struggle had come to a head just that evening. He had already decided he himself could no longer live with the conflict. Yet at the same time, he knew what Jesus said about teachers who lead followers astray. "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea." (Matthew 18:6) Peter knew while he might no longer believe, he did not want to be responsible for another's spiritual demise.

So he sat down and shared with her from God's Word. They looked at the five hundred witnesses who saw the resurrected Christ. In Matthew they saw how over one hundred prophecies written eight hundred years before Christ's birth were fulfilled during His lifetime. Too much evidence was contained in Scripture itself to be denied. It just didn't make sense NOT to believe that Jesus was the Son of God.

As Peter saw his young friend out the door, he knew he had just talked himself back into believing. By teaching the truths he already knew, those truths became even more compelling for him. There is a power that comes in verbally expressing our faith.

Paul tells the Ephesians that they should live lives yielded to the Spirit (Ephesians 5:17-21). What he suggests to foster this is to make verbal expressions of their faith: speaking to one another in psalms, singing hymns and spiritual songs, along with giving thanks for all things. There is something powerful about truth, that when shared aloud with others, it benefits the one speaking as well as the recipient.

Perhaps that is why Paul makes sure to mention giving thanks in many of his letters. We should be faithful to express thanksgiving aloud. And as the words come off our tongues, what they express becomes real to us in a new way. When we remind others about the faithfulness of God, we are encouraged ourselves and enabled to trust Him more fully.

This blog post is an excerpt from my weekly email devotional, The Dogwood Digest. To subscribe to this free newsletter, please use the link provided on the right hand margin of this page.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Broken to Reveal

The small regiment of three hundred men crept silently up the hillside under cover of night, excruciatingly aware of the enormous army camped in the valley below. As per earlier instructions, the men quickly fanned out in three groups, surrounding the camp. In their hands were unlikely weapons for war: each held a trumpet and a clay pot containing a hidden burning torch. They hunkered down and waited for the signal blast of Gideon's trumpet. All was quiet.

Abruptly, the trumpet blast sounded, piercing the quiet of the night. A crashing sound filled the air as each man simultaneously broke the clay vessel surrounding his torch. Suddenly the night was lit with three hundred torches dotting the perimeter of the camp. "A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!" the soldiers cried. The small army then blew their trumpets in loud, short blasts.

The sleeping camp below jolted awake. In terror, the disoriented enemy soldiers wildly looked around the perimeter of the camp and saw they were completely surrounded. Panic ensued. With no hope of surviving the onslaught, they fled the camp. The lights from three hundred torches had fooled a massive army into thinking they were outnumbered.

The clay pots had to be broken to allow the bright light of the torches to accomplish its purpose.

Many years ago, my husband and I were searching for a new church. One Sunday we attended a place which had a beautiful building, yet very few members sat in its pews. We learned they had recently gone through a terrible split when the previous pastor had to be dismissed. What once had been hundreds was now a congregation of no more than fifty.

However, one thing really impressed us during our brief visit. A big banner stretched across the front of the sanctuary. On it one word was boldly emblazoned: Brokenness. It was evidently the church theme for that entire year. We felt assured that only good things could come for them with that particular desire. If they wanted to be used to spread the gospel and reflect the glory of God to their community, they could not have picked a better emphasis.

Brokenness is key to our walk with God. Paul wrote the Corinthians: "God . . . is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves." Like the torches hidden inside clay pots by Gideon's men, we contain the flame and bright light of the Holy Spirit residing within us. The most effective means to exposing the world to that hidden glory is to metaphorically break the container.

What is brokenness? It is a dying to self. It is a determination to put aside our self-interest for servanthood and our love for God. We are broken when we determine to live obedient lives in imitation of Christ. After all, it was through His brokenness, the willing surrender of His life for ours, that Jesus ultimately redeemed us.

Jesus put it this way: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)

While largely dependent on our attitudes and resulting actions, these are not the only means to brokenness. God brings circumstances into our lives to accomplish our brokenness as well. Pain frequently accompanies this process. Paul warns that we may be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, or struck down. These are the circumstances that God uses to produce a broken vessel. Yet we are also reassured by Paul that this process, while it may destroy our pride, self-sufficiency, or selfish desires, will not destroy us.

Like a piƱata, which must be bruised, battered, and finally broken to allow its desirable contents to spill out onto the ground, our struggle will allow the treasure we hold within to pour out into the lives of those who surround us. Brokenness is the means to this important end. God will receive the honor and glory due Him. He chooses to do this though broken, earthly vessels.

This article is an excerpt from my weekly newsletter, The Dogwood Digest. You can subscribe to receive this free Tuesday morning devotional by using the link in the right hand margin of this page.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Forgetting the One Who Can Calm the Storm

And He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?" Mark 4:40

The disciples had not seen a storm like this one. As the Sea of Galilee was positioned in a mountainous funnel of sorts, wind could surge without warning down the narrow gorge from the north and whip the sea’s waters into a frenzy without warning. When they left the shore, the sea was calm. Now they feared the boat would be swamped.

Being experienced fishermen, the disciples knew how to handle a boat. But even the most experienced ones had begun to panic. The wind would not let up. The boat was filling with water, despite their attempts at bailing it out. They had tried everything they knew to keep themselves safe. All attempts had failed. They knew if their hope rested on their own resources, they were doomed.

So what did they do? They woke up Jesus, who was sleeping peacefully through the calamity in the bow of the boat. “Jesus! Don’t you care that we are about to go down with the ship?”

In stark contrast to their panic, Jesus calmly sat up. He spoke to the wind and the water with the authority He knew was His. “Be still,” He commanded. Immediately the wind stopped. The waves became calm water. Nature itself had obeyed the voice of the Lord.

The disciples were wide eyed as they sat in awed silence. Who was this guy? Even the wind and waves obeyed Him! If they were scared during the storm, now they were terrified.

We shake our heads at the disciples, who seemed so clueless. They had watched Jesus heal the sick, the lame, and cast out demons. Did they not realize that power like that could only come from God Himself? And why did they wait so long to wake Jesus? After seeing His compassion for others, how could they accuse Him of not caring?

We might shake our heads at the 12, yet we are too often guilty of the same mistakes. We have the benefit of looking back at the life of Christ. We are aware of His resurrection and ascension. We understand His mission in full, purposed to save the world from its sin. We are kind of like Monday morning quarterbacks. It is so easy to judge those who made foolish decisions while in the heat of the game after the game has been played out! So we, in our post-game wisdom, wonder at the dim-witted disciples. Yet even knowing what we know that they did not, we still make the same mistake.

When a crisis comes, all too often our first response is to rely on our own resources. Like the experienced fishermen bailing out the boat and barking commands to the other passengers, we depend on what we know to do in the heat of the moment. It is only when we come to the end of our own strength that we finally turn to the Lord, who has been present in our boat all along. We are helpless, out of ideas, out of hope. Now we are ready to listen to what He has for us. And when we see His hand at work in our lives, we wonder anew at who He is. When we turn to Him in trouble, we understand His power and compassion for us a little more. And we wonder that we did not turn to Him in our first moments of despair.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Deposit before Withdrawl

It was a miscommunication. I wrote a check for the house mortgage payment. So did my husband, Steve. We both dutifully mailed them off, assuming the other had forgotten. A few days later, checks started to bounce. Realizing our mistake, we immediately called the mortgage company to get back our desperately needed funds. They assured us that the mortgage had been paid for the coming month as well. No, they could not refund our payment. Bottom line: we were overdrawn with no funds coming in until the end of the month.

So we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on our trip north rather than stop for fast food. My meal plans became centered on what we already had in the pantry. Wherever we could save a dime, we did. Our meager savings got us through the crisis, and by the end of the month, we were on stable ground once more.

You can't withdraw money you haven't put into an account. This is a lesson most of us learned in our first year of college or work, usually the hard way, when receiving notification that several checks had bounced. Worse yet, a hefty fee is applied for each check written on insufficient funds. Hard knocks lesson #1: You have to deposit before you can withdraw.

Jesus illustrated this point at a banquet held in his honor by Simon the Pharisee. A woman had come, uninvited, to express her love for Jesus. She knelt by him, her tears falling onto his dusty feet. Wiping the tears with her hair, she poured perfumed oil onto his feet. Each one of her actions was an expression of her devotion and gratitude to Jesus. Simon was not impressed. "If this man were truly a prophet, he would know just what kind of woman is touching him," he thought.

In the next moment, Jesus proved he was no ordinary man by responding out loud to Simon's silent thoughts. He told a story of two debtors who owed large sums of money. The first owed 50 denarii, which is equivalent to approximately a year's wages. The second owed 500 denarii, a debt unimaginable to a first century Jewish peasant. In an act of mercy, the money lender, seeing that they were unable to repay his loan, decided to forgive both men for their debts. They were free and clear. Jesus posed a question to Simon: "Now which one of them will love him more?"

What was Jesus getting at? The woman was a sinner, fallen from acceptable society, rejected and scorned by her own townspeople. Yet she had been given the gift of forgiveness. Now her cup overflowed. She had much love to give because she had been given much love. The bigger the bank account, the greater the possibility for withdrawal.

Zaccheus, chief tax collector, famous for his climb up a sycamore tree in order to see the Lord, was another notorious sinner. He too received acceptance and love from Christ. His immediate response to what he had received: start giving. He presented half of all he owned to the poor. By way of recompense, he promised to give back four times the amount he had defrauded each individual. What prompted him to be suddenly so generous with his resources? His account was filled to overflowing. Because he was unconditionally loved and forgiven, he could give without restraint.

Being generous with our love should be a prominent characteristic that marks us as children of God. Yet loving others is not always easy. In fact, some people are nearly impossible to love! How can God expect us to love the un-lovely? The answer is that He has already provided the resource we need to accomplish this. He loved us first. "We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us," John wrote in his first epistle. "We love, because He first loved us."

We have already received a limitless quantity of love and mercy from God. He could not love us more. He gave everything most precious to Him to redeem and save us from eternal suffering and condemnation. All this he did while we were his enemies. Now, filled with the knowledge of how completely we are loved, we are capable of allowing some of that limitless supply to overflow from our lives into the lives of others. It is like filling buckets from an ocean. There is so much more than enough to go around.

Our bank account is filled to capacity. There is more than enough to give away. We can write those "checks" without fear of overdrawing.

This was the November 11 article of my devotional newsletter, The Dogwood Digest. To subscribe to this free weekly email, click on the appropriate link located on the right hand column of this blog. Thanks!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why Do They Leave the Faith?

I have recently been reconnecting with many of my former students through the magic of Facebook. I love reading about their lives, especially those who have continued to live for Christ beyond their years as students in the Christian school. But it is also heartbreaking to see so many who left Jesus behind when they left home for college and beyond. It brings up the age-old question of where we are going wrong in Christian education, as we are losing so many once they leave the fold.

A favorite show of mine comes on A & E and is about companies that buy an old, decrepit house, gut it, and turn it into a modern, beautiful home (then sell it for a huge profit). Of course, the process does not get accomplished without some heartburn on the part of those doing the transformation. But their frustration and the challenging circumstances are what make the show fun to watch.

On one particular episode, a South Carolina company purchased a home that had a renter currently living in it. The man was barely surviving. He was unemployed, drinking too much, and living like an animal. The house was trashed. But rather than evict the renter, the company took it upon themselves to improve his life for the better. They moved him out to a hotel while the work on the house went on. He was taken for a haircut and a shave, given new clothes, and in keeping with his new image, even given a new job. Finally, at the end of the show, the man was given the keys to his newly renovated home. A happy ending, to be sure.

Then a few months later, the same company was again featured on the show. An employee of the company stopped off to check on the man they had worked with months before to collect the rent. She was disgusted to find the man had already trashed the house. He had quit his job and resumed living like an animal. None of their efforts had done a thing to change this man’s life for the better.

In reality, the transformation months before had only been a surface one. We don’t change a person by changing their circumstances. Who we are remains, no matter where we are planted.

I once had a disagreement on this very subject with a fellow faculty member in a Christian school. He was convinced that if we made students tow the line on the uniform rules, it would impact their spiritual lives. “Make them conform on the outside,” he told me, “and they will conform on the inside.” I shook my head at such foolishness. No permanent change happens because of what we impose on another. Change only comes as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in a life.

And that is what God has provided for those who believe in Christ. Ephesians 4:22-23 tells us, “In reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your new mind, and put on the new self, which has been created in the likeness of God, in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” The change God has accomplished in us is more than a surface change. It involved the creation of a whole new self, created in the likeness of God. We are a new creation.

Our circumstances did change. Yes, there is hope where their previously was none. Yes, every minute of our lives now has meaning and purpose. But God did not just change our circumstances. The biggest change is in who we have become. We have been changed from the inside out. And the change is permanent.

As I ponder over the children who leave their faith along with the Christian school upon graduation, I have to believe that this truth is crucial to understanding the problem. So many who are educated in Christian school have only learned the language and outward actions that made them an acceptable part of the Christian community. They have adapted to their environment. Yet the circumstances imposed upon them will not bring a permanent lifetime change. True transformation is a work of God.

So what can we do as Christian educators and parents desiring to see our children walk with the Lord throughout their lives? We should pray for the Holy Spirit to do His work within their hearts. We also must be careful not to be a stumbling block to this all-important process by talking one way about God and living another. If we are forgiven, recipients of grace, loved unconditionally, then these same qualities must mark our lives. Kids can smell a phony a mile away. We represent Christ to them. We had better make sure their understanding of Him is not warped by our actions. We need to make sure our outward selves reflect the change that has happened on our inside.

But ultimately, God is the One at work in our children’s lives. My son Adam once told me, “Pretty much the kids you knew ‘got it’ while we were in school are the ones who continued on for the Lord.” There were not too many surprises, according to my kids, as to who stood firm and who walked away. It was the ones who had obviously been transformed from the inside out all along.