Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Treasures from Darkness: Losing Much and Gaining it All

This is a blog post by a blogger friend of mine who has struggled with mental illness for much of her life. She is a deep thinker and has experienced darkness like many of us never will. Click on over and read her thoughts on giving to the Lord. I love what she has to say.

Treasures from Darkness: Losing Much and Gaining it All

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Sad Farewell

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Chuck was the fourth child of Charles George Coleman, Sr., and Alberta Claney. He graduated from Carnegie Tech and worked as a licensed professional engineer for a number of years.

With the onset of World War II, he served as a naval officer and eventually retired as Captain, USNR. The bulk of his government career was spent as a scientist, sitting on international military committees and serving as head of the verification branch of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

While Chuck’s government career was impressive, he is perhaps best known for the thirty years he devoted to full-time Christian work. He was a well-loved speaker at camps, youth retreats, and conferences. (In fact, I met my husband at Camp Berea when his dad was the Bible teacher.) Chuck had a gift for explaining the scriptures on any level. His creativity knew no limits; to enhance his teaching, Chuck wrote skits, invented games and activities, and even composed songs to make God’s Word come alive for his audiences. He used the printed word to spread the message as well; in addition to the three published books (The Shining Sword, Song of the Trumpet, and Divine Guidance: That Voice Behind You) Chuck wrote hundreds of magazine articles, devotionals, and poems. He also earned a PhD in Theology from Trinity Theological Seminary.

In addition to his teaching ministry, Chuck was the endorsing agent for military chaplains from the Plymouth Brethren Assemblies. He also counseled many individuals and families back to health with compassion and wisdom. At age 80, Chuck accepted the position of pastor to Countryside Fellowship Church in Laurel, MD. He served the church for several years, then assumed the role of pastor emeritus, continuing his support and teaching until disabled by a stroke in 2005.

Chuck was happily married to Katherine Elizabeth Pfaff for 61 years. They have three children, Linda, Steven, and Rebecca, as well as six grandchildren: Adam, Daniel, Melanie, and Joseph Coleman, and William and Linda Neil. Chuck also recently welcomed two great-grandsons into the world: Stephen and Jonathan Coleman.

He will be remembered best by his family as a loving and wise father with a wonderful sense of humor. His love for and dedication to the Lord were an example to all who knew him. There is no doubt in my mind that he was greeted at heaven’s gates with the words “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” The life he lived was inspired by two of his favorite verses: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” 2 Timothy 4:7-8

Today we bid farewell, but not forever. We know that one day we will all be reunited at the throne of God. Knowing he has gone on before us makes that hope all the more sweet.

The funeral home has a website which gives the service schedule, obituary, guest book, and a photo gallery. You can go there by clicking here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Trusting God

This is an excerpt from my weekly newsletter, The Dogwood Digest. It is in answer to a question I was asked on a recent retreat. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, use the link on the right of this page. Thanks!

How can I trust God when he took my husband and left me to raise my 3 ½ month old daughter alone?

My heart absolutely goes out to this young mom, struggling to trust God in her daily life while struggling with the loss of her beloved husband.

Trusting God through grief is perhaps one of the most challenging things we will face in this lifetime. It is true that God sometimes does things that defy human logic. We are hurting, and knowing God could have stopped the death from happening makes it even harder to accept.

I wish I could quote a verse that would answer why God allows bad things to happen. But finding answers is not always that easy. God is about our relationship with Him, and He works in each circumstance to bring us into a deeper, intimate knowledge of Him. This knowledge most often comes at a price; only after painful searching and struggle do we begin to see and understand Him on a deeper level. This is why pat answers ring false in our ears. There is nothing easy about the process. Trying to make things better with a few pithy words only trivializes the struggle.

Our God's ways are far beyond our level of comprehension. He makes no apologies for not making sense to us at times. Deuteronomy 29:29 states, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God." Paul remarked on our limitations of understanding as well: "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?" (Romans 11:33-34)

While we may not have specific answers on why God allows tragedy in our lives, Scripture does give us guiding parameters as to where the answer must lie. One of my favorite seminary professors, Jonathan Master, illustrated this by drawing a playing field on the board. He used the following Scripture as the "fence posts" which defined the boundaries of the field.

1. God is not the author of sin (James 1:13)
2. Sin is the direct result of conscious moral volition (Genesis 3:1-6, James 1:14ff)
3. God sovereignly chooses to allow sin and its consequences (Romans 9:18-23)
4. God limits and controls evil (Job 1-2)
5. God will one day fully separate sin from us and from His new creation (Revelation 19:11-20:5)

Whatever we conclude about God's involvement in our tragedy must fall within the parameters of these truths.

One additional truth that has helped me in recent years is in knowing God is totally good. He cannot be anything but good-it is a part of His nature. Therefore, I can consciously count on His goodness even when circumstances might tempt me to think otherwise.

So what do we do while in the process of the struggle? When my mom died, my grief threatened to overwhelm me. As a leader on our church worship team, I could hardly sing praises on Sunday morning, because God remained silent in my pain. My agony became a spiritual battle as I prayed without answers. Yet in my head, I knew that God could be trusted, and so I kept on serving Him, even though my heart was broken and I had lost any sense that the Lord was with me. My husband kept telling me, "Just keep on being faithful. This storm will pass." It did. And instead of losing ground, I gained a deeper understanding of the Lord, and learned to trust him on a deeper level.

Our trust cannot be based in our circumstances or how well we interpret them or guess at God's intentions. Our confidence must be based in the character of God alone. And the better we know Him, the deeper will be our level of trust.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Living Hope

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." 1 Peter 1:3

When I was a little girl, our family of four bravely ventured on a trip from our home in Connecticut to visit relatives on the Gulf Coast of Florida. We Zines weren't big travelers, so this trip was a very big deal. It was summer. We would drive for three days, stopping at hotels each night. Exciting times.

The first day didn't go too badly. We drove as far as Washington, D.C., and took a quick tour of the sights. The second day was not as pleasant. Margie and I had already blown through the new toys my mom bought for the trip. We were tired of being in the car. Poor little Margie got carsick-- and we had to make several stops for her to be sick on the side of the road. And it was HOT. The south was in the middle of a record heat wave. Our car did not have air conditioning (few did in those days) and the constant humid, hot air blowing in on us didn't do much to cool us down. By the time we hit South Carolina, every one of us was wilted and desperate to get out of that car. Dad pulled into the first decent motel and got out to rent a room. They were full up. That began a nightmarish hour of going to hotel after hotel, to no avail. Every one we tried had no room at the inn. Finally, an angel disguised as a hotel clerk got on the phone for my dad and found us a place to stay. When we wearily pulled up to our hotel, we just about kissed the ground of its parking lot.

The next morning, Dad took a new tactic. Using his road map as a guide, he called ahead to the next planned stop location and made a reservation. We traveled that day in the security of the knowledge that no matter what happened on the road, a swim in a hotel pool and a cool, soft bed awaited us at the end of that day's travel. It made all the difference in how we faced another day's journey.

Peter wrote about a "living hope" that we have in Jesus Christ. It is part of the package that we received at the time of our salvation. First Corinthians 6:11 tells us we were justified. This term is a legal term, meaning we were declared innocent of all unrighteousness. We were also sanctified. The Greek root for this word means set apart for a new relationship with God. Finally, Romans 8:30 tells us we were glorified. Usually we think of our glorification as something that will be done for us in the future. Yet when Paul wrote about it in Romans, he used a verb tense which denotes an action already completed.

In other words, the living hope believers have for glory is a done deal. Already accomplished. Checked off the list. Our name is written in the book of life, in indelible ink (Rev 20:12). We have a guaranteed reservation for Heaven, with all of the benefits that living there will entail.

In fact, God has done more than just give us a promise of that eternity. He has marked us as His, by sending the Holy Spirit to live in each believer. His living presence is like a down payment on a property someone intends to purchase-- earnest money-- given to demonstrate the seriousness of the buyer. Ephesians 1:14 tells us the Holy Spirit is given as a down payment of our inheritance, with a view toward our coming redemption. Someday we will be changed, from perishable to imperishable bodies. We will reflect the glory of Jesus Christ perfectly. The old nature will be gone forever. No longer will we struggle with sin or its destruction. And we can bank on this hope because the Holy Spirit has been given to us to guarantee its fulfillment.

Knowing this should impact how we conduct ourselves in the journey.

I wonder if that is why Peter called it a living hope. It is not only a hope which affects our eternal future. It is a hope that has a tremendous influence on us right now. Being secure in our destination makes the trip through this life bearable. Hope makes all the difference.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Biblical Submission

In my most recent Dogwood Digest, a reader asks a question about submission in a marriage. I get a lot of hits on this blog when people Google the words "doormat mentality." Obviously submission is a controversial topic! The following is the result of my study on the Biblical concept of submission within the marriage relationship.

There are three places in Scripture that tell wives to submit to their husbands: Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, and Titus 2:5. Looking at the context of these passages gives us some clues as to what Paul meant by asking wives to submit.

Many people equate the word submit with obey. I do not believe Scripture supports this interpretation. In Ephesians 5, the instruction to the wife is preceded by a command for all believers: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The Greek word, hupotasso, is the verb used in both this and the command to the wives that follows. Therefore submit cannot be synonymous to obey here, since obviously everyone can’t obey everyone else. In Colossians 3, Paul tells the wives to submit to their husbands. Two verses later, he instructs children to obey their parents. The Greek word translated as obey, hypakou┼Ź, is a different word than submit. If Paul meant obey in both cases, why would he use different words?

So if submission does not necessarily mean obey, what does it mean?

The word hupotasso originally came from a military term, which meant to put the troops into order under a commanding officer. Eventually it took on a non-military usage as a “voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, or carrying a burden.”

From the contexts in both Ephesians and Colossians, that second nuance of meaning makes a bit more sense. I like the idea of cooperation or bearing a burden. If we as wives did everything in our power to enable our husband to fulfill what the New Testament defines as his role, what would that look like? There is no doormat mentality there. Rather, it is an idea of partnering together to help each other be obedient to the Word of God.

I don’t think submission in a marriage is about obedience at all. Instead, it is the decision on the part of the wife to support her husband in a sacrificial way, with no thought to herself. It is placing her husband’s needs above her own, with the purpose of enabling him to fulfill his role as her husband. It is just another opportunity to die to self. “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:11)

In order to better understand the wife’s role, we must look at the husband’s part in the relationship. Paul states in Ephesians 5:23 that the husband is the “head of the wife as Christ is head of the church.” There are two Greek words for “head”: one is arche, which denotes “first” in terms of power and importance. Paul did not use this word. He used kephale, which means foremost in terms of position (like a cornerstone in a foundation). It was also a military term, indicating the one who went first into battle. Kephale was never used to mean leader, boss, or ruler. It describes the person who is out in front, serving those who follow him.

Submission is a voluntary act on the part of the wife. Husbands are never told to make the wife submit. In fact, the biblical definition of a leader is far removed from a dictatorial figure: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care...not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)

I think that we as wives sometimes can hinder our husbands from obeying God’s commands. When we second guess everything he says, or contradict him in front of the children, or even show a lack of faith in his ability to be head of the family as Christ is head of the church, we make it difficult for him to fulfill the Scriptures defining his role. Yet when we love and support him in his efforts and respect him as the head of the home, he is enabled to love us as “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself up for her.”(Ephesians 5:25)

A wife, by her submission, sets the tone in her home. A wise older woman once told me that it was my responsibility to teach my children to respect their father. I took that advice very seriously. I determined to never speak disparagingly about my husband to my children. The larger part of that instruction, however, occurred as I lived out my commitment to love my husband in front of the kids.

I did a message on the idea of submission based on 1 Peter 3. You can hear it by clicking HERE. The message title is: Relationships that Reflect Hope: In the Home.

Friday, June 4, 2010

In Jesus' Name

Before I had a dog, I used to see pet owners out walking; dog and man strolling along at a companionable pace. I thought every dog was like that. Then we welcomed Sasha into our home.

On our walks, there is no easy, mutual enjoyment of the great outdoors. Sasha goes out the front door like a bullet, dragging me down the steps and driveway. No leisurely pace for this dog. She plows on ahead, leash strung tight, determined to get to where we are going. (Which is back home. I don't get it.) But every morning, I can be seen scurrying down the street behind the dog in an effort to keep from getting dragged off my feet.

I don't walk the dog. She walks me.

I hope you now have a visual picture of my less-than-genteel morning constitutionals. Because we all can tend to do the same thing-when we pray.

Jesus knew our tendency would be to pray just like Sasha likes to walk: charging forward with a laundry list of our own wants, showing little concern for the Master. So He qualified how the disciples should pray: "Ask anything in my name and I will give it to you." (John 16:23) What did He mean by this? Was He giving us a phrase to tack on to the end of a prayer like a stamp of approval? (In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.) Or did Jesus mean something more?

Some might invoke the name of Jesus in an effort to tap into the power that comes with the name. In Acts 19, there were men casting out demons using the name of Christ. "In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches," they intoned, "I command you to come out."

One day, an evil spirit answered them. "Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?" he demanded, then proceeded to beat them to a pulp. Obviously, the name of Jesus is not an incantation used to summon some kind of magical power. So what is it?

To pray in the name of Christ is to acknowledge that our prayers are heard because of the sacrifice and redemptive work of Jesus. Approaching God was a problem because of our sin. Now that sin is covered, and we are told to boldly approach the throne of grace. Hebrews tells us Jesus "lives to intercede" on our behalf. When we pray in His name, we recognize without Him, our prayers would be ineffective.

But it is even more than that. To pray in the name of Christ is to pray in accord with His desires. To do or say something "in the name of" someone else is to assume their approval of that action. Peter used this very phrase in Acts 3 when he commanded a lame man: "In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene-walk!" Peter not only identified the power source for the miracle here. He also identified on whose behalf the miracle was being performed. Peter was acting as an ambassador for Christ.

Paul identifies himself as an ambassador in 2 Corinthians 5:20. "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." Paul's goal was to present the message of God to others. An ambassador is a representative of his commander. He is not there to expound on his own viewpoint or opinions. He is there to make the desires of His chief known.

When we pray in Jesus' name, we are praying as ambassadors for Christ. This means our requests need to fall in line with what Christ would have prayed. That's a tall order. How can we know what He would ask?

Richard Foster tells us how: "When we have immersed ourselves long enough in the way of Christ, we can smell gospel. So we ask and do as we know He would ask and do. How do we know what Jesus would ask and do, you may ask? Well, how does a couple who has been married many loving years know what each other thinks and wants and feels? We know, even as we are known. This is how we pray in Jesus' name."

The ability to effectively pray in the name of Jesus results from a relationship with Him. When He instructed His disciples in John 16, they had just spent three years traveling by His side as He healed the sick and fed the hungry. They heard His teachings and listened to Him go head to head with the Pharisees. They were in an excellent position to pray in Jesus' name, because they knew Him so very well.

What about us? Our ability to pray in Jesus' name is also dependent on the relationship. We need to make it our business to know Him better and better. And as we learn His ways and develop the mind of Christ, our prayers naturally will fall into line with what He would have us pray.

Don't be discouraged if you feel you don't have that kind of relationship with Him. He'll welcome you right now (and every time you come) just as you are. A deeper relationship happens one baby step at a time.

This article is the latest Dogwood Digest, a devotional newsletter. If you would like to receive this weekly email, use the link on the right of this page to subscribe. Thanks!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Hardening of the Arteries

When I was in fourth grade, much of our seatwork was done from the board. After noticing a gradual decline in my seatwork grades, my teacher became aware that I was squinting toward the blackboard. Concerned about my eyesight, she contacted my mom. We went to the eye doctor, who was astounded at how poor my eyesight had become. "I don't know how she can even walk around like this," he said. I was fitted for my first pair of glasses.

I'll never forget that day. When the optometrist placed the glasses on my face, I couldn't believe my eyes. Everything was so clear! All the way home I exclaimed what I could now see. Every brick on that building! Every leaf on that tree! My life had dramatically changed. I had no idea just how blind I had become.

When a change is gradual, like a slow descent into blindness, we are often not conscious that it is even happening. Hebrews 3:13 warns about this: "Encourage one another daily... so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness." Sin has a hardening effect. When a sin remains unconfessed and unconfronted, it dulls our spiritual senses. Hearing the voice of God grows increasingly difficult. Blindness has come, in part. The irony is we most often are not even aware of its increasingly detrimental effects.

After a year of thinking he had gotten away with grievous sin, David's well-kept secret was finally exposed. God sent the prophet Nathan to bring David's adultery, lies, and murder out into the open. At that confrontation, David suddenly became aware of his loss of spiritual sensitivity. In Psalm 51, he wrote, "Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice... restore to me the joy of your salvation." The sin had come at a price: David grieved the lost joy of intimate communion with God.

When our hearts are hardened by the presence of sin, we lose far more than we realize. Our sense of God's presence in our lives is dulled. We completely miss the many ways He reveals Himself in our daily routine. Peace evaporates as we endeavor to live out life on our own. He is no longer our highest priority. We are living for ourselves, which is a sad and unfulfilling goal, since self is never satisfied. Bitterness eventually ensues. What started out to appease the flesh ends in torture.

The effectiveness of our prayer life is equally disrupted. Richard Foster writes on this in his book, Prayer: "Sin, by its very nature, separates us from God, rupturing the intimate fellowship and dulling our spiritual sensitivities. We become nearsighted and develop thickened eardrums, if you will. The result is an inability to discern the heart of God and an asking that is askew...Therefore, our prayers are hindered."

Like plaque that slowly and silently collects in the arteries, eventually creating a blockage that endangers the life of its host, sin is a foothold for Satan to use in the pursuit of his goal to destroy us. We nurse anger until it becomes bitterness. We justify selfish decisions to ourselves. We continue in our lack of integrity and rationalize it doesn't appear to hurt anyone. Sin and the father of lies himself have deceived us. And soon our hearts are hardened.

God will not allow us to drift off indefinitely. "God disciplines us for our good... it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12:10-11) He loves us too much to allow our own self-destruction. So He gets our attention, most often by introducing hardship into our lives. As we begin to feel need, we seek Him out once again. And in the light of His presence, our sin is exposed for what it is.

Yet we do not need to wait for the discipline and its painful effects. We can confront the problem right now. Ask God to reveal the sin that has hardened your heart towards Him. It has already been paid for and forgiven through the precious blood of Jesus Christ. But it is hurting you, robbing you of well-being. As you come face to face with the sin, be honest with yourself and with God. Acknowledge it for what it is. Let Him know you understand you cannot overcome the problem without Him.

Jesus told His disciples, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10) Don't allow sin to replace the abundant life He has given you with spiritual insensitivity. Live your life in the light, as it is meant to be lived.

"Search me, O God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Psalm 139:23-24

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

An Impressive Ending to a Shaky Beginning

David and Svea Flood, Swedish missionaries, left their homeland in 1921 for the primitive jungles of interior Africa. While staying at the main mission station in the Belgian Congo, they joined forces with another young Scandinavian couple, the Ericksons. Both couples felt led by the Lord to take the gospel to the remote village of N'dolera.

The devoted missionaries were not welcome to live among the people in the village, because of the chief's fear of displeasing the gods. So the determined missionaries built their mud huts a half-mile up the mountainside from the town. As the months went by, the only contact they were allowed with the villagers was with a young boy who sold the missionaries eggs and chickens twice a week. Svea Flood shared the gospel with the boy. Eventually, he came to Christ. He would be the only convert in the entire time the missionaries lived in the jungle.

Life was difficult in such primitive conditions. Malaria took its toll on each of the missionaries. Discouraged and sick, the Ericksons decided to abandon the post and returned to the mission station. David and his wife Svea remained in the jungle alone. Soon Svea found herself to be pregnant. After a difficult labor, severely weakened from several bouts of malaria, Svea gave birth to a little girl. But the ordeal was too much for the sickly mother. She died seventeen days later.

Desolate and overcome with grief, David dug a crude grave for his young wife, took up his children, and abandoned his post. He arrived at the mission station, giving his newborn daughter to the Ericksons before leaving the continent for Sweden. His days in missionary service were over. Just eight months later, both the Ericksons took sick and died. The Flood baby, named Aggie, was given to American missionaries there at the mission station.

When Aggie was three, her adoptive parents brought her home to America. They took on a pastoral position in South Dakota. Aggie grew up there, married, and had children of her own. Her husband became the president of a Christian college in Seattle, Washington.

One day a Swedish Christian magazine arrived in Aggie's mailbox. She did not understand the language, but flipped through the pages of pictures. Suddenly one photo jumped out from the page. It was a picture of a primitive grave site, with a white cross engraved with the name Svea Flood. Aggie raced to her car clutching the magazine and drove across town to a professor she knew could translate the article for her.

The article told the story of two young missionary couples who ventured into the jungle to set up camp outside the village of N'dolera. A baby girl was born, and the young missionary mother died, but not before a young boy had been led to Christ. After the missionaries departed, eventually the grown boy persuaded the chief to allow him to set up a school in the village. One by one, he led each of his students to Christ. They, in turn, shared the gospel with their parents. Even the chief eventually came to know the Lord. As a result of that single convert's witness, over six hundred villagers were now believers. God had been faithful to use what the missionaries had mistakenly thought was a futile effort and wasted sacrifice.

Years later, Aggie attended a conference in England. She heard a man from Zaire tell about the spread of the gospel in his nation. Over 110,000 converts now lived in what was formerly the Belgian Congo. As his message ended, Aggie made her way to the front of the auditorium. With the help of a translator, she asked the man if he had ever heard of her parents, David and Svea Flood. "Yes madam," he replied. "It was Svea Flood who led me to Jesus Christ. I was the boy who brought food to your parents before you were born. In fact, to this day your mother's grave and her memory are honored by all of us."

While all missionary stories do not have this kind of spectacular ending, we can appreciate what this one serves to remind us. Very often, our well-intended efforts end in less than impressive results. We fail to say the right words at the right time. In our fear of blowing it, we hesitate to even try.

Rather than aiming at perfection, we just need to get in there and try. We can do so without fear, because God is not limited by our failure to do things just right. In our weakness, God does His best work. His power alone can work the greatest of stories. And he chooses to do so through our fledgling, awkward attempts at representing Him. Our God is mighty to save.

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong...so that no one may boast before Him...Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 1:27-31

Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving; not by many or by few. 1 Samuel 14:6

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Pit of Perfectionism

I am a closet perfectionist. Those who have been to my home or my former classroom might raise their eyebrows at this statement. They have observed my constant battle with clutter. Dust tends to gather when I am not paying attention. Details elude me. But while I might never pass a white glove test, I am a perfectionist in many other ways.

When I sew on a quilt or scrapbook a page, I want it done exactly right. I agonize over my writing, trying to make each word meaningful and well-said. As I prepare for a speaking opportunity, I struggle for weeks over the content. Nothing outside of perfection will do.

Excellence is the battle cry for many Christians. While this desire is well-intended, we must be cautious. Because trying to live out "perfection" can lead to a performance mentality: making our accomplishments the focus in our relationship with God.

Saul was all about performance. When Samuel confronted him on his disobedience to a specific command from the Lord, at first he denied any wrong doing. Then he tried blaming it on the men in his command and justified his actions with a spiritual motive. Finally, Saul admitted he had sinned. But the next words out of his mouth belied the true attitude of his heart: "I have sinned... because I feared the people and listened to their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me, that I may worship the Lord." (1 Samuel 15)

Samuel responded to Saul's disingenuous confession with a stinging retort: "I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel." God saw through the performance right to his hard heart.

We are tempted to think God's opinion of us rests on what we do or do not do. This is probably because many of our earthly relationships are performance-based. Others judge who we are by things like how well we perform our job, the behavior of our children, or how involved we are in ministry. And our perception of what they think of us determines how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to them. Unfortunately, we try the same tactics with God.

It's not what God wants from us.

"You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it," David wrote after confessing his sin. "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise." (Psalm 51:16-17)

God never has nor ever will base our relationship with Him on our performance. The relationship began when we first trusted in the grace of God for our salvation-a gift we could never deserve or earn. Yet, ironically, as we continue in that relationship, we tend to sink back into relying on our accomplishments. What we are doing for Him quickly becomes the focus. This can be a dangerous place to be. It can become all about us and puts the burden for winning God's approval back on our shoulders. No longer is the relationship about God's grace and mercy.

What He wants from us is not our performance. A performance merely hints that we are self-sufficient and deserving of His love. Instead, He wants us to acknowledge our weaknesses and confess our sin. He wants us to approach Him in brokenness. He never loved us because of what we have accomplished. He loved us and continues to love us because of who He is.

When we quit trying to impress God and embrace our helplessness, we are drawn back to the original relationship with Him. We are needy. He is sufficient. That's when the miraculous starts to happen: his power is displayed through our very deficiencies. We are ultimately more usable to Him. We have climbed out of the pit of performance mode. And the air at the top is clean and sweet.

God created out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.
- Martin Luther

This is the latest version of my weekly newsletter, The Dogwood Digest. To receive this devotional email, please use the link on the right of this page. Thanks!

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Skirmishes Go On

"O Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?... Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Corinthians 15:55, 57

Once only inhabited by a small Japanese civilian community of sulfur miners and sugar farmers, the island of Iwo Jima became a stronghold of pivotal importance in World War II. As the war progressed, Japan evacuated its citizens from the island and prepared for the inevitable Allied forces invasion. A huge number of bunkers, hidden artillery, and an amazing eleven miles of tunnels were in place by 1944. Twenty-one thousand soldiers were at the ready when Allied forces began firing on Iwo Jima.

On the fourth day of the battle, the first objective was captured: Mount Suribachi. Five marines and a Navy corpsman were photographed raising the American flag at its summit. That moment is now immortalized in the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, VA.

Once the high ground was secure, the invasion slowly moved northward. Very heavy fighting continued as Allied forces eventually took the airfields and remainder of the island. The Japanese fighters considered surrender dishonorable and most tenaciously fought to the death. A month into the invasion, 300 Japanese soldiers launched a last-ditch effort counterattack. The casualties were heavy on both sides, but the next day, the island was officially declared secured by the Allies.

Even so, over 3,000 Japanese troops remained in the island's maze of caves and tunnels. More American lives were lost as they worked their way through the tunnel system routing those Japanese that refused to surrender. The battle may have been won, but the enemy continued to fight, determined to take as many with them in their demise as possible.

On Easter Sunday we celebrated the greatest victory the world has ever witnessed. The Son of God, after three days in the grave, rose from the dead. No longer are we under condemnation for our sin. It was dealt with, paid for, and cast from us as far as the east is from the west. The victory is already ours because Christ has already won. "When you were dead in your transgressions," Paul wrote, "He made you alive together with Him . . . having canceled out the certificate of debt . . . having nailed it to the cross." (Colossians 2:13-15) Sin no longer holds us slave in its power.

The enemy has also been soundly defeated. Satan's future final demise is already recorded in the Bible, when he is cast into the lake of fire to suffer torment for eternity (Revelation 20:10). The war is over.

Yet while victory has been recorded with indelible ink, the skirmishes still go on. While we were given new life at our salvation, we still struggle against our old sinful nature which relentlessly demands satisfaction, and we fight the enemy ever-tempting us to sin. As Paul wrote the Galatians, "For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please." (Galatians 5:17) The war may be over, but the fighting continues on.

These skirmishes are a part of the life God expects us to live. In fact, He carefully equips His soldiers to fight the good fight. Satan may have lost the war, but he is deadly serious about taking as many down with him as possible before the last nail is driven into his coffin. So we have been issued a belt of truth (a great thing when you are up against the Father of Lies!), a breastplate of righteousness, and shoes bearing the gospel message in which to stand firm. Our shield is one of faith, which can deflect every fiery dart of doubt and accusation the enemy can launch at us. Our head is protected by the helmet of our salvation. And last but not least, the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, contains all the knowledge we need to win each skirmish, which mostly, after all, takes place in the mind.

We may even lose some of these skirmishes, especially when we attempt to fight in our own strength. But it is important to remember in those moments of depressing defeat: the war's victor has already been determined. The Good Guy won. Our hope is not in the circumstances of this world. It is in the future God has prepared for us, "an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you." (1 Peter 1:4) Nothing that happens to us on earth will impact the surety of our salvation. The battle belongs to the Lord.

This is the latest edition of my weekly devotional email, The Dogwood Digest. If you would like to receive this free devotional, use the link on the right of this page to subscribe.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I Shall Not Want

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...The words of David's 23rd Psalm eloquently describe the true contentment that can be had while basking in the Shepherd's care. Some believe this psalm to be a promise that the child of God will never experience a lack or unfulfilled need. Is this what David meant to express?

A quick perusal of most biblical characters reveals this to be a questionable interpretation. Many of those close to God's heart experienced times of want, suffering, or even lost their lives in their efforts to live for Him. Surely, if people like David, a man after God's own heart, or the prophets, chosen by God to communicate His message to the people, and even the Lord Himself, all lived lives involving suffering, we cannot expect to be shielded from the same.

Nineteenth century missionary Allen Gardiner is an example of one who dedicated his life to Christ and yet suffered. Gardiner, a former naval officer and devout Christian, felt God calling him to go to the Yagan Indians, a previously unreached people group in southern Argentina. He and six others made an arduous journey by boat to Yagan territory.

Their first contact was less than encouraging. The Yagans attacked the missionaries for their supplies. As the men could not resort to combat to protect their provisions (they were, after all, on an evangelistic mission), the group re-loaded their small boats and retreated to desolate Tierra Del Fuego, where they were forced to shelter for the winter.

Winters in Tierra Del Fuego's sub-polar climate are harsh, and the men's provisions proved gravely inadequate. One by one, every man in Gardiner's group died of sickness, starvation, and cold. They never got the chance to share the gospel with even a single Yagan Indian.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want... Obviously dying of starvation would not qualify as having every physical need met. What then did David mean? An answer can be seen in the journal entry of one of Gardiner's party.

Dr. Richard Williams, the physician of the team, wrote of his last days as he awaited death: "Let all my beloved ones at home rest assured that I was happy beyond all expression . . . and would not have changed situations with any man living . . . that heaven, and love, and Christ...were in my heart."

What could induce such a sense of peace and contentment amid such suffering? Williams understood he was in the arms of the Good Shepherd, a master who loves his flock: "He tends his flocks like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart" (Is 40:11). Williams' focus was trained on the provider, not the provisions.

Certainly provision for our physical needs comes from God alone. "Every good and perfect gift is from above," James wrote. Our Shepherd knows our needs. But He wants us to let Him worry about them. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well," Jesus instructed His disciples. Our gaze needs to be trained not on the things we need, but on the Shepherd.

Paul considered "every thing a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things." (Philippians 3:8) Later in his letter to the Philippians, Paul told them "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength."

When we focus our gaze on the Lord and not the need, He supplies what we need to be content in any circumstance. Isaiah wrote, "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint." (Isaiah 40:31) Did you catch the caveat? Our hope must be in the Lord. Only then will we find strength to endure whatever challenging circumstances are before us.

While our physical and material circumstances may fluctuate, we can rest our confidence in the goodness and perfect character of our Shepherd. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can do so without fear, because we know our Shepherd carries us close to His heart. Our hope is in the Lord. When we bask in His care as David did, we understand that while our physical needs may not always be met to our satisfaction, we can be satisfied. The secret is in where we choose to focus.

I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:10-11

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Dead Line

One of the worst places to spend the Civil War was a little known prison camp on the south side of Chicago: Camp Douglas. As many as 18,000 Confederate men endured the brutal conditions there over the course of the war. One in five did not survive. The cruel treatment by the guards, combined with grossly inadequate food rations and a lack of the most basic of sanitary needs, were inhumane at best. The harsh Chicago winters were the hardest on the soldiers, who lived in overcrowded tents with no blankets.

Camp Douglas was located close to civilian residences, so the possibility of escaping prisoners was a concern for those in charge of the camp. Strict enforcement of boundaries was established. The border around the camp became known as the Dead Line. Any prisoner caught stepping even one foot over the line was shot dead immediately. One thin line stood between living and dying.

Since its first usage back in the Civil War, the term deadline has been adopted to other situations to describe a firm boundary. The newspaper business coined the phrase to mean a strict time limit on writers, necessitated by the urgency of each edition's distribution requirements. Editors set deadlines to let the writers know: finish the story on time, or it is dead. Now in our time-conscious 21st century, there are many kinds of deadlines.

There is a Dead Line described in Scripture as well in Numbers 16. The descendants of Israel were grumbling and complaining about the terrible judgment they had witnessed the day before. They blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of their peers. In response to their sin, God sent judgment upon the camp. A plague began to spread quickly among the people.

Moses urged Aaron, the high priest, "Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them." Aaron rushed to do his brother's bidding. He grabbed the incense and, ignoring the possibility that he, too, might succumb to the powerful plague, ran right into the midst of the people. The plague came to a stop where Aaron stood. Those on the other side of Aaron were not affected.

Scripture tells us, "He took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked."

This Old Testament incident is a beautiful picture foreshadowing what Jesus would someday do for us. Despite the horrendous cost, He willingly went to the cross and endured God's judgment for the sins of the world. He now stands between the living and the dead, for "whoever believes in Him will have eternal life." (John 3:15)

Colossians 1:17 tells us that "He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son." Darkness to light. Condemned to forgiven. Slave to free man. Death to life. His sacrifice is all that stands between certain judgment and eternal life.

Once having crossed the Dead Line over to freedom, it is unimaginable one might willingly choose to regress back again. Can you imagine a prisoner released from Camp Douglas wishing to return? Yet this is what we do when we sin. We exchange our freedom from sin's bondage and willingly put ourselves under its influence once again. We step out of the light back into the darkness.

Choosing sin is a destructive, self-defeating act. Worse, it makes a mockery of all Christ accomplished on our behalf. We work to resist sin not because we are afraid of God's wrath. That was taken care of at the cross. We resist sin because we have been carried over the Dead Line. Our lives need to reflect where we now live: in the light.

"For you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord." Ephesians 5:8-10

The above article is this week's edition of the Dogwood Digest. To subscribe to this free weekly email, please use the link on the right of this page.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Monday Morning Simple Woman's Daybook

Outside my window...piles and piles of snow. I could be living in CT-- except they don't have as much snow as we do!!

I am thinking...it is time to get back out into the world after two months of hibernation. Between my knee injury and the snow, it's been easier to stay indoors and hide. But Joe's wedding is on the horizon (April 24) and I was going to be MUCH skinnier by the time it arrived. It's now or never. Tomorrow I will brave the leftover ice (yes, our street is STILL snow covered) and start taking Sasha out for her morning walks once again.

I am thankful for... my family. My sister and two nieces are here on a four day visit. They came for Ruth's baby shower. Margie's little granddaughter Ryli is here as well. She and Stephen are having fun getting acquainted and sharing toys. The house is upside down with gates and Cheerios everywhere you look. Wonderful bedlam.

I am remembering...I have a speaking engagement coming up as well as seven short devotionals due to The Secret Place magazine. And two weeks to get it together. Sigh.

I am going... to make a cherry pie today in honor of Presidents' Day. Adam and Ruth are coming to dinner, so we will have 10 at our table tonight!!

I am currently reading...Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sin We Tollerate by Jerry Bridges. An outstanding read.

Pondering these words... "But we all... are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit."

I keep thinking of a post written by Tim Webster a few days before his precious wife went to be with the Lord: "We want things now. Father, micowave us into being like Jesus. But discipleship doesn't happen overnight and often God forges His children into His image through the long and dark nights of the soul. We must trust His plan and also His timing! When the time is right, He will bring us out of our trial and we will look more like Him when He does.”

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Helicopter Parenting

He had been a behavior problem since the beginning of the school year. Finally, after a particularly egregious act, his teacher gave a punishment meant to get his attention: one full week without recess. She wrote a note to the parents explaining their son's infraction and consequences, hoping for cooperation and support from the home front. She was to be disappointed. At lunch time the next day, the mother appeared at the classroom door. She took her son out for lunch and did not return him to school until recess was long over.

The little boy got the message loud and clear: no matter what he did, he could count on his parents to shield him from the consequences.

Believe it or not, this is a true story. This type of occurrence didn't happen frequently, but in my 20 year teaching career, I saw my share of overprotective parents. They were the ones who turned a deaf ear to anyone who dared to voice concerns about their child. At the first sign of trouble, they would rush to the child's aid, even going so far as to interfere with consequences the child faced. A term has been coined to identify this "hovering" behavior-Helicopter Parents.

They start out with the best of intentions. They want to protect their children from the pain they perhaps remember experiencing in their own youth. Their hope is to provide every opportunity for their child to experience only happiness and success.

Great intentions, but not especially wise. Pain and disappointment are tools God uses to mature us. Without them, we will be immature and incomplete (James 1:4).

Another portion of Scripture discourages the idea of helicopter parenting as well: Galatians 6. "Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ... for each one will bear his own load." The two Greek words, frequently translated as burden and load, sound similar in English. However, the original Greek words actually hold two separate connotations. A burden is almost always used in a negative sense, for something particularly oppressive and overwhelming. It is too much for one person to bear, which is why Paul encourages a sharing of the load. In this particular context, a brother has sinned and is looking to be restored. Falling back into that sin can be avoided through the active support of the Christian community. They are not helping him avoid consequences. They are helping him to avoid a repeat performance.

On the other hand, a load is most often used to describe a burden due to a duty or obligation. Christ assured his followers: "My yoke is easy and my load is light." Most responsibilities are meant to be borne by the individual. There was a real sense of individual responsibility in the New Testament church. Paul wrote the Ephesians that each one "must labor, performing with their hands what is good" (Ephesians 4:28).

There are oppressive burdens we need the support of others to overcome. But this does not release us from individual ongoing responsibility in responding correctly to our circumstances. If we release people from accountability, we create an opportunity for them to illegitimately view themselves as victims when negative consequences for their actions occur. This is unhealthy and can lead one down an ultimately destructive path.

The same is true in raising children. Yes, you are your child's advocate and protector. But be careful how quickly you come to their rescue. Stop and pray for wisdom before leaping to their defense. Allowing them to circumvent consequences may well be robbing them of an important life lesson. As C.S. Lewis once stated, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." Pain is an effective tool in God's capable hands. He uses it to teach us responsibility, perseverance, and to give us a healthy, realistic self-image. Most importantly, when we are in pain, we look to God, bringing our relationship with Him to ever-deepening, more intimate levels.

Pain isn't always bad. Sometimes it is just hard. And the truth is, hard is often quite good for us.

"God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." Hebrews 12:10-11