May 23 – When Bad Things Happen

Acts 28:1-16; 1 Samuel 4; 1 Samuel 5; Psalm 52
Dr. Albert Mehrabian did a research study that showed that when feelings were communicated, only 7% of the communication was through words, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language. Then, people jumped to the wrong conclusion that this applied not just to feelings, but to all of communication. As a result, you may hear people say that 55% of communication is body language. People make a living reading body language in meetings where facts are being conveyed and everyone takes what these body language readers say as absolute truth. By jumping to conclusions, people extended the study from one part of communication to all of communication and they often make mistakes reading the situation.

When you begin a conversation with a foregone conclusion, it’s easy to make mistakes in understanding what the other person is trying to say. There’s an old joke about wives holding up two dresses and asking the husband which one he likes better. When the husband replies that he likes the one on the left, the wife gets upset because he thinks she looks bad in the one on the right. The people on the island of Malta had a belief that when bad things happened, God was (or in their case, the gods were) punishing the person. When a snake came out of a pile of wood that Paul had gathered and bit him, they were sure he was bad news. “When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.'” (Acts 28:4)

It’s an easy conclusion to draw. Something bad happens and it must be that God is punishing that person. The people of Malta jumped to that conclusion when they saw the snake bite Paul. Then, things changed. Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. When the people of Malta saw that nothing bad happened to him, they decided that he must be one of the gods. When Paul started sharing the healing power of Jesus with them, they honored them. It’s interesting that when their first conclusion jump was shown to be wrong, they immediately jumped to the opposite conclusion – which was also wrong. Paul didn’t let either wrong conclusion bother him; he just preached Christ and healed the people on the island.

We shake our heads at the conclusions of those on the island of Malta, but how often do we engage in the same thing? Someone goes through a difficult time, and we let them know that God’s punishing them. We wonder what they did wrong. Worse, we may use some kind of variation of telling people that “karma” will exact revenge. Just for the record, “karma” is not a Christian principle. It comes from Buddhist and Hindu thought and relates to your actions in all of your various lives. It’s not true that “what goes around, comes around.” What’s true is that while there are often consequences for our actions, sometimes the things that happen to us just happen. When we do wrong, there is always the opportunity for forgiveness from God.We don’t serve an eternal revenge seeking God who tries to get back at us for every perceived slight; we serve a loving God who seeks to bring us into a loving relationship with Him and He forgives us when we do wrong so that we can enjoy His love.

Lord, help me to seek Your grace in my dealings with others. When they are going through difficult times, don’t let me rub salt in their wounds, instead, let me share Your mercy.

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September 20 – Doing the Twist

John 20:1-18; 2 Chronicles 31; Psalm 87

I was talking to my pastor about my fiction writing, and he asked me if my stories had a twist. “I always love it when a story has a good twist at the end.” I gulped, and then agreed with him about how great those twists were. You know what I mean by a twist, right? The two partners have fought the red tape from the police department while solving crimes and they finally get ready to take down the head guy, only one of the partners finds out that the other one is the leader of the criminal gang. Or how about this kind of ending? The crew is tracking down the murderer only to discover that the murderer is really the person they thought was the first victim, who didn’t really die. Of course, if you see either of those at a theater with friends, there’s always bound to be that one guy who smugly says, “I knew it all along. It was obvious.”

Those twist endings. They make a book, or a movie enjoyable. There are always those guys who claim to know it after the fact. Sometimes, though, onlookers say or do things that help you know that they know the twist that’s coming. For instance, after Jesus was crucified, the Chief Priest and the Pharisees wanted a guard put on the tomb because they remembered Jesus teaching that He would rise from the dead. They didn’t expect it, but they were afraid the disciples might try to steal the body. (Matthew 27:62ff) The disciples, even though they heard the message time and time again, never expected the resurrection. They were caught completely off guard. “He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).”

Mary literally twisted back and forth looking at the tomb and this guy she presumed to be the gardener until Jesus revealed Himself to her. This was the ultimate plot twist, and it was real. She had seen Jesus on the cross. Perhaps she averted her eyes when the soldier put the spear in His side, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind. Jesus had been killed. The execution was successful. He was dead. Joseph and Nicodemus had put Him in the tomb and Mary was going to finish the job of anointing His body. When she didn’t see the body and she ran back to tell the others, they didn’t believe her. John outpaced Peter and in an interesting phrasing, noted that he believed, but still didn’t understand that Jesus had risen from the dead. He looked in and believed the body was gone, not trusting a hysterical woman’s report, but he couldn’t figure out where the dead body was. Jesus waited until the men had left before revealing Himself to Mary and even then, she had trouble believing at first. The resurrection of Jesus was the twist that all of His disciples should have seen coming, but didn’t.

What’s even crazier, is that we are living on the other side of that twist. Once the disciples were convinced of the resurrection, they shouted it from the mountain tops. We, having lived with knowledge that the twist happened, often take a calm blasé attitude about it. It’s no big deal, to us, and perhaps we shake our head wondering why others don’t believe it like we do. This is the most freaking, awesome news in the world! God came down to earth, He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and He conquered death by rising again – giving everyone hope of eternal life! We may tell a friend about it. If they ask. And no one else can hear. It’s time to do the twist, to live the twist, and to tell the twist. Jesus is alive! Jesus died for my sins, and your sins, because He wants to forgive us. Trust Him today!

Lord, what an amazing story, proven true by history. Get me excited to share Your love and grace with others.

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September 19 – Risking Your Reputation

John 19:16-42; 2 Chronicles 30; Psalm 86

Every once in a while I remind my wife of why she prefers to shop alone. We use cash for most purchases, especially at the grocery store. When we get a checker we haven’t gotten before, as I pay I’ll ask something like “Do you still take cash? You’re not afraid it’s going to bounce?” She just facepalms as she shakes her head. It’s one of my “stock” phrases in life. There’s another one I use a lot…or at least when I have occasion to. When I have the opportunity to help someone and they thank me, especially over profusely, I’ll scan the area with my eyes and then whisper, “Don’t tell anyone, it’ll ruin my reputation.” We usually have a good laugh and then head off to our respective destinations.

Our reputation is important. We want people to see us in the best possible light. Strangely enough, that “best possible light” changes according to the group you’re hanging with. If you’re part of a criminal organization, the number of times you’ve been in jail, especially if you haven’t spilled the beans, is an important part of “best possible light.” On the other hand, were a church interviewing you as they sought God’s will for a pastor, that criminal background might not be seen as such a good thing. (Many have noted that most pulpit committees would reject Paul out of hand because of his run ins with the law.) The Pharisees seemed to have one rule during the time of Jesus: don’t associate with Jesus. And so it was that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus sought to bury Jesus quietly. “Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.” (John 19:38-39)

The Pharisees who put Jesus on trial wouldn’t even step foot in Pilate’s palace as they brought Jesus to him lest they be considered unclean. It was the time of Passover and they didn’t want to besmirch themselves by entering a gentile location. Railroading an innocent man was ok, though. When Jesus died, someone had to take care of the body. Joseph of Arimathea had made arrangements to take the body and he, along with Nicodemus, did a quick burial preparation of the body because nightfall, and the new day, were about to happen. Touching a dead body was a bigger unclean issue, but both were willing to do it for Jesus, but they did it secretly so that their reputation among the Pharisees didn’t take any more hits. I think some of the Pharisees already suspected those two of thinking highly of Jesus.

For Joseph and Nicodemus, being caught associating with Jesus meant instant rejection from the Pharisees. They would be kicked out of the synagogue for that. In today’s world, you can say you go to church, you can say nice things about Jesus, but if you let Jesus have an effect on your life, you’d better be careful. Honesty and integrity are acceptable to a degree, but if you need to cut corners to make that business deal; if you need to compromise your convictions for a client; if you need to take ethical shortcuts to succeed in the eyes of your superiors, or customers, or even judges in some cases, don’t let that “Jesus thing” get in the way of success. Or some would tell us. Are we willing to risk the attacks on our reputations by staying true to our faith in those situations? Are we willing to show honesty and integrity though we may lose our job because of that? Are we willing to stay true to our convictions though it may lose clients? As followers of Jesus we should always show His grace and His love to others, but always be willing to risk our reputations in the world by staying true to Him in all we do.

Lord, it seems that many today want my faith to stay in church on Sunday. Let me show Jesus to those around me every day.

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September 18 – Unwinnable Arguments

John 18:38-19:16; 2 Chronicles 29; Psalm 85

You’ve probably heard the story of the guy who saw someone hitting their head against a brick wall and ran over to stop him from doing that. After he stopped the guy, he asked, “Why were you beating your head against that brick wall?” The man responded, “Because it feels so good when I stop.” I know, that sounds crazy but as I understand it, there may be some scientific fact there because in such a situation, the body releases endorphins which fight the pain and provides feelings of pleasure. Perhaps that’s why people wage political wars on Facebook. They know nothing will be accomplished, but it feels so good to have their say. They may upset everyone around them, but who cares. They feel good because they were able to get it out.

Let’s face it, some arguments are unwinnable. Usually they aren’t that important. I know that my wife will never go out to eat at THAT place (no commercials here) because she doesn’t really like that kind of food…except in Chicago. Now I only mention THAT place as a joke. I still get THE look. It’s an unwinnable argument. Most political arguments are unwinnable. Pilate faced an unwinnable argument as he dealt with the Jewish leaders. They were bound to see Jesus crucified   and were ready to do whatever it took. Pilate didn’t find a reason why…they yelled. He repeated that he couldn’t find a reason why…they yelled louder. When Pilate offered them a choice of freeing a murdering insurrectionist or Jesus, they cried out for the murderer. They even called for the blood of Jesus to be on their own hands, as Pilate washed his own hands of the responsibility. “Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.” (John 19:16)

Pilate faced an unwinnable argument with the Jewish leadership. They were bound and determined to see Jesus crucified. I think they wanted the Romans to take care of that issue so that the Romans would have to acknowledge that they were trying to prevent any would-be Messiahs from messing up their already tenuous relationship with Rome. They were the leaders who had decided that it was better for Israel that one man should die so that Israel could survive. Of course, they may have remembered the times they tried to execute Jesus in fits of anger only to see Him argue His way out of it, or mysteriously disappear. What neither the Jewish leaders nor Pilate realized was that ultimately, it was not the argument that decided whether Jesus would live or die. When Pilate turned to Jesus, desperate to find a way to prevent His crucifixion, Jesus pointed out that the power to order, or prevent, His crucifixion came from a source that was out of his league. Neither the Jewish leaders nor Pilate won this argument, although the leaders might think they did; God won this argument, because this was His plan.

Caiaphas rightly said that it was better for one man to die for the people. He didn’t realize that he was tapping into God’s plan because his concern was solely with his handle on power and control of Israel. But ultimately, the crucifixion of Jesus was God’s plan, carried out in God’s way. It was a terrible death. It was cruel beyond belief, but it was God’s plan to pay the penalty for our sins. So many people are willing to overlook some sins because they aren’t that big of a deal. In truth, though, every sin helped pound the nails into the hands and feet of Jesus. Our sins show our separation from God and were why Jesus died on the cross. Pilate and the Jewish leaders, guilty as they were, helped bring about God’s grace and forgiveness for all who will accept it. They did their job, unwittingly though it might have been; our job is to show people God’s grace and love through all we say and do.

O Lord, remind me that I am not called to win arguments; I’m called to share Your grace and forgiveness.

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September 17 – Truth

John 18:19-38; 2 Chronicles 27-28; Psalm 84

There is an old saying that if a society values philosophers because philosophy is an exalted profession, and looks down on plumbers because plumbing is a plebian profession, the society will soon go downhill because neither its theories nor its pipes will hold water. The obvious point is that all professions are important for the part they play in society. Even philosophers are necessary, to some degree. I guess. Sometimes those people are crazy. There, I said it. I’m not worried about offending any philosophers with that statement, of course, because they would be more worried about whether or not my statement represented truth or not.

One way to differentiate between different schools of philosophy is how they handle the concept of truth and how you discover truth. I remember that part from my study of philosophy, but I forget how to tell those schools apart, now. Of course, we live in an age when none of that matters because truth is considered relative. What’s true for you, may not be true for me, and that’s ok – according to the tenets of post-modernism. In fact, I have decided that Pilate was the first post-modern philosopher. “’You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’ ‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.’” (John 18:37-38)

Pilate was frustrated when he dealt with Jesus. He was trying to figure out why the Jews had brought Him to have Him executed. All the Jewish leaders said was that He was a criminal. I’m sure Pilate must have wondered, “How? What did He do?” Somehow, the discussion got around to whether or not Jesus was a king and Jesus talked about His kingdom. At last, Pilate had something to go on and when he asked Jesus about Him being a King, Jesus responded with another vague answer. “You say that, but my job is to talk about truth. People who support truth, pay attention to me.” The Pilate asked the question that still rings true today: “What is truth?”

This is the clash that we still deal with today: as followers of Christ, we speak about the truth of Jesus to a world that rejects absolute truth. When it comes to religious belief, they’ll be happy to let us believe in Jesus, if we’re not too obnoxious about it of course, but then in the next breath talk about other religions as equally valid. This lack of belief in absolute truth leads to a world that accepts just about any kind of belief, except for a belief in absolute truth and the impact that has on our lives. Our responsibility as Christians now includes not only proclaiming the truth of Jesus, but showing through our words and our deeds that there is absolute truth that comes from God and that truth should affect our lives. Without absolute truth, our world would be in chaos, if you really apply that principle. Murder would be a relative term, and we see that some cultures today support killing others for reasons that we cannot understand. Without absolute truth, we wouldn’t need grace, absolute grace if you will, that comes from God. And God’s grace is absolute. He offers it no matter what the sin may be. He offers it before you even know that you have sinned if you are living in a world of relative truth. That is why we need to offer God’s grace to those around us. There is no other way for people who don’t know or understand God’s love and grace to experience it unless we show it. Whether or not people come to know Jesus because we extend grace, they should absolutely know that we are there for them.

Lord, You are truth. Let my words and my life show You, Truth, to others.

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September 16 – Living in Denial

John 18:1-18; 2 Chronicles 26; Psalm 83

I could always tell when one of my children had caused problem for my wife. Before she told me what they had done wrong, she prefaced her story with a question like: “Do you know what your son (or daughter) did today?” When she denied her part in their heritage, I knew that things had been bad. My defense in situations like that was to walk away while saying, “I don’t know that child. Anyone know whose kid that is?” While we were joking around as we did that, I know I’m not the only parent who has ever wanted to climb into a hole and cover themselves up while their child was embarrassing them. All joking aside, though, in the long run I know that my wife and I are proud of our kids.

Outside of children, though, sometimes denials like that are made for life and death reasons. In situations where countries are at war, rebels might pretend not to know each other. During World War II, resistance units in France were small and often didn’t know each other so that they could have that famous political phrase: plausible deniability. Being able to deny that you know someone in those cases could save your life. John arranged for Peter to be brought into the high-priest’s compound. Peter was wary, believing that one wrong word could cause his own arrest. Then, he ran into a servant who outed him.  “’You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?’ she asked Peter. He replied, ‘I am not.’ It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.” (John 18:17-18)

Peter was in the heat of battle. He had cut off the ear of one of the servants of the high priest when they came to arrest Jesus. One of the other accounts included Jesus restoring the ear, but Peter wasn’t sure if they were out to get him as well. Perhaps he thought about his position as one of the top three disciples and feared for his safety. Whatever was going on in Peter’s mind, though, it’s obvious that he was worried about saving his own skin. He didn’t know who this lady was who was outing him, all he knew was that he was in the high-priest’s courtyard which meant that he was in enemy territory. He wasn’t even thinking about his earlier conversation at supper with Jesus. He just wanted to make sure that He would survive. Peter probably didn’t think of what he was doing as denying Jesus so much as denying the enemy any chance to capture a high value target, like he was.

I don’t know what was going on in Peter’s mind, but I’m sure he could have justified his denial to others. They could have accepted his excuse for turning his back on Jesus because it was for the greater good. Then I look at my life. I’ve never really been in a dangerous situation where I would have needed to deny my faith in order to live. And, to be honest, I’ve never really said anything like “I don’t know Jesus.” But is that type of denial worse than those every day instances where I have a chance to tell others what Jesus is doing in my life and I shrink back, afraid to say anything for fear of how the other person will react? How is it that I can worship Jesus in church with fellow believers and express my love for God there, while avoiding any mention of Him in one on one discussions with my friends? It’s easy to sit back and look at Peter in disgust, thinking about how Jesus predicted that Peter would deny Him three times, which he did, and wonder how he could do that after walking with Jesus during His ministry. It’s much easier to do that than examine my own life and see how, even after many years of following Jesus, I refused to take advantage of opportunities to speak up for Christ when the opportunities came up. There really isn’t that much difference.

Oh Lord, remind me of Your great love for me and help me show others that great love in all I say and do.

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September 15 – Protection

September 15

John 17; 2 Chronicles 25; Psalm 82

I remember running around the neighborhood with friends, walking to parks, and running to and from school in the morning. During the summer time, we did so much running around that we stopped by the house when we were hungry. When I went off to college, my parents took me to the airport and dropped me off so I could get on my plane with one huge trunk and a suitcase. In those days, they may have waited in the waiting area with me. Once I got on that plane, I was on my own, including figuring out how to get from the airport to college with my luggage. These days, we couldn’t do those things. This world is a dangerous place. Parents make sure their kids are safe, many going so far as to go to the registration counseling sessions when their child chooses classes for the next semester.

Helicopter parents is the term we use to describe this. They want to make sure that nothing bad is going to happen to their kids, so they are hovering over them every step of the way. Their kids can’t make mistakes, because they prevent it. They don’t learn from their mistakes because the protections the parents provide mean that they don’t make mistakes, others do and they make sure to take it out on anyone who doesn’t recognize the genius of their child. Protection is an important part of parenting, but that kind of protection goes overboard. Jesus recognized the need we have for protection from outside forces, knowing that we would make mistakes in the world. He prayed for that protection. “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:15)

As Jesus is preparing to go to the cross, He prays for His disciples. He prayed not only for those in the room with Him, but also for those who would hear the message and follow Him down through the ages. He didn’t pray that nothing bad would happen. He knew that His disciples would be hated in the world. He prayed that they would stay true to God’s word and their relationship with God. He prayed that God would protect them from the wiles of the evil one; the one we call Satan today. This prayer doesn’t ask God to be a helicopter parent, it asks Him to strengthen each of us through His word and to allow us to stay faithful to Him no matter what. Jesus knew that this world would be a difficult place for anyone that chose to follow Him and thus He invoked God’s protection. As we saw this protection work down through the ages, it wasn’t a shield to the physical body that prevented any kind of persecution; it was a strength the prevailed through the persecution that allowed His people to keep loving the persecutors.

We have some Christians today who seem to think our God is a helicopter God. Nothing can go wrong for the Christian. If it does, that’s the fault of the Christian not having enough faith. If we don’t have perfect health and piles of cash lying around, we just need to exercise our faith more. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We should live in a world that hates us because of our commitment to Jesus. While there’s nothing wrong with having stuff, we should be so unconcerned about accumulating stuff that people wonder about us. We should be in such unity that people recognize the presence of God in all that we do. When people look at us, do they see us living in unity with God and with each other, or do they see us depending on the things of this world. If we want God to protect us, we need to depend on Him instead of the things of this world. We show that dependence on Him when we love His children and when we stop trying to look “good” in the eyes of the world. I wish I could tell you the easy way to do that. What I can say is draw closer to God and seek His direction for your life instead of seeking approval from the world. That will protect you from the evil one.

Oh Lord, how often do I depend on the things of this world to sustain me instead of following You? Help me depend on Your protection and not the things of this world.

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September 14 – Peace and Encouragement

John 16:4-33; 2 Chronicles 24; Psalm 81

Have you ever noticed how much of our music revolves around our troubles? Jimmy cracks corn and no one even cares, because worse things are happening, if you listen to folk songs. We have a whole genre of music called “Blues” where no one is ever happy. And let’s not forget about country music where the guy, or the girl, leaves, the pick-up truck broke down, and the dog ran away. Someone noted that with self-driving vehicles appearing in life, we’ll soon hear songs about the pick-up truck driving away on its own. People seem to enjoy wallowing in their troubles, hoping that misery really does love company.

A lot of our humor is based on dealing with the troubles of life. Perhaps we laugh when a comedian talks about failed relationships, because most of us have been through one, or at least know someone who has. Let’s face it, the world is full of troubles and everybody has to deal with problems in life. Jesus, getting ready to die on the cross, talked to the disciples about the troubles coming so He could prepare them, but He also left them with a message of hope. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

This last discussion with Jesus was full of good news / bad news dialogue. Jesus talked about the coming of the Holy Spirit who would be with them, but He mentioned His upcoming death was necessary for that to happen. He had talked about preparing a place for the disciples, but He also talked about leaving them. The disciples weren’t understanding Jesus completely and that was a cause for disturbance. Jesus, knowing of His upcoming death, knew how the disciples would react, and so He sought to remind them often that He would always be with them. Jesus prepped His disciples for the trouble coming, and those troubles would be big. First they would see Jesus die. Then, after His resurrection and ascension, they would be scattered as the preached the gospel and ultimately face persecution because of their message of good news. (Ironic about that, right?) Jesus reminded them before the troubles came that they would have peace as they trusted in Him. His disciples could have that peace because no matter what the troubles might be, Jesus had overcome the powers of the world.

That message still rings true for Christians today. No matter what the troubles may be, Jesus has overcome them. He brought healing to people who were incurable: He overcame sickness. He fed thousands: He overcame hunger and poverty. He raised the dead: He overcome death. He stilled the storm on the sea: He overcame the weather. Whatever problem we may face, Jesus had dealt with and overcome. That doesn’t mean life is easy. That doesn’t mean we can’t ever complain. What it means is that sooner or later we can look up from our troubles and recognize God’s presence in our lives, and take heart. We can have peace in the midst of any circumstance knowing that God is in control. When we have that peace, we can find ways to minister to others going through the same circumstances. When we take heart no matter what the problem may be, we can encourage others whose strength may be failing. God blesses us so that we can bless others and not giving in to life’s problems, not getting discouraged when troubles come, showing peace in the midst of troubles are all blessings that we can use to show others the goodness, the greatness of God. Take that blessing and encourage others!

Thank You for giving me peace in the midst of the storm, Lord. No matter what problems I face, I know that You are always walking with me. Help me to use that strength to encourage others.

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September 13 – Connections

John 15:1-16:4; 2 Chronicles 23; Psalm 80

Were I to take you on a drive around South Texas today, you would see branches piled high and deep across roadways from Corpus Christi all the way up the coast. They are, of course, remnants from the havoc Hurricane Harvey created. A friend, commenting on the situation in Florida after Irma talked about the sweet sound of “Chainsaws #9” by “Crew!” The tree debris around here and Florida is tremendous, and annoying, and thus the sound of chainsaws taking care of fallen trees and tree limbs truly is a form of music right now. Those trees and branches all have one thing in common, they all lost their connection with the earth.

All those branches are now waiting their truck ride to their final destination: the dump. They will be picked up and unceremoniously dropped into a giant hole, slowly decomposing through the years. Branches like this weren’t always treated this way. In the days of Jesus, they burned them. We can’t do that now for environmental reasons, but if we could, we could have a great bonfire! Jesus used the relationship that branches have with the plant they should be attached to in order to describe our relationship to Him. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:5-6)

Our relationship with Christ is vital. Jesus made it clear that unless we’re connected to Him, we can’t do anything for Him. He compared our need for Him to branches attached to a vine. Perhaps we might liken it to a little boy, seeing a beautiful flower and picking it for his mom, only to find out that eventually this flower dies because it’s no longer attached to the plant. So many people have made some kind of initial commitment to Jesus only to get distracted or fall away to different forms of temptation. When we aren’t connected to Jesus, when we lose that connection, we can’t accomplish what we really want. Oh, there are lots of good people in the world who don’t follow Jesus, but they can’t accomplish the things of God without being connected to Him through Jesus. Jesus is the vine that sustains His people and allows them to be fruitful, to accomplish great things for Him.

The question that begs to be asked then is, “How do we stay connected to Jesus?” He answers that in verse 7 when He tells us that if we remain in Him and His words remain in you the connection will be there. (That’s the Bob James understanding of that verse – not the exact words.) We begin to remain in Jesus by reading God’s word. That’s why I post a link to all the passages I read prior to writing these. The more we read God’s word, the more His word can connect us to Jesus and help us make the changes we need to make in our lives. We begin bearing fruit as God changes us to be conformed to the image of His Son. The closer we draw to Jesus, the more others will notice the difference He makes in our lives. People won’t be drawn to the old way of “me,” they’ll be drawn by the change, the difference that Jesus makes in our lives. People will be drawn to us so that we can tell them about Jesus when we love others like God loved us. We bear “much fruit” for Jesus by being like Him. We continue by talking with Him. Daily. Hourly. Minutely. If a husband and wife don’t talk to each other, we would think there’s something wrong with the relationship, yet when people fail to pray or even seek God’s input on decisions, we don’t see anything wrong – especially since we don’t talk much with God. So today, take time to read God’s word and talk with him. Listen for His voice when you pray. It will make a difference.

Oh Lord, let me know and experience Your presence in my life. Let me stay connected to You.

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September 12 – Ya Gotta Love ‘Em!

John 14:15-31; 2 Chronicles 21:2-22:12; Psalm 79

“Rule Number 1: The boss is always right. Rule Number 2: If the boss is wrong, refer to rule number 1.” We’ve all seen those two rules for getting along at work in one form or another and we have a good laugh. Sometimes the boss puts the sign up for a laugh, and sometimes, when the boss puts that sign up, people aren’t sure if he’s serious about it. We all know “cute” rules for getting along in life. My dad had a rule that he lived by to get the last word in any argument with my mom. He taught me that rule, and I wished I had remembered it the other night. His rule was that you can always get the last words in any argument with your wife by saying, “Yes dear.”

All kidding aside, we want to know the rules. We may not like some of the speed limits they put on the roads, but we want to know what they are so that we don’t speed inadvertently and get a ticket. Those things can get expensive. The Pharisees, in their quest to know and understand God developed 613 rules to live by. Paul dealt with the Galatians because after coming to know Jesus through His grace, they started trying to set up rules to live by, instead of living by grace. Jesus did give us some rules, or commands, if you will. His rules weren’t burdensome, like those of the Pharisees or the burgeoning rules for the Galatian Church. He just had two commands. If we love Him, we’ll keep those commands. “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:21)

Someone had asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was and Jesus replied with two. The first is Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. The second command was to love your neighbor as yourself. He intensified the second rule in the upper room when He noted that the disciples, and all of His followers should love each other – that we would be known by our love. Those rules exemplify all that God wants from us. Jesus spoke about those two commands to the Pharisees whose rules became so stringent that they controlled everything you did. People didn’t need to love God, or to love people, because they followed the rules. The rules of the Pharisees led to judgment and condemnation; the rules of Jesus lead to freedom and love.

Loving God is easy, at least in theory. We may get mad at Him. Perhaps in our anger we might even yell at Him and tell Him we hate Him, but we usually come back to Him, sheepishly, with an apology. And He always keeps loving us, too. That loving your neighbor part, well, that’s hard. Loving your neighbor means that you want God’s best for them and will help that happen. I have a few cranky neighbors in my neighborhood. They don’t deserve my love, considering the way they treat me. God may love them, but my standards are higher. Uhm….oops. Maybe I’m wrong there. Maybe God wants me to love my neighbor the way He loves them. And Jesus made it clear that the key to loving our neighbor is not worrying about physical proximity, but recognize that we are called to be loving neighbors to all people. Let’s face it – there is no place in God’s plan for hatred of other people because they have a different color skin, or even because they have a different religion. And here’s the real kicker: we aren’t called to return hate for hate. When people hate us, for whatever reason that might be, we can’t hate them back. We’re called to love them back. If you think that’s hard, you’re wrong. It’s impossible – without the love of Jesus flowing through us. But just as Jesus loved those who hated Him, we are called to love those who hate us. In short, lover everyone, and let God sort out the differences.

Oh Lord, it sure is hard to love some people. Thank You for loving me when I was “some people.”

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September 11 – There Is Only One Way…

John 14:1-14; 2 Chronicles 20:1-21:1; Psalm 78:56-72

My wife has a habit of naming inanimate objects. Our GPS unit is “Sally.” (With a voice like that, it couldn’t be male.) Whenever we go somewhere, we set Sally up and punch in the address. Sally, sweet girl that she is, always gives us directions – and usually they’re pretty good. Sometimes, we travel a familiar route, but we set Sally up because she lets us know how fast we’re going in comparison to the speed limit and how long it will take to arrive at our destination. At other times, we have no idea where we’re going, so once we punch in the address, we depend on Sally to take us where we need to go. While most people don’t give their GPS units names, they do have and use one to show them the way.

Let’s face it, a GPS unit is a man’s dream. When we use one, it’s not that we’re asking for directions, it’s like we’re playing with technology. We don’t have to pull into a gas station to ask directions – we just listen to our GPS nag us about going the wrong way. Usually though, when we follow our GPS unit we can get where we want without problems. As Jesus spoke with His disciples, He reminded them that He was getting ready to prepare their rooms for them and they knew the way. Thomas wasn’t sure what was going on, so he asked directions – losing ten points on his man card, of course. “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:5-6)

I can imagine that there was a lot of tension in the upper room this night. Jesus knew that Judas would betray Him and had, in fact, sent Judas out for that very purpose. No one had washed feet until Jesus did it. He had just predicted that Peter would deny Him. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a chain saw…and no one had chain saws back then. Jesus reminded them not to let their hearts get troubled because no matter what was going to happen, He was preparing the place for them. Thomas asked a logical question: “We don’t even know the address to punch into the GPS unit, Lord!” Jesus said the words that still ring true today. In effect, He reminded us not to worry about the destination, but to trust our guide. The way is not a road map we can find on our GPS unit or even on mapquest. The way is a person, Jesus. If we follow Jesus we’ll arrive at our destination. In truth, though, the destination is not our goal, the journey we take walking with Jesus is the goal. We may take different routes in our life, but the only way is Jesus. When we trust Him to guide us, we’ll journey to our eternal home in heaven, but along the way experience the joy of ministry, of caring, and of loving others for His sake.

If we were saved from our sin for the sole purpose of going to heaven, as soon as someone came to know Jesus they should be taken straight to heaven. But God leaves us here for a reason. That reason is found when Jesus calls on us to follow Him because He’s the way. Our experiences along the journey will be different. As close as my wife and I are, we have had different experiences along our journey. But those experiences have happened as we trusted Jesus to be our way. I’ve often made the point that Christianity is the most inclusive religion because anyone can follow Jesus. It’s in this statement that Jesus defines the exclusivity of Christianity: He alone is the way. No one can develop a relationship with God except through Him. While we have different experiences, it’s not that there are many pathways or roads to heaven; it’s that while we follow Jesus we will each see different parts of the scenery along that way and God will use those different experiences to allow us to minister to others. How do we get where we want to go? We follow the way, the truth, and the life because there is no other way.

Oh Lord, help me to trust You along the journey. Remind me that You take me on the journey to minister to others.

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