Seeing beyond the Rubble

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In the mid 1970’s my parents bought a house in my hometown. We had lived on our street for a number of years and in two different houses. The house we were renting at the time was a two-story house with a bit of land. The house my dad was interested in buying was also a two-story house with a bit more land than what we currently had. Sounds good, right? Well what I have yet to tell you is that the condition of the house and land. It was…well, it was in bad shape. And by bad shape I mean really not good shape. It was really old, the grounds had been overgrown with weeds, briars, and other such things. I thought my dad had lost his mind. But the problem was that I was seeing the present condition and my dad was seeing the finished product. My dad saw beyond the rubble. So did Nehemiah. So does God.

We see the present situation while God sees the finished product.

We see spiritual things much like I saw that old house. We see the present situation while God sees the finished product. We need more than ever to see the finished product in spite of the present condition. Nehemiah did this when he saw the walls. He was able to communicate his vision of the finished product to those around him. Lets take a look at Nehemiah, the wall, and the people.

Then I said to them, “You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach.” I told them how the hand of my God had been favorable to me and also about the king’s words which he had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us arise and build.” So they put their hands to the good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard it, they mocked us and despised us and said, “What is this thing you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” So I answered them and said to them, “The God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem.”         – Nehemiah 2:17-20 NASB

 

Nehemiah was faced with a massive undertaking. The walls of Jerusalem had been toppled. The gates were burned. Complicating things was that Jerusalem was surrounded by folks who hated them. Nehemiah had to perform many tasks just to get to the point of beginning the rebuilding effort.

Recruiting

After replenishing his resources and assessing the need, Nehemiah now recruited workers in verse 17. In some way not mentioned in the narrative, Nehemiah gathered together a large group of prospective partners. Let’s look and see how he put his work force together:

First, he identifies with the workers: “Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in.” Nehemiah is passionately involved in the city’s welfare and feels its need as acutely as though he had been living in the desolate city all his life.

Next, he presents spiritual perspectives. They are in trouble – and its not just because Jerusalem is in ruins. He sees their spiritual disgrace. The sight of those collapsed walls for well over a century has created the impression in the pagan mind that the God of Israel has abandoned his people. He recognizes that there are always spiritual issues involved – a building project is more than just brick and mortar. As His people, we have to be aware of the spiritual opportunities and challenges as they present themselves to us.

Then, he invites immediate action. Everybody knows exactly what is required, “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace,” and everyone realizes that the task must begin without further delay. Nehemiah is asking a lot of the people. He’s not afraid to ask them to step up to the plate. The sacrifices will be huge. They will have to take time off from work in order to rebuild the walls. Who will protect their families? Before people can respond they need to know that there is someone greater than Nehemiah behind this project.

 

Inspiring

That leads to the next task – Nehemiah inspired confidence in the people in verse 18. While rebuilding the walls is an important job, the central theme in the book is the sufficiency of God. His mind dwells on the greatness of God and he wants his workers to do the same.

Our growth is important, but the central thrust must be the sufficiency of God.

Listen to Nehemiah’s testimony: “I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.” He didn’t reach Jerusalem because he was a skillful persuader, or because the queen was possibly a compliant helper, or because the king was a generous benefactor, but only because God was a sovereign provider. Since God had done all that, He would certainly help them to complete the task of rebuilding the walls.
By telling the people what God had already done, he was firing them up for what He was about to do. His appeal was positive as He focused on the glory and greatness of God. When you think about it, it’s amazing that the people said, “Let us start rebuilding.” Think about what they could have said. They could have been apathetic – they had been living in the rubble for a long time and could have just stayed there. They could have reminded Nehemiah that the Jews had “already tried that” before in Ezra 4 and were stopped by the authorities.
We often face those same two obstacles within the church. Either “we’re content with the way things are” or, “we tried that before and it didn’t work!”

  Someone has defined leadership as “the art of getting people to do what they ought to do because they want to do it.”   I want to do all I can to help us do the things we ought to do because we want to do them – because the gracious hand of our God is upon us.

 

Protecting

The fifth task comes almost immediately after the decision to make an impact takes place: He Handled opposition. Whenever we get serious about kingdom work, Satan will oppose us. The first two enemies have already been identified in verse 10. Now Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite are joined by Geshem the Arab. In verse 10, the opponents are “very much disturbed,” now this troublesome trio becomes highly vocal in their attacks on Nehemiah and his work crew.

Let’s look at their tactics:

First, they derided the efforts of the workers. Verse 19 says that they “mocked and ridiculed” them. Verbal onslaughts have always been part of the enemy’s demoralizing tactics. They laughed at the workers and belittled both their resources and their plans.

Next, they suggested that they were rebelling against the king – that weapon had worked once before in Ezra 4: “What is this you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” This was a cutting allegation to the timid workers.
I love how Nehemiah deals with these bad guys. He doesn’t answer their lies or engage in a conversation with them. Nor does he just ignore them. He first exalts the God who called him to do the work in verse 20: “The God of heaven will give us success.” He wasn’t concerned about their fictitious insinuations – he was concerned that God would get the glory in the project.

Whenever we get serious about kingdom work, Satan will oppose us.

 
Nehemiah wanted his people to know that God had everything in control. Even though Geshem controlled the southern approach to the city, and the other two thugs patrolled the north and east, Nehemiah was not ruffled. In his reply, he made three things clear:

· Rebuilding the wall was God’s work
· The Jews were God’s servants
· Their opponents had no part in the matter.

 

Involvement

The last part of verse 20 says it rather strongly: “We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” Their opponents had no past right, not present prerogative to be there, and no future role in the city.
Let me just say that as believers we should expect spiritual opposition and even be thankful for it. It’s a sign that we’ve angered the enemy and encroached on some territory that He thinks is his. If there’s no conflict or opposition, then we’re probably not disturbing the enemy enough. Remember, Satan only shoots at moving targets!

Have you ever looked on a situation as hopeless? Have you ever been intimidated by the task ahead. Sometimes – perhaps oftentimes – we do this because we use only our eyes when looking at problems or issues. When we are faced with obstacles that look insurmountable, we need to see with God’s eyes as much as possible. We need to see beyond the struggle – beyond the problems – and see the goal, the finished product that God sees.

The Toolbox

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 God is the Master builder of our lives. We may help a bit, but He is the one who brings us the tools.

 

When I was in the Marine Corps many years ago, I remember a saying we had: the right tool for the job is the tool that does the job. This was a nod to the improvising the Marine Corps had to do just to survive. We rarely had what we needed so we would have to figure out a  way to use something else to get  a job done.

But life with God isn’t that way. And this is especially true when our fear collides with our faith. God has given us every tool necessary to build (or rebuild) our lives, either from the rubble of our sin. Now I have to emphasize that God is the Master builder of our lives. We may help a bit, but He is the one who brings us the tools, the blocks and the mortar to rebuild the broken down walls of our lives. He not only does that, but He takes us by the hand and rebuilds our wall, our hand in His.

Nehemiah’s fear could have led him to be timid. Instead he used the tools very effectively.

 

Tools in Nehemiah’s Toolbox

I like tools. But I have to be careful with them because I have been injured by some. I have burned myself with a soldering iron, cut myself with a jigsaw, smashed my thumb with a hammer and cut my knee open with a chainsaw…but this didn’t happen at the same time! Anyway, just like us now, Nehemiah had the right tools for the job. Lets take a look at Nehemiah’s toolbox in the Nehemiah 2:1-3 (this will continue in my next article as well).

And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?” Nehemiah 2:1-3 NASB

So what tools do we find in Nehemiah’s toolbox?

 

The Wrench of Waiting

The first tool Nehemiah used was the tool called waiting in verse 1. He was a man of decisive action, and when he prayed it was natural for him to ask God to provide an early, if not immediate, opportunity to speak to the king. Remember the closing verse in chapter one indicates that Nehemiah wanted success today in the presence of the king. But Nehemiah waited patiently on the Lord for an answer, just as we’re urged to do in Hebrews 6:12: “…imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what was promised.” Nehemiah could weep and pray and he could also wait and pray.

Why do I think Nehemiah had to wait? While we don’t know exactly when chapter one ended, we know when it began: the month of Chislev. That month roughly corresponds to our month of November/December. So I think it is safe to say that Nehemiah began his journey to Jerusalem in November/December. But what about when he approached the King? Well, in verse 1 the Bible states that it happened in the Month of Nisan. The month of Nisan corresponds roughly to our time of March/April. So Nehemiah waited for at least three months before he approached the king with this matter.  Did Nehemiah not see the King during this three month period? That is highly unlikely since Nehemiah was the King’s cupbearer. Although it is not stated here, I think Nehemiah waited on the nudging of the Lord before he approached the king.
Have you had to wait for God to answer a prayer? In Nehemiah’s prayer journal, nothing was entered for four months because nothing happened. Waiting time is not wasted time. Quiet reflection may have provided Nehemiah with fresh insight about how to approach the king. God wants each of us to get real familiar with this tool – we’re going to have to use it a lot.

The File of Faith

The second tool he fished out of his toolbox is faith in verses 2-3. Nehemiah was “sad” in the last part of verse 1. This word is used three other times to describe how he looked when he was in the presence of the king. The king asked him a question to find out why Nehemiah was not his chipper self. Nehemiah wigged out when Artaxerxes asked him this question because he knew the king only wanted to be around happy people. In verse 2, Nehemiah says that he was “very much afraid” which can  be translated, “a terrible fear came over me.”

I think he was very much afraid for at least two reasons. He knew that he was expected to be perfectly content just to be in the presence of the king. Subjects who were sad or melancholy around the king were usually executed for “raining on the king’s parade.” Second, he was about to ask the monarch of the Persian Empire to reverse a written policy he had made several years earlier about Jerusalem’s reconstruction. that is recoded in Ezra:

Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. Ezra 4:21 NASB

Nehemiah knew it would take the power of God to get Artaxerxes to change his mind. I think I’d be afraid too. Here is the most powerful human being on the face of the planet. He wants only happy, happy, happy people around him. He is such a hard man that if your are anything but that happy, happy, happy person, he would execute you. Wow. That would cause some fear to creep into my life. How about you?

 

What are you afraid of this morning? Some of you might be afraid of the past. You’re worried that something you did long ago will catch up to you. Maybe you’re afraid of the present and find yourself crippled by the fear of people, snakes, or confined spaces. Others of you might be fearful about the future and even death.

Fear is a natural human emotion. To deny one’s fear is to deny one’s humanness. But though we experience fear, we must not succumb to it. Fear can paralyze us. It can make us not move forward with what God has for us. Fear can intimidate. Fear can be a real bummer! But what happens when our fear collides with our faith? Look at our example from Nehemiah.
Nehemiah’s faith was greater than his fear. He did the right thing because he believed the promises of God. Notice what happened, “I was very much afraid, but I said…” Instead of paralyzing him, fear propelled Nehemiah to action. Months of prayer had prepared him for these crucial minutes. Courage filled him when he realized it was no longer possible to hide his grief.

The Hammer of Honesty

Then, using wisdom, he affirms his boss by saying, “Long live the king!” He honestly explains why he was sad in verse 3:

“Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried                      lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Nehemiah 2:3 NASB

Did you notice that Nehemiah never mentions the name of the city? Jerusalem’s history of independence might have turned the king’s thoughts toward questions of politics and national security. Instead of going political, he chose the personal route – that’s usually the better choice. What Nehemiah did say was, “I want to honor the burial place of my fathers.” This made a lot of sense to the King because the Persians honored their dead as well.

Nehemiah’s fear could have led him to be timid. Instead he used the tool of trusting very effectively. He wielded these tools effectively but doesn’t stop with these three. No, next week we’ll continue in Chapter Two and discover more tools in the toolbox we can use as our fear collides with our faith and we rebuild from the rubble that is our lives.

How are you doing using the tools God has given you to build the wall of your life? Are you using them effectively? At all? Do you even know you have these tools at your disposal? I sure hope so. While a stone mason can have all the knowledge in the world regarding his craft, that knowledge is useless if he doesn’t use his tools.

Nehemiah’s faith was greater than his fear, and propelled Nehemiah to action.

Deflated Footballs, Inflated Egos, and Repentence

Changing our mind toward our sin is key if we ever hope to be more Christ-like.

The current “scandal” involving a American football team – the New England Patriots – has enthralled Americans and taken over the endless news cycle. There has been many discussion with some becoming quite heated concerning whether the Patriots did indeed cheat in a football game. The evidence (at least that which has been released) seems to indicate that the Patriots cheated by using under-inflated footballs for when their team was trying to score points. An under-inflated football is easier to grip when the weather is nasty – and the weather was nasty for this game. The “they cheated” crowd is yelling about the principle of sportsmanship and fair play while the “they didn’t cheat” crowd makes a point that every team cheats in one way or another so, hey, what’s the big deal?

After I reflected on a discussion I participated in where the “everybody cheats” excuse was brought up I discovered why I find this whole event so disconcerting. And you know what? It has nothing to do with the apparent cheating. It also has nothing to do with the fact that cheating is prevalent in society. No, my reason for being so upset had to do with something much deeper and, in my opinion, more important that the cheating itself.

FIrst some facts…

We all sin and cheat

I am not using this as an excuse for anyone else cheating and thus saying their cheating does not matter. No I am observing a simple fact. All of us – you, me, everyone alive on this planet right now – have cheated and sinned.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God  – Romans 3:23 NASB

We are all in the same boat. We all do things that are wrong. We all try to game the system. In the parlance of this scandal, we all use under-inflate footballs to gain a competitive advantage. Yes even those reading this that think yourselves as good, moral people. So get over yourself – and myself – already. We are imperfect cheaters who want to win at just about any cost.

We are all helpless to change on our own

I don’t care how much you try to change, you will remain stained with sin as long as you try to change. “Turn over a new leaf” those around you may say. “Take some behavior modification classes” others may offer. Regardless of what you try to do, you will never be able to stop sinning on your own accord. Why? Because we are all as a dead person when it comes to sinning. What can a dead person do to change his condition? Yeah, thats right, nothing.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.  – Ephesians 2:1-2 NASB

So what’s the rub here?

So if we are all sinners and cheaters and we can do nothing to change that fact, why then should we get so upset about the Patriots apparently cheating their way to the Super Bowl? If everyone does, what’s the big deal? It’s just humans being human, right?

It is about their attitude

The Patriots have come out and said they didn’t cheat. They have given implausible (my opinion) explanations about how a football will lose pressure. Their denials actually create more troubling questions for me. Their attitude seems to be of indifference to what they have done. They seem to be trying to dismiss this from everyone’s memory. I don’t think that will work.

So what is the Secret Sauce here?

What would help them get over this scandal and move forward? Simply put, they need to ‘fess up and repent of this mess and then they can move forward. Without that, this will follow them throughout the rest of their history as a team and franchise. And that is a good thing. But what does it mean to “repent”?

Repentance

The Greek verb for repent is metanoeo (meta-no-e-o). It means simply “to have a new mind”. The idea of this word is to have a new mind regarding Christ (for issues of eternal salvation) or a new mind regarding the issues of one’s sin (temporal salvation). Though both aspects are important, I’m mainly concerned with the latter point.

How often do we feel bad or sorry about what we have done that is wrong? Whether what we have done is run a red light, take more than allowed, taken something not ours, or some other act, do we feel a sorrow for having done that thing?

 I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. 2 Corinthians 7:9 NASB

The passage above is referring to Paul’s scathing letter to the Church in Corinth that roundly condemned their hedonistic practices and perversion of the Lord’s Supper. If you want a good dressing down about sin, read through 1 Corinthians sometime. read it all at once. I dare you to stay the same after that. But in the selected passage here, Paul refers to the the sorrow that produced repentance. The Corinthians evidently repented of their wrongs when confronted about it. And here in 2 Corinthians Paul is commending them for it and even rejoicing that they did repent.

So what does all this have to do with me or you?

Well, simply put it has EVERYTHING to do with me and you. We have issues confront us every day where we must make a decision to sin or not sin. Every. Single. Day. What we do with that decision indicates where we are in our process of sanctification. If (when) we make the wrong decision and choose to sin or cheat, we suffer loss. Hopefully our conscience confronts us. When our conscience confronts us (as well as anyone else who confronts us) we have choice to either deny it and try to prove that everyone does it or we can choose to change our mind about our sin, agree we were wrong, ‘fess up and move on.

This is much more important than a football game where cheating happened. This has to do with your walk with Christ. Far too often we try to cover up our sin or even deny we did anything wrong. This is a huge mistake. Changing our mind toward our sin is key if we ever hope to be more Christ-like.  HIding behind excuses does nothing but enrage those around us and create further hindrances to our own spiritual growth.

So the next time you cheat, sin, or deflate footballs in order to win a game in bad weather and then get caught at it, don’t deny, obfuscate, or offer other excuses. Change your mind about your sin. Admit what you did, ask forgiveness, and then move on after being a changed person.

His Blood

“It is OK. It is His blood, not mine.” Chaim Engel

I am fascinated by World War II. I have been interested in it since I was in junior high school. I’m not sure why I am fascinated by it. Perhaps it was the dark charisma that Hitler possessed that fascinates me. Perhaps its how a charismatic demagogue like Hitler led a cultured people to either do or ignore the savage things that happened during that war. Whatever it is, I just cant’ get enough of history regarding that time period and what happened in Europe during that time.

Back in the 1990’s a co-worker of mine let me borrow a movie of his. It was about a revolt in one of the death camps in Poland. That movie’s title was Escape from Sobibor. It was about the largest and most successful revolt of Jewish prisoners in a death camp. Since that time I have looked high and low for information about it.

Recently there was a documentary on Public Broadcast System about the revolt at Sobibor. It had a few of the survivors in it sharing their experiences and the how the actual plan to revolt had progressed. One particular scene in that documentary got me thinking about the Christian life and how often we mess it up because we don’t see properly.

At one point of the documentary,there is the story of one of the Jewish prisoners killing a Nazi in an area filled with other guards and such. The man who performed this grisly task was named Chaim. His girlfriend (and later his wife) Selma went looking for him. She heard screams coming from the Administration Block where the killing was taking place. She was sure it was Chaim. When Chaim emerged from the building looking dazed and confused, he was covered in blood. When she noticed the blood she was certain that Chaim had been injured. Replying to her, Chaim said “It is OK. It is his blood, not mine.” That statement stuck with me.

How many times do we forget whose blood covers and cleanses us. 

Do you doubt?

Living in a fallen world with our battle with our old nature, we oftentimes focus on the battle that rages and not the war that has already been won. In other words we focus on our battle and not His blood. This focus problem can cause us to doubt our position in Christ. Paul writes concerning this battle within himself

Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?  -Romans 7:24 NASB

Paul recognizes his wretchedness in performing the very things he really does not want to do. Have you ever felt this way? Have you been this broken by your sin? Have I? I sure hope so because being broken over my sin shows that the war rages…which means I am sensitive to the evil that I still do. But one thing I must remember in this struggle agains the sin that resides in me is that I do not gain victory through my efforts or strivings.

The longer I live the life God has given me the more I realize that I still sin. The more I walk this pilgrims path the more I hate my sin. I know that I’m saved but there are doubts that creep in every now and again. When the doubts do come, I need  not turn to others for comfort (though my close friends are a source of comfort). I need only to look in my mirror and realize that I am covered by His blood, not mine. It is His blood that cleanses me. It is His blood that was spent to buy me. It is His blood that secures me. My blood and effort mean nothing. The only thing that matters is that His blood was spilled to redeem me.

 

When the sea billows of sin roll – when the thunder of accusation boom in your life – when trials come and we fail once again – all we must remember is that it is not by our effort that we are saved or stay saved. It is only through Christ that we have victory over sin.

After all, it is OK. It is His blood not mine.

 

Heart Surgery

God cares about the position of my heart rather than the actions of my hands.

 

What is my motive for serving God? What is my motive for sharing my faith with others? Am I learning God’s word so that those who see me will think I’m great, smart, or something else about me? Or am I learning, sharing, and serving out of a grateful heart? Which describes you? Motives are often more important that the act.

“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” Psalm 119:33-36 (NIV)

The fourth plea from the Psalmist comes now to change the position of his heart. The Psalmist wants his heart to be bent toward God’s testimonies. That is really cool if we think about it. The psalmist wants his heart bent toward God. Why would he use such language?

“Incline my heart to your testimonies…”

Well, if we think about this I believe that the answer will be apparent. The heart of man is evil, that much is true from Scripture. Every inclination of mankind’s heart is toward evil, toward rebellion against God and His commands.

Nothing much has changed in the years since the first rebellion in the Garden of Eden. We continue to fight God for control. We continue to kick back at His commands. We scream and yell about our freedom and how God’s rules impinge on our freedom. We are indeed a selfish and arrogant people. God has placed His law to protect us. His rules form boundaries that will keep us from harm. Our harm is from not observing His laws.

The Psalmist is asking God to change the inclination of his heart. He is asking God to change how his heart is oriented. In essence he is asking God to correct the incorrect bend of his heart from rebellion and evil toward God’s righteousness. What a prayer this is to ask.

If God is to “re-bend” our hearts, we need to be ready to experience pain. This pain will be deep. To change the bend of one’s heart means that our every behavior—our every motive—must be changed. But can I change it myself? No. Only through God can our evil heart of stone be turned into a heart of flesh that seeks after God and His righteousness. It is only through the transforming work of God that we can do anything right or good.

The “re-bending” of our heart is a life-long process. It is like progressive sanctification I wrote about earlier. We continually become more like Christ. The process we undergo in this “re-bending” is fueled by trials. We get placed in trials to change our attitudes, heart orientation, and motives. Courage is needed—faith is required—to ask God to re-bend one’s heart. Do I have that faith and courage? Do you?

“…and not to selfish gain!”

The Psalmist wants his heart—himself—to be bent toward God’s testimonies—God’s words—but that is not the end. He desires that this re-bending will cause his motives will be toward God and not toward selfish gain.

Every church has experts in everything who are quick to judge, critique, and condemn. Sometimes these folks are pastors and elders. Other times they are those who sit in the pews. If a man can not serve quietly in submission to an elder or pastor, that person should never be allowed to lead a church. Someone who constantly draws attention to himself instead of being as quiet as possible should examine his motives. Sadly though these folks will probably never truly look at their motives. Remember, they’re the smart ones. But this problem has been around since the church began. It will remain until after the millennial reign of Christ.

We see this in the Judaizers in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We also see it in John’s 3rd letter when he referenced Diotrephes (3 John 9-10). When we read about Doitrephes we read about a man who out for his own gain, his own position. He wants to be first. He wants to be “the man” when it comes to things of church. He always wants to be first. He is not so much a servant as he is a taskmaster.

Have you ever met on of these folks? You probably have. I have both seen these types of people while sitting in the pew as a congregant and preaching form the pulpit as a pastor. I like how Chuck Swindoll refers to these folks. He calls them “Boars in God’s Vineyard.”

What about me? How are my motives? Am I overly critical about tiny things? Do I want to bend toward God’s testimonies? How about my motives? Do I serve to truly build the body of Christ or do I have selfish motives? The motives of the heart are more important than the actions of the hands. How about you?

Crush me O Lord! Make me into YOUR workmanship and not mine. Conform me, shape me, change me, use me for YOUR glory, not mine. Re-bend my heart toward you and not toward selfish gain.

Hittin’ Nerves

 

“Leaders aren’t born, they’re made.”

I remember this mantra being drilled into my head as I served in the Marine Corps in the 1980’s. Yes I know I’m old. But an aspect of a good leader that is often lost is that a leader is first a good follower. A good leader is willing to be led and has been led.

“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” Psalm 119:33-36 (NIV)

In saying “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.” the Psalmist again hits a nerve in our modern culture. Actually I think he hits a few nerves. Especially for those in the Church.

The first nerve is that of being led by someone else. How long will we wrestle with God over just who, between man and God, is sovereign and who is not? How long will we battle with Him over control? And before you think I’m being holier-than-thou in asking these questions, I’ve already asked them of myself. Our battle for control goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. How much simpler and enjoyable would life be if we simply observed God’s leading and His sovereignty over us.

Another nerve is the one of knowing everything, or being the smartest. Being led means I have to admit that I don’t know it all. That can be tough sometimes. Well OK, often times! If you haven’t noticed I am quite an opinionated person. I like my opinions. I think my opinions are right. But I hope I know enough to know I don’t know it all. While I may believe my opinions are right, I know that I’m probably incorrect in some of them. I need to be teachable enough to admit I’m wrong when I’m demonstrated to be wrong. I need to be willing to be led to the truth regardless of how many degrees I have on my wall. Being willing to be led means that I don’t know it all but the One who is leading me does. Am I humble enough to be led? Are you?

“Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.”

And that is exactly what the Psalmist is asking God to do. Look again at our verse for today: “Lead me in the path of your commandments…” The Hebrew word here means “to tread on a path, to march or to cause to march”. Another meaning which I find interesting is that it can mean “to tread a bow (bend a bow to string it) by stepping on it with a foot”. It appears that the Psalmist is desiring that God make him conform his steps to His path. The Psalmist longs to be led into God’s commands, not into a particular place, circumstance, or anything else. Just lead me into the path of YOUR commandments! Are we willing to do this? There’s another nerve! Conform me to You, God!

The Psalmist also states his attitude: “for I delight in it.” Wow, what a great attitude. The Psalmist has his head screwed on correctly. Perhaps this is because he had seen so much disregard for God’s commandments in his life. Perhaps he had seen so much unrighteousness, so much ungodliness that his heart cried out for this. The Psalmist may have seen man at his worst and realizes that man at his worst—or even at his best—requires God to be center of all of man’s desires. Only God can save us from ourselves and our wicked ways.

 I delight in being led to God’s commandments

So the Psalmist not only desires the right thing (to be led God’s way) but also for the right reason and result: delighting in the way of God! How cool is that. Wouldn’t it be great to have a congregation full of folks this way? Wouldn’t it be great to have friends like this? To have those around me (and you) with this type of attitude would be encouraging and a huge blessing.

While we don’t necessarily have this universal attitude today, I know one way we can improve that situation. I can begin to have this attitude. I can desire to be led of God in His commands. I can delight in being both led in a certain way AND in the commands of God. And if every one of us dedicate just himself or herself to becoming this type of person, well, do I have to finish describing what this would look like?

Break my will, break my heart. Crush me O Lord that I might delight more fully in Your commands and Your leadership over me.

Shopping at God’s Feet

“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” Psalm 119:33-36 (NIV)

 

“I want this!” is sometimes heard in my trips into a store. Sometimes the demands for stuff are accompanied by kicks, screams, and tears if the person demanding the stuff doesn’t get what they are demanding. Our selfishness is often on display in the acquiring of stuff.

Sometimes our selfishness can slide into our spiritual life. I once heard a man say that he wanted all the rewards he could get. He wanted ALL the rewards. One of this person’s chief disciples said he wanted a huge crown. In fact he expected his crown was going be soooo big because of all the work he was doing. These folks didn’t seem to be serving God out of a thankful heart. They seemed to be serving God out of selfish motives. Is that really service? Motives are very important to God. James 4:1-3 come to mind when thinking of motives.

Some demand things to make our lives easier, life more certain, family more enjoyable. But How often do I ask for something to make a difference in my friendship with God? How about you?

Returning to our text in Psalm 119, we get a glimpse of such a person. Here we read the second thing that reflects a person who is teachable and one I think is used in a mighty way:

“Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”

“Give me understanding…” 

The familiar “Give me!” is here but look at what the Psalmist asks: “Give me understanding…” Notice that he asks for understanding. This type of understanding is not just mental acquisition of facts. No this includes the idea of discernment. The Psalmist is asking for the ability to discern between things. But to what end?

“that I may keep your law and observe it…”

The Psalmist is not asking for understanding so that he will have a good reputation, be respected, or idolized. No the Psalmist wants to keep and observe God’s law. The Hebrew is interesting here. After the “give me” part, the two words translated “keep” you law and “observe” it are constructed in such a way as to show the purpose of the request or the result of the request.  A translation could be “Give me understanding for the purpose of me keeping and observing you Law” or “Give me understanding with the result of that understand being that I keep and understand your law.” Either way we decide to take this (purpose or result) the motives of the Psalmist are clear.The Psalmist is focused on God’s desires, not his.

Do we have this attitude in prayer? How often do we focus on what God wants for us rather than the things we want? I don’t mean the “if it be your will” caveat we attach to some of our prayers. I’m talking about prayers regarding our sanctification. How about asking God for trials so that we become more like Him? What about asking God to take us to a foreign land? What about asking God for the ability to understand His word so that we might conform to it all the more? How about asking God for challenges so He can glorify Himself in my life? And what about living a life more righteously?

As I look at these few questions, I think “YIKES! Do I have the faith to ask God for understanding so that I will conform to His will more?” How about you?

“…with my whole heart”

Finally, look at how the Psalmist wants to observe God’s law;  the Psalmist doesn’t want to give a half-hearted effort. He doesn’t want to give 90% effort at this. No, he wants to go at it wholeheartedly. He doesn’t want to hold anything back. In sports verbiage, he wants to leave everything on the field.

Have you ever seen someone serving God with their whole heart? Someone totally committed to serving God—totally committed to observing God’s will for their life is a sight to behold. I wish I was that person. I want to be that person. So what keeps me from being that person? What keeps you from being that person? I’ll work on the answers to thee questions and get back to you!

More than a great teacher, fantastic preacher, or renowned theologian we should want to be a teachable people.

We should want to be one who does not know everything but wants to continue to learn. We should never want to think that we have “it” all together but always want to be putting “it” together. We should want to desire to have understanding so that I can discern the things of God from the things of man. We should want to pursue God’s will for his life with our entire being rather than pursuing our own goals.

Will we be satisfied with the respect and admiration of man…or do we desire conformance—and the work that comes with it—to God even though the process of conforming is often painful?

O Lord, how I want you to give me understanding so that I can discern correctly your will from mine and that I would pursue You with all my heart, mind, and soul.

Fake Stuff Can Kill

We should always prefer the real stuff—however it is presented—over the fake.

I have no doubt that quite a few of you who are reading this have heard about the multitude of studies linking the fake stuff we put in our food to all sorts of bad things. I am amazed at the wealth of information out there regarding some of the additives we place in food and deleterious effect on the human body. Before I go too far, here is my disclaimer: I’m not a nut! I don’t think everything ever made in a lab is necessarily bad for us. But I do know that there is good, solid, scientific evidence for some of the stuff that is in our food that can kill us. Or at least really injure us.

One of my sons can not have red food coloring. If he has this red food coloring—well, lets just say he looks like “Dash” in “The Incredibles”! He’ll run around like a crazy man. He’ll stand on his head on our couch. He jump off stuff. He’s a maniac when he has red food coloring. He can’t control himself. That can’t be good for his body. He gets in trouble. He doesn’t prosper. He becomes a real mess.

Just as one of my sons can’t have red food coloring and be normal, the church can’t expect to be prosperous if it settles for fake stuff. Let me explain.

I’ve seen some uncharismatic men in the pulpit. And their delivery was passionless (or at least appeared to be). They were dry, slow, and some would say boring. But they absolutely needed to be in the pulpit. They were gifted and people prospered under their teaching. I’ve seen very charismatic men in the pulpit. They have the winsome personality I would love to have. They meet people and quickly make them close friends (or so it seems). I’ve seen men like this—and the ones I’ve seen should NEVER be in the pulpit. (There is nothing wrong with being charismatic. But if charisma is all you have, then stay out of the pulpit)

I’ve sat at the feet of at some of the most gifted teachers in Christendom. I’ve learned from them many different things. Most of all I’ve learned about selfless service. These great men of God—Dr. Jim Mook, Dr. Thomas Edgar, Dr. Mark Meyer, Dr. Todd Beall, Dr. George Harton, Dr. Ken Quick, Dr. Dan Mitchell, Dr. Ed Hindson, and many more—taught me that serving in one’s giftedness is more important that simply serving somewhere. When a gifted person is plugged in where he/she is gifted, watch out! Now all my teachers are very different in their approach to teaching and their style. Some are not as charismatic as others. But each one is authentic. And the students who have studied under them have prospered.

You see it isn’t what we see with our eyes that matters. What matters is the heart.

God told Samuel not to look at outward appearances when choosing a King. God said He looks differently than man. Man looks at the outward appearance—how attractive, “king-like” a person appears. But God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).

When the church chooses fake stuff—whether that be a preacher who shouldn’t be preaching or a teacher who shouldn’t be teaching—because they are just sooooo cool and charismatic, the church is in trouble. When we choose the smooth style of Mr. Charisma over the authentic but perhaps charismatically challenged preacher/teacher, we’re in trouble. (This is not to say that every person who is charismatic is bad. Or that every person who is not charismatic is good. These are broad generalities)

We need to look as much as we can on the inside not the outside. Is the person I’m sitting under truly called of God to that position? Is he authentic? Does he really care?

Sometimes we can get the answers directly. If a man claims to be a teacher but has never submitted to a teacher, we should have great pause. In order to teach one needs to be taught. If a person is a self-trained person, that is reason to be cautious. Being self-trained isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be.

I truly believe that to be a Pastor today requires a seminary education. Yes, REQUIRES a seminary education. Why? The proliferation of false teachers and false teaching screams for those in the pulpit who have been tested and tried at the highest level. And a good, solid seminary will test a person before he becomes a Pastor. A Pastor needs to be able to address these false teachings and horrible interpretations of the Bible that false teachers spread. We need pastors who can pass on what was entrusted to them (2 Timothy 2).

Would we trust brain surgery to a self-trained medical doctor? Or how about someone who was trained in veterinary medicine? How about someone who graduated top of his/her class in gardening school? Would you want them messing around in your noggin? I wouldn’t. Well then, why would we allow an untrained man to perform soul surgery on us? Why do we allow an untrained man teach us truths that were written in a culture far removed from our own or  in languages far different than our own? I am convinced that Pastoral ministry is the only “profession” where an advanced degree is seen as a hindrance.

But this isn’t just about Pastors. It is about everyone. When we choose based on appearances we are rejecting God’s model of looking at the heart of a person. When we want our building to look “just so” or our music to be “just this” we are looking at the outward. When we want to program worship so that there is a specific response at a specific time we are trying to be the Holy Spirit. Whatever happened to God moving in the midst of His people? Why can’t God simply be God and we simply worship Him? Sure we’ll worship differently but so what! Some may raise their hands in worship. Others may close their eyes. Me? I usually close my eyes and sing while holding one of my children. And I imagine in my mind that my heavenly Father is doing the same to me.

How cool would it be if we left our preferences at the door of church each week and simply enjoyed the fellowship of the saints of the preaching of His word?

The church has far too often embraced the appearances rather than the true. I’d much rather sit under a charismatically-challenged person who is a selfless, heart-full, compassion-full, grace-filled man rather than the most eloquent, charismatic fraud. The ineloquent, charismatically-challenged authentic Christ-follower will always bring life, love, and liberty . The fake, while he may give a little “sugar (or red-food coloring) high” for a while, will always bring about death, division, and degradation.

Choose the true. Look at the heart. Live authentically. Serve God only.

Dancing in the Desert

Finding joy in the desert—in the trials of life—is possible if I focus on the purpose of my trip through the desert of life.

When I was in the Marine Corps we used to have maneuvers in the Mojave Desert once a year or so. I don’t recall how often they were because getting chosen to “play” the war games was a hit-or-miss proposition. Once one could go, another time one could not go. It was uneven selection to say the least. We (the peons) gave these “games” a derisive title to demonstrate our displeasure. We chose that sarcastic term to note our displeasure with being in the desert. If selected for these war games, one could count on living with snakes, scorpions, and other creepy-crawlers as well as 100+ temperatures during the day and really chilly temps at night. The food—well, let’s just say the enemy didn’t always carry a rifle! One year I got to “volunteer” to participate. It was…well I was there.

During the games I had occasion to speak with some real whiners. I mean, these guys whined about everything. At one point I got so annoyed with the whining about everything that I asked them “Why did you enlist in the Marine Corps if you didn’t want to do stuff like this?” Their answer? “We didn’t have anything else to do so we joined. But we didn’t think they (the Marines) were really serious about the war stuff.” And yes, they were serious!

I looked at these guys and shared a bit of wisdom I had gleaned through my intense (but short) Marine Corps career: “Since you’re here and you’re not going anywhere else for the near future, why not make the best of your experience?” That fell on deaf ears since they kept whining. But the neat thing (for me) was that I out ranked them. So I got to tell them to go do the menial tasks that no one else wanted to do. That is what happens to whiners in the desert (or anywhere else). If one whines, one will be sent away again to an even more unpleasant place. This made their journey in the desert more distasteful. Instead of finding something positive in their desert experience—and there were some fun things that happened—they chose to look only at the negative. They chose to learn nothing, enjoy nothing, and really to take steps backwards in their respective careers. Isn’t that sad?

I’ve come to the conclusion that Christians sometimes do the same thing as these two Marines. Sometimes we whine in the desert of testing when we should be dancing in that desert. I know I have done this. Hopefully I’m learning to enjoy the time wandering, knowing that God is still leading me. But it can be tough.

When Israel was led out of Egypt, they wandered for forty years in the desert. Looking at a map one will discover that the Promised Land was not really that far from Egypt. So what happened? They decided not to trust God to give them the land that He had promised them. They were afraid of the inhabitants. So God said “Fine, out to the desert you go!” And they wandered. And wandered. And wandered. But they didn’t just wander. God fed them. He provided for them. Oh yeah, they whined about this too.

Now I know that wandering in the desert isn’t fun or really all that pleasant. But whining about it does not serve any purpose. God had taken them to the desert for a purpose. And He was going to achieve His purpose. So whining and complaining about it wasn’t going to shorten the journey, only lengthen it. So why did they complain and whine? More importantly, when God has taken me through these desert experiences, why have I complained and whined? Ouch! It always stings when things get personal!

The battle is with selfishness

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of my biggest battles—if not my biggest battles—is with selfishness. I want my way when I want it. God, being the heavenly parent that He is, decides when (and if) I should have something or go somewhere. I, on the other hand, am His whiny little brat wanting my way. Will complaining about the desert get me out of there quickly? Or, will learning my lesson and moving forward get me out of there quickly? Well, I think there is third, better option. And I’ve just learned this recently. Perhaps I’ve learned this lesson through just the amount of time I’ve spent in the desert of life. Maybe it just took longer to get through my thick skull. I don’t know why this lesson took so long to sink in, but it has finally sunk in. And it is a good one. At least I think it is a good. What’s the lesson you ask? What have I learned? I’ve learned not to whine in the desert. But that isn’t all there is.

Don’t just endure – EMBRACE! – the desert

I’ve also learned not to simply endure the desert. Sometimes when we don’t want to whine, we hunker down and simply endure what is happening. Simply enduring is a good, but not the best, attitude I should have. So what kind of attitude should I have now?

How about enjoying the desert experience? I mean, hey, I’m in the desert. It is hot, uncomfortable, and unpleasant. It is difficult to walk in sand. Why should I find joy in this?

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials,  knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4 NASB

It seems so simple. The purpose of the desert is to perfect me. Why has this simple truth eluded me until now? It is because I’m a selfish person. I want my way when I want it and how I want it to happen. God has been burning that out of me all these years. Now it isn’t all gone and I’m not sure if it will ever be all gone in this life. But I’m less selfish now than I used to be. But I’m more selfish than I should be. But let’s return to finding joy in the middle of the desert.

The desert where I have existed really revolves around where I live and how I minister. I used to think that I needed to live in a “Red State” to be really happy. (a red state is considered more conservative politically) I live in a very “Blue State” (quite liberal politically and socially) But I’ve learned that living in a “Blue State” can be quite fulfilling. There are innumerable opportunities to share Christ and His gospel rather than the gospel of political conservatism. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m still a very conservative person politically, socially, economically, and theologically. But only one of those subjects is really important to me. Only one affects me for eternity. The rest are just temporary.

I also used to think that being a Pastor was the best thing for me. In fact, I felt it was the ONLY thing for me. Boy, was I wrong! Now I still think I fit as a Pastor. I still believe my gifts and abilities fit well with being a Pastor. But I don’t need the title. I’ve learned that the title is nice but not absolutely necessary for me to exercise my gifts. I’ve seen the destructive power of lusting and demanding a title in men I’ve known for years. It isn’t pretty. And I don’t want to be like that.

So finding joy in the desert—in the trials of life—is possible if I focus on the purpose of my trip through the desert of life. There are snakes, scorpions, and other creepy-crawlers in the desert. It is hot, difficult to get traction sometimes, lonely, and desolate. And an absolute joy to visit so that I may be more like my Savior.

Learning to enjoy the desert experience is difficult but oh so rewarding. It takes time to learn tis truth but once learned it is never forgotten.

I look forward to the desert now. I look forward to the difficulties. I look forward to the heat. Yeah, I enjoy the desert now. Not for the experience, but for the result. Instead of whining and complaining about the desert experiences of life, I’ve learned to dance in the desert.

I enjoy the desert now. Not for the experience, but for the result.

Guard Duty

Stand your ground, fear no man, and guard the truth with enthusiasm, vigor, and humility.

While I was stationed in California during my time in the Marine Corps, I once had to perform guard duty on the flight line. Now the flight line is where the aircraft for the squadrons would park in the evening. I was on guard duty because I was substituting for a friend. When I took my post, I was instructed to enforce all general orders as well as some special orders for the area I was guarding. I was told I was in a “deadly use of force” area. That meant that if I felt the situation warranted it, I could kill someone. Hmmm, not really what I want to do but I understand that it may be required.

Not long into my time on duty I noticed a person waking towards me. He was an older guy in jeans, white Nike shoes, and a plaid (!) shirt. As he approached my area, I yelled “Halt! Who goes there?”

He answered “General Important”. (his name is changed here but he did claim to be a General)

I replied “Step forward to be recognized.” He took a few steps forward. I then said “Halt! Where is your ID card?”

He answered “In my right breast pocket.”

I commanded “With your left hand, slowly reach into your left breast pocket and remove your ID card. When you remove your card, you will show it to me.” He did as I had told him. After he showed me his ID card, I said “Slowly place your ID card on the deck in front of you, picture side up. After you do this, you shall take ten steps to the rear while facing me.” The man did exactly as I told him. When he had finished taking his ten steps to the rear I said “Remain there. Do not move one inch.” I walked to where he had paced his ID card. I bent down to pick up and inspect his ID card. As I began to pick up his card he began to walk toward me. I stood up and barked “Halt!” I think the fact that I was pointing a loaded shotgun at him helped stress the importance of obeying me. He stopped. I continued “Place yourself on the deck, face down.” He complied. I came up to him and said “Sir, I have chambered two slugs. I am pointing this weapon at your head. If you try to get up, deadly force has been authorized and I will exercise it. Please don’t move.”

“OK. I won’t” he replied.

I notified the head of the guard detail that I had a problem at my post and waited. The head of the guard, a Lieutenant, arrived and assessed the situation. I told him where the ID card was located. The Lieutenant retrieved the card. He ordered me to allow the General to stand. I obeyed the order, stood at attention and rendered a salute. When the General stood up, he looked to me. “Good evening, sir” I said. The Lieutenant started apologizing to the General. The General looked at the Lieutenant, looked at me and acknowledged my salute.

He turned to the Lieutenant, who was still apologizing and hyperventilating, and said “Lieutenant, this Marine did his job. He performed the duty that was demanded of him. Stop apologizing.” The General turned to me and said “Good evening, Marine.”  He turned and walked away.

So why the long story? What does this have to do with anything spiritual? Actually a lot. Let me explain.

 

“O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowedge’ – which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith” 

In 1st Timothy 6 Paul gives Timothy some orders that sum up what he has tried to address in his letter. The first thing he says to Timothy is in v. 21a “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you”(NASB)  Paul is telling Timothy to take charge of all Paul had taught him and committed to him. This would include this epistle, the gospel and his ministry in general (see 4:12-14; 6:2; 2 Tim 2:2). In other words Paul puts Timothy on guard duty. Timothy’s responsibilities would also include opposing the false teachers that had infiltrated the church while keeping his own life pure. In the verses that follow here, Paul tells Timothy to specifically avoid the controversies and false teaching that Paul had  taught Timothy about,  as well as the other characteristics of the the world system. These controversies have no value, says Paul, as well as those who espouse them.

Basically Paul told Timothy to guard the gospel and his ministry from those who would try to pervert it.  Those same words have meaning for us today.

False teachers existed not only in the first century when Timothy was living, but also in every time since then…and yes, even today there are false teachers. These false teachers may teach various other things but one thing they all seem to have in common is that they teach a perverted grace. They make grace something we earn, work for, or deserve. None of those things are true. I wonder sometimes if the false teachers are more plentiful than genuine Christians. They are all over the place, are generally charismatic, and are ruthless in their approach.

We hear sometimes that we need to “show grace” or “give a grace card” to those who are false teachers, or legalists. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

We need to be willing not only to guard what has been entrusted to us – the gospel, Scripture, the true meaning of God’s grace – but also oppose those who teach these false teachings. Now that isn’t easy. Not at all. I’ve been through the battles with legalists and those who pervert God’s grace into some type of human effort. The struggle eventually led to a split in the church I pastored which in turn led to the death of that church. But if I take God’s word seriously, I had no other choice. I had to stand my ground, challenge the false teacher and his teaching, regardless the cost to me personally. And you know what, you need to do this too.

When you hear something that changes who God is or changes the essentials of the Christian faith, you need to oppose them. You need to fight them. You need to draw you weapon and command them to stop. Just like I did all those years ago in California when I made a General lay face down in a tarmac, I must be ready, willing and able to do the same when a false teacher approaches those I have been entrusted with. The cost may be very high. But the cost of failing to “guard what has beed entrusted” to me is much higher. And so it is the same with you.

Take time to get prepared to defend truth. Know what the Bible teaches about the essentials of our faith. Learn how to effectively wield the “sword of the Spirit” which is the Word of God. And then get posted on guard duty.  Do what you’ve been commanded to do by Paul here in 1 Timothy 6.

 Stand your ground, fear no man, and guard the truth with enthusiasm, vigor, and humiity.