Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Through the Valley of the Shadow

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me... (Psalm 23:4a)

The reality is, the world we live in offers much to fear, and precious little comfort to go with it. The average person is left with only a few choices for how to live in this world, then. We can ignore it -- that is, pretend the trouble isn't as great as it is. We can choose (because it IS a choice) to live in fear. We can become fatalists, believing that whatever's going to happen will happen, and there's nothing we can do about it anyway. Or, we can believe that whatever does happen, we serve a God who can make it to work together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

Following the Shepherd isn't about ignoring the trouble around you; it is about acknowledging that He is greater than whatever the world can throw at us. Evil will do what evil does. Evil men will behave in an evil manner. 

When David talks about the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we recognize that, on some level, we tread that same valley each and every day. Death always hangs overhead, to some extent or another. Even when we're not thinking about it. From accidents to ailments to the acts of men, the number of things which could rob us of our lives while we're not paying attention can, if we let it, be truly daunting. We needn't pretend those things don't exist -- but we needn't fear them either. 

You have two things the rest of this big, bad world does not have, and they are all the advantage you'll ever need. You have the knowledge that death is not the end for us, but merely a step back toward Home. And you have a loving Shepherd who, even in the valley of the shadow of death, stands with you, walks ahead of you, and leads you where He knows is best.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

When It's All Said And Done

William Wilberforce was a man who showed us what faith looks like when we allow it to permeate our superficial lives and saturate our whole selves. After finding God in 1785, Wilberforce began a journey that would last the rest of his life. He became concerned about other men -- and more to the point, about what men were doing to one another. Two years after becoming a Christian, Wilberforce met a group of anti-slavery abolitionists and found his calling. For 26 years, William fought in the British Parliament to end the atrocity of slavery until the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807. He would continue to fight until failing health forced him to leave Parliament. Through his efforts and those of others, the Slavery Abolition Act was finally passed 26 years after the Slave Trade Act, in 1833.

On July 29, 1833 -- just three days after hearing the passage of the Abolition Act was assured, William Wilberforce died. He died never witnessing the freedom he fought for; never having seen the fruit of his life's work. For nearly fifty-two years, William fought against prevailing social wisdom, against popular opinion, against all odds, winning hearts as he went, because God had called him to do so. A month after he died, the act was passed, and slavery was abolished in England.

I don't know what was on William's mind as he passed from this life to enter God's Kingdom, but I like to think it was these words from Paul:

 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

This is the passage I want on my tombstone; my personal inspiration. It's also the question I ask myself every day. Am I fighting the good fight? Am I keeping the faith? Am I worthy of a crown of Righteousness, laid up in Heaven? And I pray every day that, whether I'll ever see while alive the fruits of my labor, when it's my time, I'll meet Jesus smiling and know He was proud of me.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Drive-Thru Jesus

"Yeah, I'll have a better job, please. Happy family on the side. An order of good health. Better make that five orders. Do you have any World Peace?"

"There's gonna be a wait on the World Peace."

"Hmm. Nevermind. Just the other stuff then. Thanks."

How's your prayer life? What is prayer? What's it for? Is it just a time when we ask God for the things we want or need, the Almighty sitting patiently at the window, pen and order pad in hand? Or is there more to it? I'll be honest: sometimes, my own prayer life can feel more like I'm sitting at a drive-thru, just telling God what I need, with an "Oh, thanks," thrown in for good measure.

Maybe, if we're feeling super-pious, we'll throw the word "Lord" into our wish list a few hundred times, just to make sure He knows we're talking to Him.

Is this you, too?

Don't be embarrassed. This is part of our very real humanness. This is part of what we slowly overcome as we turn our lives over, bit by bit, to the Lordship of Christ. As we get to know Him better, as we get to know ourselves better, we learn how to trust Him. We learn that trusting ourselves, going after our wants and perceived needs, is what got mankind into this whole mess in the first place.

We learn that His will -- and not our own -- is what we truly need in our lives. If you want to enrich your prayer life, take that earlier scenario -- that whole drive-thru thing -- and reverse the roles. Put yourself in the position of listener, and God in the role of the one with the orders.

Maybe that's why Jesus, in teaching us how to pray, has us begin by recognizing God's true place:

In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name. (Matthew 6:9)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Blotted Out

 Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began. (Acts 3:19-21)

I love the phrase, "blotted out." It shows the power of forgiveness in Christ. It says that when God forgives, it's not a simple matter of simply deciding not to punish you for your past; but a promise that those sins are no longer a part of who you are, as far as He's concerned.

When I was a kid, I had this terrifying idea of Heaven and judgement. I had this picture in my head of God sitting on His throne, me standing there, small and scared, watching the movie of my life as He picked apart my every action. Mortifying! Then, when it was all over, all said and done, He would weigh all that sin against the grace and mercy of His son, and I'd escape Hell.

But "blotted out" tells us that's not what's going to happen. "Blotted out" says when I get to Heaven, what He's going to see is Christ in me, and then stack up how I've lived for Him. All that sin, all that filth, gone, as though it never happened.

See, God sees what we do. He knows when we sin, and that sin just piles up, slowly adding to the destruction of our immortal souls. That's life before repentance, and without Christ, that is the criteria on which we will be judged. But in Christ, we have the power to turn from that sin, and in the turning, leave it behind. And as Psalm 103 tells us, that transgression against His holiness is removed from us "as far as the East is from the West." It's no longer a part of us. It no longer holds us back, and is no longer even recognized by God.

How refreshing.
 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Grace Found In Murder

“Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled." (Acts 3:17-18)

As Peter continued his message to the men of Israel, this is when he really started getting to the meat of the message. Up to this point was illustration: the healing, the reminder of the crucifixion, the mini-lesson in God's power. These were a preamble to the Gospel message Peter was about to share. This next part of the message, Peter began by echoing the words of Jesus. He'd already reminded these men about the man they killed, and now he was reminding them of what He said from the cross: "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing." 

But what were they doing? It turns out, much like Joseph's brothers, their actions were being used to fulfill God's will, more or less in spite of their intentions. 

What grace! 

In spite of wicked and jealous hearts, God provided a way for even these men to be saved -- and He did it using the very wickedness He'd come to heal! 

The fact is, we've all stepped outside of God's will. Romans 3:23 reminds us, all -- everyone -- has sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Many of us have made such a mess of things, we don't know whether we can ever be right with God. We wonder how a just and righteous God could ever forgive the things we've done, the lives we've lived. 

Yet, even in our sins, we discover a path back to Him, if we choose to find it. Peter echoed the words of Christ in offering salvation, even to the men who clamored for Jesus' execution. Surely, God has grace enough for you, too.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

When A Dead Man Says 'Walk'

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. And His name, through faith in His name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know. Yes, the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all. (Acts 3:13-16)

I think Peter took a certain joy in reminding the pious men of Israel about Jesus' crucifixion. Remember: some of these men know good and well they can't explain the resurrection; that's why they had to bribe the guards at Jesus' tomb. So, Peter reminded them, they denied Jesus' claims about Himself were true, and killed him to prove the point. He made a rather strong counter-argument by refusing to stay buried. 

I can see why Peter enjoyed needling them about it a little. In this one paragraph, Peter stripped these men of their authority to criticize (i.e., "hey wait, didn't you only recently let a murderer go free so you could kill a just and innocent man?") and established the power and authority of Christ to accomplish His will.

Peter wanted these men to understand that they, Peter and John, were acting under the authority of Christ, who was given authority of the Holy and Just, as the Prince of life, by the God who raised Him from the dead. 

Put another way, this man Jesus was killed, but then by the power of God was raised back from the dead. That kind of power is unmistakable. That kind of power is so great that the mere name of the One who holds it is enough, through faith, to heal the hopeless.

But what kind of faith? That's the question. If His name is enough, through faith, to heal, how strong must one's faith be? Does anyone actually have that kind of faith? Verse 16 has the answer: the faith we need comes through Him in whom we have faith. If Christ has enough power in His name to heal, He certainly has authority, too, to provide the faith we need to make it possible.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Don't Look At Me!

Now as the lame man who was healed held on to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the porch which is called Solomon’s, greatly amazed. So when Peter saw it, he responded to the people: “Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this? Or why look so intently at us, as though by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? (Acts 3:11-12)


A man, lame from birth, suddenly leaps up and joyously declares he has been healed. The peoples' reaction to this healing isn't that surprising. But Peter's response is interesting. He asks the men of Israel two questions: First, why are they so surprised to witness the acts of God? And secondly, why are they so willing to put mere men on some sort of pedestal?

"Why look so intently at us," asks Peter, "as though by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?" This is a theme that began in chapter 2 and will be repeated throughout the book of Acts, and indeed over and over in the letters of Paul: don't look at the mere mortals God chooses to use as instruments of His will; look instead to the God who causes these things to happen. 


It's easy, when we see a ministry grow, or witness the movement of God, or hear a stirring Word, to attribute it to the holiness or piety of the people involved. It's easy to -- and very human -- to wish to be a part of something just as wonderful. To see ourselves used in such a mighty way. To wonder whether we aren't "together" enough in our faith for God to use us. It's natural to worry that we'll never be "good" enough for God to use in a powerful ministry.

The wonder of God's Grace and Mercy is such, however, that we needn't be perfectly holy to be used to glorify His kingdom. Read the accounts of Moses, of David, of Peter and Paul. These were not naturally holy men. These were not the men you or I would choose to fulfill God's will (or in the case of David, allow to continue to act on God's behalf). But then, we aren't God.

As Peter tried to explain to the men on Solomon's Porch, God isn't being glorified by the acts of mere men. This crippled beggar wasn't healed because Peter and John were good and righteous and holy. He was healed because God chose to heal him, using Peter and John as His instruments.

Men fail. Consistently. Failure, indeed, is possibly life's singular constant. But as Peter and John demonstrate, God doesn't wait for us to become perfect before working through us. He doesn't call the qualified -- if He had to do that, He'd never be able to call anyone. God calls the willing, and by working through us brings us closer to His holiness.