August 14th, 2019

Some Assembly Required

1 John 1:1-4 “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.”

Observation:  John’s writing overflows with love for the Lord and concern for our spiritual well-being. In these first four verses, words tumble over one another in lavish yearning to draw us into relationship with Christ Jesus and through Christ, into fellowship with both the Father and with fellow believers.

Application: The entire book of First John may be profitably read on any day, but perhaps no day is more appropriate than on Christmas morn. As Christians the world over celebrate the birth of Christ, John reminds us that the life of Christ, representing the Father, became manifest in our midst. John’s ecstatic celebration of this reality invites us to enter into His eternal life not only for our own benefit but because as John says, “so that our joy may be complete.” What a lovely thought: that the only thing that could possibly be lacking in John’s life, or in the lives of other believers, would be for you and me to participate fully ourselves in the life of Christ.

Any of us as believers can surely understand John’s heart cry. Having found something as unspeakably good as eternal life in Christ, what could possibly be incomplete about our lives except that some we love are not joined with us in that life? Still on the outside, still in ignorance and darkness, their condition fills us with yearning that they would one day join us.

I smile inwardly this morning at the universal Christmas phrase, “some assembly required.” Indeed, isn’t that what John is talking about? Christ has seen the finished product. He well understands that each of us starts out as a gift filled with potential. As Christ begins to open us, He first discards the cardboard and packing materials and then lovingly begins to assemble all the parts, always mindful of the intended finished result. Sometimes we resist His assembly; we each have come with pieces broken in transit. Yet He persists. His vision is that we would all be made perfect, that His joy might be made complete.

Prayer:  Lord Jesus, I am so very thankful that You have come to set the pattern, and that Your commitment is to never give up on me till I have a seat at the wedding banquet. Thank You, thank You.

August 13th, 2019

The Carpool Awaits

John 18:1 “When he had finished praying, Jesus left with His disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley” (NIV).

Observation: This verse follows Jesus’s priestly prayer of John 17, the longest prayer of the New Testament. Jesus had prayed first for Himself, then for the disciples, and finally for all believers including those who would yet come to faith in the future (John 17:20). Upon concluding, He and His party left the upper room to go to an olive grove where His arrest was scheduled.

Application: My attention is riveted by the phrase, “When He had finished praying, Jesus left.” Does it seem odd that He would pray before beginning the most impactful walk in human history? Of course not! Jesus’s long prayer was a benediction over His purposes on the earth. He understood Judas’s betrayal and He foresaw both the physical and spiritual battles looming. Yes, He would pray.

But what about me? How faithful am I to tend to prayer before beginning my tasks? My tendency has too often been to let the press of events cause me to set prayer aside rather than to linger in His sweet presence until released to go about my day.

Breakfast meetings must be prepared for and the morning paper read. Children have to be readied for school, and I need just ten minutes on the Internet. In truth, I am so tired from watching the late show that I need to sleep just a little longer. Jesus will understand. He knows I love Him, and He surely agrees I need to be rested; after all, that’s just wise temple care.

The simple reality is, He prayed first, and kept at it until finished. Only then did He grab His briefcase to head for that meeting with Rome’s soldiers.

Am I so enamored by what’s on my plate today that I tackled it without first meeting Him? Is my agenda so much fuller than His that I am excused? Or, might I consider my tasks so mundane that it’s OK for their fulfillment to be on autopilot? If either of these is true, then I have missed the point of prayer. It is for something deeper than for my tasks to go well. Rather, it is to assure that I am fully His this day. Meeting Him is above all else for the purpose of my transformation, that I might become a “carrier” of the King wherever I go.

But hey, the carpool is waiting. I have barely enough time to grab toast and gulp some coffee. Maybe tomorrow…

Prayer: Lord, it crushes my heart to realize how much of You I could be filled with each day if You were really the main thing in my life. How much of You I have missed! I repent, Lord, and turn afresh to you now.

August 12th, 2019

Breathless

John 17:1 “After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed, ‘Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you’” (NIV).

Observation: Jesus and His disciples had gathered for Passover where a long, far-ranging discussion had ensued. To each of their questions Jesus gave a full response, causing them in John 16:29-30 to remark that He was “speaking clearly and without figures of speech.…This makes us believe that you came from God.” In response, Jesus exalted, “You believe at last!…But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered (vv. 31-32, NIV).” Then, He looked toward heaven and prayed, “Father, the time has come.”

Application: Notice the focus on timing. Jesus said to the disciples, “A time is coming and has come.” He then prayed to the Father, “The time has come.” One gets the distinct feeling that a passageway has been entered through which there will be no return.

When God says, “the time has come,” every creature on earth ought to hold its breath like the stilling of birds as heavy storm clouds gather. Hearts skip a beat as we instinctively crouch in awed anticipation of what might happen next. When the God who lives outside time decrees “the time has come,” it’s a really big deal; every demon and angel, man and woman ought to fall silent waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The disciples indeed fell silent. They said not another word until Jesus finished a long prayer (John 17), then they left for His appointment with Judas and some Roman soldiers. Only the disciples heard His assertion about the time having come. The rest of the world continued as before, oblivious to history’s being demarcated at that very moment.

Now, two thousand years later, another time is soon to come, the time Jesus’s heart has longed for when God would decree that the time is now for Him to return for His bride. His heart longs for the moment when He can burst from heaven in an instant to fix forever the course of human history.

He calls me to be constantly ready for that eye-twinkling transformation when He will appear as Bridegroom, King, and Judge. In the upper room He told a mere handful that the time had come, but when the Father next determines that a new time has come, I will neither hear the pronouncement nor have a chance then to get the affairs of my heart in order. He will simply, astonishingly, appear, ready to claim His own.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, bring me today into full alignment with Your purposes for my life. Cause me to live each moment as though the time of Your return might be now.

August 11th, 2019

Was Nard Tax-Deductible?

John 12:3 “Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (NIV).

Observation: It was nearly Passover, the annual celebration when all Israel focused on God’s deliverance from death through an innocent’s sacrifice. On His way to Jerusalem, Jesus arrived in Bethany, where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus hosted a dinner in His honor. While guests reclined around the table in usual Middle Eastern custom, Mary lavished her unique gifts upon Jesus.

Application: Despite its familiarity, this brief story still holds the power to stop me in my tracks. I remember Judas’s hypocritical objection to Mary’s act. His feigned concern for the poor was brushed aside by Jesus Himself: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8, NIV).

But look closely at Mary’s two gifts. First and most obvious was the nard itself. Nard was expensive. Visiting the nard display at the Bethany Mall wasn’t like buying a twelve-pack of knock-off Wal-Mart cola or a gallon of cheap wine at Steinmetz’s Liquors. Nard was a Nordstrom’s kind of thing. And Mary didn’t have just a small, elegant, ribbon-wrapped vial of the stuff; she had about a pint. It could well have represented her life savings, yet she withheld none of it. She didn’t simply moisten her fingers and dab them on Jesus’s feet; she lavished it all on Him.

As astonishing as that was, nard wasn’t Mary’s only gift. This lover of God then lowered herself to wipe His feet with her hair. Think of it! Kneeling low, head nearly to the floor, she gave herself in utter commitment to serving the one she adored. In this act of profound humility, Mary set the example. Given their postures, I imagine she was not able to see His expression of love for her. The singular reward of His affectionate gaze was not what compelled her; rather, her heart so burned with love for Him she must have feared she would burst if she didn’t surrender everything, including her dignity.

When was the last time I gave without calculation? When did I last write a check with no thought of the tax implications? Have I been so compelled to give that it impacted my retirement accumulation? Mary answered the question “How much is enough?” by turning it on its head. In withholding nothing, she gained everything. I wonder: how full will my reward be when I enter His presence?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, Mary’s example is deeply moving, and deeply convicting. Interrupt me, Lord. Interrupt my lifestyle and my efforts to accumulate. Give me the heart of Mary of Bethany, that the room would be filled with the fragrance of my love.

August 10th, 2019

Lucy’s Conveyor

James 1:4, 12 “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything…Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him” (NIV).

Observation: This passage opens with James’s familiar paean to suffering and trials: that we should welcome them as “pure joy” (James 1:2) because we know that “the testing of [our] faith produces perseverance” (v. 3). It is by persevering in the face of trials that we win the coveted crown of life.

Application: “Consider it pure joy!” Have any among us not at times dreaded arriving at this verse? The life circumstances it suggests are never in themselves joyous, but circumstances are not directly addressed. Rather, what’s addressed is “it.” Consider “it” pure joy, referring to the knowledge of what God wants to accomplish in our hearts as we persevere through hard times.

My problem with the phrase “consider it pure joy” is that it has too often seemed a quick cudgel, a too-cute-by-half retort when I have shared burdens with a Christian friend. Unless properly understood, it is too flip to be encouraging and too casual to be helpful to a heart under crushing pressure.

The reality is that the tough work of perseverance must finish its course if I am to receive God’s promised crown at the end of the day. This suggests not simply one big test at the end, such as passing one’s medical boards to receive a long-sought license. Rather, testings come daily, weekly, and at semester’s end. Ever-accumulating success must be remarshalled until failure is out of the question.

In that context, I begin to understand how fervently God is for me. His commitment is reflected in the seemingly unending exposure to trials He brings, akin to the I Love Lucy conveyor belt laden with chocolates rushing past Lucy and Ethel at increasing speed. The difference between Lucy and me is that the conveyor got the better of her; with pockets and cheeks stuffed with chocolates, she was overcome. But in God’s plan, even though tests continue, I can be confident that yesterday’s perseverance has equipped me to pass tomorrow’s trial.

Testings indeed keep showing up like Lucy’s conveyor carrying chocolates, but His purpose in them is that I learn to persevere, ultimately to lack nothing, including His crown of life.

Prayer: Father, from my human perspective I would love to go straight to the final exam, testing out of intermediate lessons. Thank You that Your vision prevails, that I would be made mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

August 9th, 2019

Availability Trumps Training

Amos 1:1 “The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—what he saw concerning Israel” (NIV).

Observation: Amos is a book of prophetic doom and judgment to be brought against both Israel and Judah. Both nations were experiencing a season of prosperity. In their pursuit of comfort, they had become increasingly secularized. They forgot God’s provision, and memory of His past disciplines dimmed. It is onto this stage that Amos stepped, identified as a shepherd from Tekoa, near Bethlehem.

Application: The essence of Amos’s message is found in Amos 3:1-2, “Hear this word the Lord has spoken against you…against the whole family I brought up out of Egypt: ‘You only have I chosen of all the families on the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.’” The rest of the book is largely given to a description of the methods God would use to discipline those He loves.

See how God uses an obscure shepherd from an out-of-the-way town to thunder warning to His people? The fact that Amos was merely an insignificant shepherd and orchard tender is emphasized again in chapter 7 when Amaziah, a royal priest, denigrates Amos’s message based upon his day job: “Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people”’” (vv. 14-15, NIV).

In this ancient story of Amos’s call is a lesson of enormous import for me today: availability trumps training. A man or woman attuned to hearing God must above all else be interruptible. We know nothing of Amos’s early life except that he did not spring from the ruling or religious elite of the day. But his response to God’s call suggests he had not only learned to hear God’s voice but was willing to have his career cut short by submitting to divine calling.

The profound conviction in all this is not that one calling is more important than another. Whatever my vocation, whether shepherd, homemaker, or high-powered mogul, I must at all times be interruptible. If I am truly His, then my marching orders must come from Him alone. No human argument to the contrary may be allowed to override the Lord’s nudging to drop everything and go in a different direction if He so orders.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, it is staggering to realize that You change the course of nations through the most ordinary of individuals, people who simply have a heart to hear and obey. Attune me to respond as Amos responded, to lay aside the comfortable and familiar in obedience to Your leading.

August 8th, 2019

Flash Frozen

2 Peter 3:3 “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires” (NIV).

Observation: Peter said in verse 1 that his purpose in writing was to stimulate the reader to wholesome thinking. He wanted to stir remembrance of Israel’s prophets and the commandments given by Christ through the apostles. Then he gave warning to expect scoffers in our midst, whom he defined as people who follow their own evil desires.

Application: How easy it is to see Peter’s warning played out all around us. Perversions of the prophet’s teachings and Christ’s commandments abound. Political and social movements present a rising tide of sin as people devoted to their own evil desires scoff at fundamental precepts.

Wouldn’t it be nice to believe that the problems of our faith and the resulting cultural devastation can be laid wholly at someone else’s feet? Surely our decline is the fault of all those scoffers “out there.” Gay marriage, rampant butchery of the weakest among us, hedonistic pursuit of every available toy—the advocates of such worldly pleasures are surely the scoffers of whom Peter warned. But much as I might wish otherwise, he nowhere lets me personally off the hook.

The awful truth is that I, too, have the capacity to be drawn toward destruction as a moth to flame. I am not immune to the desires of a deceitful heart, temptations that lead to financial debt, or lusts which can lead the heart away from the pure desire to love God above all.

In the midst of such discouraging confession, Peter reminded me of God’s gracious rescue when he wrote in verse 9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise….He is patient with [me], not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” And again, in verse 15, “Our Lord’s patience means salvation.”

In His graciousness, God is willing to flash-freeze my walk with Him as though I were a cod filet, affording me opportunity to work through temptations and enticements until I have fallen again at the foot of the Cross. Only then can I progress with Him. In that frozen condition I am locked down and stuck as I grope in darkness for His will. But on the other side, having finally silenced my own scoffing, I thaw to live again in His full embrace. More such seasons of testing are promised (see James 1:2, 12), but He always gives a way of escape (see 1 Cor. 10:13).

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I confess I grow impatient for Your return, yet I am reminded today that what seems like slowness on Your part is, instead, Your gracious patience. I am overwhelmed by Your goodness.

August 7th, 2019

Retirement’s Gold Watch

1 Peter 3:3-4 “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment.… Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (NIV).

Observation: These verses are excerpted from a longer passage in which Peter exhorted women to be submissive to their husbands, letting the purity and reverence of their behavior win over the heart of their husband. Then follows a passage where husbands are urged to be considerate of wives, treating them as coheirs of Christ’s gracious gift of life.

Application: What would happen if we were to read these verses with our knowledge of gender set aside? Our sexuality, that most common basis for relationships on earth, takes a sharp turn into unfamiliar asexual territory when applied to the body of Christ. Men, for example, are called to be part of the bride of Christ, while women are to be counted among the sons of God. Yet the role of a bride can be discomfiting for a macho man until he has been spirit-filled. 

In the same way, the very idea that a woman ought to see herself as a son of God is difficult to embrace, until she remembers that Scripture clearly says we are all “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26). Matthew 5:9 calls peacemakers sons of God, and Romans 8:19 similarly characterizes all who are led by the Holy Spirit.

The natural man or woman is a sexual being, but God’s view transcends all that. We must see ourselves as He sees us: men gladly adorned with the beauty of the king, and women robust enough in their submission to Christ to be peacemakers. It is not the beauty of outward trinkets that He finds appealing. His heart is not captivated by achievements that can be caught on a proud parent’s video or commemorated by an expensive gold retirement watch.

It is by His merit alone that I become desirable to Him. Colossians 3:9-10 says we must take off the old self and put on the new. Ephesians 4:24 calls us to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. That’s what makes women into sons of God and men into Christ’s bride. It isn’t about sexuality or gender, but relationship.

This exchange is a daily struggle in part because it requires a new way of thinking about myself, and about my relationship to Him. In becoming His bride, He gives me His beauty for the ashes of my life (see Isa. 61:3).

Prayer: Lord Jesus, Your relentless pursuit of a bride has drawn me to You and enables me to gaze without embarrassment into the eyes of one who will never leave or forsake me. Give me eyes to see myself as You see me; take me to Your side and keep me there forever.

August 6th, 2019

Getting the Boot

James 4:5 “Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?” (NIV).

Observation: In verse 4 James referred to an “adulterous” people, a people whose hearts and minds have become wedded to the world’s rewards rather than to God alone. Instead of describing lesser pursuits as coveting, he used the stronger language of a broken marriage covenant (adulterous) to describe what had happened in the heart of a man or woman seeking satisfaction in the world. As if to emphasize the profound adultery of such impoverished pursuits James reminds us that the spirit he (God) causes to live within us envies intensely.

Application: The thrust of this chapter is to expose lust after things of this world as being wrongheaded. It is the source of unending conflict among men (see vv. 1-2) and of God’s opposition to us as well (see v. 4).

The idea that the spirit within us (if we have received the Holy Spirit) “envies intensely” reaffirms a core message from both testaments: the marriage relationship is unsurpassed as a metaphor of God’s longing for intimacy with us. From the Genesis 2:18 revelation, “It is not good for the man to be alone” through the labeling of Christ’s followers as His bride (see Rev. 22:17), the story has pointed unwaveringly toward consummation of a wedding.

Becoming His bride has been the whole point of His-story. Eternal, perfect union with a passionate Bridegroom God is my destiny, and He has pursued it every day of my life, even when I have not. In the face of all my diversions and dalliances, He has been resolute and undaunted. It is no wonder that He describes the spirit He has caused to live within me as envying intensely; He is above all else my lover.

I cannot imagine slipping from my bride’s marriage bed to go serve another love, no matter how briefly, and expect to be sweetly received upon my return, no questions asked. Rather than receptive arms, I would get the boot, and deservedly so. But isn’t abandonment of the marriage bed what I do to Christ each time I pursue lesser pleasures? I covet things and put undue energies into other goals, becoming adulterous in the process.

Thankfully, the Spirit within me envies intensely. I will find perfect peace in no embrace but His, no full acceptance in any other’s gaze.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, Your repeated grace continually draws me back to You.  Forgive my half-heartedness. Cause me to fix my eyes upon You alone, the author and finisher of my faith.

August 5th, 2019

Circling the Wagons

Hebrews 12:1 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (NIV).

Observation: Paul used the previous chapter to remind us of our heritage in the faith, recounting the pantheon of such giants as Noah, Abraham, and Moses. The testimony of their faith, Paul said, surrounds us with an encouraging cloud of witnesses. The example of their lives presents a model for our own response to hindrances and entanglements in our personal lives.

Application: Perhaps the best thing about having human examples to admire is that they are, indeed, human. We can walk around the pedestals upon which Paul mounted these specimens of great faith, reading God’s testimony of their accomplishments for the kingdom.

When I seriously consider their examples, awe strikes my heart akin to what I feel as I gaze from all angles at statues of Jefferson or Lincoln in Washington, DC.  There, memorialized in bronze, are words that generations later continue to stir consideration of their greatness and beckon me to join them in living for profound impact.

Yet in the back of my mind I remember that those bronze replicas under marble rotundas represent men who had feet of clay. Wasn’t Jefferson a slaveholder? Didn’t Lincoln famously struggle with a dark side? And what of Paul’s list of heroes? Didn’t Abraham lie about Sarah being his wife? Wasn’t Moses a murderer and Noah a drunkard?

All too often when I think of being surrounded, the image is less that of a protective cloud than of a beleaguered wagon train circled for protection. In those moments, I should remember that Washington monuments are no more designed to present a complete picture of the individual than is Paul’s list of great men and women of the faith. But the legacy Paul recounted is both stellar and lasting precisely because in their humanness they gave themselves to God as wholly as they knew how. Their feet of clay became material yielded to His craftsmanship. Their fallenness and brokenness became grist from which God molded instruments of profound usefulness.

This then is my calling: to so yield to the One who made me and loves me that He might remake my life into a component of someone else’s cloud of witnesses.

Prayer: Father, Your ability to redeem and transform a life fully yielded to You is simply astounding. I give You my life afresh today, that I might reflect Your workmanship to others.