This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Nothing But Faith

         Feelings and Faith (Sonnet 23)
My feelings and emotions come and go
Like ocean waves, with no stability.
Distracting, blinding, leading to and fro,
Their end is doubt, despair, despondency.
But faith and truth will constantly abide,
Unchangeable and steady like a rock.
When made my focus, they’re a trusty guide,
Stability and hope on which to dock.
Emotion tells me truth’s not true at all,
But truth persists in spite of how I feel.
Repeatedly my feelings make me fall,
But truth-based faith provides an even keel.
Though feelings linger which my heart disdains,
My faith rests firm in truth that e’er remains.

I’m not much of a basketball fan, though I can follow a game if I want to. I don’t know all of the terminology, but I remember one phrase that, at least in my world, was popularized by a commercial several years ago. In a contest to win food from McDonalds, two NBA players kept making increasingly more difficult shots. The phrase I remember describing one of the shots is “nothin’ but net.”

The meaning is a bit different, but recently I’ve been considering the phrase “nothin’ but faith.” There are times when faith is the only thing that keeps us going. Circumstances may oppose us. Human reasoning may call us foolish. Friends may give contradictory advice. Our emotions may rebel against everything we know to be right. In fact, there may be nothing to support our continuing to follow God and His path for us – nothing, that is, except faith.

But isn’t that what faith is? It is the assurance and conviction that helps us maintain our course when reality consists only of “things hoped for” and “things not seen.” If we had to have evidence to support our faith before we were willing to believe or obey, then we would be operating on proof rather than on faith. Is it easy to live by faith when all other supports seem to abandon us? No, it is not easy, but it is possible because faith is enough to keep us firm even when all other aspects fall short.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 (NASB)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Born to Die

Although my church did not sing this hymn during the Christmas season, I saw it as I flipped through the pages of our hymnal. “Born to Die” by Ron Hamilton expresses so aptly the core truth about Christmas.

Here is the chorus:
“Born to die upon Calv’ry,
Jesus suffered my sin to forgive;
Born to die upon Calv’ry,
He was wounded that I might live.”

We must never forget the truth about our Savior and His death for us. The communion service is a God-appointed time to bring Christ’s suffering to our remembrance. The Christmas celebration may be developed more by man, but it is still a wonderful opportunity for us to be reminded of the greatest expression of God’s love – that of sacrificing His Son in order to redeem us.

Merry Christmas!

“Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” II Corinthians 9:15 (NASB)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Book Review: Martyr of the Catacombs

Martyr of the Catacombs
-author unknown

This fictional story about the early Christians is set in the historical context of the mid-200s A.D. It was a time of intense persecution in which many Christians survived by living in the vast and intricate catacombs underneath the city of Rome. During these years Christians were sacrificed by hundreds at a time in the brutal “games” of the Coliseum.

The main character is Marcellus, a Roman soldier. He has recently been called to Rome where he receives a promotion and a commission. He is to be in charge of the task of going into the catacombs and destroying the Christians. He admits that he knows little about them. He has witnessed their courage and peace as they die in the Coliseum, and he wonders why they are such a threat that they must be destroyed.

As he takes steps in carrying out his orders, he learns several things. He learns that there is some difficulty involved just in finding an entrance to the catacombs. Venturing out without his uniform, he convinces someone to lead him into the catacombs, where he discovers that without a guide, a stranger would become hopelessly lost and die. He also realizes that an armed invasion of the catacombs would be ineffective, as the Christians would scatter and escape through the countless tunnels they knew so well.

Most importantly, Marcellus learns about what the Christians believe. He assures his guide that his visit is in order to learn about them, and that it will not lead to any danger against them. As he continues talking with the Christians and asking questions, he sees the truth of the gospel and becomes a Christian himself.

His change of heart puts him in immediate conflict with his superiors, and he quickly becomes one of the most wanted people in Rome. His new-found faith is the basis of courage and conviction that cause Marcellus to choose loyalty to God over loyalty to the army. Marcellus and his fellow believers willingly face the potential consequences of their faithfulness to God.
This short book helps the reader to better grasp the reality and intensity of the persecuted early church. It presents portraits of courage and directs the reader to consider the ramifications of genuine faith. While not pointedly personal in terms of application, the book ought to challenge a Christian to examine how much he is willing to allow his faith to impact his life as well as how committed he is to his faith.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Waves and Winds

 “Be Still, My Soul” is a precious hymn written by Katharina von Schlegel. While every stanza is great, I want to focus for a moment on the second stanza.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

We can have complete confidence in God even in the darkest of days and in the fiercest of storms. Why? There are many reasons, but one of them has to do with the unchangeable nature of God. Because He is always the same, His power never diminishes. He is just as able to control and work in the difficulties of today as He has been for every challenge in the world’s history. While we may not understand what God is doing or even be consciously aware that He is doing anything, God is always at work, accomplishing exactly what He intends to accomplish.

When we are intimidated, confused, or doubting within our life circumstances, we have multiplied instances of truth to remind us of God’s power and control. This stanza alludes to Jesus’ calming of the storm that terrified His disciples. We can look back at that incident and be encouraged at God’s work in the past. All Jesus had to do was speak, and the storm quieted itself before Him. He had power over external circumstances then, and He still has that same power today. Nature, people, powers – all must bow before the will of God.

I am reminded of Psalm 77, in which Asaph records a very difficult time in his life. He was without strength, without comfort, without sleep, without speech, without peace, and seemingly without the love and compassion of God. In this time when troubles seemed to overwhelm him, Asaph determined to focus his mind on God’s great acts from the past.

“I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds” (v. 11-12 NASB).

Interestingly, when Asaph sought a stabilizing anchor to keep him from hopelessness, he did not look at events in his personal past. Instead he talked of things like the exodus and the parting of the Red Sea. There are few stories in the Bible that are more dramatic in their illustration of God’s power and deliverance. Asaph realized that God was still the same for him as He had been for Moses.

God is still the same for us as he was for Moses and for Asaph and for the disciples in that boat on the Sea of Galilee. The Bible is filled with accounts of God’s tremendous work in the world and especially on behalf of His people. With a God who can do all that our God has done, it should be possible for our souls to be still. When we focus on the God who controls the waves and the winds, we can say with Asaph,

“Your way, O God, is holy; what God is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; You have made known Your strength among the peoples” (v. 13-14).

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Read Only What Applies

One of the biggest books on my shelf is one my parents gave me several years ago: the Mayo Clinic Family Health Book, with an impressive 1,448 pages. I have read parts of the book, but it isn’t one that I will ever sit down and read in its entirety. I have no reason to read the sections on pregnancy or men’s diseases, and with the blessing of God, there are many other sections that I trust I will never have the need to look at. I have used the book on occasion to look up issues that pertained to me or someone I care about, but the total number of pages I’ve read is pretty limited. This book is designed as a resource; the reader looks to it for answers to specific questions that are pertinent to his immediate situation. As far as any individual is concerned, the rest of the book is basically wasted paper.

Too often we read the Bible the same way. When we get into a difficult situation, we want to have an index to consult so that we can turn to the right verse or passage that is pertinent to our immediate situation. We read that section in our time of need, but unfortunately consider many other sections of the Bible to be unnecessary or inapplicable to our lives. In reality, the Bible isn’t that kind of book. All parts of the Bible are useful and applicable to all Christians. When we use the Bible selectively as a resource, we limit our overall Christian walk, and ironically, we also limit our capacity to properly respond in any momentary challenge.

A broad understanding of the Bible as a whole and a deep understanding of its various parts enable a Christian to live life with the power and wisdom of God. We must then invest the time required to study and understand the Word of God – and not just our favorite few verses.

This type of understanding cannot be achieved overnight. It requires, in fact, a life-long dedication. Our initial efforts involve simply reading the Bible in its entirety. Deeper understanding comes as we strive to comprehend the content of a particular book, perhaps by writing summary statements for each chapter. After this, there is really no limit to the depth of our study. As we spend time in a particular book, we begin to master its themes and major topics. We see how the various parts interact to teach a central truth. We understand how each book fits into the rest of the Bible and how it practically affects our daily lives.

Coming to know and understand a book of the Bible in this deeper fashion is rewarding, enlightening, and very encouraging. My experience with the books I have been able to study thus far this convinces me that such study is immensely profitable. I desire to pursue a meaningful understanding of each book of the Bible. One book at a time, I trust that God will help me in this pursuit. While I don’t know how many books I will eventually study, I do know that each successive study will be a blessing, since every book of the Bible applies to my life.

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” II Timothy 3:16 (NASB)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Trust His Understanding

   Trust His Understanding (Sonnet 27)
I cannot trust myself; I am too weak,
But I must trust in God with all my heart.
Completely helpless, He’s the one I seek.
I lean on Him to show me ev’ry part.
My God knows things that I can’t understand;
His thoughts are so much higher than my own.
I cannot lean on help from my own hand,
But humbly seek wise counsel at His throne.
In ev’ry path I must see my great need
And look to Him to be my trusty Guide.
Acknowledging His wisdom, not impede;
Remove myself and let my God decide.
Then He will wisely lead me through each gate,
And He’ll direct each path and make it straight.

In the previous post, I presented this question with which God has been challenging me: “Do you trust Me?” I find this to be a great question for troubling times, because simply remembering the question is enough to make me realize that the answer is “Yes.” There is no doubt that God is worthy of trust. The Bible reveals His dependable and unfailing character over and over again.

If the Bible itself is not enough, (and it is), God has shown me in the past that He is worthy of my trust. He has done that throughout my life, but perhaps never as powerfully as in recent years. At the end of 2009, I went through a major life upheaval, which led to an extended time that was daunting and at times seemed impossible. Unexpectedly and with little notice, I lost my job as a Christian school teacher. I also lost my housing and had to move back in with my parents several states away. This resulted in some loss of independence, and I rationed out my limited savings to meet expenses. I was unemployed for a year (with just a few temp jobs) and underemployed for most of the next year. I ended up being out of ministry for twenty months, and the search for a new school ministry was a series of hopes and disappointments.

When I consider what was most daunting about those many months, I think the most significant can be represented by these two questions: How could I endure the challenges inherent in that extended time? and, How could I know what to do next? In both dilemmas, God proved Himself worthy of my trust, and I am blessed to have visible memorials of His provision in both.

Regarding knowing what to do next, I have a thirty-page typed record of the process God used to bring me to my next place of ministry. It is filled with hundreds of things God did to guide me, many of them precisely timed and intricately woven. As far as making it through the challenges of my situation, I have three bookmark-sized calendars as proof of the time that passed. Each day I colored in another square, switching to a different color each month, and those multi-colored cards are a testament to God’s grace and trustworthiness. Those situations were too big for me, but they weren’t too big for God.

I didn’t understand what God was doing, but God understood perfectly. I can have complete trust in His understanding. Any time I start to doubt, all I have to do is look at these memorials of God’s past work. When I see them, I think, “If God could do what He did then, I have no reason to doubt Him now.” That’s what I love about this question, “Do you trust Me?” Just remembering it is enough to stabilize me and to silence the doubt. It pulls me back to “Oh, yeah, I do, don’t I?” Remembering doesn’t remove the questions and challenges, but it does remind me that, in essence, they are inconsequential. Instead of focusing on them (when I’m not going to be understand them anyway), I need to focus on the God who is in control of all of them and has proven Himself to be bigger than them.

After another job loss in 2012, I’m almost at that twenty-month mark again of being out of formal ministry. I don’t know how much longer that will last. I don’t know when God will make His next move or how He will use me next. I do know that I can trust Him. He has a plan for my life, and He will bring it about in His way and in His time for His glory. The thing that I love about trusting God’s understanding is that when I am confused and clueless, it would be senseless to trust my own understanding – but I don’t have to. I have someone who completely understands, and I can trust His superior wisdom.
"Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight." Proverbs 3:5-6 (NASB)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Do You Trust Me?

Have you ever been afforded a glimpse into your future? I’m not talking about visions or extra-Biblical revelations, but God has ways of directing, and sometimes He does so years in advance. It can happen through a sermon, a ministry presentation, personal Bible reading, prayer time, an increasing heart burden, recurring thoughts, life changes, or an accumulation of circumstances. When someone is alert to God and attentive to His voice, he can experience indications of how God is working and intends to work in one’s life.

To make the concept practical, a young man may know that God wants Him to be a pastor; he may move through a number of ministries and locations, however, before God puts him into the pastorate. A young couple may have an increasing burden for missions, but it may take an overseas job assignment to get them started on the path. A Christian may have an underlying assurance that God wants him to work with a particular group of people, such as the deaf, but until he faces deafness in his own child, he is not prepared for that ministry. A pastor may be challenged with a specific area of focus, perhaps family ministry or addiction counseling, but God might gradually prepare him for that ministry over a process of years and through a combination of experiences.

When God has given indications, whether initial or confirmed, that He is leading in a certain direction, what does one do with the waiting time? How does he continue to muddle through the realities and challenges of day-to-day life until God brings His plan to fruition? What does he do with his calling when there is no visible way of seeing it happen?

As I consider this question in my own life, I realize there are a number of natural (but wrong) responses that I repeatedly exhibit. I also see God challenging me with one supernatural (and correct) response. I think these responses can be illustrated with the life of Moses. To be clear, I don’t see any indication prior to the burning bush that Moses or his parents knew God would use him to deliver the children of Israel. His life, however, includes various circumstances in which these responses can be examined.

The first wrong response is “It’s impossible.” This doubtful response denies God’s ability to ever work out His plan. It concedes that the idea is nice, but there is no way for it to happen. Think of the impossibility of Moses’ delivering God’s people. He was not supposed to survive the birth process. The midwives failed to kill him, however, and the additional commands from Pharaoh did not result in Moses’ death. Against all odds, Moses survived undetected for three months; then when entrusted to the Nile, he had the unlikely “fortune” of being discovered and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Was it impossible for Moses to become God’s leader? Yes, but God did it anyway.

The second wrong response is “Life doesn’t make sense.” This confused response strives for understanding that God has reserved for Himself. When the events of life seem to contradict the intended goal, this answer demands more information than God is giving. If Moses’ life were to make sense, we would see his position in the palace as his inroad for influence. (It worked for Esther and Nehemiah.) Instead we see an intervention by Moses that throws the entire situation into chaos and senselessness. While intervening for one of the Israelites, Moses killed an Egyptian and subsequently had to flee for his life. If he was to be the leader of the exodus, it makes no sense that he was removed entirely from the location where he needed to work as well as from his potential position of power. Was it confusing as to how these contradictions could ever be worked out? Yes, but God did it anyway.

The third wrong response is “There’s no progress.” This impatient response urges God to work more quickly than He has planned. The intense passion or heart desire is frustrated and tormented at not being able to achieve its goal sooner. If anyone faced years without progress, it was Moses. He spent forty years in the desert as a shepherd. There was no career-building in that desolate job. In his isolated environment, there was no means of establishing connections or even of keeping abreast of current conditions. Moses waited not for a month, a year, or five years, but for four long decades. Surely it seemed that his life would never accomplish anything worthwhile. Was there so much waiting that it would seem to prevent Moses’ rise to leadership? Yes, but God did it anyway.

The fourth wrong response is “But it’s so hard.” This overwhelmed response focuses on the difficulties of the current situation. It might believe that God’s plan will happen – if one can survive everything that comes first. As Moses obediently prepared to lead God’s people, he faced continual opposition. He had a conflict with his wife, and after his initial entreaty brought increased work for the Israelites, he faced protests from them. He went time after time to Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened to reject God’s plan in spite of escalating judgment. He experienced the discomfort of the plagues. He faced Pharaoh’s stubbornness, demands, and false promises. Was the pressure on Moses so great that no man could be sustained under it? Yes, but God did it anyway.

Finally, the correct response is based on a question from God: “Do you trust Me?” This faith-filled response acknowledges God’s ability to overcome all of the above protests. When my heart thinks those other responses and my mind wants to dwell on them, God asks, “Do you trust Me?” Moses learned to trust God. When the children of Israel were trapped at the edge of the Red Sea, the people were desperate and distraught. There was no way out. But notice Moses’ confident words: “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:13).

Why did he say that? We have no record that he was relaying a message received from God. Instead this seems to be his immediate response to the people’s cry. How did he know God would deliver? It was because God had proven Himself to Moses. Moses had come to understand who God was, and he responded appropriately with trust. By this time Moses knew the job that God had given him, and he knew that God would bring that plan about – when it seemed impossible, when it was confusing, when it was taking too much time, and when the process was too hard. If God said it, then God would do it. Moses could trust the infallible words and reliable guidance of his faithful God, and so can every other follower of God.

“Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He will do it.” Psalm 37:3-5 (NASB)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Failure or Success? - Part 2

The previous post presented perceived situations of failure: a job loss, a project that flops, singleness, childlessness, poor health, poverty, and so forth. We noted that these scenarios look like failure in our human evaluation, but that because God’s definitions are different, God might actually view those same circumstances as being successful. How can success be achieved in the midst of such negative situations? What is success in God’s eyes? What are the successful objectives that can be achieved in any set of circumstances?

True success is trusting God.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD and whose trust is the LORD.” Jeremiah 17:7 (all verses NASB)
“And without faith it is impossible to please God.” Hebrews 11:6
God clearly states that if we want to be pleasing to Him and be successful in His eyes, we must have faith. We have to trust Him. Faith is what made the Old Testament martyrs successful in spite of seeming failure (Hebrews 11:39). During good times, trusting God is so easy that we don’t even give it conscious thought. It is harder to trust in times that seem like failure, but just as necessary. When nothing seems to be working, and everything seems to be falling apart, God wants us to have faith in Him. Success is saying, “Father, I don’t understand what is happening, but I depend on You to work out Your plan.”

True success is faithfully serving God.
“In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.” I Corinthians 3:2
“What does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the LORD’s commandments.” Deuteronomy 10:12-13
“The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.” Ecclesiastes 12:13
We are to follow God day after day without turning aside when we don’t see the results we are looking for. Jeremiah faced opposition from everyone else, but he faithfully gave God’s message for decades, and God was pleased with him. God does not ask us to be in charge of the results. He does ask us to faithfully serve Him. If the progress is painfully slow, our efforts are continually ineffective, or the number of people to whom we minister is pitifully small, we are to remain true to God, obeying what He asks us to do. Solomon, a man who had every kind of worldly success that can be imagined, realized that following God was the only true success. Success says, “Father, I don’t see the results, but I will keep serving You anyway.”

True success is focusing on God’s Word.
 “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.” Psalm 1:2
“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.” Joshua 1:8
When life does not go as we expect or desire, we will be discouraged and defeated if we do not focus on stabilizing truth. With all of the additional challenges that come in trying times, we need the Bible to tell us how to respond. We also need the Bible to be the bedrock for our troubled souls. We must remember that there is a difference between God’s idea of success and our own, that there is a difference between God’s understanding and ours, and that there is a difference between God’s sovereign control and our pitiful attempts. We are going to be reminded of those truths only as we direct our hearts and minds often to the Word of God. When we remember God’s truth, our faith is strengthened and our obedience facilitated; the result is that God is pleased. A response of success states, “Father, I am dependent on Your Word to protect my thoughts and direct my actions.”

True success is honoring God.
“Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth.” Jeremiah 9:23-24
“So that the proof of your faith . . . may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” I Peter 1:7
“To the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.” Ephesians 1:12
True success comes when we realize that we are not the central character of our lives. Success is not about our plans, objectives, or achievements; it is about the work of God. If we experience what looks like earthly success, we must deflect the honor and glory to God. In our seeming failures, we can still give praise to God and exalt Him. We do that personally by submitting to God in appreciation of His good plan, though unknown to us. We give God honor publically when we give Him credit for everything, verbally express our trust in Him, and respond in a way that points others to Him. When God receives the honor that He properly deserves, we cannot call the situation a failure. Honoring God is achieved when we privately acknowledge and outwardly proclaim that God is amazing enough to accomplish good things in any situation. A heart that understands success declares, “Father, may You be lifted up through my life in both good times and bad.”

None of these responses is dependent on being healthy or keeping a job or having beautiful children. In fact, they are more noticeable and poignant when we perform them in less than ideal circumstances. When we follow the principles above, God is pleased, and we are successful, regardless of what circumstances look like.  When our lives look like failure, we must remember that God does not evaluate with the same criteria we do. When He accomplishes His purposes, any “disaster” can be a triumphant success.