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, May 27, 2017

Subtle Pride

Shortly before His death, Jesus shared startling news with His disciples: "But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!" (Luke 22:21-22).

This statement was quite shocking to the disciples. They couldn't imagine that any of them would do such a thing. "The disciples began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking" (John 13:22). The disciples were "deeply grieved" on hearing such a prediction; "they each one began to say to Him, 'Surely not I, Lord?'" (Matthew 26:22).

While it seemed unthinkable that anyone in their group would betray Jesus, I suppose each individual in the group thought himself least likely to be the betrayer. Peter was so sure of himself that he vowed, "Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away" (Matthew 26:33). He continued, "Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You" (Matthew 26:35). "All the disciples said the same thing too" (Matthew 26:35).

This dilemma led to an interesting conversation. "And they began to discuss among themselves which one of them it might be who was going to do this thing" (Luke 22:23). This couldn't have been good for morale or mutual trust. As much as they wanted to deny Jesus' prediction, their discussion by its very nature weakened the unity and confidence within the group.

It is quite logical then that the first discussion quickly blossomed into another. "And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be the greatest" (Luke 22:24). If the initial question was "Who is most likely to fail?" it was closely followed by "Who is most likely to be faithful?"

In the disciples' difficult pondering and disputation, they may have found it impossible to reach a conclusion about who would be guilty of betraying Jesus. The best they could do was to narrow down the options. Surely, they could at least come up with a list of who definitely wouldn't betray Him. We don't know which names ended up on the short list of suspects (or even how long that list was), but each disciple's desire was to prove that he could not possibly be on that list. After all, he was in the competition for being the greatest.

I don't believe any of the disciples started out with the intention of displaying pride. They were rightfully horrified that any of them would prove disloyal. They didn't want that to be true of them. In their individual desire to be true to Jesus, each looked for some type of indication, proof, or support to convince himself (and the others) that he would not betray Jesus. Just like that, pride crept in. Suddenly, the men were looking internally for something of value or strength in themselves.

In spite of their arguments, the sad truth is that none of them fared very well in the following hours. Judas, the one of whom Jesus had spoken, led the soldiers and religious leaders to Jesus' location in a pitiful act of betrayal. "Then all the disciples left Him and fled" (Matthew 26:56). John was the only one who followed Jesus and gained access to the venue of the trial (John 18:15). Bold Peter "was following Him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest," where he "sat down . . . to see the outcome" (Matthew 26:58). Subsequently, he denied three times that he knew Jesus, even cursing in his vehemence. The other disciples are not mentioned after their flight.

Their intentions were right. Their heart and desire were right. None of the disciples wanted to fail Jesus. They wanted to be true, faithful, loyal, and dependable. These were the men who had learned directly from Jesus and had ministered with Him for several years. If anyone would stand with Jesus, it would be these men, yet even they failed.

While Christians today do not have a specific prediction like Judas did, falling is definitely a danger. Probably every reader knows of at least one previously faithful Christian who has slid into complacence. Worse, each reader probably knows of formerly faithful Christians who have completely walked away from God, perhaps denying His existence or becoming combative. Some readers have likely found themselves tempted to do the same at a crisis point in their lives. Any believer who asserts, "I have never been tempted like that," is on shaky ground, but the one who vows, "I never will be," is in great danger.

If, like the disciples, we start to think, "I would never deny God. After all, I'm one of the best Christians," we would do well to relate to the apostle Paul, who realized, "I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me but the doing of the good is not" (Romans 7:18). Jesus said it well: "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. . . . Apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-5).

When we observe someone who has fallen, may we never think, "Not me!" Oh, the weakness and deception of the human heart! Only the grace of God enables us to be faithful. Only the grace of God keeps us and draws us closer to Him. We are powerless to achieve any such success on our own, in spite of noble and determined motivation. When we think we are strong, that is when we need to rely on God the most and call out to Him for help. "Father, I need You!"

"Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall" (I Corinthians 10:12).

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Thankful Game

Several months ago I designed "the thankful game"; it's a bad designation, but I needed an identifying title. I could have used "strategy" or "tool," the world's terminology. What I established, however, was far more serious and important than a game and far deeper and more meaningful than a tool.

In a time of continued discouragement, I often found my thoughts (and emotions) going in the wrong direction. I wanted to escape the negative and focus on the positive instead. I wanted to think right things so that my focus and demeanor could change. While I didn't ignore negative or disappointing aspects of life, there was no profit to me in dwelling on those things - quite the opposite, in fact.

The game, as I designed it, was implemented by this brief challenge to myself: "Quick! Give me five things you're thankful for." I tried to play this game at least two or three times a day, often more. It was a good way to start my day, end my day, get me to work, and get me home from work. If I felt myself getting discouraged or mired in negativity, that was a good indication to say to myself, "Time for the thankful game!"

The longer I did this, the easier and more natural it became. I found myself often going past the required five items. I found it easier to come up with five items (even if it was my fourth time to play the game that day). I found myself becoming more specific. Initially, my morning thanks might be for sleep, breakfast, clothing, a car, and an apartment. Later, one of those aspects would branch into five by itself: a good night's sleep, that I didn't have bad dreams, that the fire siren didn't go off during the night, that God designed the concept of sleep, and that God gives the gift of sleep.

I also found myself giving thanks to God randomly, without having implemented the game. I found that my overall spirit was lifted and that I was a more thankful person. I no longer play the game as deliberately and routinely, but the time of deliberate thankfulness has had a lasting effect.

I mentioned that the world would call this a tool or strategy. While it was in part a strategy for lifting my spirits, thankfulness is much more than that. It is more important for me to have a thankful heart than it is for me to feel happy. It is more important for me to give God the thanks He deserves than it is for me to be distracted from negativity. The game did improve my spirits; more importantly, it challenged my character. Giving thanks is good because it is right, not because of personal benefit.

The Jews constantly offered sacrifices of crops or animals. I don't live under that requirement, but I can offer frequent sacrifices to God. Lips that speak thankfulness are an offering that God desires from Christians today. "Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name" (Hebrews 13:15).

My giving thanks two or three or five times a day was a good starting point. The more often I gave thanks, the closer I came to what God desires. It is easy to think, "I don't know what to thank God for." The answer is everything - everything in my life, both good and bad."Always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father" (Ephesians 5:20).

It is also easy to think, "After a few days of doing this, I will run out of things to be thankful for." Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that there are innumerable things for which to be thankful. "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits" (Psalm 103:2). God's benefits and blessings never cease. The danger is not of running out, but of failing to recognize His bountiful benefits.

I started out primarily by giving thanks for things: a good night's sleep, strength for the work day, my family, a place to live, and so on. I discovered how easy it is to branch out from those temporal things to spiritual blessings, focusing on the character of God. "Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting" (Psalm 107:1). For example, thanking God for a good night's sleep could lead to thanking God that He never sleeps but constantly watches over me. Thanking Him for strength to work could lead to thanking Him for His amazing power in creation and in orchestrating my life. Thankfulness for my family leads to thanking God that He is my Father, a perfect Father who perfectly does and provides and gives and loves. Thanking God for a place to live naturally leads to thanking God for the home He is preparing for me.

Another area of thanks is in the experiences of life. "Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father" (Colossians 3:17). I can thank God as I am doing each activity, whether that be working, eating, relaxing, going to church, interacting with friends, reading a book, etc. If it is a good and appropriate activity, I can thank God for the opportunity and ability to partake in it.

Finally, there is no bad time to play this game, only lots of good times. I played it in the car, at work, in the shower, in the kitchen, on a walk, and yes, even in bed. "At midnight I shall rise to give thanks to You because of Your righteous ordinances" (Psalm 119:62).

"It is good to give thanks to the LORD and to sing praises to Your name, O Most High" (Psalm 92:1).

Saturday, May 13, 2017

50 Ways to Serve When You Can't Serve

Every church member (see question #6 of previous post) should have some way to serve within the church. No one should be doing nothing. God Himself teaches that every member is important and is designed by God to fill some role within the church.

"For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly" (Romans 12:4-6). "But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills. . . . But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired" (I Corinthians 12:11, 18).

Some people have legitimate limitations that restrict their service. If someone is weak (for whatever reason), this does not mean he is worthless. "On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary" (I Corinthians 12:22).

Many people face challenges of health, family, work, or other responsibilities that make it difficult to serve within the church. A sickly or elderly member might have significant restrictions on what he can do. A willing mom might have her hands so full with children that she can't commit to regular involvement. A gifted teacher might not be able to put in hours of preparation each week. A talented singer might not be able to commit to the structure and frequency of the choir.

I am particularly concerned for our senior saints. They have such rich experience with God and such depth of wisdom, yet often they (apparently) have no active role in the church. Seniors often struggle with the perception of uselessness; a failure to be involved can intensify that struggle. The church needs these seasoned Christians and needs what they can contribute for the good of the church.

Whatever your condition or position, the church needs you. If you want to serve, but don't know how you can within your limitations, here are some suggestions. Most require little or no money. They include both regular and sporadic service, but with no major time investment. The energy required is minimal. Don't try to do them all, but choose one or two or three that fit your capacity, and start serving.

·         Develop a daily, weekly, or monthly prayer list to regularly pray for church needs.
·         Be a substitute Sunday school teacher.
·         Be a helper for a larger Sunday school class.
·         Meet regularly with an individual or couple that is newly saved.
·         Share a testimony whenever the opportunity is provided.
·         Write devotional thoughts to share with a particular person or group.
·         Ask your pastor if there is an individual or family that could especially use encouragement or prayer.
·         Sing special music on an occasional basis - solo or small group.
·         Play an occasional offertory or prelude.
·         Invite a friend or neighbor to church.

Practical Ministry
·         Be an emergencies-only nursery worker.
·         Take the nursery toys (or bedding) home to wash.
·         Help the treasurer count offerings.
·         Take attendance.
·         Inventory Sunday school materials.
·         Come in each week to fold the church bulletins.
·         Stamp new supplies of gospel tracts with the church information.
·         Help prepare mailings from your church.
·         Do Internet/phone research for a church project or consideration.
·         Prepare the communion elements.
·         Make the communion bread.
·         Bring flowers to decorate the church.
·         Help prepare crafts or decorations for special events (VBS, conferences, holidays).
·         Help with minor repair projects.

·         Make a phone call to someone who was absent.
·         Visit church members who are in the hospital.
·         Send cards to shut-ins (or visit them).
·         Take a meal (or other treat/gift) to someone in need.
·         Be sensitive to people who are hurting - childless women on Mother's Day, singles or widows on Valentine's Day, widows on anniversaries, bereaved parents on birthdays, etc. Show your love and support with a hug, prayer, card, gift, or meal.

·         Purposefully and routinely greet people as they come into church.
·         Be available to open the door for those going in or out.
·         Choose a visitor or recent attendee to speak to every week.
·         Talk to someone who looks lonely.
·         Attend faithfully.

·         Send the pastor a card of appreciation.
·         Send cards or letters to missionaries.
·         Each month do something special for a different Sunday school teacher or church worker (card, gift, meal, note of thanks).
·         Make a meal for your pastor's family.
·         Host a missionary in your home.

·         Smile.
·         Show kindness.
·         Give a hug.
·         Hold a hand or touch an arm.
·         Give a kiss. (Older ladies can get away with this.)
·         Pray with someone.
·         Tell someone you are praying for them.

Show interest outside of church time
·         Purposefully interact with fellow church members on Facebook.
·         Send someone a card for no reason except that you think they could use it.
·         Send birthday and anniversary cards.
·         Have a widow (or other solitary person) over for a meal or activity - or for no reason.

Recently I had two experiences on two Sundays in a row, both from elderly ladies who might think themselves unable to serve. The first week, a lady stopped to talk to me after the service. As we talked, it became evident that I was struggling some. She extended her time of talking, showed care with her eyes, and touched my arm as she left. The next week a different lady greeted me. She turned her handshake into a hug and told me she loved me. Were these "helpless old ladies" ministering within the church? You better believe it!

Is your service limited? Consider the list above. Choose several items that you already do or that you could do; start doing them regularly and deliberately as your purposeful service within the church.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Should I Serve?

Someone recently asked my input about continuing in a particular church ministry. Not long ago I personally considered the same question. Below are some guiding questions for decision-making about ministry.

1) Is there a need?
The fact that my area of ministry exists does not necessarily indicate a need, nor does the fact that something has not previously been done negate a new need. A church's needs change over time. I was once in a church that evaluated its existing programs to be sure each was contributing to the church's mission. A non-contributing ministry is not a need. If there is a need, that doesn't necessarily mean I should be the one to continue it, but I should be influenced by the reality of the need; if there is not a need, then discontinuation is legitimate.

"Let all things be done for edification" (I Corinthians 14:26).

2) Can I do it?
In many cases, this question alone provides much of the answer. If there is a needed ministry that I have been doing and am able to do, I should probably faithfully continue doing it, rather than placing an additional burden on someone else. If I can no longer do it effectively due to declining health, changing responsibilities, or increasing difficulty of the task, then I need to question my on-going involvement. God can give strength and ability beyond what I have naturally, but He has also designed me as a human being with limitations and with a brain to evaluate those limitations.

"In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy" (I Corinthians 4:2).

3) Is there another qualified person who wants to do it?
If my questions about continuing in my role coincide with the desire of another brother or sister to take on that ministry, God could be orchestrating a transition. Even if my doubts are not strong, there is a place within the church for selflessness and teamwork. It is important for newer and younger Christians to be trained and to become involved in the work of the church. Maybe that means I should step aside or reduce my role, focusing on the training and transition.

"The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (II Timothy 2:2).

4) Is there a reason why I shouldn't do it?
Often people feel obligated to continue doing what they have always done, but there are many legitimate reasons for stepping out of a ministry. These could include changing health, a different work schedule, or evolving family responsibilities. Due to age or inflexible work schedule, some may find that they can no longer commit consistently. People can also have spiritual needs that make ministry difficult and ineffective. For a time, they may require being ministered to rather than ministering to others. Important spiritual things happen in church, including worshipping together, encouraging one another, fellowshipping with each other, and hearing the ministry of the Word. A struggling believer especially needs these spiritual ministries, but even spiritually healthy people should not overextend themselves to the point of unduly curtailing those spiritual influences.

"For the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain . . . to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12-13).

5) Am I doing it out of love?
If I am not serving out of love, my ministry is worthless. Ministries  started in love do not always continue that way. To use the world's terminology, people can become burnt out. If I find myself dreading or resenting my ministry, I either need to rekindle my love or I need to discontinue the ministry until I can again serve out of love.

"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (I Corinthians 13:1).

6) If I don't do it, how will I be serving within the church?
Every part of the body of Christ is important, and every member has something to do for God. Granted, some people are very limited, but exceptions aside, the expectation is that everyone share in the ministry. If I stop doing the ministry I am doing now, will I still have a way to serve? Maybe I've been overextended and need to step back from some things, but I should still have some participation in God's work. If my desire to step away is so that I can sit back and do nothing, that is a problem.

"But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (I Corinthians 12:7).

7) Does God want me to do it?
Each of the above questions is subservient to this question. If God wants me to do something, He will provide the opportunity, He will give the strength, He will give me wisdom in working with others, He will remove the obstacles, He will help my heart motives to be right, and He will let me know how much He wants me to. God might want me to do something in spite of these deterring factors. He may even want me to do something that is not in my primary area of giftedness. My response must be to humbly say, "Yes, Lord," to whatever aspect of service He chooses. If, based on God's leading through the above questions and through prayer, He does not want me to something, my response must be to humbly say, "Yes, Lord." I must step aside and allow God to direct in the continuation of that ministry.

"But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5).