GLOOM, DESPAIR AND AGONY ON ME

I’ve have been wearing glasses for several years. I don’t see very well without them. Putting them on is one of the first things I do in the morning and taking them off is one of the last things I do at night. So, if you ever see me without glasses I will probably ask you, “What are you doing in my bedroom at this time of day?” Having clear vision is important to my daily activity. My glasses help me focus on the road if I’m driving, faces if I’m visiting, or text if I’m reading. An optometrist in Wheeling used to advertise his business with the slogan, “It’s hard to be optimistic with misty optics.” I agree. My ability to “look at” has a profound affect on my “outlook.” But not just in a physical way. There are emotional and spiritual elements to the way we look at things. If you are a “news junkie” like me, you have probably noticed the marked lack of optimism in our world today. When I was a kid, one of the Saturday evening rituals at the Carey house was watching the Lawrence Welk Show followed by Hee Haw. There were a lot of great songs on both shows, but I noticed way more sad songs on Hee Haw. (Country music tends to lean toward the tragic.) And every week Buck and Roy would humorously lament, “Gloom, despair and agony on me; Deep, dark depression, excessive misery; If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all; Gloom, despair and agony on me!” Unfortunately, many people, even believers, have placed that song in the soundtrack of their lives, replaying it daily.
Pessimism is deeply ingrained in our nature. This fact is not without reason. Because of sin, we find ourselves living in a fallen world. Do you know why Monday is the least looked-forward-to day of the week? The Fall! Work became difficult because of The Fall. “…The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life… You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it. For you are dust, and you will return to dust.” Gen. 3:17b, 19 (HCSB). It’s little wonder that most workers say they are dissatisfied in their jobs. But it’s not just work that displays the fallen nature of the world. Every disease, natural disaster and human conflict is traceable to The Fall. The world was created as a perfect place. When sin entered, all hell broke loose. That’s the world in which we humans find ourselves living. We often move from day to day, waiting for the next bad thing to happen, expecting the worst. We throw up our hands, quit trying, then complain about our circumstances.
Fortunately, we have a Creator who loves His creation and has a plan to deal with both the cause and the result of The Fall. The Plan is Jesus. God took on human form and lived a perfect life in the fallen world in order to die as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the people He created. Trusting in that sacrifice erases the death penalty of sin in all who believe. Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the eternal presence of God ensures for those who trust in Him, citizenship in the perfect, eternal kingdom of heaven. Jesus gave this encouraging truth to His disciples while He lived in this fallen world. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble (The Fall). But take heart! I have overcome the world (The Plan).” John 16:33 (NIV). That truth should produce an optimistic outlook in any follower of Jesus.
So, how does pessimism become such a problem? Misplaced focus. Our “outlook” gets distorted by our “look at”. We focus on The Fall instead of The Plan. I learned a valuable lesson running the 100-yard dash when I was in high school (before track and field went metric). I found that if I focused on the finish line, rather than the runners I was competing against, I was more successful. Even if I didn’t win the race, my times improved. I could have an optimistic outlook even in a loss. Focus on the finish fights pessimism. Remember what happened to Peter when took a stroll on the Sea of Galilee. When he focused on Jesus he was successful. When his focus shifted to his surroundings, well, you know the rest. The author of Hebrews was obviously a track man. “…Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before Him, he endured the cross, despising the shame (The Fall), and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (The Plan).” Heb. 12:1b-2 (CSB). Jesus set the example of perfect focus. No one ever faced the opposition and discouragement that Jesus faced. How did He do it? By keeping His eyes on the “Joy set before Him.” He focused on the finish line. Paul knew how important looking at things the way Jesus looks at things is for Jesus’ followers. He wrote to the church at Philippi about the humility of Jesus and encouraged the church to “Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 2:5 (CSB). Keep being obedient in love and service and know that no matter how hard it gets here, there is a glorious finish line. “Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed (The Fall), our inner person is being renewed day by day (The Plan). For our momentary light affliction (The Fall) is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory (The Plan). So we do not focus on what is seen (The Fall) but on what is unseen (The Plan). For what is seen is temporary (The Fall), but what is unseen is eternal (The Plan). 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (CSB). Focus on the plan. It will improve your outlook.

APRIL IN PARIS

About a year ago in April, Kim and I were honored to be a part of a prayer journey in Israel. A visit to the Holy Land is something I wish every believer had an opportunity to experience. The journey to the prayer journey was a bit complicated. Flights were cancelled, connections were missed, and we were delayed by an airline strike. We arrived two days later than originally planned. Disaster? Au Contraire! Our re-routing and delays gave us a free day in Paris. We took a cab (the buses were on strike, too) into the “city of lights”. We did all the tourist things. We walked along the bank of the Seine, saw the glass pyramid at the Louvre, stood under the Eiffel Tower, and took pictures of the Arc De Triomphe. But the place we started and spent the most time was the cathedral at Notre Dame. It was a breathtaking combination of art, architecture, history and faith. As we strolled along the river, the song “April in Paris” kept rolling through my mind (the Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong version is my favorite).
What a difference a year makes. This April in Paris was filled with tragedy as the 850-year-old cathedral was nearly destroyed by a fire that started in the renovation of the roof and the spire. A massive structure which has weathered centuries of storms, the French Revolution, and two world wars was almost no match for a construction accident. The damage is extensive. The cost of repair will be enormous. To make matters worse, the fire happened at the beginning of “Holy Week”. But did you notice, the clergy still conducted services. The choir still sang songs of worship and praise. The faithful still gathered to remember Christ’s crucifixion and celebrate His resurrection. This demonstrated a critical truth from God’s word: The church is not bound to a location. “Jesus told her (the Samaritan woman), ‘Believe Me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship Him.’” John 4:21, 23 (HCSB). Jesus told His disciples, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:20 (HCSB). The church, the assembled body of believers is not closed by the loss of a building, no matter how costly and venerated that building may be. The work of the church is not hindered by an accident.
Another tragic event during “Holy Week” came on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Terrorists attacked several churches during morning worship services, destroying church buildings and killing hundreds of people. The loss of life has caused great sadness throughout the family of God, as we grieve with their loved ones. It reminds us of the sad fact that there are many places around the world where following Jesus is a dangerous, and even fatal decision. On my office wall I have a poster from Open Doors, an agency that monitors persecution of Christians around the world. Sri Lanka is listed as the 44th most dangerous country in the top 50. This week it jumped to #1. But did you notice, people were still praying and comforting each other with God’s word. They were ministering to the injured and grieving. This demonstrated another critical truth from God’s word. The closer we walk with Jesus, the more we will come under attack by the world. Jesus told His disciples, “Remember the word I spoke to you: A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you…” John 15:20a (HCSB). But, He also told them they didn’t have to live in fear. “Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul…” Matthew 10:28a (HCSB). He also told them that present persecution for the cause of Christ yields future reward. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” Matthew 5:10 (HCSB). The church is not closed by the loss of life. The church is encouraged by the bravery and faithfulness of those who stand for Christ in dangerous places. The work of the church is not hindered by an attack.
While these tragic events grabbed international headlines, there are tragic events that you will never hear about on the evening news that occur weekly. In the United States it is estimated that 4000 churches close their doors every year. This means that last week 79 congregations folded. Not because their building was destroyed by an accident or because they were attacked by criminal terrorists. Thom S. Rainer, in his book Autopsy of a Deceased Church cites nine specific factors that contribute to the death of a local congregation. All of them relate directly to the gradual decline in the obedience of the members. Lack of prayer, disregard for The Great Commission, and an unhealthy inward focus contribute to a diminishing sense of purpose. This causes infighting among the membership. Paul warned of this in his letter to the Galatians. “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.” Gal. 5:15 (HCSB). This warning is amplified in Jesus’ own words to the church at Ephesus. “Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place – unless you repent.” Rev. 2:5 (HCSB). The tragic truth is that more churches are closed due to internal problems than external circumstances. Member apathy is more destructive to the work of the church than accident or attack.
The good news is that God always has a remnant of faithful followers, regardless of how desperate circumstances may appear (1 Kings 19:18). And His church will accomplish His purpose (Matt.16:18) in spite of the weakness and failure of His people, because it is His power that accomplishes it. The church is not closed by accidents, attacks, or apathy. The work of the church is not hindered by accidents, attacks, or apathy. The question we must ask ourselves is, “Do I want to experience joy and fellowship by being a part of it, or do I want to experience sorrow and isolation by being apart from it?”

WE ARE FAMILY

One of the most difficult challenges faced by believers is to bring the way we act in line with who we are in Christ. I struggle with that daily. Circumstances and emotions often drag my reactions and behaviors in directions that oppose the reality of who I am. I am a human, created in the image of God, graciously redeemed through the saving work of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish the works God has prepared for me to do. I just don’t always act like it. I can take some comfort in the fact that I don’t struggle alone. Paul wrote of his own struggle. “For I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do.” Romans 7:9 (HCSB). The struggle between what I see and experience (by sight) and what I know (by faith) is constant. It helps me to remember the closeness with which God has established my relationship to Himself.
When I received Jesus as my Lord and Savior, God made me a member of His family. “But to all who did receive Him, He gave the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name.” John 1:12 (CSB). God did this in two very important ways. First, He adopted me. “When the time came to completion, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Gal. 4:4-5 (CSB). It is this adoption that gives me the legal status as an heir to the glorious riches of His kingdom. He became the source of my security. But second, and even more personal, He infuses me with His DNA. “…and you, though a wild olive branch (and believe me when I tell you, I was a wild olive branch!), were grafted in among them and have come to share in the rich root of the cultivated olive tree,” Romans 11:17b (CSB). He became the source of my life and strength. My ability to produce fruit is completely dependent on Him.

Even though I am a member of the family, sometimes I just act like a fan. You know how fans are. They are the ones who go to the game and cheer for the team, until the team loses. When I was playing football in high school I noticed how fans would in one moment tell you how great you were and in the next moment tell you what a bum you were. My dad, a former player and coach, taught me that fan love is based on what you do for them. The minute you stop doing, they stop loving. Jesus had fans. A bunch of them followed Him after He fed 4000 of them. But He knew their hearts. “Jesus answered, ‘Truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled.’” John 6:26 (CSB). Palm Sunday is a great example of how a bunch of fans can turn into foes, in just one week. Are you ever disappointed when you ask for something from God and you don’t get it? Do you ever pout and complain or get all sullen? I have. And even though God still treats me like family, I sometimes just act like a fan. (And not a very faithful one.)

Even though I am a member of the family, sometimes I just act like a friend. Friends are better than fans. Human friendships are frequently based on shared experiences and desires. They allow us to receive and extend grace as we recognize the things we agree on are greater than those on which we disagree. But the closeness of friendship is often affected by proximity. I have friends from high school, college, and my former city of residence with whom I still occasionally communicate. Time, distance and circumstances, however, have lessened the intimacy of the relationship. Differences of opinion can cause damage to friendship that cannot be repaired. Jesus had friends. He shared everything with them. “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.” John 15:15b (CSB). But when crunch time came, one of His friends betrayed Him. “ ‘Friend’, Jesus asked him, ‘why have you come?’” Matthew 26:50a (CSB). One denied knowing Him. “And again he denied it with an oath: ‘I don’t know the man!’” Matthew 26:72 (CSB). The rest scattered and hid. Have you ever allowed pressure or circumstances to change your relationship with God? I have. And even though God still treats me like family, I sometimes just act like a friend. (And not a very faithful one.)

Even though I am a member of the family, sometimes I just act like a follower. Followers are the next level of relationship. Followers are friends who want to go where their friend goes and do what their friend does. Followers are heavily invested in the life of the one they follow. They have committed their calendar and resources to the will of their leader. This commitment can put them in uncomfortable situations. The goal is to become like the leader. Jesus had followers. He was up front with them about the difficulty of following Him. “’Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.’” Matthew 16:24 (CSB). This seemed easy at the beginning, but Jesus gave more detail. “The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day, because my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” John 6:54-55 (CSB). This was more than many of His followers had expected. The result: “From that moment many of His disciples turned back and no longer accompanied Him.” John 6:66 (CSB). Has following Jesus ever been too demanding and you decided to “take a break”? I have. And even though God still treats me like family, I sometimes just act like a follower. (And not a very faithful one.)

I am so thankful that God is a faithful Father. He loves and cares for His children wherever we go and whatever we do, “if we are faithless, He will remain faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” 2 Tim. 2:13 (CSB). God is our biggest fan, our closest friend, and His eyes follow us faithfully. He never sleeps or looses track of us. He loves us, not because of what we’ve done, but because of what He has done. When days get difficult it always helps to remember that family is forever. And we are family! God’s family!

WORD UP

My vocabulary has morphed over the years. Some of this comes from a desire to communicate with people who are younger than me (A demographic that seems to increase daily). For instance, it used to be if something were true, we acknowledged it by saying, “That’s true.” Not so in this day. Now we say, “tru dat.” This phrase replaced “word!” (Not to be confused with “Word up!” which is a proclamation of the truth). Human communication is a tricky business. Fortunately, we have the Bible to help us “get woke” to the “411” on our most common tool of communication: our words.
Words have power. They have weight and impact. Carefully chosen words can edify or destroy. Phrases like, “Actions speak louder than words,” or “A picture is worth a thousand words,” would seem to diminish their value. And yet, we must admit that our words amplify both what we do and what we see. A good, clear description of an event or a location can convey an emotional connection and provide a depth of understanding which cannot be transmitted in any other form of human communication. Our choice of words and our tone of voice are the actions and pictures that reveal the most about ourselves. “For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.” Matthew 12:34b (CSB).
God, who has ultimate power, demonstrated the power of words in creation. He didn’t need a tool box or 2X4s and ply-wood to build the universe. He simply spoke everything into existence. From nothing! Think about it. The only reason anything exists is because God spoke. Knowing the power of words, God gave specific instructions to the ones created in His image. “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.” Exodus 20:7 (NIV). “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16 (NIV). Isn’t it interesting that two of the Ten Commandments deal directly with the use of our words? Inspired by the Holy Spirit, King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wrote of both the positive and negative impact of words. “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:18 (NIV).
Our words don’t just affect the people around us. They affect us. More than this, they identify our spiritual condition. Paul, quoting a few Old Testament passages, identifies several characteristics of the unrighteous. But he begins with the mouth. “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” Romans 3:13-14 (NIV). Before they “do” anything, their words give them away. A lack of control over our words negates our claims to good standing before God. “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.” James 1:26 (NLT). On the other hand, exercising control over our words displays a high level of maturity in the faith. “for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body.” James 3:2 (HCSB).
Jesus, our Savior and our example, is the living Word of God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14 (CSB). We are going to talk. We can’t help ourselves. But we can control what we talk about and how we talk about it. As followers of Jesus our two primary subjects of conversation should be the gospel (to the world), and encouragement (to the church). “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Col. 4:5-6 (NIV). “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom…” Col. 3:16a (NIV). Word up!

SHARP DRESSED MAN

You can identify certain things about people by the way they dress. Uniforms are a dead give-away. You have probably noticed that I am a fan of the University of Alabama from the vast quantity of shirts with the U of A logo I frequently wear. A short walk through any public gathering has led me to believe that there are many people who have no access to mirrors. (I mean, seriously! You left the house like that and thought, “Man, I look good!”???). I bear that guilt myself. I remember walking out of the house on my way to high school in my two-tone, patent-leather, platform shoes, my baggy, cuffed, plaid pants and my royal-blue velvet sport coat. I looked like Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. On purpose! The old ZZ Top song, “Sharp Dressed Man” popped into my mind. (Younger readers may have to Google these references.) I still have a pair of black and white, zebra-striped “Hammer” pants squirreled away in a drawer for special occasions. Mercifully, fashions change. Even in the church community our understanding of the “dress code” has transformed dramatically over the past thirty or so years. On any given Sunday the members of a congregation may adorn themselves in suits and ties, dresses and heels or tee shirts, shorts and flip-flops. There are Biblical mandates on modesty, cross-dressing and overly ornate apparel which should inform the fashion choices of the believer. For most of us, our external attire is more a reflection of our cultural practices than our spiritual condition. There is, however, an internal dress code that is required for all who have been robed in the righteousness of Christ, regardless of what you pulled out of the closet this morning. This is found in the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. In verses 5-11 Paul gives an extensive, but not exhaustive list of inappropriate clothing for the believer. He recommends not only taking them off but taking them off and burning them. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature:” Col. 3:5 (NIV). This can be difficult. We may have grown quite comfortable in some of these well-worn frocks. But he doesn’t leave us naked. In fact, he tells believers how to dress for success! “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Col. 3:12-14 (NIV). This wardrobe never goes out of style, never wears out and is suitable for every occasion. What kind of reaction do you think that ensemble would evoke from our families, our friends, our co-workers? I believe that it would make us more attractive than any outfit we could put together. Also, when we look that sharp, people will want to know where we shop. That gives us a chance to tell others that they can have the same look through faith in Jesus. Wouldn’t it be something if we spent as much effort dressing our inside as we did our outside? What are you wearing tomorrow? Are you dressed for success?

TROUBLE

I was listening to the radio the other day and I heard a song I hadn’t heard for a while. It’s a cool tune with a folksy R&B vibe entitled “Trouble” by Ray LaMontagne. In it, he presents one true statement, “trouble been dogging my soul since the day I was born.” and one false statement, “Well I’ve been saved by a woman.” Those of us who belong to Jesus know that there is only one way to be saved, and He doesn’t necessarily save us from the troubles of this life. But that song got me thinking about my own experience with trouble. About fifteen years ago I was having some physical problems that could not be explained by injury or the normal course of aging. After explaining my symptoms to my doctor, she sent me to a specialist. After further examination and testing, I was informed that I had MS, a progressively degenerative neuro-muscular disease with no known cause and no known cure. As you might imagine, I was less than thrilled. The medications for treating the symptoms produced side-effects which after a short time would be unacceptable if I were to continue to function normally. The disease is progressing. But Praise God, it is progressing slowly! I do things to combat the numbness, pain, fatigue and the other party favors which the disease brought when it took up residence in my body. I work very hard at not letting my disease define me. And believe me, it is work! Physical pain will mess with your head and your emotions after a while. But I don’t work alone. In fact, I have a wife who loves, encourages and cares for me, even when I am not worthy of love, encouragement and care. While she can’t save me from trouble, she makes it a lot easier to bear. (If she were a Catholic, she would probably be canonized as a saint and have her own day, on which everyone would wear crimson and white. Roll Tide!) I have children and grandchildren who are a constant source of laughter and joy. I have other family and friends who have given supportive fellowship. I have a ministry that fills my days with purpose. Here’s the thing. All the above-mentioned people, activities and conditions are gifts straight from the hand of God! I know this because of the Word of God. Jesus, Himself said, “In this world you will have trouble. (Bad news.) But take heart! I have overcome the world. (Great news.) John 16:33b (NIV). Trouble can take many forms. There are financial troubles which can put us in positions of need and even despair. There are people troubles which can break our hearts through rebellion, broken relationships and even the passing of those we love dearly. There are health troubles which cause physical pain, reduced abilities and even death. These are all very real, worldly problems. The challenge for the believer is to not let worldly problems turn into spiritual problems. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life” is, “God never wastes a hurt.” Every trouble we face has at its core our good and God’s glory. He uses them to teach us. This can be very hard to remember. “No discipline (trouble) seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11 (NIV). This is true even for the troubles we bring on ourselves. Especially if we come to the place where we say, “God was right. With His help, I’m never going to do that again.” That is why James told his readers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” James 1:2-3 (NIV). God is always working in the lives of His people to bring about Christ-likeness. Job was a righteous man, who under the attack of Satan, experienced every kind of physical trouble one can have on the earth. He lost his family. His friends basically abandoned him. His livelihood was destroyed. He was afflicted with a painful skin disease. After one of his buddies told him that he must have done something to deserve all this trouble, and he just needed to turn back to God, Job replied, “But if I go to the east, He is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find Him. When He is at work in the north, I do not see Him; when He turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of Him. But He knows the way I take; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” Job 23:8-10 (NIV). Paul, the apostle, knew trouble well. Beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned, he also had a “thorn” in his flesh. Scripture doesn’t tell us what it was. Some think it was a mobility problem from the many beatings. Others think it was a vision problem. Still others have postulated a bad temper or some other attitude issue. It doesn’t matter. Paul had it, it was a problem, and Paul asked God to take it away. “…a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” 2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a (ESV). Peter, one of Jesus’ inner circle, knew trouble on a first- name basis. Shamed by failure, swayed by public opinion and self-preservation, restored by Jesus for a martyr’s death, he lived in trouble. Peter knew that Satan used the presence of troubles to steal joy, kill hope, and destroy the testimony of Jesus’ followers. That is why he wrote, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” 1Peter 5:8-9 (ESV). You are either experiencing trouble or you are about to experience trouble. Troubles are inevitable, and sometimes they don’t leave. I didn’t tell you my story to garner sympathy. Nor did I point out the permanence of trouble to discourage you. I write this to remind all of us of four aspects scripture teaches us about trouble. Jesus reminds us we will have trouble. Job reminds us we are not forgotten in our trouble. Paul reminds us we are not powerless in our trouble. Peter reminds us we are not alone in our trouble. If you belong to Jesus, you can “Take heart!” in the midst of trouble. If you are facing trouble and you don’t belong to Jesus, isn’t it comforting to know that feeling forgotten, powerless and alone doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. Taking heart is just a prayer away.

Pity The Pinto

There is a great old quote which is often misattributed to William Shakespeare. “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” The quote belongs to 17th to 18th century playwright, William Congreve and is found in the opening lines of his play, “The Mourning Bride” (I mean, Shakespeare gets enough love, right! Let’s give credit where credit is due.) We all know the effect music can have on our mood. The first (not the only) time I was stopped for exceeding the speed limit was a direct result of the power of music. While cruising down Rt. 2 in my Pinto, listening to Blood, Sweat and Tears on the 8-track tape player I had recently installed, I got caught up in the beat and lost track of my speed. The police officer did not write a ticket. I guess he felt sorry for me. (I was, after all, driving a Pinto and listening to an 8-track tape. If that doesn’t drum up some sympathy, you have no heart. Pity the Pinto.) Technology has dramatically changed the way we transport and play our music. But whether you play it from a turntable, a cassette deck, a disc, an iPod, your phone, or a thumb drive, the way you listen to it has never changed. It moves from ear to brain to heart to emotion. There are songs that make me smile every time I hear them. There are songs that connect me to memories, both happy and sad. There are songs that inspire hope, and songs that provoke anger. God’s Word is filled with song. He uses songs to teach about Himself and our relationship to Him. He used song to inspire His prophets. “But now bring me a harpist. While the harpist was playing, the hand of the Lord came upon Elisha…” 2 Kings 3:15 (NIV). He used song to proclaim victory through His people. “The two choirs that gave thanks then took their place in the house of God… And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.” Nehemiah 12:40, 43 (NIV). God even used song to bring about His plan to make David the king. “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him… Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better and the evil spirit would leave Him.” 1 Samuel 16:14, 23 (NIV). If Saul had stuck with David’s playlist, he would have been better off. But he couldn’t resist the songs of the crowd. One day, after David had won a great victory for Saul, the king heard a new song from his people. “As they danced, they sang: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, (Saul really liked that verse) and David his tens of thousands.’ Saul was very angry: this refrain galled him….” 1 Samuel 18:7-8a (NIV). You will note that many of the songs on David’s playlist are preserved in Scripture. They are called Psalms. They focus our thoughts on God’s greatness and provision for His people. In fact, the songs which draw our attention to God do us the most good. They encourage our spirits even as they help us draw near to God. Popular songs are a lot of fun and I know a bazillion of them. But they can throw emotions into an unhealthy cyclone of confusion. It is the playlist of God that is designed to help us keep our feet on the ground and our eyes on Him. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” Colossians 3:16 (NIV). And be glad your music collection is not playing on an 8-track tape player in a Pinto. I am.

The Importance Of Fiber

Thousands of years ago when I was in high school, I participated in many athletic activities. Some, like track and wrestling, were focused on individual achievement. Others, like football and basketball, were more focused on team results. There was, however, a team component in every sport. For example, relay races where four individuals from our team would compete against four individuals from another team were a part of every track meet. While each leg of the race and a clean passing of the baton was important, it was the total time of the team that determined the winner of the race. On the flip side, there is an individual component in every team sport. Every successful play in a football or basketball game depends on every individual player doing their job. A great pass from the quarterback, behind great blocking from the offensive line is just a wasted down if the receiver drops the ball. One of the hard lessons of team sports is that I can play a flawless game and my team can still lose. One of the comforting lessons of team sports is that I can play a mistake-riddled game and my team can still win. These truths are transferable to every group endeavor. Families, churches, choirs and ministry teams all rise and fall on the combination of individual responsibility and collective performance. The thing is, groups are important to the health of individuals. Losses are easier to bear in the comfort of a team and the joys of victories are multiplied in the comfort of a team. God knows this about us. That is why He sent His Holy Spirit to bind us together into the Church, the Body of Christ. We all know that good nutrition, including a healthy dose of fiber, is critical to a properly functioning body. For this reason, God has planted a patch of “let us” in the garden of His Word. The writer of Hebrews, after a lengthy explanation of the superiority of the priesthood of Jesus, tells his readers to confidently enter the “Most Holy Place” through the forgiveness of sin by the blood and body of Jesus. He then plants five heads of “let us” for our consumption. Head number 1: “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith…” Heb. 10:22a (NIV). This is an individual component that reflects the confidence of the believer in the cleansing power of Jesus. It is the foundation of our faith. It is that forgiveness and the presence of the Holy Spirit in each individual that paves the way for our unity. Head number 2: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.” Heb. 10:23 (NIV). The hope that we all share is the motivation that keeps us moving together in the same direction. That hope is empowered by the faithfulness of Jesus. That hope is what helps us to “…fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen….” 2 Cor. 4:18 (NIV). Being in the presence of God is our goal, the faithfulness of Jesus makes it possible. Head number 3: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Heb. 10:24 (NIV). This is where the team component really starts to kick in. God’s purpose from the beginning was to draw a people to Himself. He knows that apart from the encouragement and accountability of like-minded individuals we may stumble. He desires that we help each other in our walk, especially toward right attitudes and actions. We really do need each other. Head number 4: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” Heb.10:25a (NIV). When we move ourselves away from the encouragement and accountability of God’s church, we get into trouble. He wants love and good deeds to come from the body of Christ, so Christ receives the glory. Head number 5: “but let us encourage one another–all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Heb. 10:25b (NIV). Unlike many believe, this world is not moving toward a utopian society. It is moving toward a day of the final judgment for its sinful rebellion. If you haven’t noticed, it is becoming more and more difficult to live as a believer. It is more difficult when attempted alone. That is why God brings believers together in His church. Just like fruits and vegetables grow healthier and stronger in gardens, so believers grow healthier and stronger in the company of other believers. How are you doing? Getting enough fiber in your diet? Fiber is really important for a healthy body. Make sure you get enough “let us”.

En”choir”ing Minds Want To Know

You will never hear me put down a specific musical genre. I kinda’ like ‘em all. Oh, I have my favorites, just like everyone, based on my personal taste and experience. (I’ll talk about that in a bit.) But I have a deep appreciation for composers and performers in every musical medium. I appreciate them because I understand the fear and trembling which accompanies every performance. That fear and trembling is amplified in church music due to the multi-faceted task with which the musician is charged. The ultimate goal is to glorify God. But what does that involve? First, it takes a humble heart that is surrendered to God’s will. That surrender manifests itself in a willingness to improve your skills through practice and preparation. King David said, “…No, I insist on paying for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” 2 Samuel 24:24 (NIV). God deserves wholehearted effort. Practice and preparation costs time which is the costliest item we possess. Second, it requires a desire to enter into the presence of God and a desire to lead others into His presence. The cry of the musician’s heart should be, “I will extol the Lord at all times; His praise will always be on my lips.” Psalm 34:1 (NIV), followed by, “Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt His name together.” Psalm 34:3 (NIV). Third, but not final, is the understanding that the offering presented is not for the glory of the presenter, nor for the glory of the earthly audience, but for God alone. He alone is worthy of praise. “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise: He is to be feared above all gods.” 1 Chron. 16:25 (NIV). Likewise, His Son, Jesus. “…Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Rev. 5:12 (NIV). This does not mean that worship is led by perfect people, ‘cause there ain’t none. “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Romans 3:23 (NLT). This is especially true for those in leadership positions. “Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. Indeed, we all make many mistakes….” James 3:1-2a (NLT). This is the aspirational goal of the worship leader. Whether playing an instrument or singing, proclaiming the Word or leading in prayer, our baseline is to glorify God. That is one of the reasons my favorite medium of music in church is choral music. It is difficult, if not impossible, to live in a constant state of glorifying God apart from the support and accountability of other believers. The choir offers an opportunity for members of the Body of Christ to assume leadership responsibility in the context of a like-minded support group. What do you see when you look at the choir? You see a group of people from the midst of the congregation reflecting a small picture of the church. You see differing levels of spiritual maturity and skills united for a singular purpose; the glory of God through the communication of His truth. You hear male and female voices, high and low, loud and soft, doing something that no single voice can do. They demonstrate harmony. They amplify unison. They encase God’s truth in art and emotion, penetrating hardened hearts. From a historical perspective, they are a part of worship tradition that extends all the way back to the Old Testament. It is no coincidence that the largest collection of the songs of the church over the last thousand years is choral music. If this is something you think you might want to be a part of, join us for rehearsal. Just know, we work hard and challenge ourselves to present our best to the One who is worthy of our best. Singing for the glory of God is not a thoughtless activity. It engages body, soul and mind. “…I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” 1 Cor. 14:15b (ESV). It kind of gives you a peek around the choir room door, and maybe a new respect for your friends that brave Wednesday night with Jim, the most dangerous 90 minutes of the week. Just in case you are curious, since en“choir”ing minds want to know.

You Are The Man

Do you ever have to have hard conversations? You know the ones. Those times when errors must be corrected or bad news must be delivered. The Old Testament prophets had a lot of hard conversations. I was reminded of that fact while reading 2 Samuel this week. David in one of his not so fine moments, had committed adultery with Bathsheba, producing a pregnancy. He then had her husband, Uriah, killed. Nathan, the prophet, told David a story about someone who had much, yet stole from one who had little. David, enraged over the injustice, declared the offender worthy of death. “Nathan replied to David, ‘You are the man!…’” 2 Samuel 12:7a (HCSB). That reminded me of another passage. King Ahab, at the behest of his lovely wife, Jezebel, had just had his neighbor, Naboth, killed to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard. Elijah, the prophet, approached Ahab and gave him a long list of bad news, including, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to bring disaster on you and will sweep away your descendants:’ “ 1 Kings 21:21a (HCSB). I think it’s important to note that neither of these conversations were through phone calls, email, text or tweet. Neither Nathan nor Elijah had the luxury of distance in their conversations. They had to confront men who had the authority to have them killed with less than encouraging messages. They risked their lives to present the truth. As usual, a song popped into my head. The wicked witch of the west, in the classic (?) musical, The Wiz, warned her flying monkeys, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News!” Hard conversations are not hard because we don’t know what to say. They are hard because we don’t know how what we say will be received. We see people making poor choices and we want to stop them. We sin against someone and want to apologize and ask for forgiveness. But we fumble and hesitate and ponder over the right combination of words to illicit the response that will be the easiest on us. So, how did these men have the courage to face these powerful kings. They knew two very important truths. Truth #1: They were presenting the truth of God. When God’s clear truth is the message, not our opinion or our spin, we can be sure that we have acted in obedience. God always blesses obedience. Truth #2: When God’s truth is presented, God’s grace is available. In both passages (2 Samuel 12 & 1 Kings 21), David and Ahab both received God’s truth, repented in humility, and received God’s grace. Make no mistake, God’s grace did not erase the consequences of their actions. It did, however, demonstrate God’s willingness to forgive sin for all men. From the “…man after His (the Lord’s) own heart…” 1 Samuel 13:14 (NIV), to a man who “…did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” 1 Kings 16:30 (NIV). When Jesus came to earth, He came “…as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14b (HCSB). That is why Paul could say with such confidence, “For the wages of sin is death (truth), but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (grace).” Romans 6:23 (HCSB). God’s truth and God’s grace are inseparable. Is there anyone with whom you need to have a hard conversation? Nobody wants to hear the bad news that they are a sinner destined for death. But everyone needs to hear the good news that grace is available. Don’t fear the response. Obey the One who sent the message. Since God’s goal for His children is Christ-likeness, “But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the Head – Christ.” Eph. 4:15 (HCSB).