Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

10 As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away. 11 Who understands the power of Your anger And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You? – Psalm 90:10–11 (NASB95)
"It was a dark and stormy night" is an often-mocked and parodied phrase written by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the opening sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The phrase is considered to represent "the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing,"also known as purple prose. The phrase comes from the original opening sentence of Paul Clifford:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

I think I first read the words, “It was a dark and stormy night” in a Peanuts cartoon. Snoopy keeps trying to write his novel and frequently begins this way. It was long after that I learned it was from a real novel, and that awards are given (not necessarily so complimentary) for similar beginnings.

Still. I understand about dark and stormy nights. You do too. We all understand. We know because we’ve lived through such nights, or we know someone close to us who has. Just like real dark and stormy nights they keep us awake, fill us with fear and dread, steal our peace, and leave us shaken.

Sometimes, we create our own dark and stormy nights. Sometimes, they surprise us, blowing up out of an otherwise clear sky. The result is the same. It’s what makes dark and stormy nights undesirable at best, tragic and heart-breaking at worst.

Here are some ideas to work with as you face your own dark and stormy night:
  • First, storms pass. Even the worst of them. Yes, they can leave destruction in their path, and there might be a long recovery, but they pass.
  • Second, storms never eliminate the next bright day. Seems like they will, but they don’t.
  • Third, God provides hope and help. You will likely have to look for it and want it. But it’s there. When you find it, you get help to clean up the mess, and you get to enjoy the sunshine of a bright day.
Many can look back on dark days of their past and honestly say, "It was a dark and stormy night." The night has passed.

Grace And Change

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. – Titus 2:11–14 (NASB95)

God’s hardworking change.
It’s where the good life comes from.
But it’s the only place it comes from.
– Matt Chandler, Recovering Redemption, p. 151

Grace is a great thing. One big thing about grace is that it has to be free. I mean really free. It’s can’t be like one of those places that offers you a free toaster if you spend $1,000 with them. I can just buy a toaster for way less than that! When it comes to salvation from sin, grace means you don’t deserve it, and you can’t earn it. God’s grace is found in Jesus. Put your faith in him, for has done the work, not you.

But there’s more to grace, and at times it’s neglected. Real grace doesn’t overlook your sins and act like they’re not there. The truth is grace is the only lens through which I would ever want to look at my sins, because it’s the only thing that is both real with sin, and yet offers an undeserved, unearned way out!

Then what? Right here is the crucial issue that sometimes goes ignored. Grace doesn’t mean you get to keep right on living the same old way you’ve been living. It makes no sense to think that God, in his grace, sent his Son to die to save you from your sins, only to turn right around and say, “Now it doesn’t matter how you live.”

Instead, grace serves as a kind of life instruction. It teaches us to deny ungodliness. That means anything ungodly, you need to turn your back on it. It teaches us to live sensibly, righteously and godly. Real grace doesn’t say, “Anything goes!” Real grace says, “You need to rethink that one, Friend!”

The whole thing is geared to change you. Yes, there’s that word. Change. You need to be different from what you are. We all do. Ask what grace is doing to change your life.

Consider The Wonders Of God

14 “Listen to this, O Job, Stand and consider the wonders of God.” –Job 37:14 (NASB95)

“Faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.” —A.W. Tozer

One thing we can say about the conversations between Job and his friends - they struggled to understand God. They expressed the same confusion about human life, purpose, and meaning that we still struggle with today. Elihu may come closest to pointing Job in the right direction, at least at times. His statement in 37:14 is one of those that’s right on target. “Stand and consider the wonders of God.”

But it may be that very point of view that we’ve lost. Modern humans, at least most of us, seem to lack the ability to “stand in wonder” of God. We think of ourselves as smart, educated, and wise. Science enables us to tackle most of life’s problems. Technology makes it possible for us to do things that ancient people never dreamed possible. We’re convinced we’ve got pretty much everything covered.

At least until trouble shows up. A crisis, regardless what kind, has the potential to shake us into reality and shock us with the sudden realization that there is a vast number of things we don’t know, can’t handle, and feel completely incapable of solving. The universe is a much bigger place than we think.

Maybe we should learn to practice this “stand and consider the wonders of God.” David must have done that on many occasions while tending sheep. In the quiet solitude there was ample time for him to think, question, consider, literally “wonder” at God. Paul must have done that because he knew that the creation itself declared God’s eternal power and divine nature. Jesus must have spent much time reflecting, meditating, and thinking through the scriptures. All “wondered” at God.

You might read that word, “wonder” and think that I’m talking about a confused mind. Quite the contrary. It has nothing to do with confusion, but a realization of the sheer vastness of God. It is to be awed by God’s power, knowledge and wisdom. It is to marvel at the beauty, complexity and superiority of even a blade of grass to man’s knowledge and ability. Human education and technology? No comparison to God.

Let your soul gaze upon a saving God. That’s a wonder of wonders!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mercy, The Grace Partner

Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Heb 4:16 (NASB)
A Wall Street Journal article reports that doctors discovered there are subtle differences in a baby’s cry that helps medical staff understand how to treat the infant. More than just hunger or being tired, differences in cry characteristics can provide clues that something is wrong. A computer program was created to analyze the cries in 12.5 millisecond frames and measures factors like pitch, volume and “voicing” which is how clear the cry sound is. Doctors hope such analysis can provide clues so that treatment can begin earlier than standard test results might indicate. – adapted, Sumathi Reddy, "What Science Hopes to Learn from a Baby's Cry," The Wall Street Journal (8-27-13)
You will read them together in many passages. Grace and mercy are great partners. As someone once noted, grace is getting what you don’t deserve while mercy is not getting what you do deserve. That seems to be a fair summary of some important ideas contained in the words.

We need to also connect grace and mercy to our prayers. The passage is Hebrews 4:16 tell us about something available to Christians. Access to God’s throne of grace is one of the benefits given to us because Jesus serves as our Great High Priest. The very idea of confidently coming into God’s presence is startling, but to think that access is to present ourselves, in all our humanness, including our needs, our pains, our struggles, and especially our failures is more than words can convey.

Make no mistake about this throne. It’s a throne of grace. Not one of us deserves to be there. None of us, by our virtue or our accomplishments, have an earned place before the throne of God. We’re there because of grace. But it’s not just a throne of grace. It’s also a place of mercy where God withholds what we really deserve, and grants us help instead.

That’s quite a different picture than one held by many. They see God as a demanding tyrant eager to threaten and punish. The truth is God does warn, and he will punish, but those are things reserved for those who reject him and refuse to believe and obey him.

Christians are not better than other people. We have the same troubles, commit the same sins, struggle with the same difficulties. The difference? Access to a couple of partners, dispensed from the throne of God.

A Place Of Grace

16 For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. – John 1:16 (NASB95)
Walls don't just divide us. They make us ill. After the Berlin Wall went up, East German psychiatrists observed that the Berlin Wall caused mental illness, rage, dejection, and addiction. The closer to the physical wall people lived, the more acute their disorders. The only cure for "Wall Disease" was to bring the Wall down. Sure enough, in 1990, psychiatrists noted the "emotional liberation" felt after November 9, 1989 when the Wall finally fell. Thousands of jubilant Germans climbed the Wall, wept, and embraced each other atop the concrete, and proceeded to tear the Wall down with joyful abandon. – Adapted from Marcello Di Cintio, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades (Soft Skull Press, 2013), pp. 10-12
Not all walls divide and make us ill, but some surely do. Walls of our homes should be healthy and supportive. Walls of businesses make it possible to create, sell, and serve. Walls of a bank should declare strength, security and confidence. So, walls can be good or walls can be bad. It depends on what’s happening inside the walls.

Churches have walls. Yes, I mean the walls of our buildings for one thing. The building isn’t the church, but the walls of our buildings say something. If the church is people, we need to know that people have walls too. They aren't brick, or metal, or wood, but they are walls nonetheless. We put up walls to keep some people out of our lives and others in.

I want to sort of combine those “church walls” into one metaphorical wall. I want to combine the walls of our building and the walls of our hearts into one wall because there is something I think the church needs to hear. Remember I said earlier that walls can be good or bad depending on what’s happening inside the walls? I want you to think about that. What’s happening inside the church? Whether it’s the walls of your heart or the walls of our building, what’s happening inside?

It’s too easy to forget what “church” is all about. First and foremost, we’re followers of Jesus. We are the redeemed, the saved, the justified, the sanctified. None of that is because we’re all that great. We need a fresh view of ourselves as sinners in need of help. We have little, if anything, to offer God. If we’re saved, it’s because God loved us in spite of ourselves, granted us mercy and grace, and washed us in the blood of Jesus. We didn’t achieve our salvation, Jesus did. If we forget that, we’ve forgotten something vital, urgent, and revealing.

What’s going on inside the walls of the church? I want to suggest to you that inside those walls, whether physical walls of a building or symbolic walls of your heart, church needs to be a place of grace. Grace doesn’t mean we deny or ignore sin. Grace means you can be forgiven and live better. Grace is what gives hope to dying people. Let’s be a place of grace - in your heart, in our house.

Come Out From Your Hidiing Place

20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. – 2 Corinthians 5:20 (NASB95)
In a classic episode from the classic TV series from the 1960's, The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Taylor, the sheriff of Mayberry, is out of town. His deputy, Barney Fife, is in charge, and he has deputized the local mechanic who is named Gomer. The two deputies are walking down the street one evening when they notice that someone is robbing the town's bank. They hide behind a car. They are afraid and don't know what to do. Finally, Gomer looks at Barney and says excitedly, "Shazam! We need to call the police."
In utter exasperation, Barney shoots back: "We are the police!" – Stephen Mansfield, Mansfield's Book of Manly Men (Nelson, 2013), page 12
I went for a job interview many years ago with a big church. At the time I was preaching for a very small church. Well, it had been small. There were only 55 of us (counting my wife and two daughters) our first Sunday there. The church had grown, things were doing well, and I guess I got the attention of some folks who knew some of our members. It was quite an opportunity. If I were to tell you what church it was, some of you reading this would be both surprised and impressed.

But I was still a pretty young preacher. I was just hitting my stride, as they say. And as much as I was flattered and humbled by the opportunity, I turned them down. Yes. They never got the chance to tell me I wasn’t their pick, I turned them down. Why in the world would I do that? I remember talking to a couple of the elders. I said, “I really appreciate the opportunity, but I’m just not sure I’m your guy.”

I still think that was probably the right decision. But looking back on it now, I know who they hired and who followed that guy, etc. I now think I could have done just as good a job as those guys.

I’ve heard us pray for “opportunities.” The truth is they come every day. Instead of accepting them, and doing something with them, I think most of us have a tendency to say, “I’m not your guy.” We seem to think whatever comes our way demands somebody with greater abilities, better talent, more ‘smarts’, or some edge that we don’t possess. The truth is, we are ambassadors for Christ.

I wish it was a simple matter writing an article, tossing out a challenge, having someone read it, and find themselves moved to change their lives. I pray we can become more confident; not haughty or irritating people, but confident enough to speak to people about Jesus. We are his ambassadors. We represent him.

I know it’s not that simple, but I want to challenge you anyway. You are an ambassador for Christ. Don’t be like Barney and Gomer. You don’t need to call anyone. Step out from your hiding place.

Feel Like You're Drowning?

25 And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. – Matthew 14:25 (NASB95)
Mark Twain was accompanied by his wife on one of his visits to the Holy Land. They were staying in Tiberius on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was a moonlit night, and the weather was perfect, which gave Twain the romantic idea of taking his wife for a boat ride on the lake.
They walked down to the pier, and Twain inquired of a man sitting in a rowboat how much he would charge to row them out on the water. Twain was dressed in his usual white suit, white shoes, and white Texas hat. The oarsman, presuming him to be a wealthy rancher from the USA, said, "Well, I guess about twenty-five dollars." Mark Twain thanked him, and, as he turned away with his wife on his arm, he was heard to exclaim, "Now I know why Jesus walked!" – Ward Williams, "Walking on Water,"
All respect to Mark Twain, Jesus didn’t walk on water because it was too expensive to ride in the boat. It does make for a good joke!

A lot of people relate to the idea of water and boats, however. Maybe you’ve said, “Well, we’re all in the same boat!” Or you’ve heard someone say, “I’m neck deep in water!” Another twist on this is, “I’m drowning!” Despite Peter’s desire to walk on the water with Jesus, I suspect he identified more with people in trouble than he did with Jesus. It’s on reason he started to sink.

I’d just like to say, we need somebody who can walk on water. We need Jesus because he could walk on water. In times of trouble when we feel like we’re drowning, or we’re up to our necks, or we think we’re sinking and can’t swim, we need to know there’s somebody who can help.

A man who walks on water is a man who is living by, and possesses, a power far more potent than anything I’ve got to offer. He’s got control of physical elements, and if he’s got control over those things, that alone is power, but it hints at even greater power.

Stories like this aren’t there to trick us or give us a mere mythical tale. Stories like the one that tells of Jesus walking on the water are there to build our faith, our trust, our willingness to depend on such a man. When Peter took his eyes off Jesus, he started to sink. So do we.

The next time you get that sinking feeling, or think you’re drowning, look for the man who walked on the water. He will reach down and save you.

I've Got A Question

46 Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. – Luke 2:46 (NASB95)
"Were we to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, 'What comes into your mind when you think about God?' we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man." – A.W. Tozer
Questions are important. Asking appropriate questions, even more. Asking the right question at the right time. Wow. Light bulb time.

Jesus was a master question asker. At the age of 12, he was found in the temple, “both listening to them (the teachers) and asking them questions. He started early, like most young people. Adults often tire of questions, but it’s questions that reveal the inquisitive mind, one open and ready to learn. It’s also the tool of the master teacher to pry open closed or unthinking minds.

Todd Catteau wrote that most of Jesus’ questions could be organized into one of three categories (“The Questions of Jesus”, Discipleship Journal, Issue 100 (July/August 1997):
● Questions that validated his teaching
● Questions that challenged false ideas
● Questions that deepened faith
Frequently, Jesus made statements of truth, followed by questions designed to cause people to think about how sensible the statements were. Or he would question the standard beliefs people held by getting to think about alternate possibilities. Occasionally, questions dug at what people believed, or challenged their faith in a way designed to deepen it.

We should learn to love questions. Instead, we avoid them. They irritate us. They confuse us. We just don’t want to bother with them. Sometimes, we act as if people shouldn’t ask questions at all. Questions aren’t always easy or comfortable. They do throw us off balance. They betray the reality that we might not know all that we think we know. We don’t like being shown up by a good question.

Still, it’s getting answers to questions that causes us to grow. Jesus didn’t want to merely irritate people. He didn’t want to confuse them. He wanted them to think, to learn, to grow. All of us should want that.

Do you really believe that Jesus is unnerved at our questions? I don’t think so. But I do think he will unnerve us with his questions. We need to learn to love questions. We need to ask them, and we need to consider the ones found in scripture. A good question opens up a world of information.