Restoration of Fortune

Jeremiah 30:18-24

Remember the date, June 12, 2009?  Probably not.  That was the federal deadline for the nation’s television broadcasters to go “all digital.”  If you recall the event at all, you probably recall the consumer confusion about whether they had the right TV or whether they need to buy a converter box or not.  Getting the word out that those “rabbit ears” were to become a thing of the past became quite a challenge for the government.

Early in 2009 the FCC announced that it spent about $350,000 to sponsor a car for three NASCAR races in hopes of raising awareness.   As one newspaper columnist put it:  “Government officials no doubt imagined the golden moment when a NASCAR announcer cried:  “It’s the Digital TV Transition–over the finish line in record time!”  What happened?  In the first race, the car hit a wall.  In the second, it crashed and burned.  Fans got to hear commentary along the line of:  “Well, it looks like the Digital TV transition is going to have to be towed off the track.”  (This foreshadowed the transition date which was originally Feb. 17 being moved to June.)

Israel was like that hapless car.  Such high hopes!  Wonderful potential!  Such dismal results.  Kind of like the story of us all.  We are all born cute, adorable and with great potential.  A few laps around the track later we are beat up, out of the race, in much need of repair.  Our message?  Our purpose for the race?  It is not so much a statement as it is a punch line.

But there is hope…  Just as God promised:  “I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents and have compassion on his dwellings.” (30:18)… He has promised us restoration as well.  Philippians reminds us:  “…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (1:6)

My dad loves to work on old hot rods.  He finds them in dilapidated condition and when he is done with them, in some ways, they are in better condition than the original.  I’m pretty sure the ’40 Plymouth didn’t have a cd player in the dash.  God is in the restoration business as well.  He wants us repaired, restored and re-entered into the race of life.  And he promises that a transition will take place.  The agony of defeat will be replaced with the joy of praise.  “From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing.” (Jeremiah 30:19)  Let God do His perfect work in you.

Can’t wait to get to heaven to take that victory lap!

The Health Benefits of Thanksgiving

1 Thessalonians 5: 16-17

Thanksgiving has health benefits.

You are probably wondering what I’m talking about.  How can I benefit from that extra slice of pumpkin pie, that cheese ball as big as my head and that mound of mashed potatoes with real butter?  Actually I’m not referring to the food, I’m talking about the real thanksgiving.  That which springs from the gratitude born in our hearts.  It seems true thanks-giving amplifies what’s in our hearts when we express it with our mouths. 

Stumbled across this article a couple of Thanksgivings ago in USA Today:  “ Saying thanks, it turns out, isn’t just pious or polite. It’s good for you.  But there’s a catch: You have to do it even when the calendar does not say “Thanksgiving.”  “It doesn’t really work if you do it only once a year,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside.

Practicing gratitude is like exercising, says Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis: Use it, and you won’t lose it, even when times are tough, as they are for many folks right now.  Lyubomirsky and Emmons are among researchers who have studied the power of gratitude and learned, for example, that: 

•People with high blood pressure not only lower their blood pressure, but they feel less hostile and are more likely to quit smoking and lose weight when they practice gratitude. This was demonstrated by calling a research hotline once a week to report on the things that make them grateful.

•People who care for relatives with Alzheimer’s disease feel less stress and depression when they keep daily gratitude journals, listing the positive things in their lives.

•Those who maintain a thankful attitude through life appear to have lower risks of several disorders, including depression, phobias, bulimia and alcoholism.

•Most people can lift their mood simply by writing a letter of thanks to someone. Hand-deliver the letter, and the boost in happiness can last weeks or months.

Practicing gratitude in these systematic ways changes people by changing brains that “are wired for negativity, for noticing gaps and omissions,” Emmons says. “When you express a feeling, you amplify it. When you express anger, you get angrier; when you express gratitude, you become more grateful.”

And grateful people, he says, don’t focus so much on pain and problems. They also are quicker to realize they have friends, families and communities to assist them in times of need. They see how they can help others in distress as well, he says.”  (Kim Painter, “Stepping Up the Gratitude,” USA Today, Monday, November 24th, 2008, 6D)

So when you give it comes back to you… good measured, pressed down and running into your lap.  Wait!  Didn’t Jesus already say that?  Give thanks with a grateful heart… and the dividends are huge.  

Sound advice… now pass the mashed potatoes.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Gratitude as Proof of the Existence of God

Psalm 100

Charles Colson speaks of a time before he was a believer when he was on a lake in New Hampshire sailing with his two sons.  His ten year old, Christian, had just taken the sheet for the first time and was so excited you could see his eyes light up.  Out of no where Colson had this thought:  “Thank you, God, for giving me this son—for giving us this one wonderful moment.”  Colson then went on to tell God that if I were to die tomorrow, he would have felt that his life had been fulfilled.  Colson writes:  “When I realized what I had done, I was startled.  I had no intention of trying to talk to God, whoever He was—if He did exist and was even knowable.  I was certainly not intellectually convinced that God existed.  But I had to admit that I was simply overcome with gratitude for that unforgettably rich experience with my son Chris, and I needed to thank someone—God.”

There are many intellectual proofs that God exists, gratitude being one of them.  Believers and non-believers alike get that rush as they stand by the ocean, look across a mountain range or marvel at a sunset.  There is a contentment and a desire to express thanks.  As believers we know that this was all created by the Lord… who made us… “his people, the sheep of his pasture.”  (100:3)  We can enter into His presence with joy and thanksgiving.  One quick way back from fear to joy in a believer’s life is through thanks-giving.  When our hearts are delighted… we just have to exalt our creator.  We were made for this kind of joy!

Colson finds this connection to be evidence for the existence of the Almighty.  He concludes:  “What moved me that day to talk to God was an overwhelming sense of gratitude for that incredibly joyous experience.  Gratitude, I have discovered, is built into everyone of us, as much a universal human characteristic as guilt.  When you wake up in the morning, lift the window, feel the fresh spring breezes, and see the sun rising in the east, aren’t you filled with graditude?  I am grateful every day that I’m alive, grateful that I have a wonderful family, grateful that I have a purpose in life.  Can you imagine believing that you didn’t?  If there’s nothing out there except a great vacuum, why should you feel grateful for anything?”  (The Good Life, p. 272.)

Does God exist?  There is more than enough proof available for the seeking heart that is filled with gratitude.

Godly Advice or Wishing Away the Yoke?

Jeremiah 28

“The mouth of the Godly person gives wise advice …” Proverbs 10:31

We all know people that make themselves constantly available to warn others about what could go wrong.  Buying a home?  You might get termites.  Having a child?  It might get a birth defect.  Taking a walk in the park?  You might get mugged.  Breathing?  Watch out for those airborne viruses!  If you meet this person you won’t need to seek their advice… it is usually offered unsolicited… so run! 

When I offer advice, I tend to err on the side of hope.  I tend to think things will work out for the best, even when I don’t have any justification or indication that it will.  If you read today’s passage you will see that my approach isn’t any better.  Sometimes a harsh reality has to be revealed.  Jeremiah wore a wooden yoke around his neck to tell his fellow Israelites that they were going to be future captives of Babylon.  The prophet Hananiah in dramatic fashion tore the yoke off of Jeremiah’s neck and broke it to pieces.  He exclaimed:  “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says:  ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”

I’m sure the room broke out in a chorus of “Amens.”  It was what everyone wanted to hear.  The worst was over.  Freedom was just around the corner.  It sounded like such godly advice.  Only problem?  God has said no such thing. 

We need to be careful putting words in God’s mouth.  We help no one by wishing away coming hardship. 

So what do we do when a friend asks for advice?  First of all, listen closely to your friend.  Don’t launch into a “everything is going to be alright” speech until you have heard the entire story.  Secondly, listen closely to God.  Godly counsel begins with a daily conversation with the Almighty.  How can you presume to know the mind of God if you never talk with God?  Third, offer new ways of searching for a solution… not necessarily “the” solution.  People have a way of doing what they want anyway.  Why not steer them toward resolution instead of dragging them there.  Finally, support them in prayer and check back with them.  Knowing that you haven’t forgotten their plight reminds them that someone indeed cares.  Remind them that God remembers them too. 

Faced with personal difficulties, I still err on the side of hope.  But lately I’m less quick to wish the yoke away.  Sometimes it is the yoke of Jesus that I’m feeling… and He promised that His yoke would be easy and His burden… though still present… would be light.

A Tale of Two Prophets

Jeremiah 26

  In the Korean War during the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, the Marines were cut off behind enemy lines and the Army had written the 1st Marine Division off as being lost because they were surrounded by 22  enemy divisions. The Marines made it out inflicting the highest casualty ratio on an enemy in history and destroying 7 entire enemy divisions in the process.  Marine commander, Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller was quoted as saying at the time:  “They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29:1. They can’t get away from us now!”

Such courage is needed today by men and women called to take God’s words to a skeptical and often hostile secular world.  When we are surrounded by critics – will we choose fight or flight as our defense strategy?  In today’s passage we see two prophets that had tough messages to deliver:  Jeremiah, who had the book of the Bible named after him & Uriah son of Shemaiah, who amounts to a mere footnote in this story (vv. 22-23).  Both men deliver their message and have their lives threatened for doing so.  Uriah chooses flight.  But his instinct to run doesn’t end his story well.  King Jehoiakim has him hunted down and then executed. 

Jeremiah, however, decides to fight.  He proclaims:  “The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the things you have heard.  Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the Lord your God.  Then the Lord will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you.  As for me, I am in your hands; do with me whatever you think is good and right.”  His courageous stand pays off and he lives to proclaim God’s word another day.  (By the way, people often admire someone’s courage even when they don’t agree with their cause.)

Jeremiah is often called the weeping prophet.  This declaration makes him the prophet of courage in my book.  He may have felt surrounded, but knew the Lord had his back.  Jeremiah was promised this when he was a youth.  God told him that he would be made “a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land…”  The Lord had said:  “they will fight against you but will not overcome you…”    I guess Jeremiah took God at his word!

What do we face today when we take a stand for the truth?  Ridicule?  Slander?  It seems to me that we sometimes chose flight over fight, when we faced with situations of mere uncomfortability.  Where is our courage?  Sure, speak with kindness and gentleness… but don’t neglect to speak.  And then,… when attacked:  Take a lesson from Uriah – don’t be shunned into silence; running is not an option.  Secondly, take a lesson from Jeremiah – find an iron backbone and fight with courage.

Lord, Here am I… But Send Somebody Else

Isaiah 6:8   –  “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom, shall I send?  And who will go for us?”  And I said, ‘Here I am, Send me!”

Exodus 4:10-17 – “But Moses said, ‘O Lord, please send someone else to do it.” (4:13)

David Platt in his book Radical told of a time he was in a church speaking about his mission work in New Orleans and in countries around the world.  After he spoke, the pastor of the church said:  “Brother David, we are so excited about all that God is doing in New Orleans and in all nations, and we are excited that you are serving there.  And brother, we promise that we will continue to send you a check so we don’t have to go there ourselves.”  If that isn’t stunning enough, he continued by saying:  “I remember a time at my last congregation when a missionary from Japan came to speak.  I told that congregation that if they didn’t give financial support to this missionary, I was going to pray that God would send their kids to Japan to serve with that missionary.”  David wrote:  “Wow.  Did he just threaten his congregation with the punishment of going to the world?”  (Radical, p. 63.)

When it comes to missions are we like Isaiah (Here I am, send me.) or like Moses (Here I am, Send Aaron.)?  In my own life I have questioned God about what I am doing in Nashville.  Working retail 40 hours a week was NOT part of the plan God.  But my focus cannot be on my personal comforts but on the mission God has for me here.  I am praying:  “Here I am.  Keeping sending me, Lord. 

Maybe you are contemplating what God has for your future.  Maybe this blog might be the nudge you need to go for it.  God’s kingdom needs more workers living with their bags packed. 

Want to take the end of this blog to plug a book I’ve started reading.  Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision U.S., wrote about his call to the position.  The book, The Hole in Our Gospel, tells of his struggle to leave his position as CEO of Lenox to become the front man for a Christian relief organization.  He wrote:  “I wish I could tell you that I accepted this call with a sense of spiritual excitement and passion to help the broken people of the world.  I’d like to say that I boldly prayed, “Here I am, Lord.  Send me.” — that I was eager to seize the opportunity to serve.  But that would be a lie.”  It can be a hard thing to be drafted for the Lord’s purposes. Read chapter two of Stearns’ book and you will see that Richard possessed a reluctance that would make Moses’ calling look like an eager enlistment.  And yet the reward was so great.

I close with a quote from David Platt’s aforementioned book:  “Meanwhile, Jesus commands us to go.  He has created each of us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and I propose that anything less than radical devotion to this purpose is unbiblical Christianity.”

Rest and Inspiration

Psalm 62

Having a little Blog-Block this morning.  Looking for a little inspiration I recalled this from pastor John Ortberg:  “One morning I was in my office at my former church and was sweating bullets over a midweek message that refused to be born, or even conceived.  … Bill Hybels, the senior pastor, bounced into my office with the happy report that his message for that weekend was already finished.  Meanwhile, I had nothing.  A little later on, he came back in to tell me that he had a brainstorm for his message the following week, and that was done too.  He was beaming.  I was so happy for him.  Before the end of the day, Bill stopped by to say that he had a talk to give overseas in a few weeks, and he had a terrific idea for that one as well.  And I realized what was going on.  God was giving Bill my messages.”  (God is Closer Than You Think, p. 87.)

I am learning more and more the importance of rest in the process of ministry.  Inspiration comes from listening to God.  That listening becomes hard when we move at warp speed with little time to recooperate from daily stress.  It is when we allow our soul to slow down to catch up with God that we truly find rest  “… find rest, O my soul, in God alone.”  (Psalm 62:5)   

Dwight L. Moody, the great evangelist once wrote about a particularly hard day of ministry:  “By the time I was through the day, I was tired out.  I didn’t know much at that time, for after going from early morning till late at night with only a few crackers and some cheese, I was faint and fatigued.  Sometimes after a day’s work I thought I sinned in going to sleep over my prayers, when really I was a fool for neglecting the dictates of common sense.  God is not a hard taskmaster, and in later years I have learned that to do your best work you cannot afford to neglect the common laws of health.”

Amen to that.  Thanks for the inspiration, Dwight.

I Regret That – Part Two

Philippians 3:12-14

In my last blog post I shared some responses to a NY Times inquiry into regrets.  Blog readers of the newspaper’s website sent responses ranging from funny to tragic.  One pulled on my heart-strings:

“I dreadfully regret my adultery with a young wife and mother of an (unplanned) toddler in 1973.  I wish I had never met her, and gave in to her importuning. I do penance at church every week, and on six pilgrimages to Catholic shrines in France and Spain and Portugal, for that grievous sin.”  — Carlos

He travelled far and wide and was unable to procure forgiveness to heal his weary heart. As I mentioned last time, regret is natural, even necessary when we sin.  But what do we do when we can’t let go of regret and the pain from our past actions?

Pastor Joe McKeever shared this story on his blog:    “Pastor,” Thea said, “One of these days, I need to talk to you about something.” I was the new, fresh-from-seminary pastor of Thea’s church and had already heard the gossip about her. Before I knew what was happening, my secretary had blurted out that a year earlier, Thea had had an affair with a man she worked with at the department store. “She doesn’t think anyone knows,” the secretary assured me. I thought to myself, “Leave it to you and soon everyone will know.”  “Anytime,” I said, “I’m here to do anything I can for you.”

Thea was in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer and was in great pain. I pulled a chair up to her bed and made small talk until she decided to pour out her heart and tell me the awful tale of her sin. She would have died had she known I already knew about it.  At the end, I said, “Has God forgiven you for this?” She said, “I really believe He has.” She hesitated a moment and said, “I just can’t forgive myself.” I said, “You have higher standards than God, is that it?” She reacted quickly. “The very idea–why would you say such a thing?”

I said, “Sure sounds like it to me. Oh, sure, God can forgive me. But I have higher standards. I can’t let myself off that easy.”  She said, “Then tell me what to do.” I said, “Believe that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for that sin on the cross, the same way He did all the rest of our sins and failures. And He says, ‘Their sins and iniquities I will remember no more.’ He says, ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far have I removed their transgressions.’ So, now, it’s time you started believing Him and got up off the floor and got on with your life.”  One year later, I received a note in the mail. “It was a year ago,” Thea wrote, “that you told me just exactly what I needed to hear. I am a   healthy person today. Thank you.”  Repent of it. Learn from it. Then put it behind you and go forward.  Everyone fails. Just don’t park there. (Joe McKeever  (http://www.joemckeever.com/mt/archives/000591.html)

I like pastor McKeever’s advice:  Repent of it.  Learn from it.  Then put it behind you and go forward.  Paul was a man that could have had regret consume him.  He had persecuted Christians to death before his conversion.  He learned to forget what was behind and strained forward for what God had for him.  How does one press on?  By helping others caught in the same temptation… by volunteering time to help victims of similar circumstances… by discovering your calling and pursuing it with everything you have.

You can chase forgiveness around the globe or you can find it stretched out to you where you are… from a nailed scarred hand.  Take it.  Then put regret behind you and go forward.

I Regret That! – Part One

2 Corinthians 7:8-11

The NY Times ran a blog not long ago asking people to send in the one financial decision in their life that they would like to undo if they could.  At first people stuck with the main topic, but then began mentioning other regrets.  Some were funny, some very sad.  A sampling: 

I regret not focusing on getting into a good undergrad college. I think my life would be different now.
— robert

Only one regret: I walked away from my wife after 22 years. Now it’s too late to return. I have only my own stupidity to blame for such a dumb mistake.
— Master Blaster

I would never have moved back in with my parents right after college, poor as I was. It set me back years emotionally.

— HB

Bumping into Bruce Springsteen one night in the parking lot of the Stone Pony getting out of his 68 Mustang Convertible on a beautiful summer night and the best thing I could manage to mumble was “Nice night, huh?”.

— snappyguy

After a lifetime that included excesses and needless unkindness to others and too much self-generated angst . . . I wish I’d wagged more with others and barked less at them

— Kei

I regret making fun of my friend for wanting our cancer support group to go to a movie together. “What? You don’t have your own friends?” I asked jokingly; fully intending to spend more time with her outside of the group. Before I could, she died after falling while weak from her cancer. I don’t think I fully appreciated how much she needed us. Or how much I needed her. RIP Sue.

— Jill

Regret is one of those emotions that is necessary and natural… at least initially.  One would not want to run in to a person that never experienced a regret.  (That person would be a sociopath.)  But excessive regret, according to today’s passage leads only to death.  Godly sorrow leads to repentance and salvation (life!).  And Godly sorrow is devoid of regret. 

How does one rid themselves of regret?  I will discuss what I think the best course of action is in my next post.  But begin with repentance… feel sorrow for what you have done.  But then after experiencing the forgiveness offered in Christ, learn to let it go.  Let sorrow do its perfect work.

Where’s the Cross?

Mark 8:34-38 

Sometime ago, a pastor friend of mine in California was preaching the Sunday after Christmas.  As was the custom in his church, the Christmas decorations were still up for one more service.  Behind the pulpit there usually hung a large wooden cross, but for the holidays it was replaced with a large Christmas wreath.  This Sunday my pastor friend was particularly passionate in his preaching.  Speaking on the forgiveness offered us through the cross of Christ he even become animated and pounded the pulpit a little.  He then built up to a conclusion by shouting:  “And it is all because of what Jesus did on…”  He turned dramatically and faced a giant Christmas wreath.  In utter shock he exclaimed:  “WHERE’S THE CROSS!”

Good question.  In fact it is one that I have been asking myself these days.  According to Jesus, if anyone would come after Him, a cross should be visible somewhere. So where is my cross?  Where are the marks of sacrifice and self denial most visible in my Christian walk? 

Calvin Miller, one of my favorite pastors of all time, has said:  “Cross-bearing is to stand at the imperative center of my discipleship.  My baptismal certificate can tell me that I have been baptized.  A form letter tells me that I am a church member.  But only a cross borne on my back tells me that I am a disciple.  No cross…no claim of belonging to God. 

What did Jesus mean when he said that we should take up a cross?  He was not referring to a dainty trinket dangling from a gold chain.  …  Our cross is something vital for the Lord of the kingdom.  For Stephen, it was martyrdom.  For Paul, it meant making his own defense before Nero.  For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it meant being hanged by the Nazis.  For Jim Elliot, it was an inspired attempt to draw God’s circle of love around savage tribesman.  For William Wallace, it was death in a communist’s prison cell.  I can see that it is wrong to refer to the trivial things of my life as “my cross.”  That which I give up for Lent is not my cross.  A toothache is not my cross.  The lack of some particular talent that would add energy or charm to my personality is not my cross.  Before I hastily designate anything as “my cross,” I must ask myself what a cross really is.  I must look at his Cross and then ask myself what I have offered him by way of sacrifice, humility, and obedience.”  (Once Upon a Tree, pp. 115-116.)

Is the cross the imperative center of your discipleship?  Is your life marked by self denial and determination to follow Jesus?  Where’s your cross?