CIRCLING THE AIRPORT

airplaneYour word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. … Give discernment to me, your servant; then I will understand your laws. [Psalm 119:105,125 (NLT)]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

I’d been struggling over a devotion for days. The Bible verses were selected, several paragraphs written, and it even had a title. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t finish it. It was like taking off in an airplane, heading toward Chicago, circling O’Hare airport, but never landing. Every few days, I’d return to my partially finished work only to circle some more; I couldn’t tie up the loose ends and come to my conclusion. Eventually, I prayed about it; having felt God’s guidance when I started out, why couldn’t I land the plane? I was doing his work, why wouldn’t he help me finish the job?

I remembered the Apostle Paul. He was doing God’s work and yet his plans didn’t always work out. In spite of his desire to visit Rome, God prevented him from doing that for several years because He wanted Paul to preach elsewhere. That wasn’t the first time God had thwarted Paul’s plans. In Acts 16, we learn that the Holy Spirit prevented Paul and Silas from going to Asia (probably to Ephesus) so they went to Phrygia and Galatia. Then, when they headed north to Bithynia, the Spirit intervened again and sent them through Mysia to Troas. While in Troas, Paul had a clear vision of a man calling him to Macedonia and so Paul went. Although Paul’s destination had been Asia, his plan hadn’t been God’s; Europe before Asia was God’s itinerary. In God’s time, Paul eventually visited Ephesus, Bithynia, and Rome but he only got there because that was God’s destination.

Like Paul, sometimes we decide our destination and, unless it also is God’s destination, we won’t get there. I thought back to that unfinished devotion. Since I’d drawn my conclusion before completing the work, I was trying to make the Scripture fit the conclusion rather than drawing a conclusion from the Scripture. Having taken off without looking at the flight plan, I was circling O’Hare when I belonged at Newark! Once I revisited the Bible story about which I’d been writing, I asked God what He was saying in it and finished my work quickly.

Sometimes, instead of drawing conclusions, we jump to them. Instead of looking at all of the evidence, we cherry pick to reach the conclusion we want. When we do that in Bible study, we are guilty of what is called eisegesis (which is reading meaning into the text) as opposed to exegesis  (which is reading the meaning out of the text). In eisegesis, we inject our own ideas into the verses, allowing us to make them mean whatever we want them to mean. In exegesis, careful objective analysis leads to the explanation of the text. One (exegesis) does justice to the text while the other (eisegesis) mishandles it.

I’d had an idea and wanted Scripture to support it instead of looking at the Scripture and discovering what it said, meant, how it related to the rest of the Bible, and how it applied to our lives. Whether it’s drawing conclusions or planning a trip, where we want to go often is not where God wants us to be. When that happens, we’ll probably encounter difficulty getting there.  Before taking off, it’s wise to consult Him about the flight plan!

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, A goodly apple rotten at the heart. [Williams Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”]

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15  (NLT)]

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LOST AND FOUND

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. [Luke 15:4-6a (NIV)]

dahlia“The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures [mankind] to persevere. …this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.” So writes the demon Screwtape to his nephew, an apprentice devil trying to win a young man’s soul, in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.

A woman recently shared her story of Satan’s campaign of attrition. Since childhood, she dutifully attended church every Sunday and, once she had children, insisted that the family worship together. She’d taught Sunday school, volunteered for service projects, and attended churchwomen’s programs. Nevertheless, after her youngest left for college, she woke up one Sunday morning and, for no particular reason, decided to stay home. She skipped church the following week and the weeks after that. Before long, she returned the Bible on her bedside table to the bookcase and never picked it up again (not that she’d picked it up much before then). When she stopped praying, I’m sure Satan thought he’d won his campaign. None of this was because she was plagued with doubts or had experienced something that shook her faith. She just gradually stopped caring and, starved of fellowship, God’s word and prayer, her faith had withered away.

Fortunately, we have a loving Shepherd and, when one of his lambs goes missing, He will go in search of it, which is what the Holy Spirit did one Sunday several years later. The woman awoke that morning and, for no apparent reason, felt compelled to go to church. Once there, she learned of a church-wide challenge to read the Bible and committed to doing it. Realizing her need for a study group once she dug into her newly purchased large-print Bible, she joined one. Her faith again became active and alive; the good Shepherd had brought her home!

At one time or another, many of us have experienced similar experiences of having our faith grow dim and dusty; if you haven’t, chances are that you will. The enemy doesn’t quit when we accept Christ; he just changes his tactics. We must be alert to his methods and persevere in our faith as he tries to destroy our relationship with Jesus by making us complacent, neglectful, or simply bored. He nibbles away at things like church attendance, Christian fellowship, Bible study, and prayer so that, instead of growing spiritually, we begin to atrophy. When we take our eyes off the Shepherd, like the lost lamb, we wander into the wilderness.

Fortunately, we are never so lost that we can’t be found. Even when we think we’re finished with God, He’s never finished with us. God certainly wasn’t done with that woman. Shortly after her return to the church, she entered seminary at the age of 52! Now ordained, she is the pastor who teaches my Tuesday Bible study!

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. …You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.  [Hebrews 10:23-25,36 (NIV)]

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DID THEY KNOW?

Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:5 (NLT)]

Twenty-one of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are letters (epistles) written by Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude. While the gospels tell us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the epistles are letters of instruction, clarification, encouragement and, sometimes, caution to the new Christian community. I can’t help but wonder if those early letter writers realized the scope of their writing. Did they have any idea how fast and wide Christianity would spread? Did they envision how many people would come to know both their names and words? While they expected their messages to be read aloud to the members of the 1st century church, did they even dare hope that 2,000 years later their letters still would be read aloud regularly in many churches, that some of their words would even be used in Christian liturgy, or that people around the world would gather together to study their messages?

The God-inspired words of those men live today and still apply to us. While the issues we face are different than those in the 1st century, the underlying problems and concerns remain the same: false doctrine, dissension, immorality, and even persecution. We are still called to be godly, avoid foolish disputes, love one another, preach Christ to the world, and walk in a manner worthy of Jesus. We never will outgrow the need to understand doctrine and its application to our lives.

The story is told of a frail old man planting seeds in a garden. A passerby stopped to chat and the old gardener offered him a mango from one of his trees. When asked what he was planting, the aged man replied more mango trees. “But why bother?” asked the man. “It will be fifteen years before they produce a full crop and you’ll not live to see that day.” Pausing from his work, the gardener replied that the mango he gave the stranger was from a tree his grandfather had planted more than fifty years earlier. He was now planting trees for his grandchildren to enjoy long after his death.

Although they saw the church expand, the epistles’ writers never lived long enough to see the magnitude of their work. They did, however, know the promises of God: if they abided in Him, their work would bear fruit and His church would be built. The seeds they planted with their letters continue to bear fruit today.

Let us remember that, like the writers of the epistles (and the old man in the story), we should be committed to planting the seeds of faith, even though we may not see them bear fruit. It’s been said that, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Indeed, it is.

This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God’s wonderful grace. [Colossians 1:6 (NLT)]

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TWO LISTS

coreopsis-and-cowpen daisyLive wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

Last Friday, on All Saints’ Day, I asked who we would acknowledge in our spiritual memoir. Who were the people who helped us find our way to Jesus? In my morning Bible study, we actually wrote lists of the people who were our champions of faith. On her long list, Rachel wrote the name of one special teacher all in caps: MRS. HART. Rachel described her as a woman who seemed to exude Christian joy out of every pore of her body. The woman’s life wasn’t easy; a widow, she’d had her share of heartbreak and disappointment (especially when her daughter rejected Jesus and became a Buddhist). Nevertheless, in all circumstances, Mrs. Hart was filled with the joy of the Lord. One day she confidently declared, “I have a lot of questions for God and I’m looking forward to the day when I come face to face with him and can get some answers!” Until the older woman said that, it had never occurred to Rachel that, as a believer, one day she, too, would come face to face with God. It was then that she began to understand the reason for Mrs. Hart’s joy.

Among others on my list, I named my mother, the pastor at our mountain church who challenged his congregation to pray, a neighbor who ministered to prisoners and truly knew who the “least of these” were, and Marilyn, one of my college roommates, who showed me what it was like to live biblically in a non-biblical world. Not remembering their names, I also listed “the Campus Crusade couple.” Offering dinner and the gospel on Sunday nights, they opened their home and hearts to young searchers and believers on my campus. They never condemned me for my failings or pushed me to make a decision; they simply helped me find my way to a relationship with Jesus.

One of the women in class said she considered writing a second list on the opposite side of the page. This list would be for those “Christians” who’d turned her away from God. On it would be the nuns who’d spoken of love, forgiveness and compassion while ruthlessly inflicting verbal and corporal punishment on their students, the chuch-going parents who wouldn’t allow their children to play with her because her father was an ex-con, and the priest who called her “Honey” and told her to sit on his lap. While it gave her a sense of closure to see his name (along with nearly 40 others) in the paper last year, she wondered how many people had turned from Jesus because of behavior like his. One woman added that the same name could appear on both lists. When the pastor who had opened her eyes to the gospel message deceived his congregation and slandered his accusers, she questioned all she’d come to believe. Eventually, for both of these women, it was through other people’s sincere Christian examples of truth, love, forgiveness, and compassion that they realized it was Satan, not the church, who was their true enemy—with hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and abuse of trust and power being his weapons of choice!

If our names were to occur on someone’s list, we’d want to be recorded in the column of God’s ambassadors rather than the one of His adversaries. The difference wouldn’t be that one column was sinless and the other sinful. All of those who guided me on my journey were sinners (as am I) and the joyful Mrs. Hart was a sinner, as well. It’s just that none of them ever pretended they weren’t; they never hid behind a “holier than thou” façade. As imperfect as they were, they were living evidence of God’s work. His truth, mercy, grace, and unlimited love were evident in their walk and the lives they touched were better for it. Rather than just telling me about God with their words, they showed Him to me with their actions and brought His light to the dark corners of my heart.

Heavenly Father, guide us on our walk so that we never deliberately or accidentally cause someone to reject the gospel message. May we always be Christ’s ambassadors by bringing light to the world and glory to you.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable. [Brennan Manning]

In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:16 (NLT)]

So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” [2 Corinthians 5:20 (NLT)]

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APOLOGIA

Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence. [1 Peter 3:15 (RSV)]

red-shouldered hawkAlthough the word “apologetics” sounds a bit like acknowledging guilt or expressing remorse, it isn’t. In 1 Peter 3:15, we first find its use when Peter tells the persecuted Christians in Asia Minor to be ready to make a defense (apologia) to anyone who asks for a reason for their hope. In a nutshell, that one verse is what Christian apologetics is about: the communication of the evidence and reasons that Christianity is true. Of course, Peter adds that this must be done with gentleness and respect and his words hold true today.

Nevertheless, there are some things, done by those who claimed to be Christians, for which we, as the body of Christ, should apologize. The most obvious issue is that of sexual abuse and the failure of the church to protect its most vulnerable by acknowledging and addressing the issue. Going back nearly one thousand years, we also have the Crusades (1096-1291) when countless Jews and Muslims were slaughtered in the name of Christ. Calling for the first crusade, Pope Urban II said killing non-Christians wasn’t a sin and further distorted the gospel message by reassuring the crusaders that it would win remission for their sins! Consider the Inquisition, beginning in the 12th century and continuing for hundreds of years, when people were jailed, tortured, and even murdered as punishment for anything considered heretical. Ignoring the command to love our enemies, Pope Innocent III announced that anyone whose views conflicted with church dogma “must be burned without pity.” During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced into ghettos and more than 32,000 people were executed.

The Protestant Reformation pitted Christian against Christian. In contradiction to Paul’s command to live in harmony with one another, Christian hands shed Christian blood in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace! Catholics and Lutherans persecuted one another, Lutherans and Calvinists harassed each other, and everyone seemed to attack the Anabaptists. More than eight million people died as a result of the Thirty Years War alone. Some say that’s ancient history; nevertheless, it is our history!

Even the Reformation’s hero, Martin Luther, did his share to further hate when, in 1543, he wrote The Jews and Their Lies. Calling Jews a “miserable and accursed people,” Luther accused them of being “nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury.” There’s nothing of Christ in those false and hateful words. Unfortunately, some of his rhetoric was used to justify Nazi ideology and is still being used by anti-Semites today.

Why do I bring up these perversions of Christ’s message? If we hope to truly defend our faith, we must be ready to acknowledge (and apologize) for our failings. When Luther’s virulent diatribe was first pointed out to me by an unbeliever, I was dumb-founded; totally unprepared, I had no response. If you’re like me, you forgot most of the Middle Ages as soon as you passed World History and yet the Crusades and the religious wars of that time are some of the most frequent arguments used against Christianity. Granted, all of Christianity can’t be blamed for the actions of some people any more than all Muslims can be blamed for the actions of Islamic terrorists. Nevertheless, when the name of Christ has been exploited, blasphemed, or abused by people claiming to be His followers, we must be prepared with an answer to people’s questions and accusations. It seems that there may be times in apologetics when we just might need to offer an apology.

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. [1 Corinthians 12:26-27 (RSV)]

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COINCIDENCE OR PRAYER?

We are confident that God listens to us if we ask for anything that has his approval. We know that he listens to our requests. So we know that we already have what we ask him for. [1 John 5:14-15 (GW)]

great egretRecently, the Sinner’s Shack Gentlemen’s Club wanted to open an establishment in our small Midwest community. It’s a rather conservative town and, since there’s nothing gentlemanly about the goings on in such an establishment, everyone was up in arms about it. When the Holier Than Thou Evangelical Church started a campaign to halt the tawdry business from locating in town, prayer sessions were held three times a day and the City Council was inundated with letters and calls of protests. Unfortunately, in spite of the prayers and complaints, proper zoning was attained and construction on the Sinner’s Shack began. Just a day before its grand opening, however, lightning struck the new building and it burned completely to the ground!

The Holier Than Thous were rather smug and self-righteous about the fire until Honey Bunn, the owner of the strip club, filed suit again the church, its pastor, and the entire congregation on the grounds that they were “ultimately responsible for the demise of the building and business, either through direct or indirect divine actions or means.” The Holier Than Thous replied to the court by vociferously denying any and all responsibility for the lightning and the building’s loss.

As the judge read through the plaintiff’s complaint and the church’s reply, he commented, “I have no idea how I will be able to decide this case. I have a staunch sinner who appears to believe in the power of prayer and an entire congregation of Christians who don’t!”

Of course, this is just a bit silly fiction, but it poses some interesting questions about our belief in the power of prayer. Would we have joined in those prayer sessions or would we have considered the issue a lost cause? If we’d attended those prayer sessions, would we have gone out of a sense of duty or because we truly believed our prayers could make a difference? Do we ever pray without the confidence that our prayers are heard? Do we pray without believing in the power of our prayers? When our prayers are answered, as they were in the story, are we surprised? Instead of crediting it to prayer, do we chalk it up to coincidence or good luck?

When we pray; we’d better believe that prayer works, or it won’t. Effective prayers require trusting in a God who is faithful in His promises to us. We need confidence that God is both willing and able to act on our behalf to advance His kingdom. I know it’s difficult at times not to attribute God’s answers to coincidence but, as for me, I’m going to chalk one up for God!

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. [Albert Einstein]

When you ask for something, don’t have any doubts. A person who has doubts is like a wave that is blown by the wind and tossed by the sea. A person who has doubts shouldn’t expect to receive anything from the Lord. A person who has doubts is thinking about two different things at the same time and can’t make up his mind about anything. [James 1:6-8 (GW)]

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