WHERE IS HE?

As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and stand before him? Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours?” [Psalm 42:1-3 (NLT)]

white-tailed deer - FloridaNot so long ago, it was hard to face my computer with any enthusiasm. Every beginning led to a dead end or took me down a rabbit hole of confusion. The paragraphs over which I’d struggled had come to nothing and my hours at the keyboard seemed an exercise in futility. It’s as if I had little scraps of useless fabric but couldn’t find a way to quilt them together. I wondered where God was when I so desperately needed His guidance.

The best place to go when feeling hollow or hopeless is God’s word and Psalms is where I usually begin. David certainly had plenty of times of downheartedness and he wasn’t afraid to express his exhaustion, frustration, or despair and yet there always seems to be a ray of hope in his words. I turned to Psalm 42 and, having hit a “dry spell,” I knew what the psalmist meant when comparing himself to a deer panting for water and thirsting for God. Like him, I felt like I was dying of thirst.

It was the psalm’s mention of enemies with their taunts of, “Where is this God of yours?” that really hit home. I don’t share David’s flesh and blood enemies but all of us share a common unseen enemy: the doubt and anxiety that comes from spiritual depression.

The palmist asks why God has forgotten him and I think we all know that feeling. While I can get it when I’m staring at an empty page, that sense of desolation may visit others as they wait for the return of a prodigal, sit in a hospital room, endure chronic pain, look at the empty chair once occupied by a spouse, or have too much month left at the end of their money. We’ve all had times when it feels like God has turned a deaf ear to our prayers or has closed His eyes to our situation.

“Where is this God of yours?” is the enemy’s voice. Wanting us to lose faith or wallow in despair, he causes us to question God’s presence in our lives. God hasn’t forgotten about us; even the psalmist, as depressed as he was, acknowledges that God pours out His unfailing love each day. Nevertheless, sometimes, it feels as if God is looking the other way. Feeling defeated, discouraged, lonely, weary, or insecure, it’s easy to forget that our feelings can’t always be trusted. God, however, always is steadfast and trustworty!

In a gentle reproach, the psalmist asks why he is so downcast and reminds himself of the hope he has in God. That we don’t sense God’s presence, feel His love, see His hand, or hear His voice doesn’t mean that our loving God isn’t there. When asked, “Where is this God of yours?” let us never forget that He dwells, not just in heaven above, but also in our broken spirits. There always will be dark valleys to traverse but we are never alone; we have hope in God and, for that, we praise him.

A loss of the present sense of God’s love is not a loss of that love itself; the jewel is there, though it gleams not on our breast; hope…expects the promised boon though present providence stands before her with empty hands. [Charles Spurgeon]

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God! [Psalm 42:11 (NLT)]

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SHUT THE DOOR (Elisha – 5)

And Elisha said, “Borrow as many empty jars as you can from your friends and neighbors. Then go into your house with your sons and shut the door behind you. Pour olive oil from your flask into the jars, setting each one aside when it is filled. [2 Kings 4:3-4 (NLT)]

naples doorwayHer neighbors probably thought she’d lost her mind when she sent her boys out to ask for empty containers. Shutting the door certainly kept out the creditors, naysayers, and doubters along with any talk of unbelief that could hinder the widow’s faith. That closed door shut out interruptions, distractions, anxieties, and whatever else that might have kept the widow from focusing on God. Because that shut door even kept out Elisha, there was no mistaking who was responsible for the flowing oil: God!

Not every miracle is meant to be as public and impressive as the parting of the Red Sea. With the door open, once others saw what was happening, they even may have brought their own jars to cash in on the widow’s seemingly unlimited supply of oil. The closed door meant that, rather than a public display of God’s power, this miracle was to be a private demonstration of God’s mercy and grace. There are many other private miracles throughout Scripture. When Elisha restored the Shunammite woman’s son to life, he did it behind closed doors. Elijah’s resurrection of the widow from Zarephath’s son also was done privately and only Peter, James and John witnessed Jesus’s resurrection of Jairus’s daughter. Many miracles, like Jesus’s healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman or the Roman officer’s servant were done from a distance with no witnesses. While these instances of God’s miraculous provision and healing eventually became known far and wide (we still read of them today), at the time, they were a personal matter of one person’s faith and God’s amazing power.

Because it cut out other options, shutting the door showed the widow’s total trust in God. Leaving the door open would have implied that she wasn’t quite sure about Elisha’s promise. With an open door, once she saw the oil pouring, the woman could have sent her boys out for more jars; something tells me that the oil would have stopped flowing the moment she did. After the door was closed, the number of jars indicated her faith. Shutting the door meant she’d shut the door on other people and other options. Having opened her life to God, she was all in and committed to Him.

Do we truly trust God’s provision? When He calls us to do something, are we all in? Do we ignore the skeptics and pessimists? Do we focus on God or our fears? Do we give God credit for our blessings or do we tend to chalk them up to coincidence or good fortune. Do we trust in God even when what He tells us to do seems impractical or implausible? Do we put all of our faith in God or do we rely on ourselves and keep a backup plan handy? Peter certainly shut the door when (without a life-jacket) he stepped out of that boat onto the water!

I guess it comes right back to Monday’s message, “Any Bridges to Burn?” The widow trusted God enough to shut the door on her neighbors and any other options and Elisha trusted God enough to shut the door by burning his plow and cooking his oxen. Having faith is believing that God will do what He says He will. Do we have enough faith to shut the door?

Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. [Hebrews 11:1 (NLT)]

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. [[Jeremiah 17:7 (NLT)]

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ANY BRIDGES TO BURN? (Elisha – 1)

Chicago RiverThen Peter said, “We’ve left everything to follow you.” Jesus said to them, “I can guarantee this truth: Anyone who gave up his home, wife, brothers, parents, or children because of the kingdom of God will certainly receive many times as much in this life and will receive eternal life in the world to come.” [Luke 18:28-29 (GW)]

“Don’t burn your bridges!” we’re often told, but Elisha certainly did. When it became time for the prophet Elijah to find a successor, the Lord directed him to Elisha. Finding Elisha plowing his field, Elijah placed his cloak over the farmer’s shoulders, an indication that Elisha was to become the prophet’s apprentice and eventual replacement. Recognizing the enormity of this calling, the young man didn’t say, “Wait until I’m done plowing and can get my affairs in order. I’ll catch up to you when it’s convenient.” He didn’t question Elijah about the pay, fringe benefits or risks of being a prophet. The farmer stopped working and told the prophet that he needed to say good-bye to his family before leaving.

Elisha then prepared a celebratory departure feast by slaughtering his oxen and cooking them over a fire fueled by his plow. Is this a good career plan? Most of us would have asked a neighbor to feed the oxen and, rather than burning the plow, would have stored it in case the prophet gig didn’t work out. Elisha, however, was fully committed to answering God’s call.

This makes me ponder what plans God has for me and, more important, what things might be keeping me from saying “Yes” to Him. Most of us don’t have oxen and plows to burn, but we probably have other things we’re not willing to relinquish in order to follow Jesus. How attached are we to our life styles, possessions and status? Do we have habits, unhealthy relationships, dependencies or negative thoughts like fear, guilt, bitterness, or intolerance we’re unwilling to surrender? What might be holding us back from answering God’s call?

God did remarkable things with Elisha once he followed Elijah. In fact, Elisha performed twice as many miracles as the elder prophet. Like the U.S. Army, God wants us to be all that we can be and invites us to do great things with our lives. We are hindered, however, until, like Elisha, we set fire to our oxen and plows. What bridges do we need to burn?

I demolish my bridges behind me – then there is no choice but forward. [Fridtjof Nansen (Norwegian explorer, scientist, humanitarian and winner of Nobel Peace Prize)]

After that, Jesus left. He saw a tax collector named Levi [Matthew] sitting in a tax office. Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him. [Luke 5:27-28 (GW)]

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DINGS AND DENTS

That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! [John 20:19-20 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtail - butterflyWe’re selling our northern home and, as I packed up assorted family heirlooms, I came across the little sterling silver salt and pepper shakers we used for so many years. I held one in my hand a bit longer than the others; it had distinct teeth marks on it. For reasons that are unknown, my eldest child tried to bite through it. In spite of its obvious imperfection (or, perhaps because of it), the shaker is still beautiful. I’d wondered which child should get these silver pieces but, after remembering their history, I lovingly wrapped them up and placed them in my son’s box. I only hope his family will find the impressions of his baby teeth as beautiful as do I.

As I sorted through other family silver, I came to the sterling candle holders that were a wedding gift to my parents some 82 years ago. Like the salt and pepper set, they show their age with a few dents and scratches. My parent’s marriage, like the candle holders, wasn’t perfect but it endured through every circumstance. I decided to keep the candle sticks with our things as a reminder both to forgive and appreciate the beauty in imperfection.

I thought of Jesus’s scars as I packed up the dented silver. Our resurrected Lord carried the scars from his wounds. Yet, since He could pass through a locked door, He easily could have removed those wounds in his hands and side. Jesus’s scars let the disciples know who He was and our scars are an essential part of our identity, as well.

Like Jesus, we all bear scars, both inside and out. Like my silver, we have dings and dents and are a little (or a whole lot) tarnished. Just as the imperfections on my old silver tell a story, so do our scars. The scar from a C-section tells of blessings received while the scar from a hysterectomy tells of the loss of possibilities. The scars from a burn tell the story of injury and pain while the scars from open heart surgery tell of getting a new lease on life. Some scars, like those left from a divorce, a loved one’s death, or addiction, are invisible but tell their own tale, as well. Scars, dings and dents are simply evidence of things that didn’t defeat us; they are our beautiful trophies of survival and healing. Death did not conquer Jesus and, though God’s grace, life’s challenges cannot conquer us.

My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present. [Steve Goodier]

From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. For I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus. [Galatians 6:17 (NLT)]

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WHICH IS MORE IMPORTANT?

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? [James 2:14-17 (MSG)]

Which can you do without? The right side of your heart or the left? Which blade on the scissors wouldn’t be missed? What is more important? The front wheel or the back one on your bicycle? The gas pedal or the brakes on your car? The right wing or the left of an airplane? Faith or works? Neither! None of these things can operate without the other. We need two blades on the scissors, two wings on the plane and we can’t be Christians without both faith and works.

We sometimes use the word “Christian” simply as an adjective to describe good, generous, moral or loving behavior. I have Jewish, Muslim and non-believer friends who easily could be described with those same adjectives. Good works alone cannot be used to define Christianity. On the other hand, I know people who say they believe in Jesus and call themselves “Christian” who appear to be sorely lacking in the good, generous, moral and love departments. So simply saying we have “faith” in Christ doesn’t seem to define Christianity either.

Our faith makes us Christians but that faith is far more than intellectual belief. Because the Holy Spirit comes along with faith, our faith is God at work in us. True faith changes our hearts, minds and souls. Since the Holy Spirit can’t help but do good works, if we have faith, neither can we!

Works follow from faith and yet faith, without works, cannot be faith. We can neither think our way nor can we work our way into heaven but, by the grace of God, with faith, we will live our way there!

Faith without works is like a bird without wings; though she may hop with her companions on earth, yet she will never fly with them to heaven. [Francis Beaumont]

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove. [James 2:18 (MSG)]

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FINAL DESTINATION

I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, “Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.” And do you know what I am going to say? “You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.” [Matthew 7:22-23 (MSG)]

While speaking of salvation, our pastor suggested that there are four kinds of people we might find in any church. While sure of their salvation, the people in the first group are not secure in it. It’s not that they’ve lost their salvation; they never had it! Often called nominal or cultural Christians, their faith is in religion rather than Jesus and they mistake sitting in a church pew for having a relationship with God. Thinking they can purchase their ticket on the glory train with money or works, Christianity is an insurance policy for the hereafter rather than anything affecting heart or soul. They don’t understand that looking like a Christ follower, even with impressive God talk and charitable acts, isn’t the same as being one. There is a vast difference between true faith and false professions.

The second group is made up of people who know that, because they don’t believe, they’re not saved. They know about Jesus and believe He existed but they neither believe nor disbelieve that Jesus is the Son of God and sacrificed His life in atonement for their sins. Because they’re unsure about God and Jesus and unwilling to commit to Christ, they’re not secure in their salvation. These fence sitters, however, have an advantage over the first group; at least they won’t be surprised on Judgment Day!

Although secure in their salvation, the third group remains unsure of it. Unable to be sinless and perfectly obedient, they doubt their salvation. There’s a lurking fear that, if they fail or disappoint God, He won’t welcome them through those Pearly Gates. Wondering how their sins truly can be forgiven, they can’t get their heads around God’s amazing grace. At times, I think even the firmest believer has moments of insecurity when we fear God’s power, wrath and rejection. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives strengthens and reassures them. In spite of their fears, Jesus will know them when the time comes.

The fourth group is both sure of their salvation and secure in it; they know that Jesus has put their names on His guest list. This group, however, must be cautious. There’s another group equally sure of their salvation who Jesus won’t know when they come to the Heavenly Gate.

While we can be wrong about going to San Francisco or Paris, we don’t want to be wrong about our eternal destination. Missing the train to Chicago isn’t the same as missing the glory train to Heaven! Which group are you in? Will Jesus know your name?

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile. [Billy Sunday]

God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him! [Romans 8:16-17 (MSG)]

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