THE NEXT STEP

Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. … This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5: 14b-15,17 (NLT)]

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. [Westminster Shorter Catechism]

waterfallIn writing about the Sinner’s Prayer yesterday, I wondered if, by saying it, a new believer gets the false impression that his responsibility ends with a prayer when, in fact, it has just begun! Justification takes only a moment but sanctification takes a lifetime. Addressing the guilt of our sins, justification is when, by the grace of God, we are made righteous through God’s grace and our faith. It’s as if we’re guilty criminals, standing in God’s courtroom, and God pardons us. Telling us our debt to society has been paid, He sets us free. While it’s easy to walk out of the courthouse, it’s not so easy to alter the behavior that led to our life of crime. Like any felon, we need to change our ways, which is where sanctification comes in. Rather than the reformation of a criminal, it is the transformation of a sinner.

Powered by our faith and the Holy Spirit, sanctification transforms our sinful character so we grow more and more like Christ. Focusing on the destructive power of sin in our lives, it gradually shapes our hearts, minds, and desires to those of God. Sanctification is the work part of our salvation and requires diligence in study, prayer, fellowship, witness and service. It’s coming to know Jesus, loving and obeying God, and letting both His word and the Holy Spirit convict us when we sin. It’s allowing God to work in and through us, not as a way to earn His blessings and favor, but because we delight in His will.

While holiness is the goal of sanctification, I don’t think any mortal can live a life completely free from sin in this world. Nevertheless, even though we can’t attain sinless perfection, like the Apostle Paul, we will continue to struggle against sin and temptation as long as we’re on this side of the grass. We persevere and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, continue to grow more and more like Christ every day.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are coworkers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R.C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12b-13 (NLT)]

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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MARIA’S SON

blue flag iris - blue-eyed grass - pansyLook carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (ESV)]

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (ESV)]

Maria, an elderly woman, used to come to our Tuesday Bible study but stopped when she could no longer drive. Last Christmas, her son gave her a beautiful gift: the promise to drive her to Bible study every week. This was no small gift; she lived nearly an hour from her son and a half hour away from church. By the time you add the son’s driving time to and from his house to hers, to and from her house to the church, the hour of class, and the time it took to get his mother (and her walker) in and out of the car four times, this gift was nearly a five hour obligation every week. Maria’s health eventually failed and, today, we learned that she went home to Jesus.

I didn’t know Maria or her son but I do know about time. I spent enough hours shuttling my daughter to and from dance classes to know that a mere hour between drop off and pick up is not enough time to accomplish anything in the way of running errands. By the time you get to Costco or Target you have to turn around and come back. Time is a precious commodity and, once spent, can never be recovered. Maria’s son spent his hours as would Jesus—in loving service. Can we say the same thing?

We have plenty of labor saving devices: food processors, instant pots, microwaves, automatic sprinklers, power drills, washers, dryers, dishwashers, pressure cookers, power mowers, computers, and even a virtual assistant in Alexa. In theory, with all these modern conveniences, we should have plenty of time. Yet, when I speak with others, a common complaint is a lack of time. What do we do with all the time we save?

Rather than a shortage of time, perhaps the problem is in our priorities. Since God gave us the Sabbath, I don’t think He has a problem with rest and recreation. Nevertheless, He didn’t put us here just to have a good time. He’s trusted us with the gift of time; could it be that He’s also testing us to see what kind of stewards we are of that gift?

Forbidden to reap their harvest right up to the edge of their fields and or strip their vineyards bare, the Israelites were to deliberately leave produce for the poor. The way we use our time is a little like harvesting it. Rather than leaving wheat and grapes in the field, perhaps we should deliberately leave some time in our lives for the needs of our families and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

What would Jesus do with our spare minutes? How can they be gleaned for God’s purposes? How can we use our time to magnify God and further His kingdom? Where can we spend it to improve the lives of others? The answer may be as easy as taking someone to Bible study.

One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. [Proverbs 11:24 (ESV)]

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (ESV)]

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GATEKEEPERS

“For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” [Isaiah 56:7b-8 (ESV)]

cardinal

In the Old Testament, the Levites acted as gatekeepers. Among their many duties, they maintained decorum, enforced the laws of ritual cleanliness, directed worshippers to the correct area, and prohibited entry to anyone considered defiled or unclean (such as lepers, eunuchs, or Gentiles). The gatekeepers placed a large stone between the Court of the Gentiles and the Women’s Court to remind the unclean they would die if they passed it; if they entered into the Temple area, they would be dragged out and killed.

Gatekeepers who determine one’s fitness to worship remind me of my response to Jimmy, about whom I’ve previously written. A man with what could be called a colorful past, Jimmy started attending our Florida church last March. I admitted in “It Takes All Kinds” that I was less than enthusiastic when my husband invited him to church after meeting him in the park. A bit of a character, Jimmy is a recovering addict/alcoholic and, while not homeless, he lives on the fringe of society. Although I knew my misgivings were unchristian, as I got to know him, I quickly learned they also were unfounded. After starting to attend our church, he began coming to Bible study, bringing his well-worn Bible with him, and often joined our group for fellowship after class. Early this summer, when Jimmy asked to be baptized, ten others from our church joined him in the Gulf of Mexico for that sacrament.

During the summer, Jimmy went north to be with family but kept in touch with our pastor. He wrote about meeting a man in the park who was new to recovery. When the fellow asked Jimmy how he managed to stay sober, his reply was simple and to the point: Jesus! Our new Christian became a witnessing disciple. Jimmy recently returned to Florida and was warmly welcomed by all when he joined us for Sunday worship; I felt honored to take his hand during prayers.

The story is told of a homeless man, disheveled and dirty, who entered a church Easter morning. The service had just started and the pews were jam packed. As the man walked up the aisle in search of a seat, people avoided eye contact and no one made room for him in the pews. Once at the front of the church, the man sat down on the floor near the altar rail. As an usher, dressed in a black suit with a boutonniere in his lapel, made his way up the aisle, the parishioners were sure that he would quietly ask the man to leave (as any good gatekeeper would do). Instead, to the surprise of the congregation, the usher handed the man both program and hymnal and sat down beside him.

Although more and more churches now use security people to protect personnel and worshippers, we no longer have Levites to keep the unclean out of worship. If we did, our churches would be empty because we’re all soiled by sin! While we don’t have official gatekeepers, let us all be cautious of being unofficial ones. What would have happened to Jimmy if we had gatekeepers in our churches? What of his new friend? The best part of any man is what’s found in his heart and we’ll never know what’s in his heart until we take the time to know the man.

May the church be the place of God’s mercy and love, where everyone can feel themselves welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel. And in order to make others feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged, the church must have open doors so that all might enter. And we must go out of those doors and proclaim the Gospel. [Pope Francis]

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. [Hebrews 13:2 (ESV)]

And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40 (ESV)]

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WHAT’S YOUR GIFT

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. [1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (NLT)]
barred owl - painted bunting - penguin

When I was writing about the peacock’s unpleasant scream yesterday, I pictured him complaining to the owl that the wren has a nicer voice. The wren chirped back her complaint that, unlike the peacock, she was small and nondescript. Hearing them, the penguin complained about his plain black and white feathers but the colorful painted bunting countered that she was unable to swim. The pelican joined the grumbling and whined that he couldn’t flit from flower to flower like the hummingbird who then expressed jealously over the pelican’s large bill. When the bald eagle protested not having long legs like the ostrich and the ostrich expressed envy at the eagle’s ability to soar high in the sky, the wise owl hooted at them all to be quiet.

Unlike the other birds, the owl did not grumble about what many would consider his shortcomings: his dull color, asymmetrical ears, and farsightedness. Explaining that his dull color gives him camouflage, the lopsided ears allow him to locate prey at night, and his farsightedness makes him an excellent hunter, he told the other birds to be thankful for their gifts. He reminded each bird of what made it special: the peacock’s beautiful tail, the wren’s ability to sing and trill, the penguin’s powerful flippers and streamlined body, the bunting’s unique coloring, the pelican’s skill at diving from heights of 30-feet, the hummingbird’s capability of flying backwards, the eagle’s eyes that can spot a rabbit two miles away, and the ostrich’s gift of running faster than any other bird. Rather than complaining about what they didn’t have, they should appreciate their own unique God-given gifts and use what they were given with wisdom, joy and thanksgiving.

Like the birds, we too have gifts: both the talents we were given at birth and the spiritual gifts we received from the Holy Spirit. Those talents and gifts are as unique as a peacock’s tail or the wren’s song. Some gifts, like the strong legs of an ostrich or a pastor’s inspired preaching are rather obvious. Others, like the owl’s lopsided ears or the healing embrace of someone gifted with empathy are less apparent. Rather than complain, as did the birds, we should take inventory of our many gifts and talents, appreciate and develop them, and use them enthusiastically and wisely to glorify God. Let’s appreciate what we have and accept that there will always be some things, like singing or soaring, that are best left to others.

Our purpose should be to discover the gifts He has given us and to use those gifts faithfully and joyfully in His service, without either envying or disparaging the gifts we do not have. [John MacArthur]

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. … It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. [1 Corinthians 12:7,11 (NLT)]

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LOOKS ARE DECEIVING 

peacock - peahenBut the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT)]

Samuel was sent to the home of Jesse to find Israel’s new king. As soon as he saw Jesse’s imposing eldest son, Eliab, Samuel thought he surely had his man. God, however, corrected him and told the prophet that appearances can be deceiving. Man sees how a person looks but God actually sees who that person is!

I thought of God’s admonition to Samuel when visiting my son in southern California where a flock of feral peacocks roam his neighborhood. With their vibrant colors and extravagant plumage, they are a beautiful addition to an already picturesque location. I thought how fortunate the residents were to have these beautiful birds in their neighborhood until I heard one scream from a roof top. The dreadful noise was a cross between the braying of a mule and the screeching of a tortured cat. Legend has it that the vain peacock has incredibly ugly feet and shrieks horribly whenever he sees them. I don’t know about its feet but, once I heard the peacock’s call, I quickly thanked God that we don’t have peacocks in our Florida neighborhood.

Yes, looks can be deceiving. People can be beautiful, like the peacock, but what’s inside them can be as ugly as the peacock’s voice. On the other hand, people can be plain and easily ignored, like the grey mockingbird, but what’s inside them is as beautiful as a mockingbird’s song.

Lord, direct us so that we are more like you; help us look at people’s hearts and not their outward appearance. Guide us so that we are more concerned with having good hearts than in having good looks.

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you will never walk alone.
[Sam Levenson]

Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. [1 Peter 3:3-4 (NLT)]

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A HEAVY LOAD

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. [James 1:3b-3 (NLT)]

viceroy butterfly“He will deliver us from our troubles or carry us through them. Either way, we will be free of them eventually.” How easily these words can be uttered until, of course, those troubles apply to us. Had Job’s friends been Christian and said those words, I don’t think they would have been any more comforting than what was said. While true, they won’t bring back the amputated limb or cancerous breast, pay the staggering medical bills, tuck the motherless child in bed at night, change the diagnosis of Parkinson’s or schizophrenia, or bring back an abused child’s innocence. While true, those words can’t wipe the tears of a mother holding her stillborn baby, the husband watching his wife vanish into dementia, or the man whose body is in mutiny because of ALS.

The valleys I have traversed have been neither as deep nor as dark as those others are traveling. I’ve never climbed mountains as steep as the mountains they face daily. The storms that battered my soul pale in comparison to the tempests others endure. They grow weary from carrying burdens heavier that I can imagine. It’s not just the victims of life’s afflictions and misfortune that bear a burden. Everyone who loves and cares for them becomes part of their arduous journey; they shoulder heavy loads, as well. I cannot fathom the emotional and physical weight they carry nor the exhaustion they must experience on a daily basis.

I know enough not to say, “I know what you’re going through,” because I truly don’t. Even with the same diagnosis, no two people share the same circumstances. Reminding someone that God works all things for good or that we grow through suffering may be of little comfort to those who are in anguish and pain. Suffering isn’t a riddle that needs to be solved and it won’t end once we know what it is God is teaching us or what good will come from it. No matter how well meant our words may be, they can sound trite and hollow.

The kindest thing Job’s friends did was sit quietly with him for seven days; perhaps, we should follow their example. Rather than words, we can offer love: our presence, support, sympathy, compassion, patience, encouragement, ears, or even food. Rather than telling people to rejoice in all circumstances, we could find ways to bring joy into their lives. Most of all, we can offer our faithful and heartfelt prayers.

Lord, we offer prayers for the ill and infirm, the troubled, weak and helpless and for those brave souls who love, comfort and care for them. Reassure them of your loving presence. Endow them with courage and faith as they pass through dark valleys, scale steep mountains, and endure powerful squalls. Strengthen them and give them hope. Give us wisdom and show us how to lighten their burdens, lift their spirits, relieve their pain, and ease their fears. Let us know when to remain silent and what to say when we should speak.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. [Henri Nouwen]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

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