EXPLORATORY SURGERY – NEW YEAR’S EVE

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

spiderwortThe tradition of New Year’s resolutions goes back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. During their 12-day celebration of the new year (held in mid-March), they either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the old one. They also promised to return anything borrowed and pledged the repayment of all their debts. While returning borrowed items and paying our debts are good goals for the coming year, our resolutions usually have something to do with exercise, diet, getting better organized, learning a new skill, spending less money, or reading the entire Bible in a year.

Perhaps, before resolving to floss or eat more vegetables, we should pray and ask God what it is that He would like to see us change. “Search me, O God,” is what could be called a dangerous prayer; when we ask Him to look, we’d better be ready for what He finds. Chances are that it will have nothing to do with developing better dental or nutrition habits. Asking God to examine our innermost being is asking Him to perform exploratory surgery in search of sin. While a surgeon may not find a tumor, God is sure to find plenty of areas in our hearts and minds in need of improvement! If a surgeon does find cancer, we expect him to remove it but, when God finds something offensive in us, He expects us to repent and turn away from it.

Our spiritual goals can fail as readily as the non-spiritual ones and, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, less than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful at keeping them. Perhaps we’d do better if we understood that we can’t change by ourselves. Maybe will-power alone can keep us away from Dunkin’ Donuts or get us to a 6 AM aerobics class but it isn’t enough when we’re combating spiritual enemies. Fortunately, we are powered by the Holy Spirit and, through Him, all things are possible.

Let us remember that Jesus is in the business of transformation. It was at a wedding party in Cana that He transformed water into wine. He then transformed the blind into the sighted, the lame into the strong, and the diseased into the healthy. He changed the churning sea into calm water, a few morsels of food into a feast, and the dead into the living. Jesus’s miracles of transformation continue today. He turns darkness into light, anger into peace, fear into hope, animosity into love, selfishness into generosity, mourning into joy, shame into honor, and sinners into saints.

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul. [G. K. Chesterton]

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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TRUE CHARACTER

I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. [Romans 7:18b-19 (NLT)]

smooth roseYears ago, we were acquainted with “Henry, dear” and “Mary, darling.” We called them that because we never heard them refer to one another any other way. They always were so sweet and charming in public that halos seemed to hover over their heads. My husband and I often wondered what they called one another behind closed doors and, as we got to know them better, we realized our wariness was well-founded. As noble as they appeared in public, there always seemed to be an ulterior motive behind their kindness and, while “Henry, dear” was patting your back, his other hand probably was reaching into your back pocket. While we never knew what they called one another in private, we knew that what the public saw was not what they actually got.

I thought of them the other day when watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie about Fred Rogers. Having read books both by and about him, there truly was nothing artificial or superficial about the man; what you saw actually was what you got. Rogers once said, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self,” and that’s exactly what he did!

Recently, my day began with bad news and sped downhill from there. In my frustration, my words and actions were not those of a “church lady.” I may write Christian devotions but what you see is not always what you get and the Fruit of the Spirit was nowhere to be found on my tree! Whether in public or private, Mr. Rogers’ faith was evident in all that he did or said. Mine, however, frequently gets obscured by my reaction to circumstances beyond my control. Like the Apostle Paul, “I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” [Romans 7:15]

Both Fred Rogers (and the movie) were clear that, just like the rest of us, he was no saint. The difference is that, while many of us seem to think we can become good people effortlessly, Fred Rogers actually worked at being the very best person that he could be. One of the ways he did that was through self-discipline. He faithfully read the Bible, reflected and prayed every day, and his prayers continued all day long. He was disciplined in the way he cared for his body with healthy habits. He was disciplined about meeting his commitments, remembering his friends, and expressing gratitude. It’s not that he didn’t have emotions; it’s that he was disciplined enough to choose safe outlets for the negative ones. It’s not that he didn’t know any four-letter words; he just was disciplined enough to use words like “mercy, me!” instead of them! Rogers understood that while circumstances may be beyond our control, our reaction to them is not. He was disciplined in his faith, obedient to God, and saw everyone as his neighbor and a valued child of God. He didn’t give lip service to the power of the Holy Spirit; He lived, breathed, trusted and depended on the Spirit.

The difference between the “Henry, dears” and “Mary, darlings” of the world and Fred Rogers is that while they wear masks so they’ll look like good Christians, Mr. Rogers developed the strength of character to be a good Christian! Through self-discipline and the power of the Holy Spirit, he actually became good (or at least a whole lot better than many of us). The church would call that process sanctification. We can’t do it by ourselves and God doesn’t do it for us; rather, it is combining our efforts with God’s power to grow more and more like Christ. Spiritual progress doesn’t happen overnight and sanctification is not a passive process; it requires effort, discipline and obedience. Only then will people be able to say of us, “What you see is what you get!”

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

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A CHANGE OF HEART

beeding heartsFor you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. [Romans 2:28-29a (NLT)]

In 1962, my infant nephew was baptized after coming with his parents more than 1,300 miles to meet his grandmother. Because my mother was hospitalized (and would be dead in a few weeks), the sacrament took place at her bedside. This was the only time my nephew and his grandmother met and the last time my sister saw our mother alive.

My brother-in-law was opposed to infant baptism. Nevertheless, my father wanted my mother to see and hold her first grandchild (as much as he wanted that baby baptized). Because children were not allowed to visit hospitals at the time, Dad convinced my brother-in-law that a hospital baptism was the only way grandmother and grand could meet. The hospital was run by the Sisters of Charity so my father knew the nuns wouldn’t deny his request (especially since he neglected to mention that the priest was Episcopalian rather than Roman Catholic).

Unfortunately, other than the funerals of his grandparents, that probably was the last time my nephew came near a minister, church, Bible, prayer book, holy water, or even a nun (several joined us in my mother’s hospital room.) His parents are good people but non-believers and he had no religious education. By the time he was in his teens, my nephew was diagnosed as bipolar and, as often happens for people with his disorder, he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. A vicious cycle began as the substance abuse exacerbated the mental illness and his disease increased the abuse. Truly a lost soul who, by now, has lost most of his mental capacity, when he’s not incarcerated or hospitalized, my nephew lives on the streets or couch surfs through the homes of other users. While I can’t know what is in anyone’s heart, I doubt that he believes in Jesus. Yet, he’s been baptized, leading me to wonder, “Does that mean he’s saved?”

As a sign of God’s covenant with Israel, all of Abraham’s descendants were to be circumcised. In Romans 2, however, Paul points out that, for the Jew, the true sign of belonging to God was not the ceremony of circumcision; it was a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. It was God’s spiritual surgery upon the heart rather than the removal of one’s foreskin that made a Jew right with God. While there are parallels between baptism and circumcision, they symbolize two very different covenants. Nevertheless, while studying Romans and rereading today’s verse, I replaced “Jew” with “Christian” and “circumcision” with “baptism.” Indeed, Christianity has nothing to do with parentage and baptism alone does not bring salvation; salvation requires a change of heart.

My childhood prayer book calls baptism an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Without that “inward and spiritual grace,” I fear it is just a ritual. External actions like baptism, communion or church attendance are not what make us Christians. Salvation doesn’t come by works or sacraments; it comes through God’s grace through faith!

Assuming he has never come to know Jesus and be filled with His Holy Spirit, I fear that my nephew’s baptism 57 years ago didn’t make him a Christian any more than his hospital circumcision made him a Jew. While baptism is a step of obedience for every Christian, it does not save us. Our salvation is because of Jesus’s death and resurrection and is available only through faith in Jesus Christ. Let us all beware of trusting that baptism alone will bring us to heaven.

Tragically, some people believe they are going to heaven when they die just because a few drops of water were sprinkled over their heads a few weeks after their birth. They have no personal faith, have never made a personal decision, and are banking on a hollow ceremony to save them. How absurd. [Max Lucado]

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. [Romans 10:9-10 (NLT)]

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OUR GATEKEEPER

Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life. [Proverbs 4:23 NCV]

Corkscrew SwampActing as gatekeepers for the temple in Jerusalem, the Levites opened and closed its doors and guarded it during the night. Among their many duties, they prohibited entry to anyone considered “unclean,” protected the temple from theft or desecration, watched the offering and tithe money, and maintained proper decorum within the temple. They also were the ones who imposed the death penalty on any who dared enter the temple illegally.

Although many churches have implemented security measures, we no longer have Levites at our church doors. Most of us, however, could use a similar gatekeeper to protect our minds (and mouths) from anything that could defile us. Like crashers at a party, negative thoughts can sneak into our heads. Once in, they tend to prop open the door so more negativity can follow. Anger often brings his pals animosity and resentment. Once fear steals in, worry slips in right behind him; doubt, regret and suspicion are sure to follow. Before we know it, bitterness and hatred have joined the party, along with envy, lust, and their old friend guilt. When our minds are filled with undesirable and unwelcome callers, there’s little room left for any positive thinking. Once those bad thoughts have gotten into our heads, they want to continue their damage by spilling out through our mouths.

The mind’s gatekeeper must be diligent, on duty 24/7, and refuse entry to any thoughts and feelings considered “unclean” or inappropriate. He’d maintain order in house and keep our thinking in line. On the lookout for hazards, he’d steer us away from situations that could bring trouble or temptation. Rather than kill temple trespassers who stepped beyond the warning stone, the gatekeeper would squash any negative words before they could escape!

Unfortunately, the books of Kings and Chronicles tell us that the Temple’s gatekeepers fell down on the job. They allowed the dwelling place of God to be defiled by idolatry and fall into disrepair. When King Hezekiah ordered the Temple’s purification, it took more than two weeks simply to clean it!

At the moment of Jesus’s death, the Temple was no longer the place of God’s presence. Because of Christ, God dwells within each one of us. Having provided each of us with a far better Gatekeeper in the Holy Spirit, Levites are no longer needed at our doors. We, however, must cede control to the Spirit so that He can do His job!

You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you. You have received the Holy Spirit from God. So you do not belong to yourselves. [1 Corinthians 6:19 (NCV)]

Those who live following their sinful selves think only about things that their sinful selves want. But those who live following the Spirit are thinking about the things the Spirit wants them to do. If people’s thinking is controlled by the sinful self, there is death. But if their thinking is controlled by the Spirit, there is life and peace.  …The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:5-6,14 (NLT)]

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TRANSFORMING PUMPKINS

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

The Food Network’s “Outrageous Pumpkins” features remarkable pumpkin artistry as it pits four pumpkin carvers against one another in a three-round competition. Competitors create traditional Jack O’Lanterns, 3-D pumpkin carvings, and then their own free-style pumpkin masterpieces. Using everything from melon ballers to huge saws, they make intricate designs and sculpt extraordinary and intricate works of art. As someone who is severely pumpkin-challenged (and eventually purchased a permanent Jack O-Lantern that came with an electric light), I am impressed by the skill of these pumpkin artists.

Watching those carvers transform what is nothing more than a large gourd into a work of art, I couldn’t help but think of another artist who is in the business of transformation: God. There are both similarities and differences between transforming pumpkins into Halloween décor and transforming people into Christians. In both cases, the finished product bears little resemblance to what it once was (but, instead of becoming something frightening and macabre, the Christian becomes more beautiful)!

Both carvers and God start by making a selection but, unlike the pumpkin artists, God isn’t looking for perfection. He’ll take any color, size, condition or age. Scratches, bruises, blemishes, a dried up stem, and even a little mold or rot won’t keep anyone from His workshop. Just as the carvers cut into the pumpkins and scrape out all of the slimy stuff inside, God opens us up but, rather than scooping out our guts, He scrapes away things like fear, anger, despair, doubt, hate, pride and greed. Instead of an X-Acto knife, vegetable peeler, saw, or drill, God’s tools consist of His word, the church, and both blessings and challenges. Just as those artists’ imaginative creations surpass the toothy smile and triangle eyes of the typical Jack O’Lantern, each one of God’s creations is a one-of-a-kind custom design. The pumpkin carvers, preferring something frightening or creepy, usually give their creations a menacing face. Although the Christian’s outward appearance may not change, God wants His handiwork to spread faith, hope and love rather than terror or dread so He gives us a far nicer demeanor. Occasionally, the carvers make small mistakes; when that happens, they either alter their designs or use a toothpick to reattach a piece. Unlike the carvers, God never makes a mistake; every one of His creations is a masterpiece.

Although the carvers leave their pumpkins hollow, God fills His people with the Holy Spirit and His gifts. Wanting their creations to glow from the inside out, both the carver and God insert lights. While the carver uses either a candle, light bulb or flashlight, the Christian’s light comes from the Holy Spirit. Eventually, the pumpkin’s light will cease shining; God’s light, however, lasts a lifetime. While the “Outrageous Pumpkins” competitors perform their artistry in hope of winning $10,000 and a gold medal (along with bragging rights), God transforms His children out of love. Unlike carvers in the competition, God has no time limit and continues tweaking us until our dying day.

The “Outrageous Pumpkins” competition is held for a few weeks around Halloween, but God transforms people all year long. Although the pumpkins have no choice about being chosen, washed, and carved, we are free to reject God’s hand in transforming our lives. It’s wise to remember, however, that any pumpkins remaining in the patch after harvest eventually rot and decompose; the same goes for us. Alas, in spite of all their artistry, those fantastic pumpkin creations are temporary. Even when dipped in a mild bleach mixture, they soon will turn moldy and soft; eventually, they’ll end up in the trash. Not so with God’s handiwork! Unlike carved pumpkins, Christians tend to improve over time; in fact, they last forever.

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 5:17 (NLT)]

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AN ABOUT FACE

I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law.  I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. [Philippians 3:5-6 (NLT)]

In writing about change yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of the Apostle Paul. He knew firsthand of God’s transforming power. When we first meet Paul, he’s going by his Hebrew name of Saul and looking on as Stephen (the first of Christ’s followers to give his life for the gospel) is stoned to death.

The slaying of Stephen led to a wave of persecution and Saul relentlessly went from house to house in search of Jesus’s followers so he could drag them off to prison. Full of religious zeal and eager to kill those who followed the Way, Saul asked the high priest for permission to go to Damascus so he could arrest Christ’s followers and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains. In short, Saul was brutal and violent and little more than a religious terrorist! It is on the road to Damascus, however, that Saul meets the risen Christ and has his amazing conversion [Acts 9]. Meeting Jesus face-to-face, being struck blind for three days, having Ananias lay hands on him, scales falling from his eyes, and Saul’s baptism make for a powerful story of redemption and truly testify that no person is beyond the saving grace of the Lord.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard and, as I wrote yesterday’s devotion, I wondered if Saul struggled as this once fanatical persecutor of Christians transformed into the great Christian evangelist. As a second-generation Pharisee, he thought of himself as a member of an elite group and anything foreign would have been detested. Wanting to keep himself free of any impurity, the old Saul would never associate with Gentiles or even any Jews who interpreted the law differently. Yet, the man who abhorred anyone different from him preached all over the Roman Empire, stressed unity between Jewish and Gentile believers, and became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles!

As a Pharisee, Saul had been meticulous to the point of obsession about obedience to both the written and oral Law. Yet, in an about face, he maintained that Jewish Christians no longer had to abide by those same regulations and that Gentile converts didn’t have to become Jews before becoming Christians. Understanding that it was the Holy Spirit rather than the Law that empowered holy living, Saul changed from thinking that strict obedience to the Law would make us right with God to knowing that we are only made right by grace through faith in Jesus.

Nevertheless, until meeting Jesus on the way to Damascus, Saul’s life had been wrapped around strict adherence to the Law. Did he have difficulty letting go of Pharisaic traditions like their elaborate hand washing ritual before meals, the conspicuous wearing of phylacteries and tassels, or fasting twice a week? Did the Jew who’d grown up loathing Gentiles cringe when he first sat down to eat with them? Until now, I hadn’t considered how difficult it had to have been for the Pharisee to become the Apostle. The man who wrote that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person” [2 Corinthians 5:17] knew firsthand the truth of his statement. It is in his transformation that we see the power of Jesus to revolutionize a life! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the persecutor of Christians became a preacher for Christ!

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. [Philippians 3:8-9 (NLT)]

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