THE INVISIBLE FENCE

Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked. [1 Timothy 1:19 (NLT)]

african irisThe barking dog came charging down the driveway toward me before skidding to a halt. “Thank you, God, for invisible fences,” was my relieved thought. Unwilling to cross that invisible barrier, the fiercely barking dog followed me from his yard while keeping his distance. A bed of beautiful African iris was between us and I debated about stepping closer to get a photo of their blossoms. While the threat of his collar deterred the dog as long as I remained where I was, I wasn’t sure what he’d do if I ventured any closer. My stepping on his turf could have proven too much temptation for the fellow and he may have been willing to take the punishment for a chance to show me who was boss. My flower picture could wait until another day.

Life would be so much easier if I had an invisible fence. No, I don’t have a dog; the fence would be for me. It would warn me when I got too close to sin and give me a shock if I dared cross the line into sinfulness. When talk veered toward gossip, I’d hear a little buzzing sound; if I continued the conversation, I’d get a zap! The same thing would happen whenever pride reared its ugly head or when tempted to be selfish, deceitful or envious. I’m a quick learner; I imagine my behavior would improve quickly if I got an unpleasant buzz or a little shock every time I started to step across the line into sin!

Actually, I do have an invisible fence, only it’s called a conscience and it’s my built-in ability to know right from wrong. A gift from God, it is His voice planted within my heart. Unfortunately, just like an angry dog with an invisible fence, when sorely tempted, I’m capable of ignoring my conscience. Moreover, just as the battery in the dog’s collar can weaken or die, my conscience isn’t entirely reliable. It tends to be stronger when others are present, weaker when I’m alone and can even atrophy from lack of use. That’s why I like having the Holy Spirit at my side—He operates at full strength all of the time. Even when my conscience fails me, He is sure to convict me when my behavior doesn’t glorify Jesus—He might even give me a spiritual zap!

The paradoxical and tragic situation of man is that his conscience is weakest when he needs it most. [Erich Fromm]

God knows what each one of us is dealing with. He knows our pressures. He knows our conflicts. And He has made a provision for each and every one of them. That provision is Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit, indwelling us and empowering us to respond rightly. [Kay Arthur]

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. [Galatians 5:16-17a (NLT)]

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ABIDE

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:4-5 (RSV)]

cardinal - maleThe Apostle John used the word menó 53 times in his gospel and epistles. Frequently translated as abide, menó originally referred to the staying power of an army that is not driven from the battlefield. Meaning “to stay, remain, reside or stand fast,” menó came to imply an unbroken friendship or a continuous fellowship.

When guests come to visit, I often welcome them by saying, “My home is your home!” but I really don’t mean it. Even with the best guests, there are boundaries. While I want them to be comfortable, I don’t want them rearranging my kitchen cabinets, going through my closets, looking in my junk drawer, reading my files, or borrowing my shoes. Although my guests stay with me for a while, they don’t abide with me the way John or Jesus used the word. Abiding isn’t coming for a long weekend or spring break; it is moving right in and becoming part of the household permanently. Recalling the battlefield origins of menó, abiding is staying together even in difficult conditions: standing fast in the face of an assault.

When Jesus abides in us, He permanently moves right into our hearts and lives. No room is off limits, no drawer or cupboard is locked, no habits concealed, and no secrets remain buried. Unlike a guest who might stay too long or leave at the first sign of trouble, Jesus never wears out His welcome. Moreover, He remains in times of distress, danger, temptation, and discord as well as times of joy, triumph, and cheer.

In Scripture we find a reciprocal nature to this kind of abiding. If Jesus and His word abide in us, we also abide in Him and, if we abide in Him, He abides in us. Early in His ministry, Jesus told the disciples to follow Him but, as he approached the end of His life here on earth, He told them to abide in Him. Instead of trailing behind or imitating Him, He invited his followers to have an intimate relationship with Him. In turn, Jesus promised to abide in them: to make His home in their hearts. Abiding in Jesus means having a continuous fellowship with Him.

Recently, a pastor asked if Jesus was my hotel or home. Do I abide in him or do I come and go? Abiding is a 24/7 relationship as Christ lives out His life through us and we live out our lives through Him! Paul said it this way: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” [Galatians 2:20]

Is Jesus welcome only in your guest room or does He run your house? Do you live in Him or is He just where you go when you need a break? Who abides in you and where do you abide?

Abide in Me says Jesus. Cling to Me. Stick fast to Me. Live the life of close and intimate communion with Me. Get nearer to Me. Roll every burden on Me. Cast your whole weight on Me. Never let go your hold on Me for a moment. Be, as it were, rooted and planted in Me. Do this and I will never fail you. I will ever abide in you. [J.C. Ryle]

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. [1 John 4:15 (RSV)]

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life. [1 John 2:24-25 (RSV)]

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CLOSED DOORS

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! [Psalm 141:2 (ESV)]

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. [Hosea 6:6 (ESV)]

chapel of the transfiguration - Grand TetonsOne of the countless questions we have about this pandemic is how God could allow church doors to close throughout the world. 2020 is not the first time the doors to His house have been shut. In 586 BC, the Temple doors closed for the Jews when Judah fell to Babylon; Jerusalem was laid to waste and the Temple destroyed. Its doors didn’t open again until the exiles returned and completed the second Temple in 515 BC. Destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, all that remains of that Temple is a small portion of an external supporting wall on the Temple Mount.

Although the focal point of Jewish worship was the Temple, we know that synagogues existed in Jesus’ day. They may have evolved as a substitute for the first Temple during the Babylonian exile. Rather than houses of worship, however, they were places for study, communal meals, the local court, and from which to distribute charity. Until 70 AD, the Temple remained fundamental to Jewish worship and, every year, Jews from all over the world returned to Jerusalem to worship there for the festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

After the Romans destroyed it, the Jews wondered how they could continue to worship and offer the required sacrifices without a Temple. Looking to the Bible and tradition for answers, they found scripture that connected prayer with sacrifice. Prayer became a satisfactory substitute for ritual sacrifice and the synagogue became a place of worship and prayer (as well as study).

Nowadays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur draw Jews to the synagogue the way Christmas and Easter draw Christians to a church. COVID changed that this year and, when the High Holy Days were celebrated last month, even the doors to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue were shut. When asked how they could observe the holiest days of the year without going to synagogue, Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky replied, “You’re going to make your home into a mini-synagogue.” He then made reference to a quote by Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a 19th century Hasidic rabbi who, at the age of five, is said to have asked his father, “Where is God?” When his father answered, “God is everywhere!” the future rabbi responded, “No, I think God is only where you let Him in.”

God needs somewhere to live but that place isn’t a church or synagogue; that place is us! When we ask, “Where is God?” let us remember He doesn’t live in a building. God is wherever we allow Him in! He is in the simple everyday miracles of life and His Holy Spirit dwells within us. Since God has allowed our church doors to close, He must have His reasons. Perhaps it’s simply a reminder that being a Christian isn’t going to church; it is being the church! We can do that anywhere! Let our homes become mini-churches and may our lives reflect His presence.

Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” [John 14:23 (ESV)]

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? [1 Corinthians 3:16 (ESV)]

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BEING A CHRISTIAN

If you declare that Jesus is Lord, and believe that God brought him back to life, you will be saved. By believing you receive God’s approval, and by declaring your faith you are saved. Scripture says, “Whoever believes in him will not be ashamed.” [Romans 10:9-11 (GW)]

Then Jesus called the crowd to himself along with his disciples. He said to them, “Those who want to follow me must say no to the things they want, pick up their crosses, and follow me. Those who want to save their lives will lose them. But those who lose their lives for me and for the Good News will save them. [Mark 8:34-35(GW)]

Becoming a Christian is the most important step we will ever take in our lives and has longer reaching consequences that our choice of career or spouse. Fortunately, it is relatively easy: admit our sinfulness and turn away from sin, believe that Jesus died on the cross to save us from sin and to give us eternal life, and declare our faith in Jesus Christ. Repenting, accepting and confessing one’s faith—that’s the easy part.

Being a Christian—now, that’s where it gets difficult. Being a Christian is so much more than going to church, knowing Bible verses or saying prayers. It certainly is more than tithing, being baptized, confirmed, or even partaking in Holy Communion. Being a Christian isn’t a one-time event or an occasional action; it is a day-to-day process. By accepting Christ, we’ve become a new person. Unfortunately, that old sinful self is still there, relentlessly trying to assert itself. Being a Christian is a continual process of repentance and forgiveness and poses the daily challenge of giving our heart, minds and bodies to Him. It is allowing the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—to become evident and grow in our lives. Being a Christian isn’t knowing about Jesus; it’s actually knowing Him and having a relationship with Him. It is hearing and heeding His voice; it is loving Him and being loved by Him; it is devoting ourselves to Him, doing for Him, being His disciple, and spreading the gospel message.

I became a Christian years ago; being a Christian—well, I’m still working on that! Right now, I’m just a work in progress.

I wish not merely to be called Christian, but also to be Christian. [Saint Ignatius]

Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion – it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ. [Billy Graham]

Examine yourselves to see whether you are still in the Christian faith. Test yourselves! Don’t you recognize that you are people in whom Jesus Christ lives? Could it be that you’re failing the test? [2 Corinthians 13:5 (GW)]

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WOULD ANYONE NOTICE?

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.)… For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. [Romans 8:9,16 (NLT)]

canna - bandanna of the evergladesIt was obvious we had ceiling fans in all three bathrooms but, because all their bulbs were burned out when we moved here, we didn’t know they also had lights. Never having seen how bright the bathrooms could be with working fan lights, we didn’t notice their absence. It was only when we had some electrical work done that we discovered the dead bulbs. Now that we’ve put in new LEDs, we’ll be sure to notice if any stop working in the future!

I bring up the fan lights because this question was asked: “If the Holy Spirit withdrew from your church, would anybody be able to tell?” That question forces us to ask whether our church is more of a social club than a spirit-powered community. Is it centered on Sunday’s service or serving others? Is it about entertainment or enlightenment, conversation or conviction? Does it believe more in the power of networking than the power of prayer? Is it about growing bigger or becoming better, pleasing people or glorifying God, filling pews or fulfilling God’s purpose?

As thought provoking as that first question is for pastors and church councils, it raises another and far more personal question. If the Holy Spirit were to withdraw from you, would anybody notice?

When we accept Jesus, we’re not given a membership card, pin, or secret handshake. Underwriters Laboratories doesn’t certify us and there’s no symbol like the OU from the Orthodox Union to indicate we’re kosher. The only thing attesting to our salvation is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He regenerates and guides us, convicts us of our sins, teaches us to live in Christ’s righteousness, equips and empowers us to do all that God asks us to do, and helps us discern between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that changes us so that we can grow and more and more like Christ and the only evidence of His presence is found in our changed lives.

We didn’t notice the missing lights in the bathroom because we’d never seen them on. In the same way, no one would notice that we’re no longer connected to the light of the Holy Spirit if we’ve never previously reflected “the glory of the Lord” in our lives. Life with the Spirit should look vastly different than life without!

While the Holy Spirit guides us, He doesn’t control us; we can ignore Him. Sin, like a burned out light bulb, can cause us to be unresponsive to the power of His presence. Although the Spirit will never abandon a true believer, the hypothetical question is one worth asking. Would anyone notice if the Spirit took a sudden leave of absence from our lives?  The answer to that will be found in another question: When we look into our hearts, do we see ourselves or the Holy Spirit?

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams. [Augustine]

Trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of all work. But when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, then the ministry of Jesus just flows out of you. [Corrie Ten Boom]

So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. [[2 Corinthians 3:18 (NLT)]

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IT’S ABOUT TODAY

The thief only comes to steal, and kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life – yes, and have it full to overflowing. [John 10:10 (NTE)]

When I wrote about my friend Pat yesterday, I didn’t want to imply that the only thing non-believers miss is eternal life. The saddest part of being a non-believer (or waiting until the eleventh hour to believe), is foregoing the abundance of life promised by Jesus while we live on this side of the grass.

When we choose to believe in Jesus, our lives are transformed, renewed, and healed; they become “full to overflowing” right now! Sometimes, we overlook that point when we share our faith. Not being a Christian is more than missing the assurance that we’ll dwell in the house of the Lord forever; it means not having Christ live in our house today!

Evangelism messages concentrating on hellfire, brimstone, and the afterlife miss the point that failing to believe in Jesus means we forego the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in this lifetime. We don’t experience salvation when our soul leaves our body; it comes when the Holy Spirit enters our soul! Not following Jesus isn’t just losing the assurance of God’s forgiveness of our sins; it’s passing up the Spirit’s power that enables us to forgive the sins of others.

Whether believer or not, most of us can resist the temptation to steal or kill but we desperately need God’s power when it comes to resisting those everyday temptations of negativity, envy, pride, arrogance, stubbornness, laziness, impatience, anger, and fear. When God moves in, we experience the Fruit of the Spirit and, with His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we’re not helpless when it comes to temptation. While we’re far from perfect, we’re far better people than we were before Christ entered our lives!

The non-believer doesn’t have the stability that comes from faith in God and His plan. Christ’s followers are never at the mercy of their circumstances. When the storms come and the waves toss our boat, we know Jesus is there with us and will calm the storm (or teach us to swim). Like the Apostle Paul, Christ’s followers can find joy in all circumstances. We have confidence that God will provide our everyday needs—whether it is strength, courage, wisdom, or just our daily bread. Sadly, a non-believer foregoes the fullness that comes from being part of a faith community: the joy of corporate worship and having meaningful relationships with other believers. Being a Christ follower brings us a sense of purpose because, in God’s world, there’s always something to do! All of that, along with eternal life, is missed by the non-believer.

Following Jesus isn’t just about going to live with God some day in the future; it’s about God coming to live in us right now! It’s about experiencing the peace and joy that comes with the assurance that our loving God is at large and in charge! Let us remember to speak of the here and now as well as the hereafter when we speak to others about following Jesus.

Celebrate joyfully in the Lord, all the time. I’ll say it again: celebrate! Let everybody know how gentle and gracious you are. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything. Rather, in every area of life let God know what you want, as you pray and make requests, and give thanks as well. And God’s peace, which is greater than we can ever understand, will keep guard over your hearts and minds in King Jesus. [Philippians 4:4-7 (NTE)]

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