WHOSE ARE YOU?

You go before me and follow me, You place your hand of blessings on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand. [Psalm 139:5-6 (NLT)]

lion - tanzaniaI started Sunday morning with Psalm 139—a beautiful reminder that God was with us at our conception, is with us now, and will be with us at our end. “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous,” read the psalm. Those words reminded me of Joey. Chinese by birth, born without hands, and abandoned by his mother, he was adopted by an American family. In spite of his many visible and hidden challenges, Joey was a cheerful little guy until entering junior high school, encountering bullies, and asking the inevitable questions that come with adolescence. In spite of being part of a loving family, he feels he failed the birth family who discarded him like a piece of trash and, rather than feeling wonderfully made, Joey asks why God made him the way He did.

Scripture reading was followed by the newspaper where I found an interesting advice column. The writer has both birth and adopted daughters but her birth daughter refuses to allow her children to call her sister “aunt” because she’s not really “family.” In response, the psychologist noted that there are some deep seated jealousy issues in the girls’ relationship and pointed out that legally both girls have the same standing. He then added an interesting argument to show the absurdity of the birth daughter’s position. The adopted daughter could actually say she was more of a daughter than her sister because their parents deliberately chose her and had to go through a long involved process to get her. The other sister’s conception took but a few minutes and even may have been an accident! While I don’t think that argument will improve the girls’ relationship, he had an interesting point about adoption; it is a deliberate act of love!

In a strange juxtaposition, Sunday’s sermon was part of a series, “Faith at the Movies,” and The Lion King was the subject. Until Rafiki confronted him, the lion Simba forgot who he was—the son of the king—and that his father lived in him. Like Simba, we are the King’s children; He adopted us when we accepted Jesus. Just as Simba’s father was in him, our Father lives in us.

Our Heavenly Father was there when we were but a gleam in our birth fathers’ eyes. As the psalmist wrote, He made “all the delicate, inner parts” of our bodies as He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. Joey may appear flawed by human standards but he is perfectly made by God’s standards. When Simba saw his reflection in the water, he saw his father and Rafiki assured him, “He lives in you.” Joey and his family are working with counselors but, to truly heal, Joey will have to see the face of his Father, the King, when he sees his reflection. He will have to see his worth in being the adopted child of God and believe that God’s spirit lives in him.

Rafiki asks Simba, ”Who are you?” and Sunday’s sermon asked us the same question. Like Simba, we often forget that it’s not our circumstances that characterize us. Our sex, appearance, family, heritage, profession, assets, shortcomings, accomplishments, failures, and even our sins do not define us. It’s not what we are but whose we are that gives us value and worth. Because God adopted us into His family, first and foremost, we are children of the King.

Child of God, you cost Christ too much for him to forget you. [Charles Spurgeon]

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” [Romans 8:15 (NLT)]

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:26 (NLT)]

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HIS FRUIT (Part 1)

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. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. [Galatians 5:16-17 (NLT)]

fruit of the spiritFortunately, because God loves His sinful children, we are saved through our faith and God’s grace; that means He takes us soiled sinners just as we are. But, just because God accepts His immoral, angry, impatient, bad-tempered, anxious and selfish children doesn’t mean He wants us to stay that way. Those who’ve had children know we don’t want them to remain toddlers or even teens forever. When Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery, he told her, “Go and sin no more!” and, when He saves us, He tells us the very same thing! Unfortunately, sinning no more is far easier said than done.

We may be reborn when we accept Christ but, other than being forgiven, the new saved us is still a great deal like the old one. Accepting Jesus doesn’t instantly make us into loving, joyful, serene, patient, compassionate, virtuous, faithful, humble, and self-disciplined individuals. Writing to the Galatians, Paul reminded them the old sinful self was still there, relentlessly trying to assert itself. Satan doesn’t disappear when we’re saved and, just as he tempted Jesus, he’ll continue to tempt us. We mustn’t err by picturing the enemy as a cartoonish imp wearing a red suit and carrying a pitchfork; he is no cartoon. There’s a war going on for our souls and he whispers into our ears with words of envy, anger, spite, fear, jealousy, lust, dissension, despair, pride, irritation, worry and self-centeredness.

Paul gave the Galatians a long list of evils: everything from idolatry, sorcery, and drunken parties to things probably closer to home such as quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition and envy. Repeating his warning that anyone living that sort of life would not inherit the kingdom of God, Paul added these words of hope: “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” [Galatians 5:22-23a] The good news is that God has not left us defenseless—which is where the Holy Spirit and His spiritual fruit enter in! When we become Christ followers, the Holy Spirit enters our lives and, along with a spiritual gift, He plants the Fruit of the Spirit in our hearts.

Planted by the Spirit in our hearts, the Fruit of the Spirit is a little like a Swiss Army knife with its numerous functions. Just as the multi-faceted pocketknife can provide us with two blades, corkscrew, screwdriver, bottle opener, scissors, wood saw, toothpick, tweezers, can opener, and key ring, the Fruit of the Spirit is an all-purpose tool providing us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These characteristics describe Jesus and it is the presence of this fruit in our hearts that enables us to grow more like Him every day: to have His purpose, thoughts, words and actions be ours.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. … Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. [Galatians 5:22-23a,25 (NLT)]

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SELFWILL – The Pilgrim’s Progress

Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. [2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)]

strawflowersJesus clearly promises forgiveness of our sins but some people treat this gift as little more than a Monopoly game’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The pilgrims Honest and Great Heart meet such a person in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Motivated by God’s promise of “eternal security,” Mr. Selfwill feels free to live any way he wants. Since David committed adultery, Rahab lied, and Jacob deceived, he believes he can do those things, as well. He thinks anyone who believes that Jesus has forgiven his sins has the freedom to sin willfully as long as he has some virtues to go along with his sins. Assuming his good deeds cancel out his bad ones, Selfwill deliberately sins.

Because we are sinners, all Christians will struggle with sin and it is not until we see Jesus face to face that we’ll be completely free from sin. Nevertheless, Christ didn’t die on the cross so mankind would continue to sin! Honest and Great Heart point out that falling into sin and deliberately committing it are not the same things. There is a difference between a stumble into the mud puddle and an eager and deliberate leap into the muck so one can wallow in it!

Selfwill has the attitude of, “Since I’m saved and all my sins are forgiven, I can keep sinning.” While a genuine believer won’t lose his share in Christ’s salvation when he sins and repents, Selfwill isn’t a genuine believer. Confident that he can’t lose his salvation when he eagerly and intentionally sins, Selfwill doesn’t realize he’s never been saved! Believing that Jesus died for our sins is the correct doctrine but believing in a doctrine is not what saves us. We are saved when we believe in and give our lives to the right person: Jesus Christ (a distinction Selfwill missed). Forgiveness is not something to be taken lightly and, for the true believer, willfully continuing to sin is not an option. Rather than deliberately committing a sin, the true believer wants to be delivered from his sins.

If we are living a life that is indistinguishable from that of an unbeliever, it’s time to look in a mirror and examine ourselves. Have we truly received Christ as our Lord and Savior? Mr. Selfwill (like Misters Formality, Talkative, Hypocrisy, Ignorance, and Moneylove) didn’t come to the Way through the narrow Gate: Jesus. Unfortunately, when these men come to the Celestial City, they will find the door locked and not gain admittance.

You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. … Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, “Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.” But I will reply, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.” [Matthew 7: 13-14, 21-23 (NLT)]

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ON THE RADIO

So Joshua told the Israelites, “Come and listen to what the Lord your God says.” [Joshua 3:9 (NLT)]

While recovering from foot surgery, I had home visits from Mike, a physical therapist. He told me of a day, more than eighteen years ago, when he visited a new elderly patient. The obviously wealthy man lived alone in a beautifully appointed 6,000 square foot penthouse overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Mike remembers him as the most unpleasant, uncooperative, bitter and miserable person he’s ever met. After that visit, the therapist drove to a nearby town for another new patient visit. Although less than an hour’s drive northeast of the affluent man’s luxurious home, it was a world apart. Today, the population in the first town has a median age of 65.6, a median household income of over $90,000, and a poverty rate of less than 10%. Just thirty miles away, the second town has a median age of 26, with a median household income of less than $29,000, and 41.6% of its population live below the poverty level. Although the numbers were different eighteen years ago, the disparity would have been the same (or even worse).

The home Mike visited was a stark contrast to the beachfront luxury penthouse. As he gingerly walked up rickety wooden stairs and knocked on the screen door of a mobile home, Mike wondered what to expect. Visiting a woman who’d had a total knee replacement, he was warmly greeted at the door by her husband and offered a cup of coffee and a churro. As he entered their cramped home, he saw pictures drawn by grandchildren decorating the refrigerator and family photos on all the tables. He knew they were people of faith from the pictures of both Mary and Jesus hanging on the walls and the cross by the door. Yet, even without those signs, the couple’s words, joy, optimism, generosity, and love for one another were evidence of their faith.

That first day, as Mike was driving back to town, Danny’s Song, by Loggins and Messina, played on the car radio. When he heard the words, “And even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you honey, And everything will bring a chain of love,” he couldn’t help but think of the couple he’d met that morning. It was when he heard, “Yeah, don’t you live alone, Try to earn what lovers own,” that Mike thought of his wealthy old client; he was so affected that he had to pull over to the side of the road. The man had everything that money could buy and, yet, he lived alone and had nothing of real value. The couple, living in a rented trailer, had next to nothing and, yet, they had everything: faith, family, purpose, love, and one another! As rich as the old man was, he couldn’t buy the love that the couple owned.

Eighteen years later, Mike still remembers that couple and how, in a beautifully orchestrated God-incident, Kenny Loggins’ words in a popular song helped point him to the things that mattered most in his life at a time he most needed to rethink his priorities. My therapist learned a valuable lesson that day, one his wealthy client never did. The woman became his favorite client (and not just because of the churros and loving family he met during his several visits). Every time he left their home, he felt that some of their faith, joy and hope rubbed off on him. That moment eighteen years ago has stayed with Mike all these years as a constant reminder of what actually is important in life.

Just in case Mike didn’t get His message about priorities, did God arrange that song to come on the radio at exactly that time for him? I don’t know any more than I know if God was responsible for having Zach Williams’ song Fear is a Liar come on my car radio the afternoon I desperately needed that reminder. All I know is that God, with his quirky sense of humor and amazing sense of timing, could certainly manage a song on the radio!

God speaks to us in a number of ways: Scripture, Jesus (the Word who became flesh), the still small voice of the Holy Spirit, other believers, and His amazing creation. Scripture also tells us He’s spoken in some unusual ways including the urim and thummim that were kept in the high priest’s breastplate, the fleece of a sheep, a burning bush, a rainbow, and even a donkey! Capable of speaking to us at any time in any way He chooses, He might well have used a Kenny Loggins’ song. God keeps after us until we get the message and Scripture tells us that it never went well for people when they failed to listen to Him. Let’s always be open to hearing God’s voice and receptive to His message, whether it’s in the sky with a rainbow or on the radio with a song!

As it is written in the Scriptures, “They will all be taught by God.” Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. [John 6:45 (NLT)]

I listen carefully to what God the Lord is saying, for he speaks peace to his faithful people. But let them not return to their foolish ways. [Psalm 85:8 (NLT)]

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GETTING THE RIGHT MEANING

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV)]

Author John Greco wrote of answering a call for a 24-hour phone prayer ministry to find a man in crisis. Sobbing, the caller confessed that he was a dog breeder and that he hadn’t known that every dollar he gave to the church was a sin that made God angry. A new believer, the man had been following a Scripture reading plan with his King James Bible. That morning, he’d read Deuteronomy 23:18: “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord … for even both these are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” Thinking God found his tithe from selling dogs disgusting and sinful is what had him so distraught. What the man didn’t understand, but Greco patiently explained, was that, in the Old Testament, “dog” was a euphemism for “male prostitute.” Reassuring his caller, Greco read the same verse from the NIV translation: “You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord….” The King James, being a word-for-word translation, had given the literal translation rather than the original meaning. The NIV, being about half way between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations, used “male prostitute” with a footnote that explained it had been “dog” in the original Hebrew.

Curious, I looked up this same verse in a variety of translations. My NLT, which moves a little further down the thought-for-thought-chain, translates the words in question as, ”the earnings of a prostitute, whether a man or a woman” and also provides a footnote with the original word. Like the King James, the RSV is a word-for word translation but it adds a footnote indicating “dog” meant “sodomite.” The VOICE, a paraphrase translation, refers to the earnings from “cult prostitution.” Although each version is different, they all are right in their own way.

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and many of its original words don’t translate easily into English. For example, there were at least four different Greek words (phileō, storgē, eros, and agapē) for our one word “love.” Moreover, like “dog” for “male prostitute,” idioms often are difficult to translate. In 1 Samuel 24, the word-for-word KJV says that Saul went into a cave “to cover his feet” which doesn’t make sense to us. Covering his feet, however, was a Hebrew idiom for relieving himself (which the thought-for-thought translations make clear) and does make sense.

Because it is the first Bible I ever read, I will always treasure the King James translation; its version of the 23rd Psalm remains my favorite. Nevertheless, when I read that same psalm in the TLB, NLT, or Message versions, I see other nuances. Until reading the TLB’s “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need!” I hadn’t thought of it in terms of cause and effect. Rather than the “valley of the shadow of death,” the NLT broadens it to “the darkest valley,” and the Message refers to “Death Valley.” Thinking of actually traversing Death Valley—an unforgiving land of extremes where one could die from lack of drinking water or drown in a flash flood—and crossing more than 3 million acres of desolate wilderness—gives new depth to some very familiar words!

When we’re struggling to understand a difficult passage of Scripture or when we’ve heard or said the same verse so often that it’s lost its impact, using another translation is often helpful. Whatever Bible translation or translations we have on our bookshelves, however, the important thing is to open and read them!

Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (MSG)]

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GUARD YOUR GATES [THE HOLY WAR – Part 1]

He burned down the Temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. He destroyed all the important buildings in the city. Then he supervised the entire Babylonian army as they tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side. [2 Kings 25:9-10 (NLT)]

Schoonhoven - city gate

Jerusalem was heavily fortified and completely protected by walls over thirty-nine feet high and eight feet thick. In 586 BC, the Babylonian forces of King Nebuchadnezzar breached those seemingly impregnable walls and Jerusalem was burned, the city’s walls torn down, and the people taken captive. The city’s walls were rebuilt by Nehemiah 141 years later but they were again breached in 70 AD by the Romans who destroyed the city, demolished the second Temple, and massacred much of the population.

Published in 1682, John Bunyan’s allegory The Holy War tells of another fortified city’s fall. Bunyan’s walled city of Mansoul had five gates: Eye-gate, Ear-gate, Mouth-gate, Nose-gate and Feel-gate. Rather than Babylonians or Romans, Mansoul’s enemy was Diabolus. Unlike Jerusalem’s, Mansoul’s gates could not be breached or opened from the outside. They could only be forced if someone within the city allowed it. In short, sin could only enter if someone permitted its entrance. Diabolus and his then invisible army sat down in front of Ear-gate and assaulted it with fraud, guile, and hypocrisy. With the deaths of Captain Resistance and Lord Innocence, the townspeople looked at the tree of forbidden fruit, tasted it, forgot their good King Shaddai, opened both Ear and Eye-gate, and Mansoul came under the rule of Diabolus.

The Holy War is a none too subtle allegory that makes its point: walled cities can fall and city gates can be breached, if not from the outside, then from within. Like the city of Mansoul, sin will tempt and try to seduce us but it can’t force its way into our lives; it only enters by invitation. We alone are the ones who determine what we look at, hear, touch, feel, smell, say and do. Satan didn’t force Eve to eat that fruit, Cain to kill Abel, Jacob to deceive his father, the Israelites to worship a golden calf, Samson to dally with Delilah, David to take Bathsheba, Jonah to run away from Nineveh, King Ahaz to sacrifice his son, Herod to decapitate John, Judas to betray Jesus, or Peter to deny Him. These people freely opened their gates to temptation and allowed sin entrance into their lives.

An inevitable part of life, temptation is not a sin; it is a trial of faith. Mansoul’s sin was not in hearing the lies of Diabolous—it lay in believing and acting upon them. Sin happens when we drop our guard, open our gates, and allow it into our lives. God has given us a conscience, self-discipline, His word, and the Holy Spirit to defend our gates; whether or not we open ourselves to sin always remains our choice. Let us be cautious as to who and what enters our gates!

Temptation is the devil looking through the keyhole. Yielding is opening the door and inviting him in. [Billy Sunday]

But let us who live in the light be clearheaded, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation. [1 Thessalonians 5:8 (NLT)]

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