FASTING THOUGHTS

You have heard that our ancestors were told, “You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.” But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! … You have heard the commandment that says, “You must not commit adultery.” But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [Matthew 5:21-22a,27-28 (NLT)]

bue birdShortly before the start of Lent, I got an email advertisement for a Christian book that asked “What if you fasted regret? What if your friends fasted comparison? What would be the fruit of fasting stinginess?” Those questions certainly got me thinking about our thoughts.

The one place we have total freedom is our mind. Even though we have freedom of speech, we can’t shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre or “Bomb” in the security line at the airport. We can, however, shout anything we want at anyone anywhere in the silence of our minds. The father of those three abused gymnasts was free to wreak all sorts of revenge on their abuser in his mind but he couldn’t touch the man in court. We can be charming and polite to the woman who stole our husband and amazingly civil to the man who betrayed our trust when, in our imaginations, they suffer every disaster and tragedy that can befall man or beast.

Since our thoughts are far less easy to control than our actions, we’d like to think of them as less important. When we entertain wicked thoughts, we think we’re not sinning because we’d never actually do the terrible things about which we’re thinking. Since we won’t burn down the house of the man who deceived us or climb in bed with the sexy hunk at work, we think we’re innocent of wrongdoing. But are we? Remember the words of Jimmy Carter that nearly cost him the 1976 election: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Upon reading Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, it would seem that Carter’s confession, while ill-advised, was true! While thoughts and actions can have different results, Our Lord made it quite clear that thoughts are as important as actions. Jesus knew the evil thoughts of the Scribes and he knows ours.

Fortunately, Jesus telling us to get rid of our hands or eyes if they cause us to lust was hyperbole or Jimmy Carter (and much of the rest of the world) would be minus both hands and eyes. He is, however, telling us that our evil thoughts can be controlled. We can renounce every one of them and replace them with godly thoughts. Max Lucado describes it this way: ”You can be the air traffic controller of your mental airport. You occupy the control tower and can direct the mental traffic of your world.” When we keep the runway filled with godly thoughts, the bad ones circling around have no place to land. Our thoughts are as much a part of whether or not we love our neighbor as are our actions.

What would our lives be like if we fasted from things like anger, lust, envy, animosity, haughtiness, disdain, revenge, irritation, and impatience, not just in our actions, but also in our thoughts and, not just during Lent, but all of the time?

We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. [2 Corinthians 10:4-5 (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. [Philippians 4:8 (NLT)]

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MEMORY WORK REDUX

Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. [Matthew 6:16-18a (HCSB)]

sunflowerA young pastor friend admits to not being good at reciting Bible verses from memory. A product of the computer/Internet age, he just taps in a key word or topic and, almost instantly, the verses are right in front of him in whatever translation he wants. There’s no need to memorize verses when, with just a few keystrokes, the words appear. I may read the Bible every day and predate the age of computers but I’m no better at knowing verses by heart than he. If I  remember my passwords for both computer and Internet, I can find whatever verses I need. While that works when I’m researching or writing, my desk is not where most witnessing opportunities occur. I could plead age as an excuse but I didn’t memorize Bible verses even when my brain was younger and possessed far less useless trivia than it does now. My pastor friend and I both profess to love God’s word and yet we don’t seem to love it enough to learn it by heart.

For decades, I have given up some thing or things for Lent, often sweets and alcohol. I know those minor denials have nothing to do with my salvation or righteousness. They are just a way to remind me Christ’s difficult days in the wilderness and what God gave up when He sacrificed His only son for my sins. Although Jesus told his followers that fasting should be private, I often found myself needing to explain my refusal to partake in the host’s decadent dessert or the great bottle of wine he purchased in Napa. I also admit to occasionally feeling a sense of self-righteous pride when I denied myself chocolate chip cookies or a glass of pinot noir. Since self-denial should be private and never lead to self-righteousness, God and I decided to rethink my Lenten practices.

Last June, in a devotion called “Memory Work,” I wrote about four-year old Tanner Hemness who memorized a Bible verse for every letter of the alphabet. At that time, I downloaded the twenty-six verses he memorized with the intention of doing the same thing. Somehow, my good intention got side-tracked and I stopped after “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” [Matthew 7:7]

Rather than a season of fasting, this Lent will be my season of growth. There will be no need to worry about looking sad or explaining why I won’t eat someone’s homemade pie. Rather than a period of self-denial, it will be one of self-discipline. If four-year old Tanner could memorize those twenty-six verses in seven months, even with my neuron-challenged brain, I should be able to do it in the forty-six days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. After all, I’ve already learned one! We are to put God’s word to work in our lives and the first place to start is by putting His word into our hearts. God’s word in my heart can only put a smile on my face and His promises on my lips.

Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization. [Dallas Willard]

This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to recite it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do. [Joshua 1:8 (HCSB)]

I have your decrees as a heritage forever; indeed, they are the joy of my heart. [Psalm 119:111 (HCSB)]

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SEALING THE DEAL

A few days later Felix came back with his wife, Drusilla, who was Jewish. Sending for Paul, they listened as he told them about faith in Christ Jesus. As he reasoned with them about righteousness and self-control and the coming day of judgment, Felix became frightened. “Go away for now,” he replied. “When it is more convenient, I’ll call for you again.” [Acts 13:50-51 (NLT)]

Steamboat ski areaWhile under arrest in Caesarea, the Apostle Paul spent two years sharing Jesus with Felix, the governor. Nevertheless, after two years of testifying about salvation through Christ, Paul couldn’t seal the deal and Felix never came to believe. I’m reminded of a charming salesman who worked for a friend of ours. Although he diligently went out and made sales calls, no matter how many times he called on a potential client, he couldn’t close a deal! Eventually, as nice as he was, he had to be let go. After all, salesmen are expected to make the sale. Fortunately, God doesn’t work that way; if He did, the Apostle Paul might have been out of a job after failing to seal the deal with Felix!

Like Paul, we can repeatedly share our testimony with someone—we can teach Sunday school, invite people to church, talk about Jesus to everyone we meet, and even write Christian devotions. Nevertheless, we might never close the deal and hear someone say, “I’m accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” That, however, does not mean we have failed.

In my son’s first job out of college, he worked with a team of engineers selling cogeneration technology. Prior to his employment, the engineers from his company would meet with a potential customer to show them the benefits of their technology but they just couldn’t close a deal. It was not until my son joined the team that they made a sale. Rather than engineering, my son’s specialty was finance. The people making the final decision about purchase weren’t the engineers—they were the financial officers. Engineers talked combustion, turbines, power ratings and reciprocating engines which meant nothing to them but my son talked their language: percentages, return on investment and profits. Although my son closed the deal with his talk of financial advantages, he couldn’t have done it without the engineers who laid the groundwork by explaining the process.

Evangelism, like sales, is often a team effort; we may not be the ones who close the deal but we all must do our part to make the sale! While some may hear the message and respond immediately, committing to Jesus is a gradual process for many others. If we think we have to seal the deal every time we have a Jesus conversation, we’re going to be very disappointed Christians. That, however, doesn’t mean we stop having those conversations. Whether we’re just laying the ground work, explaining the process, or extolling the advantages, we may never know if our words have moved someone just a little closer to accepting Christ.  It may be someone else’s job to seal the deal; our job is just to keep sharing God’s Word!

For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? [Romans 10:13-14 (NLT)]

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THY WILL BE DONE

Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:10b (RSV)]

zinniaIn our house, we have an unwritten agreement to accept each other’s choices when it comes to giving. God had laid it on my heart to help a young family in our church through some difficult financial times. When I told my husband I’d written a generous check to them, he said I didn’t need to ask him. “I wasn’t asking,” I replied, adding that I hoped he was in agreement with me. Although that check was not dependent upon my husband’s authorization or approval, I still wanted him on board with my decision to write it.

I thought of our exchange while praying, “Thy will be done.” I’d mistakenly thought I was merely consenting to or accepting God’s will with those words. God, however, certainly doesn’t need my agreement for His will to be done any more than I needed my husband’s permission to write that check. God is all-powerful and whatever He wants to do, He easily can do without my prayers, input or approval. Why then then did Jesus tell us to pray those words?

“Thy will be done”—are they simply words of resignation and surrender? While that sentence is one of humble submission, I think there is much more to it. We’re asking God to reveal His will and praying for the obedience, wisdom, guidance, and means to accomplish it. We’re asking God to reassure us so that we can trust Him and go about achieving His purpose in eagerness and joy. We’re not offering a prayer to authorize or strengthen Him; we’re praying that He will strengthen and empower us. With those words, we’re thanking God for knowing what is best for each and every one of us.

In our daily walk, we have a choice. God can drag us along (much I had to drag the dog into the vet’s office) or we can eagerly follow Him. Either way, whether we’re kicking and screaming or moving enthusiastically, God’s will shall be done. Nevertheless, in praying, “Thy will be done,” we fully commit our hearts to that will. It’s saying, “Here I am, Lord. Put on my armor, send me into battle and keep me strong in the enemy’s attack!” Heavenly Father, thy will be done!

Prayer is not so much the means whereby God’s will is bent to man’s desires, as it is that whereby man’s will is bent to God’s desires. [Charles Bent]

And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” [Luke 9:23 (RSV)]

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PLANT GENEROUSLY

Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. [2 Corinthians 9:6 (NLT)]

pine - tent rocks - NMIn Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the four soils: the packed soil along the footpath where the birds steal the seeds, the rocky soil that doesn’t allow deep roots, the soil in which the thorns crowd out the seeds, and the fertile soil in which the seed grows, matures and bears fruit. He compares those soils to the ways God’s message is received by various people. Rather than looking at that story from the viewpoint of the soil or hearer of the word, however, let’s look at it from the viewpoint of the farmer—the sower of the seed of God’s word.

Having seen trees growing out of the sides of mountains and wildflowers peeking up through cracks in the sidewalk, I know that seeds can take root in the most unlikely places. As for those seeds on the footpath, what if someone’s boot pressed some deep in the ground so that the birds couldn’t eat them? As for those birds—some seeds may yet sprout if deposited by the bird in a more inviting environment. In fact, passing through the belly of an emu actually helps to germinate the seeds of an Australian plant with the wonderful name of Snottygobble (Persoonia nutans).

As for the shallow rocky soil—leaves could fall on it, decompose, and add nutrients and depth to the soil while rain might keep the plants from withering and dying.  As for the thorny weeds—what if someone came along and did some weeding or hungry goats or pigs (who apparently like thorny vines) passed by and ate the weeds? Even in good soil, some seeds might never grow, but others could lie dormant for a number of years until conditions were optimal for them to sprout. Needing the heat from a fire for their seeds to germinate, the Lodgepole Pine and the Eucalyptus may wait decades before sprouting.

We’d think the synagogue in Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth would have been fertile ground for Him, but it wasn’t. His message there ended with a furious mob wanting to kill him! Yet, in the unlikely soil of the Samarian city of Sychar, Jesus met a woman of questionable morals who realized He was the Messiah and brought the village’s people to see Him. The city of Corinth, with its cults of Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods, temple to Aphrodite, 1,000 prostitutes, and reputation for drunkenness and debauchery would hardly seem to be fertile soil and yet the Apostle Paul planted a church in it. Indeed, God’s word can take root in the most unlikely places.

When we sow seeds or spread God’s word, there’s no way to determine which seeds or testimonies will eventually take root and grow. Moreover, sometimes those seeds or words may remain in suspended animation until the right conditions for growth occur. Our job as the farmers in God’s kingdom is simply to continue sowing those good seeds whenever and wherever we can; eventually, some will fall on fertile soil! God will take care of the harvesting and sorting when the right time comes.

It’s what you sow that multiplies, not what you keep in the barn. [Adrian Rogers]

Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. … Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’” [Matthew 13:24,30 (NLT)]

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APPROVAL RATINGS

Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant. [Galatians 1:10 (NLT)]

rabbitsI’d just returned from the dentist’s when their email arrived asking, “Would you recommend us?” Thinking the question theoretical, I answered in the affirmative only to be taken to hyperlinks for both Google and Facebook to do just that. The following day, I got a longer survey regarding my visit. It again asked if I would recommend his services and requested use of my name in a testimonial. Clearly, my dentist wants the approval of his patients.

Like my dentist, we all want to be noticed, liked, approved, applauded and endorsed but, unlike him, we don’t employ a company to do surveys for us. Nevertheless, we tend to measure approval in other ways—the quantity of Christmas cards sent or received, “friends” on Facebook, hits on the website or likes on the posting. Approval is determined by the number of invitations extended or accepted, memberships (and offices held) in various organizations, honors awarded, and followers on Twitter or Instagram. We judge admiration on the number and expense of gifts received, the reviews on Yelp or Trip Advisor, the size of the obituary and the length of the line to pay condolences.

In the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes (drawn by Bill Watterson), there were several instances (usually after having been disciplined or given a chore) in which the precocious Calvin informed his father that his approval ratings were dangerously low (especially with six-year olds and stuffed tigers). To Calvin’s surprise, his dad seemed unconcerned about his approval ratings’ ups and downs. This comic strip father knew that a parent’s purpose wasn’t to gain his child’s approval. Would that other parents were so wise!

We all seek approval but by whom? Like Calvin’s dad, our job is not to please our children; nor is it to please any other person. Jesus warned us that we can’t be servants to both God and the world (its wealth, possessions, fame, popularity, status, or praise). Our job is to please God; His approval rating of us is the only one that truly counts! When we try to please both the world and God, the interests of our two masters eventually will collide. When that happens, and it will, whose approval will we seek—man’s or God’s?

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. [1 Thessalonians 2:4 (NLT)]

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. [Matthew 6:24a (NLT)]

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