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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THE CRÈCHE AND THE CROSS

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3 16-17 (NLT)]

creche and crossPew Research reports that while 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, more than half of them celebrate it only as a cultural holiday! While they’ll decorate their house with lights and wreaths, trim a tree, send cards, and exchange gifts, Christmas is just an excuse for good food, parties, family gatherings, and presents. While they’re not indifferent to Santa, gifts, merriment, or decorations, like the people of 1st century Palestine, they are indifferent to the Christ child. The shepherds saw the star and sought the babe in the manger and a caravan from the East brought Him gifts, but we don’t read of any townspeople visiting Joseph and Mary. What of the priests and scribes who told Herod where the Messiah would be born? They knew the prophecies but didn’t join the Magi in their quest to find the One who would fulfill those prophecies. Lowly shepherds and men from a faraway land recognized Jesus as the Messiah but most of God’s chosen people ignored the greatest event in all of history.

Some people react to Christmas with antipathy; like Herod, they hate its message. Rather than join the magi and seek the newborn King of the Jews, the enraged Herod slaughtered all of the male babies around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the king! The “bah humbuggers” are like the atheist who erected a 10-foot 300-pound pentagram just 20-feet from a nativity scene in a Boca Raton park in 2016. Non-believers don’t want a King who might knock them off their pedestals any more than Herod wanted one who could knock him off his throne. They’re uncomfortable with the concepts of sin, salvation, love, sacrifice, obedience and forgiveness that surround Christmas. Then again, maybe they dislike this day simply because Christmas reminds them of the emptiness of their lives.

Some people respond to Christmas as did the angels, shepherds, magi, Simeon, and Anna: with worship. Tonight and tomorrow, people around the world will raise their voices in praise and thanksgiving, light candles, sing carols, kneel in prayer, lift their hands in worship, and share bread and wine at communion. Some will come and adore Him tonight but won’t return to church until next Christmas. But others will ponder the events of this night, as did Mary. They will allow the Christ child to enter into their hearts and lives and affect their every thought, word, and action for the rest of their lives. After extinguishing the Christmas Eve candles, they will continue to let their lights shine all year long. They are the ones who know that God came as a baby and lay in a manger so that He could suffer, die on the cross as a common criminal, and pay the penalty for mankind’s sins. They know that the crèche is meaningless without the cross!

Let us behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

But Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. [Luke 2:19b-20 (NLT)]

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WORDS

A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. [James 3:4-6 (MSG)]

rabbitJames warns of the dangers of an untamed tongue and the damage that can be done with ill-considered words. Although he was speaking of speech, the same goes for the written word. Whether we’re holding a pen, our fingers are speeding across a keyboard, or our thumbs are tapping out a text, our words are powerful. Whether we use them to build or destroy is our choice.

C.S. Lewis, one of the great Christian minds of the 20th century, authored more than thirty books. A man who never used a typewriter, he also was a prolific letter writer. Writing not just to friends and colleagues, he answered every letter sent to him. Most of us probably have trouble responding to someone with a quick email, yet this busy man never hesitated to handwrite a response, even to strangers or children who wrote after reading one of his books or hearing him on radio. More than 3,200 of Lewis’ handwritten letters remain and have been published in various collections. They range from the somewhat mundane (thanking someone for a ham) to the exceptional (reassuring a woman who is afraid of dying).

Often writing more than 100 letters a month, his letters show not just a deep thinker with a brilliant mind but also a compassionate man generous enough to take the time to instruct, explain, empathize, encourage, and reveal himself and his vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, Lewis once complained, “If I didn’t have so many letters to answer, I’d have time to write another book.” His words from another letter, however, explain why he did it: “Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that perhaps the best, perhaps the only service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief.” He wrote those letters out of obedience to God and concern for the people who’d written to him.

While many proverbs give dire warnings about imprudent words, the other half of those proverbs often are about judicious ones. That C.S. Lewis’ letters continue to be read today illustrates the power of the written word. Rather than start a wildfire with cruel words, Lewis sowed seeds of Christ with his kind ones; may we do the same. Let us never forget the beautiful things our words, both spoken and written, can do when used wisely and with love!

Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. [Proverbs 18:21 (MSG)]

The words of the wicked kill; the speech of the upright saves. [Proverbs 12:6 (MSG)]

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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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FINDING SOMETHING NEW

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” [Jeremiah 31:33 (NLT)]

pikaSpencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? is an uncomplicated parable about two mice and two “little people” (Hem and Haw) who are looking for the “cheese” that will bring them happiness. When the cheese disappears, the mice quickly scurry off in search of more. Hem and Haw, however, have built their life around that cheese. Arrogantly thinking their brains are superior to those of their four-legged friends, they are unwilling to change and search for different cheese. Eventually, hunger drives Haw to leave his comfort zone and go in search of new cheese. When he finds it, he also finds those simple creatures, the mice, who’d been there for quite a while and enjoying the delicious new cheese.

The cheese is a metaphor for what we desire in life, whether a relationship, job, money, or peace of mind, and the book is about dealing with change, keeping things simple, and not confusing ourselves with fearful beliefs. Hem and Haw always thought that change would lead only to something worse. It is not until Haw understands that change also can lead to something better that he starts looking for new cheese. Sadly, left behind in the maze is Hem. Paralyzed with fear, in spite of his hunger, he stays in his comfort zone where the old cheese had been.

Throughout the story, Haw writes messages on the wall. When he writes, “The more important your cheese is to you, the more you want to hold on to it,” I couldn’t help but think of the Pharisees in Jesus’s time. The law was their cheese; they held tight to it and then over-complicated it. The simple law of keeping the Sabbath day became burdensome with its thirty-nine categories (and hundreds of subcategories) of prohibited work and exceptions to the rules. While tying knots was prohibited, if the knot could be untied with just one hand, it was allowed! People couldn’t carry their clothes out of a burning house on the Sabbath but they could put on several layers of clothing and wear them out! As happened with Hem, the Pharisees became over-confident and arrogant; for them, their complicated set of rules was the only cheese, even when it ceased making sense!

Jesus, however, introduced a new kind of cheese: a new covenant of salvation through faith, not works. Rather than the law being written with ink on paper it was written with the blood of Jesus upon men’s hearts. Although God’s promise of a new covenant came true in Jesus, the Pharisees refused to change and stayed hungry in their corner of the maze.

A great many of us in the 21st century are little different from those who resisted Jesus in the 1st. We may not cling to a long list of prohibitions and rules as did the Pharisees but, out of fear of change, we cling to a way of life that isn’t working. We’re like the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do for eternal life. When told that he must give up the old cheese (his riches), he walked away rather than accept Jesus’s offer of salvation. Like Hem, could we be going hungry when all we need to do is step out of our comfort zone and seek the Bread of Life? Or, like, Haw, will we seek and find?

His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. [Acts 17:27-28a (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6:35 (NLT)]

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