Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Importance of Context

Do you ever get the feeling when you watch the news that the reporter or network’s views are just a bit skewed? Like they’re only telling you part of the story about the person they’ve quoted? Even if they claim to be unbiased, they can’t help but slant their edited version according to their own world views.  So the quotes they pull from an interview or speech may in fact be part of what the person said, yet not represent the whole message or heart of that individual.  
My daughter’s pastor expressed some misgivings about a particular devotional for similar reasons. Even though it’s one of my favorites, I can see his point. It weaves together selections from the Bible as if Jesus is speaking to you personally. You can almost feel His breath as you read. However, it is not the Bible. And it’s not meant to be. I’m sure the author would agree.

Devotionals are fantastic tools. They are appetizers to prepare us for the main course—the Bible. They help us better understand and personalize specific passages, offering warm and personal examples from the author’s life we can relate to. But they do not replace reading the Bible. Neither does biblical fiction. 

Why not? Because even the best devotionals can only lift a verse or two out of context to focus on something that has ministered to the writer. No matter how closely an author tries to keep the purity of God’s message, we still fall short. Here are some of my favorites: Edges of His Ways by Amy Carmichael, Jesus Calling by Sarah Young, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene H. Peterson, Meeting God in Quiet Places by F. LaGard Smith, My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, Come Away My Beloved by Frances J. Roberts, and Four Gifts of Christmas, Forty Days of Lint, and Devotionals for Homeschool Moms, by yours truly.

The Holy Bible, however, was written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and is therefore the complete Word of God. So even though devotionals, by diligent authors who love God’s Word, are a tremendous help, we still need to consider them a delightful side dish to our Bible reading. 

As I repeat in all my classes—you don’t have to read the whole thing in a year and you don’t have to understand everything you read the first time through. (If we could understand everything at a glance, it wouldn’t be the holy, mysterious, eternal Word of God capable of nourishing us for a lifetime.) So cut yourself some slack. There’s no right or wrong amount to consume each day. Just do it. 

Years ago, a fellow student of the Word told our group, “I read until the Spirit stops me.” At that point I had gotten discouraged with the Read the Bible in a Year program so I decided to give this a try. It has brought me so much freedom! I have read the entire Bible from beginning to end more than twenty times now and I still love it. 

Whether I stop to laugh and thank God for His delightful sense of humor, ask forgiveness, praise God for insight, write a prayer in my journal, ask for understanding, look up cross references, study it, or copy a passage to memorize or look at throughout the day—it is God's personal message for me. Some days I read chapters, other days I may only read a sentence or two before I stop.

In this way, even at a snail’s pace, you can read the entire Word of God over and over throughout your life. This is the only way to receive God’s words in their original context. Speed and volume are not the point; intimacy with our Lord and Savior is what we’re after.

So, rather than limiting your relationship with God to tiny snippets quoted by somebody else, let devotional writings whet your appetite. Then go to the Source and get to know Him personally, intimately, fully, even as you are fully known.

#howtoreadtheBible #aredevotionalsagoodidea #knowingGod #outofcontext

Friday, September 16, 2016

This is Who I Am

I come from a solid, supportive family. Although my parents were strict, they were also loving and involved. I grew up with the assurance my life had purpose. I entered adulthood fairly strong, but after an unexpected divorce, I lost the self-confidence of my youth. Suddenly I began to wonder if I had any value. If my marriage partner didn’t love me, did I have anything to offer anyone?
I’m not the only one who has suffered an identity crisis. Divorce, job loss, illness, abuse, and a great number of other things can contribute to a waning sense of self.

Perhaps you’ve struggled with this from time to time, or it gnaws at you continually—Who am I? Why am I here? Do I matter to anybody? What’s it all for? This week, I encountered a person with the answers. His clarity and self-assurance gave me a hook to hang my hat on, so to speak. In one sentence he declared: this is who I am, this is what I do, and this is why I do it. He made no attempts at people pleasing or to convince anyone who might disagree. I found it refreshing and invigorating.

The sentence that caught my eye is the first verse of the book of Romans. Paul started his letter in the usual manner of first century writers. They identified themselves at the beginning of their letters instead of signing at the end. He began, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1).

There is so much power packed in that one little sentence! I had to stop after reading and just take it in. I don’t think he intended for it to be such a profound opening. But I immediately recognized it as the kind of confidence I need. No apologies, no rationalizations or attempts to convince others I, and the work I do, has value. Paul had a sturdy sense of his identity that came exclusively from his relationship with Christ.

So often, we identify ourselves by the work we do: I’m a doctor, teacher, contractor, counselor, logger, writer. Or by our relationships: I’m Britney’s dad, I’m John’s wife, I’m Karen’s Aunt. Paul was schooled by the elite of his day, a Roman citizen by birth, a tent maker by profession, and a respected (and feared) Jewish leader. But after he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, none of that mattered to him anymore.

His new identity earned him suspicion, rejection, imprisonment, repeated attempts on his life, and eventually death. But it didn’t cause him to waver or change his course. Every last breath fed into what he said in that one sentence—I live to serve Jesus Christ; the Savior of the world called me to be His apostle; I’ve been set apart (chosen) to spread the news of His death and resurrection, forgiveness and hope for all mankind. 

We may not all get to experience an audible voice and blinding light encounter with Jesus. But this kind of self confidence can be ours as well, because Paul went on to say, “And you also…are called to belong to Jesus Christ…loved by God and called to be his holy people” (Rom. 1:6-7, emphasis added). Does that resonate with you: called to belong, loved, invited to be a part of something of eternal significance? Isn’t that what we all long for?

What if we used this as a Template for Identity? How would you fill in the following blanks?
This is who I am:
This is what I do:
This is why I do it:

In the end, Jesus is the only One whose approval and acceptance we need. If we are firm in that, we need never be shaken again.

from Live, Love, Lead by Brian Houston

 #whoamI #whatismypurpose #doesmylifematter #doyoulikeme #whatsitallfor

Thursday, September 8, 2016

I’m the Only One

Do you remember the song Tigger used to sing on Winnie the Pooh? He brags about his wonderful qualities and that the most wonderful thing about Tiggers is he’s the only one. He later admits it’s also the worst thing about Tiggers. Being the only one can get lonely. Scripture proves both to be contrary to God’s plan. 
Tigger came across like he thought he was better than the other animals. He was bouncy, playful, had beautiful stripes, and a long tail; he thought he was completely unique. Even though people seldom give voice to this, we might view ourselves as one of a kind in Bible knowledge, giving, self-discipline, lifestyle, or dedication to truth. We sometimes feel like a white sheep in a flock of black and gray.

Or, we may think we’re so unique that no one can relate to how we think and feel. We may believe our sins have made us inferior or more worldly wise than other believers. We’re convinced others have never thought of or done anything as horrible as we have. We believe we have little in common with others in the church. We are the black sheep in a sea of fluffy white.

Both forms of believing we’re the only one are based on pride. Pride in who we are, how we look, what we have, what we think, what we’ve done (good or bad), and what we’ve accomplished. 

Even Elijah fell into this trap. Both before and after his huge victory against the false prophets on Mt. Carmel, he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 18:22 and 19:10, 14, italics added). Before his mountaintop experience, Elijah said it boastfully, afterward he said it in self-pity and terror. But God set him straight.

After he had a couple of naps, some angel food, and a front row seat to a magnificent display of God’s power, God whispered some encouraging news in Elijah’s ear. You are not the only one. God told him who He had prepared to lead the people, and the little fact that 7,000 others had also remained faithful to Him. He even had a guy picked out as Elijah’s successor (1 Ki. 19:15-18). Nothing like getting a pep talk and attitude check at the same time.

This problem is so common, Paul quoted Elijah’s story to the Roman believers. With God we are never alone (Rom. 11:1-5). There is always someone else believing, praying, fighting against evil; there’s someone we can relate to, who gets where we’re coming from, who will value us. 

Convincing us we’re the only one is a favorite trick of the enemy. When the disciples got too full of themselves, Jesus warned, “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat” (Luke 22:3132). What does that mean? He wanted to separate the brothers. He wanted to isolate them from comfort and fellowship. After Jesus’ death, they would need one another desperately to get over abandoning Him at His darkest hour. That’s the only way they would make it to the other side of the resurrection.

Satan wants to do the same thing to us. When we focus on our differences in the Body of Christ instead of what we have in common, we become self-centered instead of God-centered. Self-focus is lonely, but God-focus is sweet and full of joyful companionship. That’s how twelve guys—with a wild diversity of personalities, life experiences, education, and economic status—could become a loving, world-changing force for the gospel of Christ. 

No one in the Hundred Acre Woods ever had to feel alone either. When they valued and loved themselves and the others—bouncy Tigger, cranky Rabbit, timid Piglet, pudgy Pooh, maternal Kanga, baby Roo and others knew they belonged. May the same be said of the people of God.

#churchunity #nooneunderstandsme #idon’tfitin #oneofakind #unique

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Our Long-Armed God

Since I’m a little short, I have difficulties reaching things in high places. I take advantage of chairs, ladders, and counter tops at home to get to what I need. At the grocery store I make friends with tall strangers to reach products beyond my reach. It’s taken me considerably longer, however, to realize this in the spiritual realm. God’s arms are not too short to access whatever I need.

When peace is beyond my reach, patience eludes me, emotional healing is on the top shelf and I can’t find a ladder, God has no problem bringing them down to my level. And at times when forgiveness was in a cupboard I couldn’t reach, and I didn’t even want to try, He got it down for me. It seems so much of what I need is high above my head: answers to prayers, what to do about this situation or that, words I need to say (or not), comfort for a broken heart, the will to persevere.

There are three scriptures I keep coming back to, because they remind me—though I’m vertically challenged, the God of the universe has no such limitations. The first one reminds me He has always come through in the past—“Was my arm too short to deliver you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you?” Isaiah 50:2. He has never failed me or anyone in all of history who has put their trust in Him.

The second one reminds me He is still available for those hard to reach packages that elude my grasp—“Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” Isaiah 59:1. He’s not just the God of the Bible who did miraculous things in the past. He’s still in the business today.

The last verse gives me hope for the future, because I know new packages will keep appearing and I’ll need Someone big and tall to help me reach them—“Is the LORD’s arm too short? Now you will see whether or not what I say will come true for you” Numbers 11:23. He will never leave me alone on the aisle of need to fend for myself.

I must admit, however, that sometimes the thing I want isn’t always what I need. Even though God could get them for me, there are times when He takes down a different package than I asked for—learning Contentment instead of Immediate Gratification, Maturity won through loss instead of Security, His Embrace in the darkness instead of striding alone in Daylight. 

At first, I’m a little miffed (sometimes more than a little) at what He hands me. I point again. “No, God, that one on the right above the red and yellow package.” 

He smiles and says, “No, child, this is the one you need. You may not want it now, or see your need for it, but trust me and my love for you.” 

I grudgingly take it, and later discover He was right. 

Other times He tells me what I need is not what I’m straining after, but on the shelf right in front of me. He has already made it available. All I need to do is accept it. Give thanks for it.

Today, if you feel like what you need is unobtainable, I want to encourage you—God’s arms are not too short. Talk to Him about it, whether it’s help conquering a habit, courage to stand for the truth, the ability to understand His Word, relief from depression or guilt. Anything.

Here are three prayers you can personalize to fit your circumstances. I’m confident He will answer in ways you never thought possible.

Lord, I believe your arm is not too short to reach this person:_______. You see, hear, and have the power and desire to save them. 

Lord, your arm is not too short for this situation: _______. You know all the details and can see the future. You know what needs to happen. I trust you in this.

Father, your arm is not too short to help me in my struggle against: _______. I am powerless, but you can give me victory.

#helpforthehelpless #longarmsforshortpeople #Ican’tHecan #conqueringaddiction #depression