Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Thursday Night

Once upon a time there was a peaceful gluttonous Thanksgiving Thursday followed by the shopping wars and chaos of Black Friday.  Now those days have blurred into one.  Much has been said this year about Walmart workers having some job action, towns passing ordinances to not make retail employees work on Thanksgiving, and people promising to stay home and not support making retail workers work.  Personally, and I am sorry if this offends anyone, but I do not have much sympathy for retail workers having to work on Thanksgiving.  We have always expected gas stations, supermarkets, drug stores, and convenience stores to be open on Thanksgiving, so why all the fuss now about retail workers?  I used to work in retail and the grueling furious grind of the holiday season filled with shoppers not filled with the holiday spirit is part of the job.  The profits made this time of year help to pay Christmas bonuses and overtime for the many workers who like to pick up extra time or the seasonal workers who pick up an extra paycheck this time of year.  For all the talk, though, the stores did open and the people did shop.   I went to the movies last night with my wife and brother and the highway was packed solid just as bad as the worst of rush hour on a weekday afternoon only it was 9:30 at night on a holiday.  My wife, mother, and brother went out last night late after the movies and came home empty-handed because the lines were somewhere between insane and ridiculous. 

Personally, I see no problem with going out shopping after company has gone and Thanksgiving dinner has been reduced to a turkey carcass and a pile of dishes.  After the way we all stuff ourselves, it might actually be healthy to get out there and walk a bit.  Unfortunately, there are many who forsook Thanksgiving altogether.  These people literally camped outside whatever store was offering the deal that they wanted for days.  There was no time with family.  There was no Thanksgiving.  There was just a desire to get a good price on a large television or computer.  For those, they truly need to reexamine their priorities.  This time of year really has become all about shopping.  We like to get the ones we love the most the things they want the most but we forget about the most important thing. We forget the chance we have just to spend time with them.  I think it is important to step back and ponder an oft-used passage that should be used to evaluate what we do and how we do it in all areas of our lives, even in the holiday season. 

And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.  Colossians 3:23-24 NKJV

Some may wonder how this verse can possibly apply to Christmas shopping.  Many of these are the same people who think they can separate anything they do in life from their walk with God.  This passage defeats that very notion in its opening salvo in saying "And whatever you do."  It does not say those things you do in church or while you are around your church friends.  It also does not say what you do in some kind of official ministerial capacity.  It says "whatever you do."  In other words, it says in anything and everything you do.  This "anything and everything" includes Christmas shopping. 

So, everything we do, we are to do it heartily.  We are not to be slackers or lazy in anything we do, but we are to give it all that we have.  There really should be no such thing as a lazy or slacker Christian.  We should be the best employees, the best husbands and wives, the best mothers and fathers, the best friends, the even the best shoppers.  Now I am not defining "best" in terms of skill because there are many things that no matter how hard we try we will never be really good at.  American Idol has proven that many times over!  Of course, I should not speak because not even the shower wants to hear me sing!  By "best", in this case, I mean those who try and push the hardest.  A popular example would be Tim Tebow.  He does not have great quarterback skills (to put it mildly), but he played with so much heart that his team turned a bad season around last year and made it into the playoffs.  It certainly was not done by the skill of his arm, but it was definitely done by the strength of his determination. 

Now the frantic shopping may claim they are doing it heartily, and they are.  However, there is a caveat.  It is not just about doing whatever we do heartily, but "as to the Lord and not to men."  The motivation behind all that we do must be that we are doing it for the Lord.  You can not forsake time with family and in giving thanks to God to wait on line for a television for the Lord.  You can not be rude to cashiers for the Lord.  You can not tear items from the hands of other shoppers for the Lord.  You can not even retaliate for someone taking something out of your hands for the Lord.  You can not trample pushing and shoving your way into a store for the Lord.  You can not put shopping above the friends and family you are shopping for as you are doing it for the Lord.  They just do not mix.  You may be shopping for gifts for other people, but ultimately even that you are doing for the Lord and to please the Lord.  Everything we do must in done in that context. 

And, finally, Colossians give us the reason: "knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ."  Ultimately, we are servants of the Lord.  We may shop for other people, work for other people, and do things for other people, but all that we do we do as servants of the Lord.  More than servants, we are His bondservants, or slaves.  Nothing can ever supersede His authority over our lives and nothing we do can be done outside the context of being His bondservants.  While all of us in Christ have eternal life, the Bible indicates that there are even greater rewards for those who faithfully serve the Lord.  I know that no one will have it "bad" in heaven, but there are ones who will have greater rewards.  Those additional rewards are premised on our works and those works will be judged when we stand before our Lord.  In the end, it will not be about how aggressively we shopped for that great deal on a new toy or how long we waiting in line for a television forsaking our family on holidays.  In the end, our rewards will be premised on works we do for eternity.  In other words, our rewards are premised on hearts we touch for Jesus.  Most televisions, computers, toys, clothing, and whatever else we get this year will not even make it to next year and none will make it to eternity.  People are what matter and how we represent Christ to them, all the more this time of year, are what truly matters. 

And that is really what this season needs to be about.  Thanksgiving marks the "official" beginning to the holiday season.  It is not about toys, electronics, sales, gifts, food, or any of that other stuff that the world has attached to Christmas.  Nothing is wrong with any of those things in an of themselves and I am not saying to be a scrooge and not give gifts.  What I am saying is to remember that it is all about Jesus and reaching people with His love.  My parents have (and pretty much still do) lavish Christmas gifts upon me and my siblings.  I always had whatever "toy" I wanted and even now, if they can afford it, they buy it.  Most of those toys are rotting away in some landfill somewhere and whatever I still have will one day meet the same fate.  It is not that I do not love and appreciate everything I have ever received, but nothing in this world is permanent.  Technology is replaced by new technology making obsolete the toys of yesterday.  Interests change over time and what was once important to me has become meaningless to own.  I sell many things on eBay in unopened boxes still with gift wrap attached.  In fact, I currently have a music box for sale that still had a card inside from a grandfather to a granddaughter about how he wants to get her many music boxes over the years.  Maybe she cherished it at the time, but now it was sold at a garage sale for a couple of dollars with no indication it was ever even taken out of the box.  What I am sure of is that the grandfather and child have had (and prayerfully still continue to make) wonderful memories of their time together that will be held inside their hearts for the rest of their lives. 

The point I am making is that gifts become obsolete, broken, warn out, useless, and unwanted.  Good memories with family and friends do not, but they remain what we truly remember each holiday season.  Good memories with your church family are eternal and it is only those memories that will survive from this life into our eternal lives.  If you truly want to give a gift this season, share the one gift that will never become obsolete over time, share the love of Jesus and share the gospel.  Its nice to be thanked for a gift today that will become obsolete tomorrow, but just think what it will be like to be thanked in Heaven tomorrow by someone you never knew for the gift of Jesus that you shared today.  Christmas is not about temporary gifts given to each other but God's eternal gift to mankind.

Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." Luke 2:10-11 NKJV

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Not Finding Things to Give Thanks For, But Giving Thanks in All Things

Many times I write my posts based on what is in my heart that day or what I have seen or heard going on in the church.  Then there are times like today when my writing is based not about what is on my heart so much, but what my heart needs to work on.  This week we celebrate Thanksgiving and it is a wonderful day to think of all the things for which we should be thankful to God.  The problem, though, is that it is not about finding all the things in our lives to be thankful for, but for finding a way to give thanks for everything in our lives.  I am going to share two passages, one is the goal and the other is the motivation with the bridge between the two being faith. 

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NKJV

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to [His] purpose.  Romans 8:28 NKJV

God tells us to be thankful in everything and the reason is that all things work together for good for those who love God.  Sometimes it is difficult to make that connection.  I am the poster boy for that.  Sometimes I see the problem and I can not see how it can possibly work out for good in the end.  I realize, though, the problem is not the problem I am facing but it is in my faith for not believing how God can work it out.  For anyone else having a hard time finding a way to be thankful in hard times, the problem is the same.  We focus so much on the problem and how big is seems to us that we fail to see God and how small the problem is compared to Him.  Being thankful for hard times is difficult, I know.  So many families are going through hard times right now.  Finding thankfulness in unemployment, homelessness, sickness, chronic pain, and losing loved ones may seem impossible but that is only because we are looking at the problem and not at the One who is going to work it out for good. 

I think there is another problem that many face in these kinds of situations.  I certainly know that I do. That problem is pride and the feeling that we need to somehow be a part of working things out.  God may have a part for us to play or God may have us remain still and just know that He is God.  God has done it both ways in the Bible, but in either case it is always God who ultimately does the working.  Giving things over to God can be hard.  Once again, though, it is a matter of faith.  You need to ask yourself if you really believe the promise that God will work it out.  You also need  to ask yourself if you truly believe that God loves and cares for you.  I say that because if you truly do then you must also truly believe that God is going to take care of you. We are told to cast all of our cares on Him because He cares for us.  Do you believe that?  If so, then we must be willing to trust God to take care of all those problems that come up in our lives.  We must have faith that He will work it out.  We must have the faith to stand aside and let Him do the work and only act if He tells us to and only do what He wants us to do.  Anything more is only getting in the way of His plan. 

So with all of that said, my message for this Thanksgiving is not to find things to be thankful for, but to find the things you are not thankful for and work to change your heart in those areas.  Many people love to list the things they are thankful for this time of year.  Some are even posting one thing each day for which they are thankful.  That is not a bad thing to do, but it is easy.  You can always find something good to be thankful for, even the unbeliever can do that.  This year, I want us all to step it up a notch.  I want us all to find things in our lives where we can see no good in them and yet truly give thanks to God for them.  I want us to take those things that bring us down and give them to God, in thanks, knowing that He can and will work it together for good.  Have faith in God and in His promises and have a wonderful Thanksgiving. 

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God Philippians 4:6 NKJV

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

My Last Political Post for a While

This will be my last political post for some time.  I can be very political, but that is not the purpose of this blog.  It is not even really the point of this post except that it frustrates me just how political Christians can be.  In the aftermath of the election, the blame game has begun.  I did not realize this, but apparently Christians are bound to vote Republican and if you did not vote Republican (either by not voting or voting for a third party), abortion and the decline of America as we know is is all our fault.  I voted for a third party candidate and I am happy with my vote.  I did not compromise my values to vote for a liberal dressed as a Republican.  In fact, I have voted third party ever since the last time I voted for George W Bush and even that was for his first term.  If the GOP wants my vote and the vote of millions of other conservatives who did not vote for Romney then they had better put up an actual conservative to vote for.  Of course the millions of so-called moderates would not vote for a true conservative.  There is truth to that and what it reveals is the true reason as to why this nation is tumbling headlong in the wrong direction.  You see, what needs to change is not the president as he is only a symptom of the greater problem.  The real problem is the hearts of Americans and how each year they turn further and further away from God. 

Its rather silly to think that our problems can be solved by just managing to elect someone who is sort of conservative.  George W Bush was one of these soft conservatives and he had both houses of congress and absolutely nothing was done about abortion.  Romney, with one house of congress and feeling no particular mandate to do so, would also have done nothing.  The fact is that too many Americans want abortion to be legal for anything to be done about it.  The same can be said for gay marriage.  We have fought the good political fight on this issue for years and each year we lose more and more ground.  This year marks the first time a pro gay marriage ballot initiative has ever passed the popular vote.  It is another war we are losing and more and more so-called conservatives are jumping ship to the other side.  The same can be said for the issues of religions freedom or personal accountability.  Conservatives are, by and large, losing the political war.  This should be no surprise as we are fighting the wrong war.  We are fighting symptoms and not the disease and while we had our time of small victories, the disease continued to spread and devour.  The Bible makes it clear where this war should be fought.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual [hosts] of wickedness in the heavenly [places].   Ephesians 6:12 NKJV
And that is the point of this short post today.  Our war is not a political one but a spiritual one.  Our goal is not winning a political office but winning back hearts turning more and more against God.  That is the only hope for America.  That is the only hope for this nation to turn back to God.  Quite honestly, if God should bless this land with a third Great Awakening, all of those issues would be resolved naturally.  You can not force this nation towards Christian values as more and more people reject Christian values.  The bottom line is that America needs Jesus.  The churches need a revival and to repent of the candy-coated lackadaisical self-promoting Gospel preached today, and they need to become training grounds for an army of missionaries sent out to preach the Gospel to their friends and family.  America needs an awakening and repentance for forgetting the God who has blessed America well beyond what we deserve.  The election is over and the diagnosis is an America walking further and further away from God.  It is time that you stopped fighting political wars and start fighting the real spiritual war.  Only Jesus an save America and that will only come by Americans getting saved. Stop chanting for some political party and start preaching Jesus. 
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?  Romans 10:14 NKJV

Friday, November 9, 2012

Our Failures of Faith

When it comes to the apostle Peter, I can definitely relate.  Sometimes it is hard to keep your focus on Jesus. 
Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, "Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid." And Peter answered Him and said, "Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water." But when he saw that the wind [was] boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, "Lord, save me!" And immediately Jesus stretched out [His] hand and caught him, and said to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  Matthew 14:22-32 NKJV
I find it interesting that in the three gospels where this story is told, only one happens to mention Peter's walk on the water.  I imagine that his walk was very brief and may even have appeared to the others as having fallen into the water more than anything else.  That is merely conjecture, though.  The facts, as we know them, are that Jesus sent the disciples into their boat and they were confronted with a strong storm.  The boat was being tossed around in the waves and, to make things even more frightful, there suddenly appears a shadowy figure walking along the water.  If you imagine the wind, rain, and waves, Jesus would not have appears as more than anything other than a shadowy figure.  Of course, most normal people are not expecting to see a shadowy figure walking on the water and so their minds were racing as to what it could be.  Jesus, perceiving their fear, calls out to them to identify Himself and to tell them to calm down and not worry. 

Enter Peter.  Peter, as we know, was quick to speak and react, many times before his mind had a chance to consider what he was saying.  This is one of those times.  He challenges Jesus that if it is truly Him to command Peter to walk on the water.  Jesus commands and Peter steps out onto the water.  For a moment, things were great.  Peter was actually walking on the water and keeping his focus on Jesus, but then something happened.  His mind caught up to him and he realized what he was doing.  He was not only walking on water but in the middle of a very strong storm.  The waves were rough, the sea spray and rain were affecting his vision, the wind was howling around him, and he began to sink.  It is kind of like those old Roadrunner cartoons when Wiley Coyote was able to run off a cliff and hang in mid air until he realized he was hanging in midair.  At that point, he went crashing down to the ground, usually with an anvil on his head.  At this point I need to pause for some more Scripture.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Hebrews 11:1 NKJV
I insert that scripture because what Peter ultimately had was a faith problem not a vision problem.  Many like to teach that Peter looked away from Jesus, but it is also plausible that he was not longer able to see Him.  With wind and rain, crashing waves, and sea spray, he would not have had much visibility.  Sometimes we are in a situation where it is not that we are not looking to Jesus, but that we can not see Him.  It is not that He isn't there, He is just of our vision.  In this case, he was close enough to reach out to Peter and save him.  It is also not that Jesus does not want to help, because, again, He reached out and saved Peter.  Sometimes, in the midst of a trial, it is hard to see the Lord.  That is where faith comes in.  Faith is the evidence of things not seen.  Faith is not dependent on circumstance or what you can see, but faith is dependent on the belief that, no matter what, Jesus is there and that He will get you through.  Peter, when he lost sight of Jesus, all he saw was the wind and the waves.  At this point, he still could have walked but his faith faltered and he began to sink.  Jesus did not say "why did you stop looking at me" nor did Jesus apologize for allowing the storm of obscure Peter's view of Jesus.  No, Jesus asked why he lost his faith. 

There are many times where circumstances are such that for a time we can not see Jesus.  Right now there are people who lost everything they owned in the world and are living day-to-day wondering how they will ever get through.  They are in deep water and a terrible storm is raging and I am sure many of them are having a very hard time seeing Jesus in the midst of their disaster.  I know in my own life, with much smaller problems, I sometimes feel the same way.  My faith falters, I wonder why things are going the way they are going, I wonder why things have to be the way they appear to be, and I wonder when I will see change in those circumstances.  I pray and think and try to figure out where Jesus is in the midst of all of it and sometimes the answer takes some time to come.  Sometimes it is not one big trial that hides you vision, but a long series of smaller ones.  I daresay that Seaside Heights was not destroyed by the first wave that crashed, but only after the frequency and strength of the waves wore it down to a point where it just crumbled.  Not many people drown after getting knocked by one large wave, but the fierce waters of a raging sea with a constant succession of strong waves are enough to drown even the most seasoned and strongest of swimmers.  Many of us, including myself and even right now, have been right where Peter was.  We have faith, that faith was tested, Jesus is no longer in our sites, our faith falters, and we begin to drown. 

Most, if not all, of us have been right at this very same point.  Whatever trial or crisis we are in has gotten the best of us and our faith and it is nearly impossible to see Jesus let alone believe that He is there.  This is where our perceived faith is tested and stretched to reveal just how much real faith we have.  Many times we are lacking, and many times that is the point of the test of begin with.  We have to take a moment to consider who Jesus was and ask a few questions.  First of all, why did Jesus do something so dramatic as to walk on water?  Secondly, why did he not stop the storm until after He was on the boat and immediately do so once aboard?  Why did Jesus beckon Peter to come out to Him, actually accepting a challenge to prove His identity?  This was not some mere coincidence of circumstances, but a planned trial for Peter.  Do you think that Jesus did not know he was going to sink?  Do you think that Peter was ever in any real danger?  From Peter's perspective he sure was, but Jesus knew the outcome before the test.  Peter was never in any danger.  Jesus always knew He would save him. 

When you faith falters and you begin to seek, remember Peter and cry out to the Lord.  Even if you can not see Him, you must know that He is there and you must know that whatever is happening is completely and totally under His control.  The test may seem unbearable.  The test may seem impossible.  Your faith may be rattled to its very core.  You will probably fail and start to drown and you will probably need Jesus to pull you back up.  But that is how it is all supposed to be.  The Bible has shown that testing our faith means things like praying when you know you will be thrown into a lion's den, refusing to worship a false god and be forced to enter a fiery furnace, to give a testimony that you know will get you stoned, and to preach Jesus until your time comes and you are crucified upside down.  You read about these great men of faith with great feats of faith and it seems so intimidating when your faith is rattled because you had a few horrible days.  Faith takes training.  Abraham was a great man of faith, but remember when we first meet him and he took years to follow God's first command.  We read about Moses and how he raised his staff and parted the Red Sea after standing up to Pharaoh, but we forget when he fled Egypt for forty years dejected and rejected.  We hear about the great faith of Elijah but we forget the time is ran and hid and felt sorry for himself.  We read hear about Peter sinking in the waves, but we forget that tradition tells us he was crucified upside down, by his choice, because he felt unworthy to die in the same manner of Jesus.  The point is that great men and women of faith started out just like you and me.  But just like an athlete goes through great pain and hardship in training, so will we as we strengthen our faith.  Honestly, if training seems easy, you are not doing it right.  Training is about pushing your limits and God will push the limits of our faith.  Training is even about pushing our limits past the point of failure to learn what weaknesses need to be worked on and to reveal just how far you have to go.  Sometimes the lesson is found in our success when we were sure we would fail and sometimes the lesson is in our failure when we hoped we would succeed, but the lesson is always trust and that trust must always be in the Lord. 
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have [its] perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.   James 1:2-4 NKJV