Monday, November 30, 2009

IS FAITH A GIFT OF GOD? -- Devotional for November 29, from "Good Seeds"

“For by grace you are saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

What is faith? Is it just a word for religious discussion or is it of more universal interest? The dictionary goes beyond religion in its definitions. First we learn that faith is a derivative of a Latin word meaning trust. So faith means the placing of trust in something or someone. Another definition renders faith “a firm belief in something apart from empirical proof” (some might add: “apart from any visible means of support!”), which leads to the standard definition: “Faith is belief in the traditional doctrines of religion.” Our theology, however, is not rooted in Webster, but the Word of God! We find a pretty succinct definition of faith at the beginning of the faith chapter: “Now faith is the substance (assurance) of things hoped, the evidence (conviction) of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). This applies to everyday life just as readily as to the spiritual life: The last time you sat down did you first inspect the chair? Probably not. You just took it “by faith” that it would support your weight and frame. But you’d probably be more careful about the parachute you were about to use, for a fall from a plane might hurt worse than a fall from a chair! We say, “I have no faith in this thing, or that person,” and well we should, for placing faith in unworthy or undependable things or people is the epitome of foolishness. Some think when Ephesians 2:8 says we are saved by grace “through faith, and THAT not of yourselves, it is the gift of God,” it means faith is a special gift of God. But the antecedent (the thing referred to) of the word THAT is salvation, not faith. Salvation is what is being offered as the free gift, while faith is no more or less than the means by which we receive it. Faith is not just for some and not for others. Everyone has faith as an operational tool. It is simply the way God made us to function: we act on what we believe to be true. It is no more spiritual – and no more a special gift from God – than our lungs or our fingers. We all have the capacity to express faith – what we do NOT have is the capacity to save ourselves. That's the work of grace. Grace is God's job – faith is man's job. We cannot do God's job for Him – we cannot save ourselves. And God does not do our job for us – nowhere in the Bible do we read that God expresses faith on our behalf. Rather, it pleads, “Be reconciled to God” (II Corinthians 5:20). And then it tells us how: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). The question comes down to where we place our faith. Our faith choices lead to beliefs; our beliefs lead to decisions and actions, which in turn lead to our final destiny! And so, my friend, who will you trust with your eternal soul?!


Saturday, November 28, 2009

HOW DO WE COME TO SALVATION? -- Devotional for November 28, from "Good Seeds"

Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. But how shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!” But Lord, who has believed our report? So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. (Romans 10:13-17)

For hundreds of years Christians have debated with one another – and sometimes departed from one another – over the question of how a lost person comes to salvation. One side of the argument takes Bible verses that speak of God’s sovereign will, concluding that no one can be saved unless chosen by God. And if so chosen, it impossible for them not to be saved, for God will have His will! Since millions of people have died never having come to faith in Christ, the logical conclusion is that God must not have chosen that vast majority of men and women for His kingdom. The other side of the argument takes Scriptures like today’s passage, which says nothing about God choosing men, but everything about men choosing God! The first argument interprets Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you are saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” to mean that faith is a gift of God. Anyone who has it will believe and be saved. Those who have not received it cannot believe and so are condemned. The means to salvation is the faith God gives to certain ones of His choice. But is this really what Paul meant? If so, he contradicted himself in Romans, where he wrote: “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” He didn’t say, “whomever God calls,” but “whoever calls God.” Who gets to be saved? That’s the basic question. And here, in black and white, is the basic answer: “Whoever calls out to God.” Paul goes on to tell the Romans the source of faith (notice he says nothing about a gift): “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God,” he says. It’s hard for some to admit it, but it boils down to man’s efforts – all within God’s sovereign plan, of course! How are people going to hear the message? God doesn’t miraculously zap them into heaven. Someone has to tell them. Once they’ve heard, it’s up to them to believe on Christ and then call out to be saved. But it starts with the evangelist. Now any Christian can and should be a witness for Christ, but there are some who specialize in preaching the gospel of salvation. God calls and gifts them. Men equip and send them. What is the result? Saved souls! But what is the process? Beautiful soles! I want the beautiful feet of the missionary! How about you?

CHRISTMAS COMMERCIAL -- Devotional for November 27, from "Good Seeds"

The angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for I bring you Good News of great joy for all people.” And they came in haste to the place they had been told, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen this, the shepherds went back to their place, and made known the statement which had been told them about this Child, continually glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as had been told to them. And all who heard them were amazed and in awe. (Luke 2:10,16-18,20)

Having a good product but not advertising it is like winking at a girl in the dark: you know what you’re doing, but nobody else does! Even though in this modern materialistic world advertisement has gone to seed, there is a commodity that has slipped under the radar screen of contemporary society which could do with a healthy dose of renewed creative exposure. That precious product is the Good News about Jesus Christ. As we approach the Christmas season we witness the unfortunate dichotomy between the desire to celebrate and the denial of the “Reason for the season.” Sadly, believers in Jesus Christ are caught up in the “lovely traditions” and the “crass commercialism” of Christmas right along with the rest of the world. But we are not mere consumers – we have an advertising job to do, for we have a Savior to proclaim! We need not shrink from this task; we need merely to follow the pattern set for us by the shepherds. The Christmas commercial started with the facts, as proclaimed to men by messengers from heaven: the Savior of the world has landed; the Son of God is now Emmanuel – God with us. But like any good commercial, though a clear explanation of the facts is necessary, it is not enough. The shepherds weren’t satisfied just to hear – they, like old Doubting Thomas, had to see for themselves “if these things be true.” The best advertising comes not from paid professionals, but from satisfied customers. When the shepherds saw the Bethlehem scene, exactly as described by the angel, they were convinced and ready to communicate. Passive hearers then became active eye-witnesses...and enthusiastic proclaimers! Just like those shepherds of old, when we come to know Christ for who He really is, we will never be the same. And when we make our way from the manger to the marketplace –- back to family and neighborhood and job –- we will “go into all our world and preach the gospel” – tell the story (Mark 16:15) – sometimes shouting it from the rooftops, but usually just whispering it to dear hearts, one at a time. And we will be heard, for we’ve been there! It was not the miracle proclamation of angels that convinced the crowds, but the song in the hearts – and the glow on the faces – of those who had just seen Jesus!

Friday, November 27, 2009

EASY FOR YOU TO SAY! -- Devotional for November 26, from "Good Seeds"

Pray for one another. (James 5:16)

This common cliché has an implied but unspoken finishing statement: “That’s easy for you to say – but not so easy to do.” This is especially true for Christians in the area of prayer. We are so quick to say, “I’ll pray for you,” but how quick are we to actually pray? If we don’t stop and pray right then and there, when will we do it? How will we remember our friend’s need, and our promise to bring it before the Lord? Until we find a way to keep our vigil with God on our friend's behalf, we’d better hold off from making such glib commitments, for “by our words we shall be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). A line from the poem, "The Cremation of Sam MaGee," serves as a sober reminder to every conscientious Christian regarding his promise to pray for someone: “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” Some may not think of it as an actual promise, but rather just a statement of intent. But it’s a question of character here, for ought not our word be our bond? Isn’t saying I will do something really saying, “I promise I will do it”? Otherwise I should say, “I’ll do it – if I don’t forget.” And here’s another problem: because of our sinful nature we fool ourselves into thinking that once we have stated our intent to do something, we’ve as good as done it! And regarding our prayer, who’s to know whether or not we actually prayed as promised? After all, isn’t prayer by definition a very private and personal thing? Yes, so much so that maybe we ought not to talk about it at all, but just do it! Jesus rebuked the religious hypocrites of His day for making a public spectacle of their praying, “in order to be seen by men” (Matthew 6:5). If we are totally honest with ourselves we will admit a certain satisfaction felt inside every time we tell someone we will pray for him. If we don’t tell him, but just do it, we deprive ourselves of that “innocent” little perk, leaving behind just the work! Someone said, “Real prayer is hard work,” and I believe it. But not to promise to pray has its down side, too. Prayer needs planning, and planning begins with desires and goals. To say we will pray is the first step in our prayer plan. In Proverbs 29:18 we read, “Without a vision the people perish.” Sincere intention coupled with a practical plan prevents us from becoming useless, prayer-less saints! Here’s a good plan: 1) Keep track of prayer requests by immediately writing them down in a small notebook that you keep with you at all times; 2) Keep your prayer vigil with the Lord – same time, same station, every day. Then pull out your list, get on your knees, and pray; 3) Keep your prayer promise to your friend. This “Prayer-Keep Plan” will help you walk the walk of prayer, and not just talk the talk, making it easy for you to pray, not just to say that you will!

A CONFESSION OF THANKSGIVING -- Devotional for November 25, from "Good Seeds"

In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thessalonians 5:18)

“Lord, today I would like to make a confession of thanksgiving….” So began the prayer I heard at a public meeting recently. I was intrigued by the phrase, “confession of thanksgiving.” Usually our statements of gratitude come with positive and joyful affirmation, not with an implied admission of guilt. Regarding thanksgiving, what’s there to confess? Well, I was soon to find out, for this is what followed: “I’m ashamed to confess, Lord, how easy it is to thank You for my family and friends.” And in our “I’m thankful for…” time around the table after the Thanksgiving feast others may add their gratitude for the precious freedoms we enjoy and the blessing of dwelling in safety and comfort. “O Lord, thank You for giving us all of our needs – and most of our wants!” Confession #1: Thanking God FOR the good things, as reflected in the old hymn, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one.” Just because it is easy to do this doesn’t mean it is not important. Certainly it is right to acknowledge all the good that comes our way, and bow to the One responsible for it. But having done so, are we done? Is our thanksgiving confession complete? Not by a long shot! Look at the verse again…. Does it say, “For good things give thanks”? No, but rather, “In all things give thanks” – which brings us to Confession #2: Thanking God IN the hard things. I must confess that it is not so easy to thank God when I’m going through tough stuff. The fragrant flowers along life’s pathway bring joy to our hearts, but what are we to do about the weeds and thorns, the rocks and roadblocks? These are the pain, distress, and disappointment that we deal with daily. We are not told to thank God FOR them, but by His grace we can thank Him IN them – for He goes with us THROUGH them, and brings us out the other side better people BECAUSE of them. Surely this is what Andrae Crouch meant when he wrote: “I thank God for the mountains, and I thank Him for the valleys; and I thank Him for the storms He’s brought me through; for if I never had a problem I’d never know that He could solve them, I’d never know what faith in God could do. Through it all, through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust in God.” And so our confession of thanksgiving continues: “Oh God, on this beautiful Thanksgiving Day, I will thank You for the treats, for sure, for they encourage my heart – but for the trials, too, for they strengthen my faith, even as they build my character. And if the rare moments of splendor give me a glimpse of heaven, and draw me closer there, still it is the daily struggle with unpleasant circumstances that show me heaven’s God, and draws me into His care.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

BREAKING THE SILENCE, WITH GOOD NEWS! -- Devotional for November 24, from "Good Seeds"

Good news from a far country is like a drink of cold water to a thirsty man. (Proverbs 25:25)

There are many ways where the image of God is seen in man. One is the desire and ability to communicate. When God created man He gave him the wonderful gift of speech. Oh, He provided adequate language for the lower creatures, too, but nothing like the miracle of words with which He blessed mankind. Your baby’s first steps are a milestone, to be sure, but they don’t hold a candle to your joy at hearing “Dadda” or Mama” from those tiny, rosy lips for the very first time! Man craves to communicate, whether by Indian smoke signals drifting lazily across a valley, or a detailed message sent across town or across the sea, traveling invisibly at the speed of light, bouncing between earth and communication satellites, via the personal computer. Kids today hardly know how to write and send a letter through the postal service, but they’ll teach the older generation a thing or two about text messaging from their cell phone. And loved ones, or strangers soon to be friends, though halfway round the world, can now talk to one another (even see one another, if equipped with a webcam) via email or skype! We think this passion to communicate is unique to our day, but going back in history we see it’s nothing new. Think of the apostle Paul languishing in a Roman prison, isolated from loved ones, how it thrilled his soul when a letter finally came! And he was never beholden to his faraway friends, for they would always receive a letter from him in return. Now God was in those letters, for He caused them to become the Text Messages of Good News from the "far country" of heaven. A twenty-three year old Belgian man was in a car accident that left him totally paralyzed. Doctors told his parents it was futile to keep him alive, for he was no more than a vegetable. How fortunate that they refused to give up hope, for after twenty-three years in a supposed coma a newly developed brain scan technique discovered he was conscious, and had been internally alert the entire time! Such a “far country” he had been in. But now he communicates his thoughts through a touch screen device, and he plans to write a book about his ordeal. The apostle Paul could suggest a good title for that book: “Remember my imprisonment” (Colossians 4:18). But a worse silence than these is going on today between men and the God who is calling them. He calls them from the manger, from the cross – and from the skies! Remember what the angel proclaimed on that first Christmas Eve: “Today I bring you good news of great joy for all people (Luke 2:10). What isolated and imprisoned friend could you touch, refresh, and liberate today with this Good News from a Far Country?

Monday, November 23, 2009

THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT: Part Five (conclusion) -- Devotional for November 23, from "Good Seeds"

What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity, a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, and able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Some people have great power over other people – others just wish they did! Some people have great power with God – others like to think they do, but reality proves otherwise! And some people claim to have great power over their own bodily parts and passions – but if they really do, we’d like to know who they are and how they do it, for they have a lot to teach the rest of us! But, James, pastor of First Jerusalem Christian Church, would beg to differ with them, for concerning control over just one area, the tongue, he wrote: “He who does not stumble in what he says is a perfect man, able to bridle the rest of the body as well” (James 3:2). But then again, who among us is always loving, or joyful, or peaceful, or patient? And so, as we examine SELF-CONTROL, the last of the nine Galatians 5 spiritual fruits, we view it as a work in progress, knowing we’ll not get it right all the time – not until glory! And in heaven self-discipline won’t even be an issue: because the propensity and temptation to sin will be gone, there will be no struggle to control our passions and desires. Self-control for us then will come as naturally as the kindness, goodness, faithfulness and meekness that we will finally have perfected. Instead of having to practice self-control and the other spiritual fruits, we will be occupied in the practice of godliness (using that word the way it is used of a highly experienced and proficient doctor practicing his trade). Paul makes this contrast in his advice to young Timothy when he says, “Discipline of the body has its place, but the discipline of the soul is far more valuable, since it holds promise for this present life and the life to come” (I Timothy 4:8). Just as there will be no more pain or disease or death in heaven, so there will be no more gluttony or obesity or addiction. But where we are now is no “heaven on earth.” We each have our own demons whispering in our ears to eat this, smoke that, speak thus, take a sip, take a peek! These things won’t hurt you, but actually do you good, making you wise, able to commune with those around you. Indeed, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil! (Genesis 3:5) What a lie! The only time we’re like God is when we are able to marshal and direct our energies in the wisdom and ways of God!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT: Part Four -- Devotional for November 22, from "Good Seeds"

What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity, a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, and able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Are you a list maker? I am. I find it both enjoyable and useful to make lists for myself: things to do today; people to contact; what to buy when I go to town; pros and cons regarding an impending decision…and I could “list” plenty more! List making is fun because we can go back to our list later and check off what we’ve accomplished. And it is helpful because it corresponds with the way our minds work: we learn and understand as we compare and contrast and categorize. And so, it shouldn’t surprise us to find lists in the Bible. For example: the genealogies; the ten commandments; the beatitudes; the gifts of the Spirit; the attributes of God…. “Wait!” you say, “the only place you’ll find that last one is in theology books.” Maybe so, but if verse 22 says these are characteristic attitudes of those who live God’s way, wouldn’t it follow that as we practice them we are walking “in God’s steps,” thinking and feeling and doing as He does? We now come to the seventh fruit, FAITHFULNESS. It doesn’t say faith. Faith is trusting and believing what we cannot see or prove empirically. Technically, God has no need for faith, as He knows all and sees all. Grace is God’s department: the extending of salvation to mankind, whereas faith is man’s domain: the receiving of God’s gracious gift. But Faithfulness describes both God and the godly man. It is a corollary of love as defined in I Cor. 13:7, “If you love someone you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost; you will always believe in him, expect the best of him and stand your ground in defending him.” The relationships of godly people have the distinctive flavor of loyalty about them. Patience helps us stick to a task through to its completion, but faithfulness causes us to stick to a friend to the end. The eighth fruit is gentleness, or better rendered, MEEKNESS. This word means “power under control,” or “strength harnessed for service.” Though it rhymes with weakness, it is anything but weak. But if I want to be godly, I must recognize the limitations of my own strengths and abilities, and remember the damage I caused every time “I did it my way!” Meekness is God’s power manifested in my weakness (II Corinthians 12:10). It is inviting Him to work in my failure to bring about His success!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT: Part Three -- Devotional for November 21, from "Good Seeds"

What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity, a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, and able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Galatians 5:22-23)

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are filled and empowered by God to live as He designed and intended for them to live – and those who are not. Listen to these intriguing lyrics…

Master Designer, whoever You are, all of this beauty both near and afar
can’t just have happened, the odds are too great. There must be a plan, we’re not left to fate. All of this beauty is far too convincing. Master Designer, Your Word must be true. Of all Your creations man is the dearest – Help me to simply believe now in You.

To become part of that first group requires one thing: we must believe in God, including His plan to redeem us and restore us to the way He intended for us to be from the very beginning. And when we believe the Truth and live the Life, and follow the Way (John 14:6), we will start to behave in certain ways, ways that could not be faulted by the sincerest of unbelievers (though unachievable by them). Those ways are called “The fruit of the Spirit.” We’ve looked at four of them. There are five more, as described in our passage. The fifth fruit of the Spirit is KINDNESS. Although “it takes all kinds to make a world,” and there’s glory in variety, it is also true that “if you’re not kind, you’re the wrong kind.” In God’s economy there is definite right and wrong, and it is definitely wrong to be unkind. There are many ways human beings can connect with one another, but unless and until we connect at the heart level, we are less than human. Animals, even plants, can procreate and work together in symbiosis, but only those created in the image of God can feel and demonstrate compassion from the heart. And then there’s GOODNESS. Such a general term, but Peterson gives this particular interpretation: Everything God made was designed with purpose; that is how its beauty is defined and manifested. A basic holiness permeates every corner of His creation – that is, every entity must be separated unto its purpose and protected from being polluted or misused. Linking goodness with kindness causes the fruitful Christian to be the best steward and protector of both the physical and his human environment.

Friday, November 20, 2009

THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT - PART TWO -- Devotional for November 20, from "Good Seeds"

What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity, a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, and able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Romans 12:6-8 lists the seven GIFTS of the Spirit. But the question arises, is God giving all these gifts to all His children? A quick glance at verse 4 answers the question: No, each member of the body of Christ has been gifted by God in a different way to do a different task. But now, does this same rule apply to the FRUITS of the Spirit? Again, no. Galatians 5 makes no provision for a division of labor in the attitudes of a Christian. It is not okay if I’m squared away in my love and joy, but a bit lacking in my peace and patience. In fact, if we are strong in all the fruits but one, God says it is as if we had none. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that even if they were perfect in their teaching and preaching, or even if God chose to do amazing miracles in their midst, if they were amiss in just the one trait of love, they would have missed the boat entirely of what Christian life is all about. And so, as we continue to examine the nine fruits of the Spirit, let us remember we can’t afford to come up short in any of them. The third fruit of the Spirit is PEACE. This word immediately brings to mind peace between nations. But international peace cannot happen apart from interpersonal peace. And peace between individuals will never be a reality without those individuals being at peace with themselves, with their circumstances, and with their God. And the word for this internal and spiritual peace is serenity. The fourth fruit of the Spirit is PATIENCE. Enduring difficult people and circumstances is one aspect of patience, often called forbearance. The other is perseverance, or “stick-to-it-ive-ness.” No one likes a quitter, and that includes our Lord, who said, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). And He practiced the patience He preached. Seeing what was ahead of Him, the road of suffering, leading to the cross of shame, what did He do? He “endured the cross, despising its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). In fact, every time He was confronted with the temptation to take a shortcut, or to quit altogether, He shot back at Satan with His Scripture gun! “Do your worst, vile snake, and watch God do His best!” These are not passive traits. This is spiced fruit. There’s power in peace and patience!

THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT - PART ONE -- Devotional for November 19, from "Good Seeds"

What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity, a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, and able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Galatians 5:22-23)

I look at this list, especially as paraphrased here, and I realize two things: 1) how far away from this standard I still am, even after all these years of living for Jesus; and 2) how I long to be closer. Taking the inverse of the former three verses (listing fifteen characteristics of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God), we see that these nine fruits are descriptive of all who are the heirs of God’s grace. But then that’s the point: just how descriptive of us are they? Let’s examine them one at a time: LOVE – We know that it was a motive of love that caused God to reach down, to come down, to man, to restore us to our former glory as reflectors of His image. Jesus did this for us when He died for us. But even before that ultimate sacrifice (that only the sinless Lamb of God could accomplish) He made many small sacrifices, things we also could do as we walk “in His steps.” Peter saw this first hand in the Savior’s life and described it this way: “And while being reviled, he did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats” (I Peter 2:23). We know the positive aspect of love, but how well do we know and practice this other side of the coin, this giving good in return for evil? But that’s what happens when we start to live God’s way. JOY – I like Eugene Peterson’s description here: “exuberance about life.” Joy is the transmission in the vehicle of life: First gear is salvation – the initiation of movement. Without Christ we were stationary and stagnant, but in Christ we’re on the road to heaven and moving. Second gear is sanctification – holiness of character. We’re not just traveling, we’re obeying the rules of the road. But we’re still not moving as we should be, as we would be, until we shift into third gear: joy! We all know genuine Christians who demonstrate authentic righteousness, but whose faces betray a sad lack of enthusiasm and whose service for Christ may show their skills and spiritual gifts, but the spiritual fruit of soul energy and exuberant joy is nowhere to be seen. Occasionally I’ve been “accused” of demonstrating such a non-combative love and an exuberant joy, but I know that on my life’s tree the fruit of the Spirit is still mostly slim pickin’s! How I long to be more fruitful for Him! How about you?

TIME'S A-WASTIN' -- Devotional for November 18, from "Good Seeds"

And so the great dragon, the serpent of old, who is called the devil and Satan, was thrown down, and his angels with him, for there was no longer a place found for them in heaven. Woe to the earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time. (Revelation 12:9,12)

The God of the Universe has all the time in the world to accomplish His plan. He is the ultimate time-manager: never late, but never in a hurry. The god of this world, on the other hand, seems to have gotten behind his time, and now he is rushing to get done what he has planned for man. The devil is like us, always in a hurry to perform his work (or rather, we are like him). And what is Satan’s plan, his work? Destruction and death, that is all. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10a). He formerly was a prince in heaven. If Christ is the King of kings,” Lucifer was the “Prince of princes.” But when evil was found in him, he was cast out, and he made his new home on earth. Have you ever had someone move in next door who proved to be a blight upon the neighborhood? That is only a hint of what it was like the day the devil and his millions of minions moved in next door to mankind! There was no room for them in the inn of heaven, but it seems they found plenty of living space in the stable of earth. So now, why is our planet so troubled? Why so much misery in the family of man? Why have we never achieved the utopia we have long dreamed of? Isn’t it obvious? It is due to our bent toward evil coupled with the enticement of the evil one (see Proverbs 1:10). But people miss this altogether, looking rather for another culprit. If it were not so pathetic, it would be funny, the villains we have identified: greenhouse gases, poverty, destruction of the rain forest, the Democrats, money, the spotted owl, ignorance, the Republicans, the internal combustion engine and the petroleum mined and refined to feed it…the list goes on and on! And when we Christians jump on our favorite bandwagon or political railroad, we become totally sidetracked from the work God has ordained for us to do in the short time we have left. In this one way, we would do well to emulate the devil: get busy, knowing your time is short -- “Work, for the night is coming.” The devil’s engine is fueled by hate, the Christian’s by love. He’s working against God, and will ultimately fail; we're working with God and will ultimately succeed. And yet Jesus speaks of saints who will be like branches of the Living Vine, who although they are busy, are not busy for Him – and the ultimate result will be a great sadness for us and for our Lord, at the Judgment Seat of Christ, “when instead of the fruit He is seeking, we offer Him nothing but leaves!”

SEEING GOD -- Devotional for November 17, from "Good Seeds"

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no man can see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8). No man has seen God at any time (John 1:18).

Here’s another one of those curious apparent contradictions in the Bible: On the one hand it is said of those who live sanctified, peaceful and pure lives that they are able to see the Lord, yet on the other hand we know that God cannot be seen at all with the human eye, for God is spirit, existing in perfection wholly apart from corporal manifestation. The eye organ can only see objects that have atoms and molecules. If God could be seen this way, He couldn’t be God at all, for the God of the Bible has no physical substance. If His essence were contained in – and therefore limited by – a body, He could only be in one location at a time, whether in geography or in history, and therefore not omnipresent, which is one of the attributes of the God we meet in the Scriptures. This is what makes man and God eternally distinct: man is incomplete without a body, whereas God would be incomplete with one. And yet, we are made in His image: we are on the same wavelength; we speak the same language. We are brothers, in a sense, at the heart level. And so, when conditions are right, we “see” one another. He always can see us, and yet because of our sin He must continually look away, even as He had to avert His face from His beloved Son on the cross, as He bore in His body the sin of the world. It is only because of the purity imputed to us by His grace, through our faith, that God can once again look upon us, for now, when He sees us, He sees more -– He sees Jesus! But then, what about our seeing Him? In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve looked fully upon God, not His substance (for there was none), but His essence. And with the eyes of their hearts they saw Him, and loved Him, and fellowshipped deeply with Him. But then, when they chose to follow the counsel of Satan, immediately their hearts were darkened –- the light in their spirits went out -– and they lost sight of the Lover of their Souls. The declaration of John 3:19, “Men loved darkness because their deeds were evil,” refers to all men, all the way back to the first man. When people make the foolish assumption that since they cannot see God, He doesn’t exist, it escapes their notice that it is not their cleverness, but their blindness, that leads them to such a conclusion. And there is only one way for those blinders to fall off: it happens by the work of Him who is THE WAY! He alone can cleanse men’s hearts. Through daily communion with Him and obedience to His Word we are gradually but steadily separated from sin and unto holiness and peace, and before we know it, with the eyes of faith we are beholding His lovely face.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

THE FOURTH MAN -- Devotional for November 16, from "Good Seeds"

King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in alarm and said, “Didn’t we just throw three men, bound hand and foot, into the fire?” Yes, O king,” his advisors answered. “But look!” he said, “there are four men now, walking around freely in the fire, completely unharmed! And the fourth man looks like a son of the gods.” (Daniel 3:24-25)

For every one miracle of deliverance recorded in Scripture or occurring in history since Bible times, there are a thousand instances of bad things happening to good people, where a miracle sure would have been handy! Although it is always right to do right and live right, we must not think that our righteousness automatically guarantees comfort and safety for us, or obligates God to surround us with protecting, avenging angels. We know that trouble dogs the wicked, but we also know that persecution for righteousness’ sake is a rather curious and peculiar avenue God to uses to bless His own. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had done nothing wrong – nothing, that is, except to maintain their own religious convictions. But that was enough to earn for them the death penalty in the extreme anti-God culture of the Babylonian empire. It is alarming to see how stealthily but steadily “Christian America” is turning into such a culture. We know not how soon it will be before just standing up for Jesus, or standing against moral and spiritual evil as defined by God’s Word, will earn for us the very hatred we will be accused of foisting upon our fellows. In our flesh we fear such a possibility, but if the Bible is true, we’d better prepare ourselves, for it says the time is coming when men will think they are doing God a service to rid society of such trouble-makers as Bible believing Christians. When we see such persecution coming upon us, we are urged to “lift up our heads, for our redemption draweth nigh” (Luke 21:28). How will that redemption, that physical salvation, come to us? Ultimately it will come with the return of our Lord in power and great glory, to avenge Himself upon the sons of disobedience. We will be saved from the Great Tribulation. But before that final victory, we can anticipate smaller victories, as God stays with us through our suffering. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” is the promise of Hebrews 13:5. Whether we get out of our own personal fiery furnace alive, or if it will be our door into eternity, Jesus promises His calming presence. He will go with us “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). It won’t be some “unknown god” (Acts 17:23) of wondering heathen seekers – one who “looks like a son of the gods” – who walks with us in the furnace of suffering, but rather the Son of the Living God, Jesus Himself. Those three men could say, “Do your worst!” to the king, because they knew "the fourth man" was on hand to do His best on their behalf!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

WHERE TO GO FOR GOOD ADVICE -- Devotional for November 15, from "Good Seeds"

In the abundance of counselors there is deliverance. (Proverbs 11:14). Immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood. (Galatians 1:16).

I hope it is not a diabolical delight that I am indulging when I deliberately look for two verses that seem to contradict one another and place them side by side. I don’t do it to confuse people or cause them to doubt the reliability of the Scriptures, but rather to help myself and others maintain a “balance of truth.” This is a phrase I often heard my seminary professors use as they were preparing us to go out and preach and shepherd the flock of God. They knew we would come face to face with sincere Christians who had gone off the deep end on a particular doctrine. Carrying it to its supposed logical conclusions could at the worst extreme lead them into heresy, but at the least cause them to misunderstand the mind of God, and possibly influence others toward that same misunderstanding. And so, what about the issue raised by these two verses? When seeking God’s will and direction for our lives should we listen to the advice of friends, or shun human counsel in favor of the voice of God? Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, recommended the former – and then get a second opinion, and even a third, if need be, for it is in “a multitude of counselors” that we find safety. But from the experience of Paul, the greatest Christian who ever lived, we might feel more inclined to go to our closet – or to some wilderness place – to get alone with God, and then listen for His “still, small voice” (I Kings 19:12) as “His Spirit bears witness with our spirit” (Romans 8:16). The first is surely far more practical, but the second seems far more spiritual. So, which is it? Well, I don’t have an answer on this one – just more questions! Regarding the counsel of others, it makes a huge difference who they are, and what their motives might be in the advice they give. This is where a true friend comes in, who will back you up when you’re right, but back you down when you’re wrong. “As iron sharpens iron,” so a true friend will sharpen you with his words, no matter how abrasive and painful they may be (see Proverbs 27:17). Do you know your friend has nothing in mind but your gain? Then he may be safe to listen to. And he will want you to hear God. But hearing God can be a problem, too. How do you know it’s God voice, and not just your not quite sanctified imagination? The Mormons claim a “burning in the bosom” as their final argument for the genuineness of their teachings. Will you resort to such subjective proof as that? Bottom line: A spiritual man will seek the mind of God, but a godly man will not ignore a message from God, even if it comes through the mouth of a friend.

THE GOSPEL OF GOOD DEEDS -- Devotional for November 14, from "Good Seeds"

In all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with all purity of doctrine, dignity of life, and soundness of speech, so that those who oppose you may be at a lost to find something bad to say about you – and may be ashamed for trying. (Titus 2:7-8)

Two of my favorite New Testament epistles are James and Titus. I like them for the same reason that I like the dessert course of a meal. Kids will tell you they don’t have much use for food that doesn’t taste good, no matter how “good for you” it may be. This is why kids have parents, to make sure they eat nutritious food, and to get it first. Once their tummies are full, maybe then it will be safe to let them indulge in what they would have started with if you had let them: dessert! Most of the epistles start with the meat and potatoes: DOCTRINE, followed by dessert: DUTY. We tend to want to skip the ponderous foundational truth section and jump to the more interesting application part. But James and Titus give us instant gratification, getting into application right away, without first taking us through a theological dissertation. James is The Proverbs for the New Testament Church, filled with many small and memorable, but wise and powerful, statements of truth. Titus is the Handbook of the New Testament Church, giving the qualifications for leadership and guidelines for Christian behavior. Martin Luther’s favorite book was Romans, with its emphasis on the grace of God: that we are saved by trusting in the work of Christ, but putting no confidence in our own good works. Maybe that’s why he struggled with the book of James, with its easy to misinterpret proverb: “Faith without works is dead” (2:17). And he may have had trouble with Titus, too (for no less than five times in its three short chapters it sings the praises of good deed doing 1:16; 2:7,14; 3:1,8,14) – if it weren’t for Titus 3:5: “He saved us, not on the basis of any good deeds we may have done, but according to His mercy and the washing of regeneration.” With a little careful digging, one can find grace in the book of James, too, mixed in with and balancing out James’ emphasis on good works. I think today’s church may need a little tuning up on its understanding of faith vs. works. A true Christian doesn’t walk around gloating about his salvation (even though he should always be glorying in the One who saved him!) It is so often the case that the world is turned off by the confidence of Christians that so easily looks like arrogance and so quickly turns to pride. How much better to sing that song of longing: “I wanna be a more righteous man; I wanna be a godly man; teach me to do what I can to follow closer to You. I wanna follow a different drum, even if I’m the only one; I wanna hear when I’m done, “You did well, My son.”

Friday, November 13, 2009

THE THREE LIFE STAGES OF TEMPTATION -- Devotional for November 13, from "Good Seeds"

Flee youthful lusts (II Timothy 2:22). I will say to myself, “Self, you have many goods laid up for many years, so eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19). The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10a).

The three avenues of temptation appeal to men and women in the three stages of life: First: the lust of the flesh (THE FLESH) appeals to young people. They’re no longer children, so they’ve put away childish toys and games. Now they’re ready for some “adult” activities and pleasures. We live in a culture that worships at the altar of youth. How often do you see commercials for products that enhance learning and character? Almost never! The products that sell are those that promise to restore to us the health, strength, beauty, passion and virility of a twenty year old. The lust of the flesh appeals to the young – and all who would be young again! Second: the lust of the eyes (THE WORLD) appeals strongest to those of mature adult years. As we age another passion fills our radar screen: money and the things money can buy. In the middle years of life we come to fully maturity in the exercise of our strengths, skills and talents, and we make the delightful discovery that people value us for how we perform and for what we can produce. So what if we don’t look sixteen any longer, we’d rather have the full belly and big bank account of a successful businessman than the trim figure and empty pockets of a starving student! Third: The pride of life (THE DEVIL). Satan hardly needs to make a personal appearance in the lives of young people, and mature adults – his tools of fleshly and worldly passions do most of the work for him, giving him more time to visit the elderly. That’s right, the devil works hardest on those in their sunset years, when they look back and question, “What was it all about, anyway? Was all the effort worth it? Look at all the fun experiences I’ve had, and all the money I’ve made. Weren’t these things supposed to bring meaning and value to my life? Then why is my life so empty now? And who will miss me when I’m gone? Rather, I think they can’t wait till I’m out of their way, out of their hair. I can’t wait either. In fact, maybe I’ll just take my life into my own hands – and take my life!” A person who thinks this way isn’t coming up with the idea on his own. He has help. He has inspiration for all these lies, from the Father of Lies himself, who was not only a liar from the beginning, but a thief and murderer, too. His one passion is to destroy mankind, body, soul and spirit. He works on the body first, the soul next, but his crowning achievement is to drag our spirit all the way to the pit. Our only help our only hope, is Jesus, who said, “But I am come that they might have life in all its fullness” (John 10:10b).

THE THREE AVENUES OF TEMPTATION -- Devotional for November 12, from "Good Seeds"

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. (I John 2:16-17)

The Bible says temptation comes to mankind via three channels: the flesh, the world, and the devil. This is the “unholy trinity” every man faces throughout his life. I John 2:16 succinctly lists the three categories: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” You can pretty well know that whenever you are tempted to sin it will be through one or more of these three channels. When Satan tempted Eve in the Garden he left nothing to chance: he used all three: It was a beautiful day in Eden; the sun was high in the sky – in fact, it was straight up noon and Eve was starting to feel pretty hungry. Enter Satan, disguised as a snake. “What’s for lunch today, Madam Eve. Not the same old thing, I hope!” And through his eyes she saw that the fruit God had forbidden her and Adam to eat was “good for food” #1: the lust of the flesh. Next, like any good salesman making his pitch, the serpent pointed out how beautiful the fruit was, that it was “a delight to the eyes”: “Have you ever seen a piece of fruit as knock ‘em dead cherry red as this?” – #2: the lust of the eyes. Finally, Satan steps up to the pulpit. Did you know the first sermon ever preached was by Pastor Lucifer? “Let me tell you how to find real life! Let me teach you what God knows and wants you to know. He told you not to eat that fruit, you say? Yes, but think about it: maybe that was just His way of getting you to do what He actually wants you to do – you know, sort of a reverse psychology – which is to eat it, so that your fellowship with Him can be complete. Remember, He made you in His image, so this is simply your part in the process of becoming like God, knowing what only God and His children can know: the deeper truths of ethics and morality.” And then, like all good sermons, this one ends with an invitation. Eve is urged to come forward to make a decision -– a decision that will affect her life, and her relationship with God, for now and forever! Eve gets out of her seat and makes her way to the altar – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – and there, fully convinced its fruit will endow her with heavenly wisdom, she gives her life away – and gives in to the third kind of temptation - #3: the pride of life. Eve learned the exchanged life that day: she exchanged the genuine God for a counterfeit. And that’s what Satan continues to do today, three ways: 1) by reminding us of our legitimate bodily needs and hungers; 2) by walking us past flashy displays, of "Mother Earth", and the clever things man has come up with; and 3) by convincing us that we can have it all – because we’re worth it, and we deserve it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

tribute to my friend, Larry Bentley

(Dear Reader: I'm inserting this tribute to my friend, Larry Bentley, who passed away this past Monday, November 9, at the age of 67. Be watching later for the devotional for today).

Larry and Leonard are mirrors of my older brother and me. They match us very closely in our ages; they have two younger sisters, we have three; we attended the same church when we were kids; and our folks were good friends with each other. I also had the privilege of knowing Larry and Len’s parents, Melva and Loren. I hung around the Bentley home enough when I was a kid to look forward to their Mom’s fantastic homemade sheet cakes that she made for any occasion any of us could think up. And I enjoyed going out with Len and Larry and their dad in their old International Carry-all van to deliver the LA Times on their huge paper route. Later on, in our dating years, I remember Larry chauffeuring Karen and me around once in awhile before I was old enough to drive. And as Larry and Sherry watched Karen and me fall in love, we watched them do the same. I remember in those years being invited over to Sherry’s parents’ home for dinner. That’s where I first tasted, or even heard of, enchiladas! The two sets of brothers were dating and got married all within a few years of one another. We’ve spread out geographically quite a bit since those years, but we’ve stayed close in our hearts. But there was that period of time when Larry was hired by Oregon Public Broadcasting and moved his family to Gresham, and started attending the church where I was pastor. That’s when Larry and I got a chance to get to hang around one another almost as much as Len and I did in the old days. And we got to know Larry and Sherry’s kids at this time, too. We grieved with them at the sudden death of their eldest son. A brain tumor showed up, did its worst, and sent Frank to heaven at the tender age of 27. And as if that weren’t enough for any parents to endure, we watched how they cared for their younger son, Ethan, who was born with a disease that prevented normal development: he could not walk or talk or do much of anything on his own. Doctors predicted he wouldn’t live past 11 years old. But those doctors had no concept of the power of parental love! With the care and affection Ethan received, he lived to age 27, going to heaven at the same age as his older brother. The Bentley parents lived long and good lives but they were the next to go. After that, tragedy stayed away from the Bentley door for awhile. But then, in late August of this year, Larry was diagnosed with cancer. As the poem expresses, Larry’s biggest concern, once he realized he was going to die, was all the unfinished projects on his plate, at home, at work, and down at the church. Who could get the jobs done, to his specifications and satisfaction? The answer is obvious: no one! If that was Larry’s biggest concern, his biggest anticipation, once he knew he was dying, was that he would be reunited with his two boys, now sooner than expected, as well as with his dear parents. I now have my regrets, that I didn’t stay better in touch with Larry and Sherry once we moved back to California. The last time I saw them was at Loren’s funeral in Gresham 3 years ago. I don’t know if I’ll be able to attend Larry’s service, so I’m saying my goodbyes to him now, in these writings. Knowing I will see him again, in glory, under much better circumstances, waiting for him to “hug my neck” at the entrance to heaven’s pearly gates, gives some good comfort to my sad heart right now. So Larry, farewell for now! I’ll see you, not here at my home, not there at yours, but up there, in the air, at God’s place, where He’s got a place for us, and we’ll get together again and eat your mom’s cakes and Karen’s mom’s pies. Then, we’ll “have our cake, and eat it, too!”…and it will truly be “pie in the sky by and by.”

Our dear Larry died today;
Friends and family cried today.
So brave was he in his leaving;
So sad are we in our grieving.

So many precious things about him;
So hard to think of life without him.
His one request they heard him ask
Was help for each unfinished task.

But Larry’s shoes no one can fill.
Machines and men are hushed and still
In honor of our dearest Larry
Whose soul to heaven God will carry.

That special place Christ did prepare –
His folks and sons now greet him there,
Where he for us will watch and wait
To hug our neck at heaven’s gate!

I don’t know if from there he sees us
But I know this: that he sees Jesus!
He’ll take his place in the witness crowd
And by God’s grace he’ll laugh out loud!

For there’s no death, no pain, no sorrow –
That’s our promise for tomorrow.
And knowing now our Larry’s glad
Might just help us not be too sad –

O we’re not sad for him, that’s true;
But for ourselves, what can we do
To go on living without Larry –
For he was everything to Sherry –

And to his sisters and his brother
And to every one another
That he hobnobbed with down here,
O Lord, please take our pain, our fear,
Replacing it with faith and love
That You have promised from above.

Our dear Larry died today
He’s at His Savior’s side today –
And with that confidence we’ll sing:
“O Lord back to our memory bring
The road of Jesus Larry trod –
The road that leads us up to God.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

MIGHTY WARRIOR, WIMPY VETERAN! -- Devotional for November 11, from "Good Seeds"

Is not this David, of whom they sang one to another in dances, saying, “Saul slew his thousands, but David his ten thousands?” (I Samuel 29:5). Then it happened, in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and all the Israelite army against Ammon and besieged Rabbah…but David stayed home this time. (II Samuel 11:1)

How common is the name David in the world today? Why, it’s one of the most popular and beloved names of all time! But how common is this name in the Bible? Amazingly, there is no other David in all of biblical history except our David, “The Sweet Psalmist of Israel” (II Samuel 23:1). What is he most known for today? We just said it: his beautiful songs, recorded in the Psalms, the hymnbook of the Bible. When God rejected King Saul He put David in his place, fulfilling God’s search for “a man after His own heart” (I Samuel 13:14). And it was through the kingly line of David that our Savior came to earth, born in Bethlehem, the city of David. We think of him as the gentle, harp-strumming poet-singer, reciting verses in praise of his hero, the God of Israel. And he certainly was that – but he was more, and in his time he was far better known as a mighty warrior than as a worship musician. It started out as he took on the enemies of his sheep, the bears and wolves and lions. As a humble, God-fearing youth, he saw no real distinction between those roaring beasts that threatened his father’s flock and that bragging beast that threatened God’s flock. And so, with no thought that he might fail (or that God might fail him), he put a stone in his sling and slew that Philistine behemoth, Goliath. After that it didn’t take long for David to became Israel’s favorite son, not for his song-singing, but for his sword-wielding. And though he became king after Saul, he never really put away his weapons – not until that fateful spring day when he decided, “enough is enough.” Who could blame him? It was certainly long past time to retire and leave the bloodshed to others. He deserved a little personal peace and space, and quiet rest. Maybe he’d dust off the old harp, tune up the strings, and see was new “Hymn to Him” he could come up with. Yes, the warrior David was now the celebrated war veteran David. But how did he begin his retirement? Sadly, not in the praise of his God, but in the indulgence of his flesh. David had been God’s man all his life. Why couldn’t he end as he began? One reason: sin, which did him in. And from then on it didn’t go so well for him, as even some from own family turned against him. O Lord, let me not live beyond my usefulness to You; take me home before I take myself out of Your hand, and bring shame, instead of praise, to Your name.

ACROSS THE SEA, OR ACROSS THE STREET? -- Devotional for November 10, from "Good Seeds"

One day John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to two of his disciples, saying, “There He is, the Lamb of God!” They immediately began to follow Jesus. One of them was Andrew, who first went and found his own brother, Peter, saying, “We have found the Messiah!” (John 1:35-41)

Long before the commencement of his evangelistic crusade in a particular city, Billy Graham would send a team out ahead to blaze the trail by enlisting helpers. One time I joined up. Part of our training was an exercise in pre-evangelism called “Operation Andrew,” where we would write down the names of 10 unsaved friends, and then begin to prepare the ground for inviting them to join us to hear Billy Graham when he came to town. We were encouraged to pray every day for those on our list, and then look for opportunities to invite them to the crusade. Though his meetings could be called mass evangelism, Graham put little confidence in general announcements in the mass media. He had far greater faith in the pattern of Jesus, and of the New Testament: “Each one reach one.” And it goes a step further than that: reach out to the one closest at hand: go to your own neighborhood first, the wide world second; your brother now, a stranger later. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” applies to the commerce of eternal souls every bit as much as to the secular marketplace. The biggest mistake of evangelism is to think we can succeed in exotic, far away places where we’ve miserably failed in – or haven’t even tried – our cozy home places; or that we can bring those of a foreign culture and tongue to Jesus while ignoring our own kind and kindred. Why do we place a higher value on “the uttermost part of the earth” than on our own “Jerusalem and Judea” (see Acts 1:8). This is why Andrew is such a good model for us. There’s nothing wrong with what Peter and Paul did in crossing wide seas and braving wild persecution for the sake of the gospel -– but the big guns would never have fired without the little sparks, the simple souls, the everyday evangelists, who think inside the box before trying to get outside of it, who consider their brothers first, before all the others! Paul himself made this priority crystal clear in this injunction to the Galatian Christians: “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (6:10). And how many times do we read his exhortation, and how often do we follow his example, to go “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16)? Paul was the apostle to the wide world, but his heart was first for his own people. When will we stop pushing for outreach to the exclusion of inreach?

Monday, November 9, 2009

TRUTHFUL ALL THE TIME -- Devotional for November 9, from "Good Seeds"

Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with your neighbor. (Ephesians 4:25)

There is a verse that is closely related to this one, not in subject matter, but in concept: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Just as it is one thing to be on the defensive and not let evil overtake you, and quite another to go on the offensive with a frontal attack on that evil with the weapons of righteousness, so it is a very long stride forward from just not telling lies to coming out with pure truth. As is always the case in the Christian life, it’s not merely what we don’t do, but what we DO do, that counts! Many of us grew up in a culture of restriction. As Christian teenagers our witness revolved mostly around the worldly activities we were not allowed to indulge in. In time I came to understand that such a lifestyle did not fit well with the I Peter 3:15 model of witnessing, to “be ready always to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.” The world will not readily seek the restricted Christian life. But when unbelievers observe a greater and deeper joy in people who achieve it apart from the typical stimulations and indulgences, you can be sure they’re going to be curious. Christians should be known for what they do and what they are, far more than merely for what they don’t do, and what they are not. And what real Christians do is tell the truth, and what they are is reliable to the core in genuine honesty. As much as those around us may make fun of us for our restrictive and silly religion (their words), when the chips are down maybe we will be the ones they will turn to for help – and for truth. A Christian should be one who never has to add reassurances to his words with phrases like, “I really mean it; I kid you not; I swear I’m telling the truth.” Why would a person have to swear, as with his hand on his heart, or on a Bible – or on his grandmother’s grave!? Only because he knows (and others also know) that he often is not entirely truthful. Most people are like the little boy who cried wolf: they wouldn’t call it lies that they were telling, just stories, you know, to add color to life. “I was just joking, just teasing, just playing with you – so don’t get all bent out of shape about it!” The trouble with such people is that they cannot be believed even when they are telling the truth. That’s why they have to plead with you to believe them this time. We must be truthful to the point that we can be believed all the time. “Let you yes be yes and your no be no,” says James (5:12). There are times when we do not blurt out everything we know – that’s wisdom; that’s discretion. But when we speak, let it always be “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!”

Sunday, November 8, 2009

TEAMWORK: VICTORIOUS AND GLORIOUS! -- Devotional for November 8, from "Good Seeds"

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Better to live in the desert than with a quarrelsome, complaining woman (Proverbs 21:19). How can two walk together unless they are in agreement? (Amos 3:3).

These verses may appear to contradict one another, but in reality they provide a wonderful balance of truth. Solomon’s maxim, “Two are better than one,” refers to people working together as a team. With 1) agreement of purpose, 2) division of labor, 3) synchronization of effort, and 4) mutual respect and encouragement, they will accomplish exponentially greater results for their efforts, than from two people working independently, for true teamwork doesn’t work by addition, but multiplication. The four components just listed reveal that teamwork is no easy task. A team is two people tugging at one load, but that doesn’t say it all. They both could be pulling with all their might, but in two different directions, in which case one man’s efforts would negate the other’s. That is what the Proverbs passage implies: “It is better to work alone than with an uncooperative partner.” And Amos adds another dimension: Not only can two people fail to accomplish God’s best by not WORKING together, they can also break down and come to a standstill by not WALKING together. This word refers to more than just what happens during working hours – it has to do with what occurs during all waking hours! Partners on a team must be in basic agreement about the direction, the destination and the pace of the journey. So, how is such agreement and cooperation accomplished? Two things: Communication and Communion. I enjoy using a GPS navigational guide in my car. As soon as I enter the address of my desired destination the communication begins: the printed name on the screen of the next street I will need to take works in conjunction with the pleasant voice of “Miss Britannia” (I’ve selected UK English option over the crass American dialect) who alerts me at given intervals how soon I must make a change, like this: “In one point five miles, turn left.” This constant COMMUNICATION keeps me on track and gets me where I need to go. If only human team members would be as faithful to one another in providing information, feedback, and directional alerts! But human team members can give to one another what my little “mechanical maiden” could never provide: COMMUNION. Members of the body of Christ don’t just talk to each other, they care for one another, pray for each other, watch each other’s backs, and build up and encourage one another. In fact, it is the putting into practice of all the “One Anothers” of the New Testament that makes God’s team so victorious and glorious!

FALSE SHEPHERDS -- Devotional for October 7, from "Good Seeds"

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; even from among your own fellowship men will arise to speak perverse things, drawing away disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert. (Acts 20:28-31)

“It is better to be alone than in the wrong company.” The wisdom of this axiom has many applications. For example: “Better no friends than bad friends;” or, “Better no counsel than bad counsel.” But what about “Better no leader than a bad leader”? No need to sort this one out, for in human society there will always be leaders, though it is surely true that bad ones most quickly filter to the top. We know it is God’s plan for there to be leaders among men, whether parents over children, teachers over students, supervisors over employees, or presidents over nations. But when sin entered human society, a door was opened into the sheepfold and evil wolves entered, disguised as benevolent shepherds. Far greater damage – just as far greater good – can be done by leaders, whether of the political, or the pastoral, variety, than by everyday people. False teaching from a charming personality can quickly find open minds in which to deposit its poison. And we’re not necessarily talking about Satan’s henchmen – sometimes they are God’s men, men who may have started out well, but over time neglected to be “on guard for themselves.” Paul reiterated this warning to his young protégé in I Timothy 4:16: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching.” Because of the earnestness of their calling, sincere and honest pastors can pay very close attention to their work for the Lord, and yet fall far short in their work for their families, or in their personal walk with the Lord. These men will always have disciples following after them, but where are they taking them? And then of course there are those who are in the ministry not for what they can give to anyone, but for what they can get for themselves. Whether it is money, goods, fame, or just a long line of blind and gullible followers, the pastorate is easy pickings for men with the charlatan gift! It is just as true in the church as in the world that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely!” And it is amazing just how much power a local pastor has. The title alone begs for trust. But we must learn how to spot the dishonest ones. Our passage gives the key: they are looking to gather disciples unto themselves. The role of every pastor is that of John the Baptist: to draw people to the Savior. Beware of the one who says “I” and “me” rather than “we” and “us.” Follow, rather, the one who says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Friday, November 6, 2009

THE PUNISHMENT OF NATIONS -- Devotional for November 6, from "Good Seeds"

The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all nations that forget God (Psalm 9:17)

At this writing our nation is recoiling from the news of two separate incidents of senseless shootings of our own people by our own people within our own borders during peace time! Add to these the proliferation of suicide, poverty, broken homes, and now the failing economy and fractured government, of our nation, and we see what happens to a people who once knew their Maker, but now think they know better! A few years ago, just following a devastating hurricane, the daughter of Billy Graham was asked a question that would fit just as well our current circumstances: “How could God let something like this happen?” She gave this profound response: “I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are – but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. Being the gentleman that He is, I believe He has done just what we have asked. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?” We can’t have it both ways: once we’ve bidden God good riddance, He’s gone. But I haven’t rejected Him and, it’s my guess, neither have you! Today’s verse speaks of two human entities: individuals, “the wicked;” and large people groups, “all nations.” Just as people can only enter heaven one at a time, through the turnstile of faith in Jesus Christ, so they are condemned to hell one at a time, following each one’s rejection of whatever light of God’s truth he has received (see Romans 2:11-15). It isn’t nations, but individuals, that are damned or redeemed. When Abraham challenged God, “Will you indeed punish the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23), the answer came in God’s sparing of Lot and his daughters from heaven’s firefall upon Sodom. Speaking of the Great Tribulation that will someday come upon the earth, Paul said, “God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thessalonians 5:9). The Bible clearly teaches that a separation will be made between people who have sought the salvation, and therefore the protection, of God through Jesus Christ, and people who have chosen to take their chances on their own. But regarding nations, since they will not be punished in the next world for their sins, it must be that they are punished in this. If Israel was not exempt, why should America be? That ancient favored nation drifted far from God, and paid the awful price. Now a modern one so profoundly blest by Him is following that same path of the prodigal son. Are we not now eating the pods and feeling the pains that come from going astray? Ben Stein said, “I only hope we find God again before it is too late!”

CATACOMBS AND CROSSES -- Devotional for November 5, from "Good Seeds"

Our gathering together to Jesus Christ will not occur until the apostasy comes and the son of destruction presents himself as god. And you know what retrains him now. The mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but will only come into full power when the Restrainer is removed. (II Thessalonians 2:1-7)

In preparation for a child dedication service at our church I came up with these new words for a song I’d written some time before:
The family of God is a blessing, but also my family at home.
We gather together for worship in each little safe catacomb.

A member of my praise team questioned my choice of a particular word: “Aren’t catacombs filled with dead men’s bones? Why would you use a word meaning ‘underground graveyard’ to refer to a vibrant and happy home environment?” I had to think of a better answer than that it rhymes nicely with family at home! We know that the early church was driven into hiding by Roman persecution, and found a safe haven for sweet fellowship and worship in those putrid underground caverns. As I shared this with the group, it struck me just how often ugly things in this life are redeemed and beautified by the life of Christ indwelling every believer by the Spirit of God. Referring to the Holy Spirit Jesus told His disciples, “He now abides WITH you, but shall be IN you” (John 14:17). It is very probable that the Restrainer spoken of in today’s Scripture is the Holy Spirit. As God He is omnipresent: always and everywhere present. But as an active force holding back the full release of the evil one’s power “to steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:1), He will be removed along with all Christians at the rapture of the church, referred to in the verse as the “gathering together to Jesus Christ.” Until that time, no matter what evil lurks in the souls of men, the Holy Spirit is present and in full power in the lives of believers, overcoming Satan’s deeds of destruction by “the blood of the Lamb and the death-defying word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11). And that’s why we say that a Christian home can be a catacomb, a place both safe: from the prying eyes and persecuting intentions of Satan’s agents, and sacred: for the nurture of little minds and hearts in the ways of God. Where goes any man of God, there goes the Spirit of God, overcoming the enemy of God with the blood of the Lamb. Just as a catacomb, a place of death, is redeemed by the presence of Christians, so the cross, an ugly instrument of torture and engine of execution, becomes a thing of beauty to all who come to understand it for what it really is: mankind’s only hope for forgiveness of sin and eternal life. What other tool or domain of Satan could you and I claim and redeem as a means of God’s amazing grace?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

REMOVAL CAN LEAD TO REVIVAL -- Devotional for November 4, from "Good Seeds"

In the year King Uzziah died I saw the Lord, sitting on a throne, high and lifted up. (Isaiah 6:1)

Removal Can Lead to Revival
II Chronicles 26 tells the story of King Uzziah, one of the righteous Kings of Judah. The people of God were blessed to be ruled and protected by a good and great king. He was a GOOD KING: his goodness was rooted in his godliness. “He sought the Lord and did right in His sight” (vss. 4-5) for most of his fifty-two year reign. And he was a GREAT KING: his greatness was manifested in his Midas Touch, for he didn’t just succeed, but excelled, in everything he attempted. First, he was a military genius, gaining victory over his enemies and protecting his borders and cities through the development of an army superior in men, morale, and innovative armaments. Second, he was a man of the people, with domestic policies bringing peace and prosperity to the land. And third, he was a man of the land, for verse 10 says, “He loved the soil.” It seems he had that rare ability to encourage both the commercial ventures of urban industry, and the agrarian achievements of heartland farmers. But there was a chink in his armor – a flaw in his character – that proved to be his undoing. It was pride. (Why is it so often thus with good and great men?) Verses 16-21 record his downfall, when he usurped the ministry of the priests (Was this just one more thing to excel in?) This earned God’s anger and swift judgment: he was stricken with leprosy, requiring him to step down from leadership and turn everything over to his son. What a tragic end to a glorious life! Now, enter young Isaiah, faithfully functioning in his prophetic role, and yet very possibly more passionate about his earthly king than his Heavenly one, and very surely caught up in “Uzziah hero worship” right along with the rest of the crowd. But then, suddenly, this bigger-than-life hero fell from grace, was ostracized from service...and now he was dead! Isaiah was shocked and shaken to the core. Could we blame him if he joined his countrymen in thinking, “I’m never going to trust a God-follower again! Look what his religion got him – and look where it has left me!” This sounds very much like the negative reaction many people have today when they witness the moral downfall of one they had looked up to as a spiritual giant and personal role model. But Isaiah’s response to this tragedy took a positive turn, which we would do well to emulate: he realized his human hero had been blocking his view of God. When a hero fails that view can be permanently tarnished…but not if we allow disappointment in man serve as an appointment with God! My hero’s failures could work better than his strengths in drawing me to God! Indeed, the removal of my hero could lead to a revival in my heart!

Monday, November 2, 2009

AN UNEXPECTED WITNESSING TOOL -- Devotional for November 3, from "Good Seeds"

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. (Colossians 1:24)

What are the methods we can use to share the gospel with unbelievers? The first and most basic is PROCLAMATION: “Faith cometh by hearing the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Revelation 12:11 says Christians under fire by “the accuser of the brethren” can overcome unbelief “by the word of their TESTIMONY.” A powerful witnessing tool is to simply tell what Christ means to you, and what He has done for you. And then there is the intellectual defense of the gospel through APOLOGETICS. The Bible can stand up both to hateful ridicule and honest scrutiny, for “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17). In Matthew 5:16 Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they see your good works, and glorify your Father in Heaven.” GOOD DEEDS from a pure life can sometimes touch men’s hearts when nothing else can. But then there’s PRAYER. What better witnessing tool could there possibly be? Bring them in? No, pray them in! But…when no powerful presentation of the gospel can do the trick; when no vibrant personal testimony of God’s grace in one’s life, no masterful apologetic defense, no good deed of even the most extreme benevolence, and when not even the most devout prayer by the godliest intercessor can penetrate the cold, unbelieving heart, a Christian quietly SUFFERING FOR JESUS can unlock doors of even the hardest hearts – and faith enters in. We see examples of this in biblical and historical personalities, but we go to the taproot of them all, Jesus Christ, to understand how it works. Peter saw it firsthand and wrote about it: “When my Jesus was reviled and lied about, His character slandered, his reputation maligned, and when He was hated with vicious, tongue-wagging hatred, through it all He held His peace and kept silent. He uttered not a word in His own defense, and not a word of retaliation, or of what judgment lay in store for His tormentors. “As a lamb before his shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth” (Acts 8:32). And in His silence, He “entrusted Himself to Him who judges righteously.” We are told to “follow in His steps” (II Peter 2:21,23). What steps? The steps of suffering. But now He’s gone, leaving us behind to finish His work. We are empowered to proclaim, yes, but also employed to suffer, to receive the stripes meant for Him. Jesus said, “If I be lifted up (on the cross) I’ll draw all men to Me” (John 12:32). Well, now it’s our turn to suffer, not for the sins of others, but in the sight of others – to burn brightly in a dark world, even if at a burning stake of suffering. Whatever it takes to draw men to Jesus!

OUT OF STEP - OUT OF SHAPE -- Devotional for November 2, from "Good Seeds"

Since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)

A man attending a weight loss clinic along with a bunch of women followed the regimen of diet and exercise better than all of them, and in record time he achieved his goal weight. When he was called to the front to receive recognition for his accomplishment, he dragged a heavy suitcase behind him. Without a word he lifted and opened it to show that it was full of rocks. Then he spoke: “Folks, these 40 pounds of rocks represent the forty pounds of fat I carried into this room when I joined the group six months ago. And I carried them back out with me, too, and to and fro, wherever I went! I wish I could say it was as easy to drop them as it is to drop these” – and with that was heard a loud thud as that valise full of rocks hit the floor!” He continued, “Thanks for the award, but there’s no better reward than to lay aside, hopefully for good, these unnecessary and ugly extra pounds I’ve been toting around with me for way too long!” Then, picking up the suitcase again, he opened the door and tossed those rocks into the parking lot. With a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye, he returned to his seat. As wonderful as he felt that day, it could never match the ecstasy you and I experience each time we rid ourselves of one more sin or habit that has encumbered us since time immemorial. The first act of American retaliation against the Japanese following their bombing of Pearl Harbor was Doolittle’s air attack over Tokyo. The problem was the vast distance the bombers had to travel. The only answer was to strip from them every extra pound of equipment, supplies, and artillery, and then see if they could take off from an aircraft carrier. Sixteen planes, weighed down only with crew, fuel, and bombs, successfully took off, covered the distance, dropped their payloads, and floated on fumes to the China coast for rice field landings. Those brave pilots lived to tell the tale not for the ingenuity of their strategy, or even their strength of character, but because they were able to lighten their load, laying aside the encumbrances that would have surely spelled failure to the mission. What about you and me? What battles are we right now losing? What potential missions for Jesus have doom written all over them because of our sinful habits or flabby condition? And what losses to the kingdom of God are being sustained because not only are we out of step – we’re out of shape? “No soldier in active service entangles himself with the affairs of life,” we read in I Timothy 2:4. Maybe it’s time you and I got ourselves untangled and unencumbered. There’s no better time to start than right now!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

FOR ALL THE SAINTS -- Devotional for November 1, from "Good Seeds"

Since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)

This is the title of one of my favorite hymns. Sadly, it has gone the way of that whole genre of Christian music, as hymns have been relegated to the dusty closets of the contemporary church. I love the new music, and we should keep writing new songs, but not as replacements of the old. This hymn draws me, in my mind, into the ranks of the faithful fighting saints of yesteryear, and encourages me to be as bold in my confession of that forever blest name. The communion I feel with them is powerful, especially as I anticipate that glorious day when I will take my place next to them, marching in bright array, into the very presence of Jesus!
1) For all the saints who from their labors rest, who Thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia!
2) Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might; Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight; Thou in the darkness drear their one true light. Alleluia! 3) O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old; and win with them the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia! 4) O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in Thee for all are Thine. Alleluia! 5) But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of Glory passes on His way. Alleluia! 6) From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost: Alleluia!
Whenever I sing this hymn I am overcome, not just with powerful emotion, but also with an overpowering realization that I am part of something huge, something that will only grow as times continues: the Great and glorious church of the Living God, the body of Christ spread across every corner of the world and throughout every century of history! When I meet with the handful of saints down at the church on Sunday morning, sometimes I get a little discouraged by the weakness of our worship, especially when comparing it to that Sunday afternoon “worship service” I experience vicariously through the T.V. – a football game with 100,000 fans all gathered in one place, singing and shouting praises to their team. It makes me wonder, “Where are the fans of Jesus, and how well do we follow Him, and praise Him, compared to these?” That’s when I must turn my gaze heavenward, to that “great cloud of witnesses,” shining in glory, sitting in the grandstands of heaven – no, standing! – to cheer me on in my feeble struggle. Knowing I am one of them, and one with them, and with their Savior, makes me want to shine for Jesus right here, and shout Hallelujah right now! How about you?