Spring is in the Air

Spring is here. I can no longer deny it. I’ve mowed a couple of times. The Kentucky Derby has been run. There have been a few tornado warnings around the state. These are all reminders to me that it is that time of the year.

Yet, when I sit on the porch with a cup of coffee, other things remind me. The chirping of the birds in the morning air can be overwhelming as each seeks out its mate, longing for new life and new beginnings. For me, Spring is that time, a time of new beginnings.

I’ve always suspicioned that God likes Spring as well. For if nothing else, we know our God is the God of new beginnings. Patient, tolerant, merciful, and kind, our God has offered to his people throughout all generations the opportunity to start again.

Cast from the garden, Adam and his family had the opportunity for new beginnings. Noah and his family after the Flood, were given the chance to start the world all over again. Abraham has a fresh start as he follows God to the new land of promise. Israel leaves Egypt with God in the forefront with a pillar of cloud and of fire. Once again a new beginning. Joshua leads them into the Promised Land, across the Jordan River, a new place to start.

We could talk of the Kings, restart after restart in the nation of Judah. Each of the prophets appeals to the nation, begin again with God. Captivity, then the return… a chance to begin again.

Finally, or perhaps at last, God calls it the fullness of time, Jesus comes to put God in the flesh and the process in motion. From crowds on the hillside, multitudes on the plains, crowded beaches, tiny synagogues, expansive temples, and ending in whispers on a cross, new beginnings are offered, seized, and sometimes ignored. Over and over, time after time, the occasions are presented to start fresh, once again.

As the new grass launches itself into the air, as flowers bud, then burst into bloom, remember the imagery. Catch a glimpse of the message of nature that echoes the voice of God: This is the time for new beginnings. Shrug aside the old, ineffective habits, open yourself to a walk that is in step with our God. Today, even the birds sing the New Song, if you have the ears to hear.

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God’s Intent

A question that I have been pondering during this last year was prompted by the story in 2 Samuel 14, about the widow from Tekoa who is sent to David by Joab to facilitate Absalom’s return to Jerusalem. Her statement is, “…the king does not bring back his banished son”, indicating the ‘appropriate behavior’ based on the statement, “This is not what God desires, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him.”

This is the rationale for David bringing Absalom back to Jerusalem, but was it good counsel, God’s counsel, or simply Joab’s manipulation?

It should be noticed that Joab often had his own motives for things, making behind the scenes moves to push the kingdom in directions he desired. So, the source of the statement comes overlaid with some less than pristine motives.

That being acknowledged, God has on numerous occasions used ‘shady characters’ to deliver spiritual truths.

My question is, if God did bring this into being, what does it tell me about the character of God? Is it consistent with what I learn in other places about God to make the statement that God doesn’t want those who are “banished” banished forever?

The principle which can be affirmed about God is that he is a ‘restorer’, a fixer. From the chaos as creation began, he brought order and structure. From a fallen humanity, through the second Adam, he brought redemption. He is patient, longsuffering, and hopeful toward his creation, always moving, shaping, and planning for a full restoration of all things.

Since God seems to be on the edge of his seat, ready to act in support of our efforts to return. Since he has historically acted ‘while we were yet sinners’, initiating our process to regain our earlier status, I find it consistent with what I know of the nature of our God to say that he does not want those who are banished, banished forever.

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Greater, More Important Commands

There raged a debate in Jesus’ day among those who enjoyed discussing Scripture. One day, as we might have guessed, someone asked the question of him. His answer is something that should school and inform our understanding of God.

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus answers and sets the matter to rest. However, he follows this statement with one that illuminates all of Scripture. On these two commandments hang all of the Law and the Prophets.

That is a new statement, and in it we discover the hermeneutic (process for interpreting Scripture) that Jesus used. There were many who believed that one command was just as important as another. But that is not the case according to Jesus, and we see it applied throughout Scripture.

Keeping the Sabbath was a command that many used to their own hurt. As Jesus preached throughout his ministry and healed different ones, some laid in wait wondering if he would do good on the Sabbath. Work was forbidden, so people who were ill would just have to suffer, would they not?

Jesus describes the intent of the Law, man was not made to observe the Sabbath, rather the Sabbath was made to benefit man. It was easy, once you saw the purpose. It is God honoring to assist one made in God’s image by acting in kindness toward them. Loving them by caring for them, healing them, was in perfect accord with all of the Law and the Prophets.

Arguing about what could be done, how much was too much, or how far the sun was down on the mountain was missing the point of all that God had revealed about himself. It isn’t hard to see when one has the vision of God’s intent.

Mindless enforcement of commandments, moving away from God’s intent, or worse yet, blocking God’s intention becomes sinful. Feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, or aiding the sick is not contrary to God’s law, even on the Sabbath.

 

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Things God Rejects

There have been times when God gets fed up with the worship of those who claim to be his people. Historically, it has had less to do with procedure than it has been with the behavior of those who worship.

Amos 5 is an example that I ran across again this week.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I am not pleased by your solemn assemblies. Though you offer me burnt offerings or your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard the offerings of your fattened animals. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.

It has always been an easier task to do church than to be church. Throughout history we’ve spent more time fussing over procedures than any other single thing. Folks have fought over the number of cups during communion, what monies collected can be spent on, what kind of songs to sing in the assemblies, harps or no harps, communion at the beginning, middle or end of the assemblies, Sunday night or no Sunday night, what kind of clothes to wear, if a building could be owned to assemble in, if a kitchen could be in that building, if a multipurpose room could look like a gym… And multiple other things that I have neither the time nor inclination to mention.

Amos asks, in the midst of all the controversies, “Is justice being evenly distributed?” “Is what is right truly the guiding principle that springs from you?” Not your ability to gain justice, but the ability of the weakest and most vulnerable of all?

God, in describing himself to Moses, states that he is, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the father on the children and on the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

God wants this world to recognize his standards; singing songs, praying prayers while ignoring the vulnerable among us causes him to repudiate our worship.

 

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The God Who Draws Us In

He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.

He will not always accuse, neither will he keep his anger forever.

He does not treat us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward those who fear him;

As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.                                    Psalm 103:7-12

 

I often wonder what people believe about God. Sometimes their “jumpiness” or restlessness before him cause me to believe that they have not focused on what God has said about himself.

When Moses received the tablets cut by the finger of God, God passed by in front of Moses and made a statement about himself, about who he is. Much of that statement is quoted in Psalm 103, in fact it is quoted over and over again in Scriptures. It is the defining statement of God.

Yes, God is a holy God. Of this there can be no doubt. But look at the focus God makes when he is establishing his relationship with Israel. Merciful, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy. His focus is not on how to push us away, rather it is on how to draw us to him.

Take all of our sins; past, present and future… put them on the most powerful missile, launch them to the deepest part of the universe, galaxies, light years away, into a dark hole that we will never find… he sent our sins away from us.

No lingering guilt, no hint of a shadow, no tinge of dirt remains. God removes it, cleanses it, and takes it away, all so there is no impediment to our ability to enter into deep relationship with him.

The longing of God is not your faultlessness, it is you. He provides your ability to stand in his presence with great joy, trust that. Stop listening to the whispers of Satan and hear the word of God.

 

 

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What Do You Remember?

Along about the middle of July, I start thinking about my family. My father died the 16th of July and his father died on the 20th. In the middle of December my mind reflects on another loss. It seems that annual remembrances are important to me. Nostalgic? Sentimental? I am not sure, but powerful events in my life resonate deep within me. Each year, about that time in the month, I reflect, rehearse what I learned, the things I value, and commit to honor the memories in the coming year.

An early Easter holiday this year. For many throughout our world this is a season that remembers a time altering event. A risen Christ, a Messiah hoped for, then seemingly lost, before an earth shaking return, the story of Jesus contains every imaginable emotion. For many it will be read with tears and inexpressible joy. They “get it”.

For others it is a holiday about baskets, colored eggs, new dresses, bonnets, and white shoes. There may be family meals, dying eggs, toddlers waddling through a back yard attempting to fill an ungainly basket, baby rabbits or chicks, and other types of seasonal activities. When done with an awareness of the reason that a celebration exists today, they are fine. But for many it is only the seasonal holiday trappings. They may not believe in the resurrection, or even believe in the Christ.

Having knowledge of a time, or a celebration without noting the significance is empty and hollow. For me it makes no sense, like purchasing birthday cards because you like the picture, without sending them on to share with a loved one.

Paul cautions the early church about their failure to deem as holy the portion of their meal in which they observed the Lord’s Supper. For some, it appears they were just eating and drinking, enjoying social time without connecting it to the sacrifice of Jesus. Some were being left out, others were just filling their faces, but reflection on the Christ was not happening.

The problem – they didn’t create holiness in themselves around the event they were remembering. Today, remember to do more than celebrate, also reflect.

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Don’t Miss Jesus…

Learning to integrate is the answer, compartmentalizing tends to produce frustration. Belief and behavior must come together and reflect our stated world view. The confounding truth for the religious establishment during Jesus’ day was that they had their understanding of religion, with its rituals, structure, and restrictions, but could not see God when he appeared.

When you expect God to think and act in your favored understandings, it is easy to miss him. Jesus came into the world with very different priorities than the dominant religious group. Now, that is not to say that he ignored the Law or the Prophets, not in any sense of the term. The Sabbath was observed by him in keeping with the intent of God for the Sabbath, i.e. to benefit man.

So as he applied his understanding of God to daily life, he was unperturbed by healings on the Sabbath or disciples casually gathering grain from the field as they walked by. He knew God, he knew God’s intent, which allowed him to act toward that end.

James tells us that pure and undefiled religion is caring for widows and orphans (the vulnerable) and to keep oneself untainted by the world. Utilizing logic, skewing reason, and attempting to maintain emotional distance from someone abandoned, because “she has a husband somewhere” misses what James tells us to do.

However, is it just that type of compartmentalizing of Scripture from life that has limited many, twisting their understanding and preventing their effectively demonstrating God in our world. As the religious world in Jesus’ day had become more focused on the Law than the God who gave that Law, perspective became distorted. It became obvious when they saw Jesus doing miraculous works, but had to attribute it to Satan to keep their own biases.

In our own times we have to be careful that we don’t expect Jesus to act our way, wear our brands, and be enthused about our passions. Our behavior and beliefs must align with pure and undefiled religion.

You don’t want to miss Jesus because he is not wearing a Longhorn jersey or is carrying a Mizzou pennant.

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Do Angels Text?

A text message arrived. A preacher who met me while I was in Arkansas last week was traveling through the area. He was going to participate in a regional meeting to be held in Goodland, as their song leader. The place he had planned to stay on his way from western Arkansas had illness in the house, so could he spend the night with us? Sure.

Now Janet and I had said hello to him while in Arkansas, but neither of us really remembered him. We found out later that he was recovering from illness and couldn’t talk. Obviously, in a room full of preachers if one of them doesn’t talk he isn’t noticed much. But when he arrived about 6p we loaded up for supper and came to know each other.

As we each rehearsed our journey of faith, noting the occasions that we had experienced blessings from God, as well as challenges that were daunting, we learned more about each other and our families.

At the start, it was a dance, two of us circling one another, catching each other’s scent… like a pair of dogs meeting one another for the first time. Wary of giving offense, careful not to take offense. Gradually the guards were lowered, then about 9:30p our real conversation began.

To be frank, it was one of the most spiritual, Spirit filled conversations I’ve had in over a year. Our language was a bit different, but as we came to trust each other more, shields came down and pointed encouragement and challenges were exchanged.

Promises to pray, occasions of prayer, suggestions to watch for movement of God in specific areas of life events, are the things that made the conversation godly, rare, special, and meaningful.

At one point I mentioned that I felt if I could turn my head just right quickly enough I might catch a glimpse of God’s Spirit encouraging, guiding and challenging the exchange. Each of us hated to end our time together that night as fatigue began to take its toll.

Sharing breakfast the next morning before he traveled on his way, I wondered if I entertained an angel unaware. Do angels text?

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A Spiritual Roadtrip

Janet and I drove to Little Rock, Arkansas to meet with about 40 other ministers who feed our souls. We spent two nights, feasting together over shared meals and exploration of God’s revelation.

Preachers like to preach, so this was set up like TED talks, each speaker given 10 minutes to make their points before the next speaker was invited to speak. We sat and listened; intrigued, challenged, and touched by the passionate retelling of God’s work among his people.

While I opted to listen without taking part in the rotation, I was blessed to hear those who have challenged me through their writings and our conversations over the years.

Meals together, conversations shared with some we see only every few years, and embracing those who we are only just meeting face to face, these were the joys that we experienced.

Yes, I am pretty much the old dog in the room, about all of the speakers were considerably younger than me. I was encouraged to hear the integrity with which they approach the Scriptures, their willingness to explore new insights, and their passion to live out a life focused on Jesus in their communities.

In Acts 15 the church met together with disciples from across their world. They talked about things that were creating problems in churches, trusting Paul and Barnabas with a message of acceptance and support for new believers among the Gentiles.

Not long after the two of them had successfully traveled through the area affected, Barnabas and Paul had a fight over who was allowed to return on a second journey with them. The disagreement was such that they refused to travel together, each taking a team and traveling their own way.

Christians will not always agree. They never have always agreed over procedure. It doesn’t mean that faith doesn’t move forward, they just don’t do things exactly the same.

The common ground is their passion for God and his people, a desire to lift up the name of Jesus, and living lives consumed in that purpose.

May we all, throughout our Christian walk, be filled with the same passions.

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Making Memories

It is my favorite day of the month. After potluck dinner I gather with a group of 15-25 friends and play music together at Stafford. It isn’t new songs that I learn, more the familiarity and ease of tunes that have filled my ears from jukeboxes, car radios and record players over the past half century. The original singers are mostly dead now, but we keep their memories alive, telling old stories and infusing it with where we were when we heard it, or trying to remember the year it was released. As a bunch of music buffs, the first Sunday of each month at the Gathering Place is a great pleasure that we make commitments to attend.

Well, Sunday is always my favorite day of the week, a time of praise and reflection before God with other believers. I cherish that time, time I can explore and attempt to explain some of the promises that God has revealed in his word.

They aren’t new things, in fact as with the music, the familiarity of the stories… the woman at the well, the attempt to keep the children back from Jesus, and the glory of his resurrection… these stories are the things that reveal the character of our God and compel us to come toward him. We deepen the relationship with each heartfelt prayer, we expand our love as we reflect at the Supper, and we reinforce our community as we share sorrows, burdens, joys and victories.

As memories of familiar music legends can bring a knowing nod as the first bars of a song begin, we experience a more significant and powerful wave of familiarity when the Ancient Words are read. Our minds bring together the last time we heard the story, perhaps in a parent’s voice as they read the text, or the voice of a shepherd as he explained the importance of the story. This retelling will be enfolded into the memories of all prior readings as the assurances of the words of antiquity prepare our minds to face contemporary struggles.

That Jesus valued and demonstrated compassion in story after story, the characteristic increases in importance and becomes a part of our lives.

Yes, I’m excited about today. I’ve some stories to tell, some songs to sing, and some memories to make.

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