Death Row – A Good Friday Story

A man squatted in a dingy prison cell, his features hidden by the deep shadows of his dark imprisonment. Only a thin plane of morning sunlight penetrated the darkness, revealing countless dust particles floating around rows of disheartened men. The man was seated, away from the light, staring motionless into the darkness.

On a hill outside the prison stood the place of execution, where condemned men were put to death. Today would be this man’s turn.

 In a way, death was a welcome ending to his pain. But more strongly the condemned man felt the fear of death’s mysteries. His soul, it seems, had died long ago, but the fear of physical death consumed him.

As he waited in the cruel anticipation of a violent death, his mind raced across the span of his life. What would have made a difference? What could have changed his inclinations towards evil? The answers to these questions could only be tossed out into his universe of despair. Like always, he knew no answers would come. There was no hope.

Slowly and ever more increasingly, the  man became aware of the sounds of a great number of voices and footsteps. There were shouts and roars, but none of the words could be recognized. The noise increased and erupted past him like a huge ocean wave. An enormous mass of shouting people had passed just outside his cell and were proceeding toward execution hill. 

The time was near. He couldn’t remember so great a crowd ever gathered to witness a death before.

Just then the outside door of the prison was slammed open hard against the wall. Keys jiggled and the main security door was unlocked. Prison guards streamed towards his cell. The hopeless man trembled and recoiled in fear. Death was pouncing upon him.

The guards unlocked his cell and converged upon him like as many wild tigers. They seized him, and drug him out into the morning sun outside the prison. When they had cleared the outside door, he was slammed face down hard on the ground, sand and dirt exploding into his eyes, nose and mouth. 

The impact dazed him. In a semi conscious state, he waited for the first sting of the lashing whip.

After awhile, he slowly opened his eyes, spitting dirt from his mouth. He tilted his head slowly, expecting his flesh to be ripped open with a whip at any moment. But he was alone. Turning his head, he could see the guards joining the crowds flowing toward execution hill. He was left unattended on the ground.

Slowly at first, but with increasing urgency, the freed man got up and made his way into a stable filled with livestock, across the block from the prison. Looking around as he fled, he expected his fantasy to end at any moment. 

Within the safety of the dwelling, he flung himself upon the straw and sobbed.

After awhile, the sounds from execution hill softened and the man’s curiosity moved him out of his safe zone. He left the building and circled around the back of the mountain of murder, called the “place of the skull”.

He came up upon the crowd and mixed himself safely among the masses. With much effort, he fought his way through until he could see what the commotion was all about.

Three men hung dying on crosses, pain etched across their faces. Two of the men he knew from his time in prison, but he didn’t recognize the man in the middle. This man seemed much weaker and closer to death than the others.

As he stood watching, he noticed the blood gushing down the wood of the middle tree.  He followed the trail of blood up to the man’s face. Though he was among a mass of people, the man on the middle cross was looking directly at him.  His  eyes were not desperate and frantic, but peaceful and loving.

After a few moments the freed man turned and walked away. As he fought his way back through the crowd, he overheard someone asking about the man on the middle cross, “Why are they killing him? What has he done wrong?”

“He’s done nothing wrong,” the answer came. “He’s dying in place of a man set free.”

Luke 23:19-20  (MSG)  At that, the crowd went wild: “Kill him! Give us Barabbas!” (Barabbas had been thrown in prison for starting a riot in the city and for murder.) Pilate still wanted to let Jesus go, and so spoke out again.

2 Corinthians 5:21 (NASB) He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

The Christian Life is a Dance not a March

Philippians 2:12-13 (NASB)  So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

It’s easy to read the above verses and get caught up with the word “work” in the beginning and miss the incredible freedom at the end.

I’ve lived in the “work” part for far too long and just about missed the essence of the Christian life.

It started before I truly believed. Until I was 21 years old, growing up in a socially Christian family, I thought I was going to heaven because I “believed” in Jesus and thought my good “works” outweighed my bad.  In other words, I hadn’t killed anybody and performed some good deeds like walking little old ladies across the street. In my uninformed mind, this made me good enough for heaven.

Back then, my idea of being “born again,” was associated with being judgmental and living a life of rules which choked out all joy. I had no desire to live like that.

Just like everyone else, I was searching for joy in the world around me. I had no concept that the hole in my soul was eternal and could only be filled with God himself. A trip to jail brought me to my senses and turned my attention to my creator. Eventually I surrendered my life to my Lord Jesus Christ.

This was a marvelous day, but it took me years to realize the Christian life is not just something else to “work” at. Living as a Christian is so different than anything else I’d ever experienced.

Over time, and I must admit, I’m still learning it, the true nature of living the Christian life began to become clear. Christianity is not primarily about rules, it’s about a relationship with Christ.  He did the work. Ours is to respond to what’s he’s already done.

Our life is not an arduous march to a set of rules. It’s more like a dance; us responding to Christ our partner as he leads us in a  dynamic relationship.[1]

This changes everything.

“for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.[2]

Spiritually, we’ve  died and Christ, by his Holy Spirit, has taken up residence in our lives. The “work” we now do is a work of dependence, yielding to Christ as he produces the fruit of his Spirit in our lives.[3]

We don’t march around like robotic soldiers to a sheet of rules. We dance with God as he leads us through difficulties as his life is formed in us.

Prayer: Most gracious, heavenly Father. I’m sorry I spent much of my life totally misunderstanding the way you interact with me as your son. You’ve not left me alone to fend for myself. You’re involved in every dance step of my life and want me to enjoy being with you through every circumstance. Draw me ever closer to you as we dance together here. I praise you that one day, I’ll see you face to face.

[1] From a conference at the Cove by Pete Briscoe about Galatians 2:20

[2] Philippians 2:13

[3] Galatians 2:20

[4] John 15:1-12

[5] John 15:5

Choosing Life Over Work

Of his mentor, missionary to China Margaret Barber, Watchmen Nee wrote, “She cared for nothing but life… [and to pay] more attention to life than work.”[1]

 I long for this mindset, but too often the opposite is true. Consider what occurred only a few days ago.

On my to-do list was to get the name of diabetic test strips which would be covered under our new health insurance plan. My pharmacy told me to call my provider. My provider told me to call my insurance company. My insurance company referred me to a third party which handled pharmacy issues.

After several tries, I finally found myself talking to a person. His name was John. His voice was slow and shaky. I had the phone on speaker and my wife and I could both tell he was elderly, probably in his 70s.

John didn’t seem to know the answer to my question and suggested I call my pharmacy. When I told him I'd tried that, he told me to call my insurance company. I told him my insurance company had referred me to him. I tried to keep my voice from sounding as frustrated as I was feeling. This "to-do" was taking much longer than I'd hoped.

That's the sad thing. At that moment I wasn't thinking about John at all, other than the fact that he was blocking  me from marking this nagging duty off my list.

When John realized I wasn't going to go away, he  put me on hold.

"I bet people laugh at the way he talks all the time," my wife offered, feeling compassion for him. This unsolicited comment began to shift my heart and my thoughts moved slightly towards John. I emphasize slightly, because my goal was still resolution, not encouragement. I hate to admit this, but it's true.

When John got back on the line, he had an answer for me. In fact, he seemed empowered now that he had information.

During our exchange, my wife caught my eye and mouthed, "Pray for him."

Not yet being fully focused on John, this hadn't even occurred to me and I was a bit reluctant. However, when  John was done giving me my answer, I asked, “Is there anything I can pray for you about?”

"Yes," John said without hesitation.

“What can I pray for you about,” I repeated.

“My salvation,” John cried out.

Wow. I wasn't expecting that at all, but it thrilled me that he would be so honest.

I went on to pray that John would recognize God's loves for him, that he would accept Christ's willingness to die on a cross for his sins.  I prayed that John would believe by faith the fact that Jesus' death was out of love for him and that by receiving Christ's finished work, it would secured the salvation of his soul.

John listened and when I was done we ended our call with the normal protocols. But before we hang up, we could hear John gasp loudly and sob softly. What if he really did surrender his life to Christ? We pray that he did.

When we value life over work, this changes everything.

I recently heard of a man who was an elder serving on a particular church committee for 45 years. He said the experience was totally empty, but that he considered it his duty to God. He said his life was a series of dutiful activities hoping to please God.

But two years ago he finally understood grace. Though he'd heard the word for years, the amazing truth of God's unmerited favor passed from head knowledge to his heart.

Since then, his life has been totally different.  Now, when he wakes up in the morning, he doesn't think about all he has to do. Two simple thoughts have replaced his thoughts of work:

  • Oh, how he loves me
  • I wonder who he will bring into my life today to love through me?

Prayer: Most gracious, heavenly Father. I’m sorry I so easily get caught up in the swirl of duties and work that life becomes secondary. You are life. I see you all around me in your creation and in the people you bring my way. Please help me trust you that the work you want to accomplish will get done. I’m asking you to change the paradigm of my day to care less about accomplishments and more about people, to pay more attention to life than work.

Thank you for loving me so much.  Please work this unsearchable truth more and more into the fabric of my heart.

Who do you want to bring into my life today so that you can love them through me?

1 Peter 3:15 (NASB)  but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence;

[1] Watchman Nee, Witness Lee

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All Jacked Up

“We fear if people ever truly knew us, they would not love us, but the truth is if people really knew us, they could truly love us” Jon Acuff

One of our pastors likes to refer to all of us, including himself, as ‘all jacked up.’  I don’t embrace this truth very well, but it’s intensely accurate. During the times I haven’t messed up too badly, I feel pretty good about myself. But when an area of my life begins to stink, I tend to go into denial. It’s easier to slather on the cologne and avoid thinking about it than to come to terms with how far I’ve missed the mark.

The truth is I am all jacked up. And I bring my imperfections into every area of my life, including my family, my job, my friendships, my… It seems the longer I live the more I realize I’m not the man after God’s heart I hoped I was. I’m not alone in this. Toward the end of his live, Paul called himself the foremost of all sinners.[1]  But even among such great company, I struggle to fully embrace my sin.

The Lie of Lovability

Lately, God has revealed a virus running in the operating system of my heart: The more perfect I am, the more lovable I am. Though I know its a lie, the less perfect I realize I am, the more unlovable I feel. I read what Jesus says about the sinner who washed His feet with her tears, “her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little loves little.”  (Luke 7:47b) This verse is like anti-virus software targeting the specific lie which has caused havoc in my life. In Christ, God lavishes his grace upon me. What should keep me from opening up all the crevices of my heart to allow His loving grace and mercy to have full access?

Cheer up

“Cheer up! You’re a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.” Jack Miller

Could it be that a fuller embrace of my sin will give me a deeper experience of His love?

God is eradicating this lie which causes me to shy away from a full embrace of my sin. His great love for me is washing away guilt and shame, showing me something I never expected.

Being brutally honest with who I really am, with all my imperfections and sin, in all areas,  has far reaching benefits for me and for others:

  • Greater sin, greater love -As with the sinful woman, the more I see my sin and embrace God’s forgiveness, the greater I understand His love
  • Eradicating Defensiveness – If I know I’m loved, no matter how much I’ve messed up, I can fully accept, without denial, when others tell me I have broccoli in my teeth
  • Requires dependence – As long as I think I’m doing okay, patterning my life after the historic Jesus I read about in the Bible, I’ll keep grinding it out in my own effort. However, when I see the essence of what Jesus is teaching us in the Sermon on the Mount, that I can’t be perfect and can’t live the Christian life without him, I’ll begin to yield to His abiding Spirit
  • Brings freedom – Jesus says “the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32b) When we give the Spirit full access to the crevices of our heart, we’ll experience the freedom to fully embrace our humanity with all its ugliness and fully rest in the love of Christ
  • Really Good News – Gospel means “good news” and when we truly understand that no sin is more powerful than the precious life blood of Jesus, this makes the gospel really good news.
  • My Grace Story Brings Hope to Others  When we share our junk and related victories, others can identify and hope is ignites in them. “If God can do that in his life and with his family, as jacked up as he is, He can surely help me.”

Challenge:  

  • Think of the imperfect areas of your life. This shouldn’t be too hard. As humans, our sin is kneaded into all aspects.
  • Of these areas, pick one that’s particularly hard to accept. This is probably an area you find some worth in. Just one for now. You can repeat the process if needed.
  • Spend some being brutally honest with the Lord about your sin in this area. Perhaps you’ve been in denial about the extent. Then, with no hesitation, receive the cleansing power of the shed blood of Christ for forgiveness and cleansing.
  • Perhaps there’s a person in your life you need to talk to. Do it. Bring it all into the light of his healing grace.
  • Rinse and repeat the challenge for other areas. (This reference doesn’t work for me. I haven’t had enough hair to wash in years) (8^>

 Prayer: Most gracious, heavenly Father. I’m so sorry I hold my junk at arm’s length, not fully embracing my sin. Thank you for exposing the lie that tells me I’m unlovable when I’m not perfect. What a hideous message. I’m sorry for how my lack of brutal honesty with myself, has affected my freedom and perhaps even the freedom of others. Please keep me in absolute truth, exposing more and more of my junk, that you might use me to trumpet your lavishing love and unending grace to others.

“He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us.Ephesians 1:5-8b 

[1] I Timothy 1:15

Running to your Love

 The Lord your God is in your midst;  he is a warrior who can deliver.  He takes great delight in you;  he renews you by his love; he shouts for joy over you.” Zephaniah 3:17 (NET)

Can You Come Play?

During a recent trip to Walmart, I had a delightful surprise. I was in ”get-er-done” mode, wheeling my buggy toward the area I hoped I’d find camping chairs, when my Fitbit informed me I had a call. Looking down and seeing it was my daughter, I tapped my blue tooth and answered it. But it wasn’t my daughter, it was my four year old grandson. “Can you come play?” he asked.

If you’ve reached the stage in life where you’ve been blessed with grandchildren, you understand how his question made me feel. My heart absolutely over flowed with love for him.

There’s a different dimension of love I’ve experienced with our five grandkids. We don’t love them more than our children, just differently. Without the responsibility of direct parenting, I feel freer to love. In fact, in a very real sense grandkids help me experience the moments of life more fully and God’s love more deeply.

God’s Love

The next day in church, there was a phrase in one of the songs about running to God’s love. It’s a great concept, but understanding God’s continual open arms to us can be extremely hard to grasp. Speaking of Christ’s love, Paul prays we might comprehend its vastness and know this love which surpasses knowledge. With our limited minds, this picture of unending, unchangeable love can only be believed by faith, especially in light of our human failings.

When I think of how I’ve disappointed God, seeds of doubt creep in. Are his arms still open? Does he still desire our embrace?

Pop’s Love

What love I experienced when my grandson called me! If I wasn’t an hour and fifteen minutes away, I’d have driven straight there. And even with the distance, surprising him crossed my mind. Being “Pop” to my grandchildren has expanded my heart to measures I didn’t expect, but my love for them is a mere shadow compared to God’s love for me.

Expanding My Concept of love

When we think of our children or grandchildren, and really ponder our love for them, we can understand a deeper dimension of God’s love. Those closest to us can cause the deepest pain, but no matter what a child or grandchild does, would I ever refuse their desire to run into my arms?

Challenge:

Close your eyes and picture God holding out his arms to you for a running embrace.  Is there a hesitation? If so, what are you afraid of? Whatever it is, it’s a lie.

 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 8:38-39 (NASB)

Prayer:

Lord, thank you for giving me a picture of your love for me, when I think of my grandchildren. Allowing me to be a grandfather helps me understand your love for me even more.

But sometimes there’s a “disconnect” in my heart. Your love is true. Like the Father in the story of the prodigal son, you have open arms for all your children. Whether we’ve been in the distant lands of false affections or striving to earn your love at home, your love never fails.

Your arms are always open and you delight in us running to you. In fact, when you see us running to you, because we are in Christ, you see your Son.

Hello Silence my New Friend

New Time Travel Novel by the Author

Fighting for Silence

On a recent trip to the beach, I was alone for two and a half hours. Letting my Waze app chart my course to avoid traffic,  I enjoyed some rural scenery and small towns I’d never seen before. I fought the urge to turn on the radio or listen to a book on Audible and chose silence instead. I’m so glad I did.

In a devotional I recently completed, I was challenged to have a couple of minutes of silence before and after my times with God. It was extremely hard at first. I kept wanting to reach for my phone to check a text, mark a to-do or research an idea which popped into my head. Over time, I realized that God’s still small voice will fill the silence, but I have to wait on Him.

The Presence of God

As I drove through the low country of South Carolina, passing through Lynchburg and Lake City, people started coming to mind. Being concerned for their well-being, I began to present them one by one before the Lord.  This connection with God’s heart gave me a sense of his nearness.

Speaking about the nearness of God, David wrote of gazing upon his beauty in the temple. Asaph wrote that the nearness of God was his good and that apart from God he had nothing. Exodus compares the presence of God to bread. In the New Testament, we read of Rushing wind and Rivers of Living water when describing the Holy Spirit, God’s presence with us.

Love

What I was experiencing, started with love. All the lies which often block the knowledge of God’s love for me were held aside so that  I knew it in deeper measures. He loved me before I was born with a  timeless love which I can not change.

Peace

There was also extreme peace, a peace rooted in the Prince of Peace and not in any present circumstance. I understood what Jesus meant when he told us he himself is our peace and that we can’t expect it from the world.

Hope

There was hope, a firm hope anchored in Christ; a realization that regardless of what the future holds on this side of the grave, I know how my story ends. An eternity of experiencing even a greater measure of God’s presence awaits me.

Joy

And joy. There was no progression in the love, peace and hope I was experiencing. An awareness of God’s nearness came upon me quickly, as the sun emerges from a cloud.  However, it seemed to me that joy was the culmination of the other three. Could I experience this kind of internal glee if I didn’t have love, peace and hope? My heart said no.

More than Feelings

As I drove past a white country church against the graying sky , it occurred to me that what I was experiencing was more than feelings. Sure I felt good.  But I could’t imagine any great circumstantial news giving me any greater joy.

Nor could I imagine really hard news stealing the reality of his love, peace, hope and joy. At least, those were my thoughts at the moment. God is love. He is peace. He is hope. And in his presence is fullness of joy.

Lasting Impressions

Looking back on my solitary ride to Georgetown, South Carolina, I’ve emerged with a couple of huge realizations.

  • I would not have experienced the presence of God at the level I did if I hadn’t  chosen silence.
  • I don’t have to be alone on a rural road to experience God’s love, peace, hope and joy.

Since my trip, I’ve had similar awareness of God’s presence in the midst of life’s conversations and activities. And he’s just as present with me right this moment as when I passed that country church.

For me, choosing times of silence has become a necessity. I must preserve and fight for times of waiting on God. If not, I tend to carry on life without him.

And that’s never a good thing.

 

Thirsty?

As a kid, I loved neighborhood football games with my friends. We’d all dress up in our pads, donning our favorite team’s helmet. Mine was a white Baltimore Colt helmet, with royal blue horseshoes painted above the ear holes and Johnny Unitas’ number 19 on the back.

When I ride by our old neighborhood today, the friend’s yard we played in looks so small. However, we wore ourselves out chasing each other up and down the field in the heat of many a South Carolina afternoon. And, on the rare occasion when it snowed, we’d play smear the man with the ball.

At “half time” and at the end of the game we’d all line up to guzzle water from the garden hose attached to my friend’s house. To this day, the satisfaction of quenching my dry, parched throat with what seemed like gallons of gushing, cool water, is still etched in my memory.

Now that I think back on it, the water probably wasn’t that cold, but we relished the refreshing running water.

We were thirsty.

Addressing thirst, Jesus once said, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.” John 7:37b-38

Whether we realize it or not, we were created with a longing for more, a deep thirst.

The wisest man in the world once wrote that God  put eternity in the hearts of men.[1]

The plan is for our great thirst to be quenched by God himself, but so many of us have filled our lives with so much crap, we don’t even know we’re thirsty.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus said, “if” any man is thirsty.

If we’ve crammed our lives with possessions, achievements, pleasures, popularity and other earthly treasures, we may not even know we need Jesus.

However, nothing but Jesus comes close to satisfying our hearts.

When we realize this, we can move past the “if”.

Jesus invites us to “come and drink”.

Jesus wants us to recognize his presence and to draw near to him. He wants us to drink deeply and quench our thirst with his great love. He doesn’t want our lives to be filled with arduous self-effort, he wants our lives to be filled with him. When this is true, we can live lives of overflow.

Do you know you’re thirsty?

Come to Jesus and drink.

Drink of his nearness and his love. Rest in what he has done for you and yield to his Holy Spirit in you. When we recognize our tremendous need for him and depend upon him for our every word and deed, he will teach us to love others as he’s loved us.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I’ve not always been thirsty for you. I’ve chased after worldly dreams and pleasures thinking they would satisfy me. But each empty pursuit only makes the longing grow. I know now that I’ve been thirsty for you all my life. Teach me how to drink deeply of your love. I want my life to be a life of overflow. Please flow from my life like Rivers of Living Water, that all who are in my path will be blessed and loved by you. Amen.

[1] Ecclesiastes 3:11

 

 

Jumping for Joy; It Happens in Football, but what about the Rest of Life?

Let the godly ones exult in glory; Let them sing for joy on their beds. Psalm 149:5

If you’ve believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ and have received His love demonstrated by His death for you on a Roman cross, the verse above applies to you. You are a “godly” one because of what Christ did for you and you can exult in His glory.

The word “exult” literally means to jump for joy. You may not think you know how to do this, but I bet you do, especially if you’re a football fan.

We’ll get back to the verse later, but first an example of exulting:

Think about two football teams. Your team and the one you love to hate. You know, the one you pull against no matter who they play.

Against all odds, these two teams have made it to the National Championship or the Super Bowl. You’re at the game,  on the 50 yard line, with your favorite person in world.

But things are looking bleak. Your team’s down by five points with 27 seconds to go and your hated team has the ball on your 22 yard line. They are trying to run out the clock. It’s 4th down and one and you have one time out.

Just to be sure you don’t get the ball and throw a miraculous “hail Mary,” your rival coach decides to put a dagger in your heart by kicking a field goal. After all, their offensive line is the best in the country and their kicker hasn’t missed from within 55 yards all season.

You can hardly watch as the teams line up. As expected It’s a good snap, a clean hold and a solid kick. The football sails between the goal posts with plenty to spare. It’s over. You hang your head in defeat.

But wait. Your coach used your last time out right before the snap. They’ll have to kick it again.

After the time out, the play starts off just like the previous one. A good snap, clean hold and a  solid kick. But your best defensive lineman, a senior who’s been hurt for the last month, was inserted into the play for his height during the time out. You hadn’t noticed.

As the kick reaches the line, your man, lined up over center, jumps as high as he can with arms stretched out, nicks the ball. This sends the ball spinning off course, landing near the goal line in fair territory.

Your rookie safety spots the ball and picks it up right in front of a tight end from the opposition. Your man has to spin into the end zone to avoid being tackled. Meanwhile, your team sees what’s happened and begins to block off a wall along the sidelines.

Hope re-ignites in your heart. Fans making their way to the exits freeze in astonishment. The rookie races along the sidelines, but the other team has a contingent hemming him off from his path to glory.

Around mid field, two defenders converge. Your man has no hope but to change course and breaks sharply toward the middle of the field. But as he does, he runs into the right guard, who grabs him firmly by the jersey. As the rookie turns to escape, he sees a teammate coming up quickly along the sideline behind him. Before his knee hits the ground, he shuffles the ball to his racing teammate.

Like the rookie, your new hero is forced to abandon the sideline route. He cuts across the field behind the tacklers who had focused on the rookie.

At the 30 yard line, he is able to escape a would be tackler and turns the corner, heading down the opposite sideline. The path seems clear, but out of the pack emerges a defender with tremendous speed converging on your guy. There’ll be an inevitable collision around the five yard line.

But just as the defender reaches the point of impact, your hero comes to a complete stop, causing the dashing defender to tumble out of bounds in front of him. Your guy then dances into the end zone.

Touchdown! The clock shows zeros. You are champions! You and half the crowd, including many on the steps and exit ramps, jump for joy. A deafening shout and triumphant cry erupts. You continue to jump and shout, hugging your friend in ecstasy.

You may not have experienced this kind of jumping for joy at a football game, but hopefully you could feel what exulting is like.

Let’s turn to life.  As improbably and exciting as the football victory, it can’t be compared to rejoicing in the glory of God in Christ Jesus. Being joyous for your team is good for awhile, but it won’t last.

Having that kind emotion for the weighty value of God Almighty and your future eternity with Him, is exponentially more exciting than anything we can dream of on earth.

“Let the godly ones exult in glory; Let them sing for joy on their beds.”

Regardless of your present circumstances, you have more reason to jump for joy and shout in gladness than all the fans of all the championship teams of all sports throughout all of time.

Challenge: Take a moment to focus on what Christ has done for you. Set aside your present temporary circumstances. Jesus loves you as much as God the Father loves him. He demonstrated this love for you by dying in your place, securing your place in with God forever.

Even now Christ,  by His Holy Spirit, has taken up residence in your life, filling your heart with joy.

And there’s more. Consider the following verse:

“The Lord your God is in your midst,
A [victorious warrior.
He will exult over you with joy,
He will [b]be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.  Zephaniah 3:17

 Want another reason to jump for joy? The Lord your God jumps for joy because of you.

Open your heart to Joy.

Finding the Silver Lining

(Every cloud has a silver lining – John Milton)

 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

(II Corinthians 1:9)

 My boss Frank called at 6:00 am. Slurring his words, he told me he couldn’t teach the computer class our client so desperately needed. He’d been out all night partying. “You’ll have to teach it,” he said.

“But I’ve never taught the class before, Frank,” I strongly protested.  Frank mumbled something and hung up.

Placing the phone down, reality swept through my still groggy mind. This was an impossible situation. I was gripped with a wave of panic. I could either crawl back in bed and quit my only source of income, or teach a three day class covering subjects I barely knew.

Though my chances of success were very slim. I had to try and teach it. My wife and four kids were depending on me.

Later, riding the elevator to the class room on the tenth floor, I prayed. “Lord, you have to do this. I’ll do what I can and open my mouth, but please teach this class through me.”

During every break, I crammed to prepare for the next segment. I kept my Bible opened to the Psalms, jotting down prayers for guidance.

Three days later the class was over. By God’s grace, no one knew it was my first time teaching  it. And amazingly, the marks were good on the evaluation sheets the 23 students had to fill out. God taught this class through me and He was the only reason it was successful.

Month’s earlier, I  prayed for God to help me trust Him more. Looking back, I think this was his answer. The only way I could learn to not rely on me, was to be placed in a situation I couldn’t handle. I learned more about trusting God in those few days than I had in years before.

Paul wrote, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”[1]

“Good” is not just smooth circumstances and good feelings. True “good,” eternal “good” is wrapped up in our nearness and dependence upon God.

Paul was in such dire circumstances in Asia that he despaired even of life.[2] But he saw the “silver lining”.[3]  He knew there was a deeper good in his very hard circumstances. “Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”[4] The very difficult circumstances kept Paul trusting in the Lord and not in himself.

But as for me, the nearness of God is my good;[5]

A most important lesson we all need to learn is that “good” does not always mean easy. What is truly “good” is what draws us closer to God.

Blessings can come in strange packages.

Our ability to find a silver lining (a reason for hope) in each and every situation is directly proportional to our belief that being with God and depending on Him is our ultimate good.

Lord, I’m so sorry for the times I have longed only for smooth, easy circumstances. I’m learning to experience the joy of your presence in all circumstances. Please teach me to long only for you. You are my life.

 

Challenge: What hard circumstance are you facing? If you haven’t already, surrender it completely to God. Ask him to use it for your good by deepening your awareness and dependence upon Him.

[1] Romans 8:28

[2] 2 Corinthians 1:8

[3] Originally from a John Milton poem referring to light bursting through a cloud, yielding the phrase “every cloud has a silver lining”

[4] 2 Corinthians 1:9

[5] Psalms 73:28

Season of Joy? Maybe, but not Without a Fight.

Holiday stress is real, just Google the term. Most of us are adding additional spending, shopping, decorating, cleaning and traveling to lives which already lack margin.

Add over eating, under exercising and family dysfunctions and you understand the following exchange in the movie “Christmas Vacation.”

To his father, Clark Griswold asks, “How did you get through it?”

“I had a lot of help from Jack Daniels,” his dad replied.

Compare Grandpa Griswold’s  response to that of the magi when they saw the star above where the baby Jesus  lay.

And when they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. Matthew 2:10

Debilitating stress, numbed with alcohol compared with having great joy?

We have gotten way off track.

The wise men’s  joy was a  reaction to the coming of  Emmanuel – God with us. They got it.  God coming to earth in human form is a reason to rejoice exceedingly with great joy.

“In your presence is fullness of joy.” Psalm 16:11b

If we want to experience true joy in a society fighting to keep Christ out of Christmas, we must fight to keep Christ in the center of every aspect of our lives.

The Magi’s joy preceded the timeless sacrifice Jesus would make for the sins of men.

Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears My words, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” John 5:34

The word “believe”  above means  to commit to, trust in and rely upon.

If you have believed in Jesus in this way, the following facts are true about you:

  • You are not an orphan, but are a true child of God
  • You have been given an inheritance which includes the Indwelling Holy Spirit and an Eternal home
  • You have been made into a new creations, freed from the penalty of the law
  • You have been given supernatural peace, hope and joy which transcends all earthly circumstances
  • Your purpose is now clear. You are to love others as Christ has loved you
  • You don’t need anything else to give you the same joy the magi experienced

Pause: Don’t rush past these glorious facts. The tremendous significance of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf is a reason for even greater joy than the wise men experienced.

No matter how stressed we feel in this busy season, we must fight to find our joy in Jesus and what he’s done for us.

No matter how disappointed we feel when expectations aren’t met, we must fight to remember the significance of God coming to earth to grant us lasting peace.

No matter what devastating circumstance we may face, we must fight to  guard our hearts and bring our pain to Jesus, asking him to lighten us with the joy of His presence.

And no matter how magical the season becomes with family and gifts and celebration, we must fight to keep Jesus in the center of our affections.

No matter how society tries to take Christ out of Christmas, we must never forget the significance of  Emmanuel.  The calendars we use are based on His coming

Prayer: Lord Jesus, you are our true Joy. This world is filled with grief and loss, but You’re always the answer. I’m sorry for when I’ve allowed other ‘joys’ to compete with you in the deep affections of my heart. Please help me guard my heart. Show me quickly when I care too much about the world around me that I forget about you. And when pain threatens to steal my joy, keep me delighting in you all the day.

Thank you that if I had nothing on earth but your love and the hope of my eternal home with you, these facts alone would be reasons for exceeding great joy.

We celebrate You.

 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Philippians 4:4

 

Experiencing God in the moments of our lives