Thursday, January 26, 2012

Deep Roots

"...through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as imposters., and yet are true" (2 Corinthians 6:8).

A. Parnell Bailey tells of a story of being given a tour by a farmer of an orange grove during a season of serious drought. En route to the trees of his grove, they passed a grove belonging to a neighboring farmer. The trees were dry, fruitless, and effected greatly by the overbearing sun and the deprivation of much needed water. When they arrived at the right grove, Bailey remembers seeing orange trees that were lively, leafy, and loaded with fruit. "How can this be?" was the question that was asked. The answer was profound. He was told of how when the trees were just young saplings, they were given water in small incremental amounts. Thirsting for more, the roots of the trees pushed further into the hardening ground in search of ground water. Having found that well of nourishment, his trees had survived because they learned what to do in the toughest of their trials. While other trees were wilting and dying under the pressure, his trees were thriving due the life-sustaining reservoir discovered in the depths.

As Paul continues to write this letter in the midst of great trial of personal attack, he expresses his great confidence in and dependence on God. In spite of the external circumstances, he still felt commended by God. He still believed he was approved by God. His goal had been, since the day of his surrender to Christ, to determine his life to be lived to honor Him, to dig deep in relationship with Him, and to depend upon Him through every moment of his life. There is a great temptation in our lives to give up during the most trying of times. We are encouraged to not give up, but press in, dig deep, and continue on. By the grace of God, we can come through the fires of our trials without even the hint, let alone the stench, of smoke.

Have you ever had a tough week that's brought you to the very end of your rope? Sure you have. Don't be discouraged. Don't give into the heat of the sun, the drought of the season, or the disappointment of the situation. Dig deep. Root deep. Commit to being rock solid and deep rooted in Jesus. You will continue to face seasons and situations that will surely put your faith to a test. Though this may seem unfair, uncalled for, unwarranted, and certainly unwanted, this is part of God's gift to you. No, it's not his desire to cause difficult in your life, but he will use it as an opportunity to strengthen you, stretch you, and show you more of Him than you've ever known. Through it all, remember who He is and who you are in Him. Dig deep, tap into Him as the Living Water. You may go through a drought, but you will never run dry!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Goal is the Same

"So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him" (1 Corinthians 5:9).

The story has been told, read, and retold of one night when one of the generals of Alexander the Great had a soldier who was undisciplined and always causing trouble. The officers had tried many ways and for a long time to whip the unruly soldier into shape. On one occasion Alexander was examining his troops. The unruly soldier was pointed out to him and Alexander asked the soldier his name. The soldier responded, “my name is Alexander.” Alexander the Great exclaimed; “Soldier, either change your name or change your behavior.” The point of timeless truth the general intended to make was that where you are does not matter.  Where you are may change and inevitably will change.  Who you are, or rather who God intended you to be, is never to change.

As children, I'm sure most of us can remember of times being exciting to go on field trips, overnights or just visiting a change of location.  One of the common denominators of key advice was always, "don't forget that you represent this family."  The goal of obedience, respect, unity, and good character, though not always flawless, was the expectation both at home and elsewhere.  The location was changeable, but the expectation remained the same.

Paul, in this passage, is speaking of the difference in serving God here on earth of in heaven for eternity.  He makes the bold and sobering claim of truth that there is no difference.  We are to please Him: to live and to have hearts that are acceptable, agreeable, and extremely satisfying to Him.  This is who we will be and what we do for eternity.  It's been often said that life on earth is "Heaven Practice."  What is done on the game field is a reflection of what has been done on the practice field.  The spectators change but the expectations remain.

The truth is plain and simple.  Live for Jesus in all that you do here.  Let this be your heart's aim and your life's daily anthem.  Live for Him now as you will live for Him there.  Yes, you will fall short, but knowledge of that should not give license not to live to please Him in all that you think, say, and do.  Reality check: Are you actions, thoughts, words, and attitudes in full agreement with Him?  Are they congruent with His character, His will, and with His Word?  This is to be the standard by which you measure yourself.  And when you find that you fall short, rely on the power of His grace and love to pick you up, dust yourself off, and to set you back on the track that leads to the best that He has for you.  No matter where you are, the goal is the same: to love Him, to trust Him, to repent before Him, and to walk in the way He is leading.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Strength Through Struggle

"Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart" (2 Corinthians 4:1).

Push ups.  Yes, I do them.  I've done them for years.  While in the US Army, they were as regular a part of my everyday life as the less than delicious food served in the local mess hall.  Periodically, we were required to undergo a battery of physical fitness tests in order to track and gauge our physical fitness so that we would maintain proper readiness and effectiveness.  During the push-up part of the tests, I would pound out a decent number in the first half of the two-minute trial.  That second minute was spent focusing on getting as many as I could in order to maintain or beat the previous mark.  Once hands or feet came off of the floor or knees came to the ground, the opportunity to continue was concluded.  The last ten seconds for me was complete with excessive sweat, focus, and loud grunting.  Though my arms burned and felt as though they had transformed from muscle to mush, I was determined that I would struggle through the pain, not give up before it was over, and gain strength through the process.

Paul, as he writes in 2 Corinthians, endured pain and many personal attacks to both his character and his calling.  His suffering was public and gave much opportunity for dissenters to assert reason for him not being an apostle.  The attacks were baseless, without substantiated evidence, yet were hurtful all the same.  Paul's confidence did not come from his own achievements, accomplishments, or accolades.  His confidence came from God's mercy in calling him to do this work.  As long as he pleased God, pursued fulfillment from God, his strength would be perfected and he would persevere because God through Jesus Christ.

You will face moments or seasons of personal attacks.  There will be days where you may feel that the harder you try, the harder it seems to persevere.  Don't lose heart.  When you seek to pleasure the expectations of people over God, the struggle will get the better of you.  When you purpose to please God, you will find that struggle overcome by the strength that He gives you.  Your purpose is found in Him.  You don't need to be so quick to defend yourself, argue your efforts, or justify who you are.  When your life is founded on loving Jesus, listening to His voice, and living according to HIS Truth, you will be led in a strength that will overwhelm the struggle you find yourself in.  Never forget the words that were penned through the struggles of Paul's life: "His strength is made perfect in my weakness...When I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Friday, January 20, 2012

Removing the Lens Cap

"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18).

She went through half of the performance of her child's first Christmas program at his preschool before she realized her great gaffe. The pictures had all been snapped with great joy that spilled over from the smiles that shown like a brightly lit marquee. Then she realized. The lens was still on. No matter how beautiful the image would have been, she would never see again. She would never be able to show anyone of this great moment. It was there. She missed seeing the "greater picture" because she never got passed the lens cap.

How true this story is in our lives. God longs for us to see who He is and where He's leading us, and what He wants to show us at any given eyes. Without a relationship with Jesus, we are seeing life through a camera that still sports the cap. With "unveiled face" speak of God, through Jesus Christ, having made a way for us to more fully see, know, and understand the purposes for which we were created. He has provided access and clarity for us to more clearly see the hope we can have, in Him, as we journey in reaching that purpose.

What a knowledge you have access to. In Christ, you have the challenging, yet rewarding opportunity to be changed from degree of glory to another. He sees the potential worth in you so much, that He is constantly working on purging you, purifying you, and polishing you so that He can present you with the highest value possible. He's not done working on you. Open your eyes and see that He is passionate for you, perfecting you, and preparing you for the greatness of what He has in store for you. Don't become so distracted with what you see here and now that causes you to miss what He really wants you to see. You don't ever have to give into discouragement, doubt, or depression. He's still there. You're still being transformed. Take the lens of your understanding off, and begin to view your path through the eyes of faith in Jesus.  His amazing grace has never lost its power.  "For I was blind...but now I see."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sour to Sweet

"But thanks be to God, who in Christ, always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us, spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere"
(2 Corinthians 2:14).

When life offers you lemons, make lemonade!  How cute.  How proverbial.  How cliche.  How annoying!  Sure, we've all heard the phrase, perhaps have been encouraged by its folksy charm and optimistic sentiment.  Perhaps further still, some of us might even be willing to admit that we've used that phrase...or at least have thought about it, when speaking to others about the bombardment of less than ideal situations they might be facing.  What intrigues me, is not the "what" to with taking the proverbial lemons and conjuring up a drink that is both satisfying and refreshing, but "who" supplies the other ingredients.

We don't have to look far to locate and identify struggles, trials, and heartaches.  Their are plenty of them in the present, not to mention the ones that so many hold on to from the past as though they were some treasured memento never to be forgotten.  Though we face them and must face them, we are not obligated to fear them.  Paul reminds the reader that we serve a God who always is leading us towards triumph.  Even the disappointments can bring glory to God.  Does that sound so foreign, unrealistic, or even heretical?  It's not the disappointment itself, but rather, how we respond.  Those times bring to the surface of our lives the true fragrance of who we are.

Allow every situation in your life to bring out the very best fragrance that the reflects the knowledge of Him everywhere and at all times.  Just like the sugar, when added to the lemons and the water, brings about a very different and positive perspective and takes it from sour to sweet, so desires the Lord to work similar in your life.  He takes the sour - the struggles, the disappointments, the fears and regrets of your past and present.  He adds to them the sweet - His love, His grace, peace, and joy, and His promise to walk with you regardless.  He adds what you cannot and what you have not.  If you open your heart and all that's in it to Him, He will turn your mourning to dancing, your sorrow to joy, and He can transform something so sour and bitter into something so sweet and blessed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sweat & Strength

"Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.  But that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead"
(2 Corinthians 1:9).

Basic Training. Summertime in South Carolina. Humid, hot, and harsh. It was the best of times and oh, it was the worst of times. Waking at four o'clock during a time that I never realized was on the clock twice in one day, to assemble in a formation for the purpose of running took me way past fun. It was supposed to. Basic training was a process of breaking me down until all of "me" and who I thought I was into who they believed I could be. I remember writing home one evening half-way through training. I wrote words that resembled the following thought: "There are so many that have given up. It can be discouraging. At times, I've considered calling it quits, too. But not now. It's not that it has gotten any easier. It's just that I have gotten stronger. God has helped me to do what I never thought was possible. And by myself, it wasn't. I can do this. I'm going to do this. Make sure you're at graduation. I'm going to come through this with flying colors."

We've all been there. There are times when we feel as though we might not actually get through. But, for the grace of God. Paul begins his second letter to Corinthian church by encouraging and expressing. He encourages them to endure though they face trials, attacks, temptations, and hardships. He expresses his unity and understanding, for he, at the time of his writing, his experiencing them, too. Who Paul was did not exempt him from the challenges and adversities of life. It was how Paul saw them and responded to them that made the difference.

Former United States Attorney General John Ashcroft once said that you can never have a resurrection unless first there is a crucifixion. He wrote of rises and falls in his public and political adventures. When there was a defeat, there was also a deliverance. Each loss opened the door for a n opportunity that would take him further than what he had foreseen. This is the principle of sweat and strength. God allows us to experience the pain of the stretching and strengthening, because He is preparing us for what are yet able to fully see.

This may be a challenge for you. If so, don't be discouraged. You are not alone. Continue to rely on Him. Realize that it is not by your strength alone that will see you through. Know that He is with you. Rest in His strength. Allow His peace to comfort you during the times where you begin to feel as though you're all alone. Trust Him. Depend on Him. He is the God of all faithfulness. He is the one who can raise you from the hardships and struggles, and He is longing to turn the sweat that forms in the heat of your situation into a strength that is perfected by His power.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Walking Through the Open Door

"...for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries" (1 Corinthians 16:9).

Twenty-four years old, just married, graduated from college with a degree in theology, and ready to conquer the world for Jesus!  Though it was years ago, I easily recall that period of my life.  It was full of great expectations that were all fulfilled, but in ways that did not expect, nor in ways that I had always dreamed.  I had been serving as a youth pastor at a small church plant in a community that was struggling, both economically and spiritually.  I was a volunteer, single, and was putting my whole heart and soul in to what I was doing, who I was serving, and really love most every minute of it.  In college, I had always dreamed of graduating and going to some large church that was full of people, grand salary packages, and benefits!  Shortly before my wife and I were married, the Lord began to show some things that did not compute in the calculations that I had already decided.  I felt as though God was leading us from where we were, but thought and was hoping that He was leading us to one of those places that fit what I desired, and quite frankly, thought I deserved.  God saw it differently.

What God did do, was presented me with an open door.  It led to another small church, a weekly stipend that wouldn't equate taking care of a new wife who was still a full time college student, and an hour-long one way commute that would cost tolls and over a hundred miles at a time.  I was to begin a youth program and assist the pastor with other duties.  A year into it, I tried to leave.  I tried to find another open door, one that God, in His grace and wisdom, would not allow it to open.  I stayed.  There were challenges, struggles, and at times, the struggle was within me and my desire to be there.  But THIS was the door that God had opened.  I began to embrace it.  I was able to see what GOD could when I fully walked through the door He had opened.  Lives were changed.  My life was changed.  Though He would lead me through another open door a few years later, I am forever grateful for what God did in my life then and there.

Paul wrote to the church at Corinth challenging and encouraging them to persevere in the work that God had called them.  He was living out the same call.  He was open with them concerning the reality there will be challenges when we are living out the call of God.  Not everyone will like it.  Paul, however, did not look the other way when an opportunity presented itself, though it was clear that it would include great opposition.  Instead, he stayed.  He remained.  He endured.  He saw opposition as an opportunity.  He refused to give up and quit.

There will be opportunities in your life that are disguised as oppositions.  Don't be alarmed and don't be fooled.  Within each of those oppositions is an open door where God will do amazing things beyond what you can possible imagine.  It's so easy to label people and things as this or that and move on.  With this attitude, we miss out on the discovering of what God may have wanted us to see and to learn.  Take time today to seek God and ask Him what it is He wants you to do.  And while you're at it, ask Him what He desires for you to learn.  Ask Him to show you the open door.  Don't judge it based on its looks.  Judge it based on the One who is leading you to it, through it, and beyond it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Running Uphill

"But thanks be to God, who gives the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord , your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:57-58).

Running is not something that I have always enjoyed doing.  Now, I do enjoying beginning a run and I definitely enjoy finishing a run.  It's all the running in between the start and the stop that begins to wear me down!  One of the areas within running that is a struggle to me, and most people I'm sure, is running on an incline.  When I was stationed outside of Washington, DC in the United States Army, we would routinely run through the historic Arlington National Cemetery, which was attached to our base.  We would run early and the run would be a minimum of four miles.  There were hills that went up and those that took us back down.  It was very solemn and in many ways, enjoyable.

As we reentered the base, we found ourselves at the very bottom of a very large hill.  The hill was daunting.  We had already run almost four miles, and we were tired.  I was tired!  Quitting was the most attractive ideas I could come up with at the time.  Being in a military unit, we ran as a unit in formation and repeated a cadence that was called by the platoon sergeant.  As we approached the hill, he spoke words that would prove to be vital in my reaching the top of that hill.  He would say, "Don't look at the hill.  Stay focused on what's right ahead of you.  Breathe.  Don't repeat cadence.  Be silent and listen to my voice.  As he called cadence, he would include encouragement.  "You can do this 2, 3, 4.  Pick it up 2, 3, 4.  Don't give up 2, 3, 4.  Almost there 2, 3, 4."  Before I realized it, the run became easier because I was now at the top of the hill.  I had made it.  I didn't give into my feelings or to the voices running rampant in my mind.  I listened to the voice of my leader.  He didn't fail me.

How easy it is to get side-tracked on the journey we travel.  We become distracted with the nagging thoughts that remind us how hard it is, or how much easier it would be to do something else.  There is a strategy by the enemy of our souls to use whatever mechanism available to knock us off the straight and narrow.  He uses our emotions, our mind, our disappointments, and our discouragement.  But through Him who gives victory, we can endure.  Victory does not have to be a specific time, place, or even.  We are intended do live victory in everyday life, and applying victory-sustaining principles to every part of life.

Never forget.  You have victory in Jesus and through the powerful work that Jesus completed on the cross.  You are not who your thoughts try to convince you that you are.  You are not a quitter.  You are not useless.  You are not beyond hope.  In Christ, you are more than a conqueror, steadfast, immovable, and abounding in the work He has called you to.  There will be many days where the uphill climb is all you seem to face.  Don't become discouraged by the hill in front of you.  Listen to God.  He's speaking a cadence of encouragement over your life.  Focus on His voice.  He will lead you.  By the grace of God, you will live in the victory that He has already purchased.  You will begin to know that you are what you are - you are His.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Building with Purpose

"...let all things be done for building up" (1 Corinthians 14:26).

When I was living life in the midst of thriving youth ministry, I came into contact with teenagers that found a place on all ends of the spectrum.  There were those that were intelligent, creative, musical, dramatic, great speakers, incredible athletes, remarkable thinkers, funny, random, and anything and everything else in between.  I will never forget one young man in particular.

Though he didn't like to be in front of big crowds, he enjoyed showing off his creative and colorful personality in other ways.  In one instance, he though of himself as the next world class chef.  He invited a group of friends to his home one weekend, and as they awoke on Saturday morning, he chose to wow his comrades with his culinary arts by preparing for them his "famous scrambled eggs."  He started with eggs, added milk, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and then begin to throw in a little bit of "this" and maybe some of "that," and to top it all off, adding a cup (or so) of orange juice for that "little extra."  Believe it or not, the eggs were actually...well...terrible!  I remember as the story was told to me amidst all of the hysteria, how the sight and the smell turned the stomach before the taste ever could.  The randomness of all the ingredients never produced what was hoped for.  Random never does.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul writes in regard to order in the church.  He is teaching of the various spiritual gifts that may operate, but provides both instruction and caution in the motivation of those gifts.  Paul speaks of everyone bringing in something that edifies, adds to, and strengthens the overall health and effectiveness of the church.  The right ingredients at the wrong time and with the wrong motivation doesn't increase the effectiveness of positive influence.  It creates a mess.  Let all things build up.  He's saying not to focus on one area, but in how all areas are connected and built upon in order to strengthen the greater structure.

This is a challenge for many.  Are you focusing and zeroing in on one area of your life at the expense of the health of other areas?  It is so easy for good intentions to be misguided or misinterpreted.  Whether it involves spiritual gifts in the church or spiritual growth in your own life, ask God to work a balance in your life.  Allow Him to show you areas, even good areas, that are receiving more focus than is healthy for the overall health of your balance.  Surrender your day, your life, your family, your job, your dreams, and your every concern to Him.  Choose to think, speak, focus, and act upon that which will be more of a "building up" than a "halting," or a "tearing down."  Without balance, whatever you build will not last.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Love is Strong

"...or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful" (1 Corinthians 13:5).

Love.  It is something we all long for, believe in, have been changed by, and hope to live by.  There are movies that are classified as romantic comedies, novels that have been penned as romance, and late night radio music shows that have been stamped with the title of "love songs."  However, the strength of love and its effects are not found in movies, manuscripts, or melodies.  It is found in our ability to recognize love not as a result of strength, but as a strength. 

This verse is a snapshot glimpse of the definition of not just "what" love is, but also "who" love is.  1 John 4 reminds us that "God is love."  If God is love, then anywhere that the Bible speaks of love in a positive light also refers to God.  Love is more than emotional "warm and fuzzies."  It is more than a pit that one "falls into."  It is not something that is to be based on another human being that bares the same imperfections and inconsistencies that we do.  It is both a choice and an action lived out in everyday life.  It surpasses our emotions.  Love is not controlled by our emotions, but is in control over our emotions.

Rudeness is epidemic.  It comes naturally.  It is based on an emotion.  It is a result of not getting our way.  It is a defense and attack mechanism that seeks to make it known that we are NOT happy.  Love is not rude.  Rudeness is not love.  Rudeness and irritability are emotions and effects that we all deal with, but do not have to determine the decisions that we make in our relationships with each other.

We can all be rude.  We have all have a tendency to insist our own way.  We can all be irritable, and at times, hold on to things that foster that emotion.  Be reminded that this is not love.  Today, ask God to help you to monitor every word out of your mouth and every attitude that you portray.  Depend on Him for the strength to resist, refuse, and refute anything to come from you that would be marked by the label of "rude."  If you find yourself irritable, deal with.  If you need to confront someone, do so, but do it in love.  Don't allow rudeness to justify your irritability.  Love is a strength that showcases a power greater than that of our will, our words, or our own ways.  Choose to practice patience and deference, and realize that most things we battle over are really not "worth the fight."  Remember this: it was the love of Jesus that led Him through the greatest pain that granted us the greatest gain.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Strategically Designed

"But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose"
(1 Corinthians 12:18).

Men and women think very differently.  Shocked?  I'm sure this comes to no surprise for anyone.  Of course, being married reminds me of this all-to-true, universal, since-time-began truth.  There is an order to how I do things.  To some it appears very random, chaotic, neurotic, and perhaps even psychotic (that's for another time).  But to me, there is a particular reason, rhyme, and design to my way of thinking.  For instance, there is a bookshelf in my home where books that belong to my wife and books that belonged to me all converged upon the same shelf.  My wife is one, that when she finishes a book, it's finished, completed, and retired, never to be looked at again (for the most part).  For me, whether or not I plan on reading again (assuming I read it the first time), I like to know exactly where it is.

When we married, the books on our shelf opened us up to an education that reached beyond the pages between their covers.  I ordered all of the books by author and/or by subject.  This made sense to me, and it would provide greater ease and efficiency when looking for the right book at the right time.  My wife thought it would all look better if they were ordered by size.  It "looked" right to her, but caused great confusion for me.  I memorize titles and authors, but I could care less about the size or color of a book.  Have you ever been to a library?  There is nothing about size that is considered when organizing the order of books.  Dewey's decimal system never considered size and the Library of Congress is no different.  Perhaps they never consulted with my wife!  Books have been ordered by a design that strategically places them so that they may be accessed in a way that is both efficient and effective.

Paul addresses a similar concept in 1 Corinthians 12.  He emphasizes the concept of unity, belonging, and functioning according to design, not desire.  He uses the analogy of the order of the human body.  No one has ever been tasked to redesign the human body, at least not in the sense of the placement of its parts (both inside and out).  They were all strategically placed on purpose and with a purpose by God.  Before the beginning of time, He saw what we would never be able to see or understand fully, and He knows now what we can still not wrap our minds around.  His placement is both divine and sovereign.

What confidence this should bring!  You are here because God placed you here.  You were not a mistake.  You did not miss your decade, and you were not some cosmic accident that just happen to land on planet earth.  You are part of God's placement and God's preference.  Choose to live this day with a confident dependence upon He who called you here and holds you near.  Don't become discouraged because you don't understand.  Resist the temptation to try to redesign your own destiny.  Before you were a twinkle the eyes of those that conceived you, you were conceived in the mind of God.  He has a purpose for you.  He has placed you in the time you are in, the family you are in, the surroundings you are in, and has a purpose.  He is the great artist who is painting on the canvas of your life.  Thank Him for His divine placement, for He knows all things well.