Friday, September 23, 2011

Who blinks, in your staring match with death?

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Philippians 1:15-30

TO CHEW ON: "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." Philippians 1:21

I recently heard a saying that went something like, in a relationship, the one with the least amount to lose is the one with the power. In other words, the one that needs the other the least is the dominant one.

Paul's statements in Philippians 1:20-23 remind me of that saying. In his staring match with death, not only does he not blink, he even looks past death's unknowns, its scariness, its possibly painful portal, and sees advantages to dying: " die is gain... to depart and be with Christ, which is far better."

Of course there lives within us humans a natural instinct to protect ourselves and stay alive. If someone throws a punch, without thinking we duck, or punch back. If a person intentionally harms him- or herself, we search for cures to change the behaviour.

But there is nothing sick about Paul's wish to die and be with Jesus. He understands how Jesus' death took the sting out of death for us (see 1 Corinthians 15:51-58). Since his conversion to faith in Jesus' death and resurrection, he has lived with the single purpose of magnifying Christ in his body. Now he can't wait to see Jesus face to face.

A commentary about this passage in my Bible says: "Do not fear death because being in heaven with Jesus will be wonderful. Seek to live each day on earth for the purposes and glory of our Lord Jesus" - "Truth-In-Action through Philippians, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1667.

PRAYER: Dear Jesus, thank You that Your death removed the sting of death for me. Help me to live my life so that I am ready to die and meet you at any time. Amen.

MORE: The Future Life
"When Victor Hugo was past eighty years of age he gave expression to his religious faith in these sublime sentences: 'I feel in myself the future life. I am like a forest which has been more than once cut down. The new shoots are livelier than ever. I am rising toward the sky. The sunshine is on my head. The earth gives me its generous sap, but Heaven lights me with its unknown worlds.

'... Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart. I breathe at this hour the fragrance of the lilacs, the violets, and the roses as at twenty years. The nearer I approach the end the plainer I hear around me the immortal symphonies of the worlds which invite me. It is marvelous, yet simple'" - quoted by Mrs. Charles E. Cowman in Streams in the Desert, May 31st reading - p. 165.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Be gullible in your obedience

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Matthew 21:23-32

TO CHEW ON: "'Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.'" Matthew 21:31-32

Who of us can't relate to the parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-31)? I've been both of these sons—the one who said he would do what his father asked but then didn't follow through, and the one who said 'No, I won't,' but did after all. I have also seen this behaviour in my children.

From the story, Jesus teaches that it's not the words we say that reflect what we think our earthly parents want to hear—and that will get them to stop nagging us— that give us their favour, but our actual obedience. It's the same with our heavenly Father. When we give mental assent to what He shows us in the Bible—about how to view Him, our attitudes, actions and how to treat others—but don't line up our lives accordingly we are like the son who says, "'I go sir,' but he did not go."

There is within many of us long-time Christians a tendency to be like those scribes and Pharisees. One of their main problems, as I see it, was to believe that knowledge and ceremony equaled holiness. They were intimately acquainted with the law and adhered to the rules God had instituted (and many more He hadn't) without experiencing a change of heart. They obeyed in many things, but even their obedience led to sin when it became a basis for pride. They kept the letter of the law but were foreigners to its spirit.

Let's stop making the mistake of equating knowledge and rote adherence with obedience. Let's rather be like the 'gullible,' simple-minded sinners who believed Jesus' words and were accepted into the Kingdom of God.

PRAYER: Dear Jesus, Your stories show how well you understood human nature and saw through our ways of deceiving ourselves. Help me to take the warning of this story to heart today. Amen.

MORE: More on obedience

"A man is a slave for obeying unless behind his obedience there is a recognition of a holy God. Many a soul begins to come to God when he flings off being religious, because there is only one Master of the human heart, and that is not religion but Jesus Christ. But woe be to me if when I see Him I say—I will not. He will never insist that I do, but I have begun to sign the death warrant of the Son of God in my soul. When I stand face to face with Jesus Christ and say—I will not, He will never insist; but I am backing away from the re-creating power of His Redemption."
- Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, July 18th reading.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

But it's not fair

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Matthew 20:1-16

TO CHEW ON: "'These men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.'" Matthew 20:12

The landowner in this parable didn't help the situation when he paid his worriers "beginning with the last..." Of course when the all-day workers saw what the several-hour workers got, they expected more, even though they had agreed to work for one penny when they first signed on. However, that little twist of plot draws attention to issues we all face when we view life and the apparent unfairness of God's dealings with us and others.

What does this parable mean?

Pictures spiritual reality
First, Jesus alerts us to the fact that this is another simile about the kingdom of heaven. It seems to be an elaboration on what He just said (end of the previous chapter): "But many who are first will be last and the last first."

Perhaps one kingdom meaning is that those who come to God at the "eleventh hour" of their lives receive the gift of eternal life in the same way that those who have lived for God since "early in the morning" of their lives. Matthew Henry elaborates on this idea in his commentary:
"If we understand it of that which is ours by gift, the free gift of God, it teaches us to be content with such things as we have. If God be better in any respect to others than to us, yet we have no reason to complain while he is so much better to us than we deserve" - Matthew Henry in Matthew Henry's Commentary p. 1305.

The story also states clearly that God has a right to do what He wishes with His own creatures even though those dealings may not always seem fair to us. (Is it fair, for example, that some of us were born in North America where we enjoy a comfortable, even luxurious life compared to others who were born into an environment of starvation, sickness, poverty, warfare?) Matthew Henry again:
"What God has is his own; and this will justify him, in all the disposals of his providence; when God takes from us that which was dear to us we must silence our discontents with this: May he not do what he will with his own?" (Matthew Henry, p. 1305).

There will come a a payday.
"Evening time is the reckoning time. Faithful labourers shall receive their reward when they die; it is deferred till then, that they may wait with patience for it. Ministers call them into the vineyard, to do their work; death calls them out of the vineyard to receive their penny: and those to whom the call into the vineyard is effectual, the call out of it will be joyful. They did not come for their pay till they were called; we must with patience wait God's time for our rest and recompense; go by our master's clock"

...The giving of a whole day's wages to those that had not done the tenth part of a day's work is designed to show that God distributes his rewards by grace and sovereignty, and not of debt" - Matthew Henry, p. 1304.

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for another picture of the kingdom of heaven. Help me to live with confidence in Your sovereignty and secure in Your all-wise grace. Amen.

MORE: Payday in heaven
"Though there be degrees of glory in heaven, yet it will be to all a complete happiness. In heaven every vessel will be full, brimful, though every vessel is not alike large and capacious." - Matthew Henry, p. 1304.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Avoid the prison of unforgiveness

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Matthew 18:21-35

TO CHEW ON: "Then Peter came to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?'
Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.'" Matthew 18:2-22

Peter's question is a follow-up to what Jesus has just taught about a sinner and church discipline. In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus told the disciples how to handle a person ("your brother" — a fellow believer) who had sinned against them.

The sinned-against individual was to first confront the sinner privately. If he remained unrepentant, the wronged person was to bring in an ever-widening circle until the church was involved. If a confrontation with the church didn't bring about repentance, the sinner could be banned from their fellowship and this earth-binding would be sanctioned by heaven (Matthew 18:18). Such treatment would guard the integrity and purity of the church, while at the same time encouraging the lonely sinner to be reconciled and again become part of the body.

Out of that conversation Peter asked (quite logically), "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?"

Jesus' answer probably surprised Peter. "Seventy times seven?" He no doubt thought that he was being generous by suggesting seven times. Seventy times seven would mean forgiving years' worth of offences.

However, Jesus' story of the two debtors is about a different thing than a church dealing with an unrepentant sinner. It's about the unrestricted grace of the kingdom of heaven and how that grace should impact the heart attitude of someone who has suffered a wrong. That attitude is not to be ruled in any way by whether the sinner repents.

I believe the prison part of this parable was very intentional on the part of Jesus. In a sidebar article about this story Jack Hayford says:

"The human capacity to forget God's gracious gift of forgiveness and allow smallness of soul to breed unforgiveness is soberingly warned against. 

1] Jesus showed how unforgiveness can restrict what God would do in others. (Note: the jailed fellow servant is still in prison at the story's end, revealing the power of unforgiveness to 'bind' circumstances to an undesirable level of perpetual problem.)

2] Jesus teaches how the spirit of unforgiveness (the torturers, literally 'bill collectors') exacts its toll on our bodies, minds, and emotions.

3] Finally, every 'Kingdom' person is advised to sustain a forgiving heart toward all other persons ... the binding power of unforgiveness is potentially dangerous to any of us" - Jack Hayford, "Forgiveness," New Spirit-Filled Bible, p. 1324.

There is nothing ambivalent or subtle about the life lesson take-away from this parable. Forgive your brother's "trespasses" (and I believe these are things he/she is aware of or little to big ways he/she has offended you that are known only to you) from the heart, or you too will be delivered to the torturers. Unforgiveness is a self-inflicted prison.

PRAYER: Dear God, such unconditional forgiveness is easy to agree with in my head, but hard to live out. Please alert me to where I am nurturing an unforgiving attitude toward anyone. Help me to forgive. Amen.

MORE: Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

Today is the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001. It's a big opportunity to test our willingness to forgive.

For a biblical perspective on this event and a Christian response to it, read John Piper's brief message to his congregation on September 12, 2001 "Terrorism, Justice, and Loving Our Enemies."

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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Perks of God's presence

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Haggai 2:1-23

TO CHEW ON: "'...and in this place I will give peace,' declares the Lord of hosts." Haggai 2:9

Haggai confronts the priests of the exiles with a grave denunciation. He says that it's their uncleanness that has polluted the entire land, to the extent of spoiling their crops and making each venture a disappointment: "When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten. When one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty" (Haggai 2:16).

It's happening because they are violating the principle of uncleanness that governs the handling of holy things. Haggai quizzes them on it and they know the right answers — that a holy item (like meat sacrificed to God) is made unclean by coming into contact with an unclean person who has, say, touched a dead body. Yet, though they know the right answers, they aren't living them. Haggai tells them that their unclean lives are violating this principle and their behaviour is the reason for Israel's agricultural funk.

But, Haggai promises, the presence of God among them as signified by the temple will change all that. God promises, "Consider from this day onward ... Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you" (Haggai 2:18-19).

Can we similarly claim God's blessing because of His presence in our lives? Oh, I know it's not realistic or biblical to expect everything to go smoothly once Christ enters our situations. We have sickness, and crop failures, and failed business ventures like everyone else. And yet I believe there is a sense in which God's presence in our day-to-day even through these difficulties, translates them into peace (as the temple would bring peace and plenty to Judah back then).

Here are some promises that God will be preset with us, particularly through difficulty. Let's meditate on and claim them today:
  • Psalm 34:19-20
  • Psalm 138:7
  • Isaiah 43:2
  • Isaiah 51:22
  • 2 Corinthians 4:17
  • 2 Corinthians 12:19.

PRAYER: Dear God, may Your presence in my life bring the peace and abundance pictured in Haggai. Please show me any disobedience that would cancel out Your blessings. Amen.

MORE: Stuart Townend - Benediction (May the Peace of God)

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Sunday, September 04, 2011

Little ones

"Jesus and the Little Child" by James Tissot

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Matthew 18:1-20

TO CHEW ON: "So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish." Matthew 18:14 ESV

"Little ones" here refers to little people — children. Jesus had great affection for them. Earlier in this chapter we see Him calling a child over, putting him in the centre of the group and saying profound things like, "... unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" - Matthew 18:3-4.

He goes on to say what a serious sin it is to cause a child to stumble (sin). And after exploring the gravity of causing anyone to stumble (Matthew 18:7-9). He again turns His attention toward the child, pointing out the importance of each one: "So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish."

How beautifully the family serves Jesus' ideal in this way. Bring any baby—homely or beautiful, mentally challenged or brilliant—into a loving family and he/she will have a ready-made cheering section of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who are onside, helping, encoring, loving and cheering the kid on.

Of course here Jesus was talking about more than social well-being. He was drawing attention to the importance of a child's spiritual state (Matthew 18:5-6).

When we consider what Jesus said and combine that with the fact that a child's worldview is largely formed by the time he or she is 13 years old,* we can see how important our treatment and training of children is.

So let's look at the children in our lives with a renewed sense of responsibility, taking care to not only refrain from making them stumble/sin, but to help them find Jesus.

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for the little people in my life. Please help me to take seriously the warning not to stumble them. Help me, instead, to point them to Jesus with my words and my life. Amen.

MORE: I Don't Want to Pray

“I don’t want to pray,”
slap words sting
from my four-year-old daughter.
How have I millstoned God to her
so she won’t bring
her earaches to Him?

I remember, “Are you saved?”
evangelistic, zealous aunt
cornered me, seven.
Next time she visited,
I hid.

Jesus is different.
His words a compelling beckon
lure-and-bait questions
irresistible Pied-Piper-tune stories.

I see my little girl
one of that eager wriggling crowd
pressing too close
for disciples’ comfort.
His eyes draw her near
she leans, trusting, against Him
He lifts her on His knee.

While He talks
she watches the way
His chin moves,
fingers His beard,
catches His eye
and says, shyly,
“I have an earache.”

© 2003 by Violet Nesdoly (First published on the Utmost Christian Writers website.)

* As per George Barna in Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions By George Barna, 2003.

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Friday, September 02, 2011

Praise while you fight

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Psalm 149:1-9

TO CHEW ON: "Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands." Psalm 149:6

Songs of praise during warfare? Doesn't that seem like an odd combination? But the two appear together at other times in the Bible.
  • Musicians (trumpet players) accompanied the warriors as the Israelites marched around Jericho on their first foray into Canaan (Joshua 6:6-20).
  • Jehoshaphat positioned the singers in front of the fighters when they went to war against Moab and Ammon (2 Chronicles 20:20-23).
  • In our reading today the ones wielding the weapons are also the ones doing the singing. They praise God while they fight.
These instructions, viewed in the context of Israel living in constant danger from her neighbours (what has changed?), would tell us the fighting referred to was probably real fighting against a physical enemy,

The reference to "two edged sword" reminds me of Hebrews 4:12 where God's word is referred to that way. There the fighting would seem to be spiritual warfare against human nature and sinful inclinations ("... piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.")

Entering and fighting our battles—whether physical or spiritual— with praise to God in our hearts and spilling out of our "throats" may seem counter-intuitive. But if we have never tried it, maybe we should.

PRAYER: Dear God, when I am under attack, the last thing I feel like doing is praising You. Please bring this battle strategy to mind next time I face a physical or spiritual foe. Amen.

MORE: Warfare and Worship Through Singing 
"Spiritual worship and spiritual warfare should be carried out with singing.... the enemies of God are thrown into confusion by the songs of God's people.... God has appointed the use of spiritual songs as an effective weapon against his archenemy Satan" excerpts from "Ambushing Satan with Song," By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website:

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Thursday, September 01, 2011

Divine GPS

"Pillar of fire" by Paul Hardy

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Exodus 13:1-22

TO CHEW ON: "And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead then along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night." Exodus 3:21

Can you imagine the exuberant chaos of the Israelites as they left Canaan, a ragtag multitude of adults and children, sheep and goats, laden down (humans and animals) with the stuff they needed for living—clothing, tents, water, food, even bowls of unbaked dough for the coming day's bread? But after the first hours of walking, I can just see them (especially the like-to-know-how-this-is-going-to-work types, like I am) beginning to grasp the grim reality of their situation.

Which route would they take? How would they stand the heat of desert travel? What if they got attacked by desert tribes or surrounding nations? Where would they find food for such a multitude, not to speak of water?

God had an answer for each desert-travel challenge. The trouble was that He didn't reveal His plan beforehand but supplied the answer in His good time. Our reading today describes the divine GPS He gave them. The cloud by day, pillar of fire by night not only pointed out their route, but because it was visible by night, allowed them to travel during the cooler hours of darkness.

I believe we can look to God for such direction and provision in our lives too. It will probably not be in as visible a way as a cloud directing our route, but God will send what we need, of signposts and resources and stamina and courage. Sure we'd like to see all these things listed like a travel itinerary before we set out. However, like the Israelites we too will need to have faith as He unveils His route and provision one item at a time as needed.

PRAYER: Dear God, please help me to trust You for direction and resources for my life journey, and for specific stretches of that journey through times of family and church crises, career changes, illnesses and many other challenges. Amen

MORE: Oswald Chambers on Guidance
There are times when you cannot understand why you cannot do what you want to do. When God brings the blank space, see that you do not fill it in, but wait. The blank space may come in order to teach you what sanctification means, or it may come after sanctification to teach you what service means. Never run before God's guidance. If there is the slightest doubt, then He is not guiding. Whenever there is doubt—don't" (My Utmost for His Highest, January 4th reading).

"If we are saved and sanctified God guides us by our ordinary choices, and if we are going to choose what He does not want, He will check, and we must heed. Whenever there is doubt, stop at once. Never reason it out and say—'I wonder why I shouldn't?' God instructs us in what we choose, that is, He guides our common sense, and we no longer hinder His Spirit by continually saying—'Now Lord, what is Thy will?'" (June 3 reading).

"We have to be so one with God that we do not continually need to ask for guidance. Sanctification means that we are made the children of God, and the natural life of a child is obedience—until he wishes to be disobedient, then instantly there is the intuitive jar. In the spiritual domain the intuitive jar is the monition of the Spirit of God" (November 14th reading).

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