Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving Thanks

Here we are [again] at that time of year when all of the talk shows, news services, and pop-culture ‘icons’ want to turn everyone’s attention toward ‘being thankful’. However, most of them don’t even understand or acknowledge that to be ‘thankful’ requires that you direct your gratitude toward someone for something.
Yes, it’s true that in relation to the rest of the world throughout the rest of history, we have more of everything for which to be thankful. We have ‘more’ and ‘better’ of just about everything imaginable.
Is that why we should be ‘thankful’? Should we be ‘thankful’ because we have it so much better than someone (anyone) else?
Well – ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
Certainly we should praise God and thank Him for the many blessings He pours out on us each and every day. But, it can be very difficult to have an attitude of ‘thanksgiving’ when we look at an abundant dinner table with an empty chair where a loved one once sat. And when circumstances reveal a problem within a family that turkey and dressing won’t fix, do we really feel ‘thankful’ that we have it better than someone on the other side of the world?
Unfortunately, we usually let our circumstances determine how ‘thankful’ we feel and how we express that gratitude to God. But there is a message that is set forth almost word-for-word at least 10 times in the Bible that tells us why we should be thankful, and it has nothing to do with our circumstances:
Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.”*
He never changes; He never fails.
He is ALWAYS good.
His love endures FOREVER.
When the economy tanks and your job is lost – God and His love haven’t changed: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.
When a relationship is strained to the point where it appears that nothing could possibly reconcile it – God hasn’t gone anywhere: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.
When illness comes, age takes its toll, circumstances seem bleak, friends turn away, savings are gone, or families have split – He cares more than you can possibly know: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.
While we may not feel ‘thankful’ about our circumstances or about a particular trial we are enduring, God is STILL good; His love STILL endures forever.
He is SO worthy of our praise, worship, and thanksgiving!
We should never let our circumstances keep us from expressing our thanks; we should never let our attitude detract from our gratitude; we should never fail to do what we were created to do.
Tremble before him, all the earth!
The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let them say among the nations, "The LORD reigns!"
Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them!
Then the trees of the forest will sing,
they will sing for joy before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever
. (1 Chronicles 16:30-34)

(*) See 1 Chronicles 16:34, 2 Chronicles 5:13, 2 Chronicles 7:3, Ezra 3:11, Psalm 106:1, Psalm 107:1, Psalm 118:1, Psalm 118:29, Psalm 136:1, Jeremiah 33:11.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

'God Cam'

For Christmas last year, I was given one of those wildlife ‘game cam’s’. The camera is motion-activated and has a built-in flash for taking pictures in the dark.
I finally got around to setting it up near the feeder where I normally hunt and then I went back to check it out a few weeks later. I was amazed to see the 678 photos on the memory card showing all kinds of wildlife being caught unawares.
There were several pictures of the devious raccoon that manipulated his hands through the protective cage to mess up the settings on the feeder to cause all of the corn to be dispensed within the first three days. Lots of pictures of deer, hogs, crows, cows, cows tipping my feeder over, a hunting buddy setting it back up, deer, hogs, a coyote, cows tipping my feeder over again.
I can look at those pictures over and over. It just entertains me to see those oblivious animals going about their day, even though the game cam caught just a moment in time and couldn’t follow what happened to them during the remainder of those days.
That’s kind of the way we often see our relationship with God, isn’t it? The ‘God cam’ gets a nice picture of us in our Sunday finest, Bible tucked under our arm, with a nice, pious smile as we stand in the pews singing hymns at the worship service. But the ‘God cam’ doesn’t follow us out of the sanctuary and down the street and to our homes and to our offices and to the golf course and out to the hunting lease, does it?
Well of course it does.
The ‘God cam’ isn’t intended to ‘catch you’ doing things you shouldn’t be doing. It’s God’s way of experiencing your life with you, of delighting in you. He wants a photo album full of pictures of who you really are, but He wants who you really are to be about glorifying Him, about delighting in Him.
Delight yourself in the LORD
and he will give you the desires of your heart
. (Psalm 37:4)
[T]he LORD’s delight is in those who fear him,
those who put their hope in his unfailing love
. (Psalm 147:11, NLT)
God isn’t a cosmic kill-joy waiting to ‘bust’ us for having too much fun, failing to read our Bible for 27 minutes every day, or forgetting who beget whom in one of those genealogies. God is not up there reviewing the pictures in the ‘God cam’ and slapping a ruler into his hand waiting for us to mess up so He can “smite” us in some way. No one is more on our side than God, no one wants more for us than God, and no one has given more to us than God.
John 10:10 tells us: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (NASB); or in another version: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (NIV); or in yet another version: My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life (NLT).
Does that sound like God wants us to live like some kind of monks who deny themselves any ‘pleasures’ of life? I don’t think so. But I do think that we seldom understand what the true pleasures, joys, and satisfactions are. He does and He intends them for us.
But we need to delight ourselves in Him.
In the movie Evan Almighty, there were plenty of theological errors, but something that I think the producers got right (probably unintentionally) was in a scene toward the end of the movie. In the final encounter between Evan and God, Evan is celebrating what has happened – what God had accomplished as He said He would. And Morgan Freeman (playing God) does just a fantastic job of showing the kind of delight that I think God takes in us when we delight in Him. He just stood there giggling at how Evan was ‘delighting’ himself in the Lord. It brought tears to my eyes.
That’s what I want to hear as God looks over the pictures in the ‘God cam’. I want Him to see how I am living life abundantly, to the full, in the rich and satisfying way He intended. And I can do that only by delighting myself in Him.

Monday, November 9, 2009

“Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya - punk?” ('Dirty' Harry Callahan)

Having missed the Sunday morning worship service due to a previous commitment to the ‘Whitetail Mission Field’, I was driving to the evening church service last Sunday with my wife - with the car radio tuned to the Christian music station we normally enjoy. We were having a discussion about whether or not our phone plan allowed us to attach pictures to a text message and she picked up her phone and started punching keys (I assumed she was checking out something about our discussion.) But then she held the phone to her ear, obviously making a call. (I was unaware she had been multi-tasking – defined (by me) as doing several different things not very well as the same time.)
She turned toward me and said, “I’m going to win that prize.”
While I had been waxing eloquently about all the things I don’t understand about ‘texting,’ she heard the radio personality promise 4 tickets to the ICE! exhibit at the Gaylord Texan to ‘caller number something or other’. The next thing I knew, she was giving out her name, address, etc. so she could claim her prize at the radio station.
Afterward, she said, “Do you realize how many times I have won their call-in prizes?”
[Well, she won tickets to Six Flags with accompanying tickets to see Chris Tomlin’s concert; she won $1,000 cash on the barrelhead; and then there were tickets to a Harlem Globetrotters’ game.] So, with a ripe, theological sarcasm, I responded, “You sure are ‘lucky,’ aren’t you?”
Her eye-rolling response was, “Yeah, right.”

For years, we have tried to avoid the use of the word ‘luck’ or ‘lucky’ in our house. Believing that God is in absolute, total control of every single thing that happens (either through His orchestration of it or His allowing it), it just seems ludicrous to believe that a person could possess some type of attribute that causes the ‘fickle finger of fate’ to point more favorably at him or her than at others. Or that certain things happen to us simply because the stars are all aligned in our favor at a particular time.
‘Luck’ doesn’t shine on us, God happens. He blesses. He loves.
Sure, lots of people will say that God doesn’t get involved with finding you a parking spot, helping you find the DVD to rent, or keeping the bird droppings off your clean car. But, the Bible says: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:29-30) Even though those numbers don’t go as high as they used to, God cares. He knows. He is in control.
Since God is in complete control, nothing happens He didn’t [at the very least] permit to happen.
Unfortunately, we often let our fallen perspective dictate whether or not we think we are being blessed by God. Like Job’s friends argued, we often think that ‘good things’ happening to us indicate God is happy with us and when ‘bad things’ happen, well . . .
But I think the truth is that we are being blessed all of the time by God. Some things we recognize as His blessings, others may take time, others we may never understand. But since He is in absolute control, and since He loves us infinitely, we can trust that He is blessing us.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in the heavenly realms
with every spiritual blessing in Christ
Ephesians 1:3, emphasis added
Regardless of our circumstances, regardless of anything going on in our world, from the throne of God in heaven (the heavenly realms) – God has blessed us. Ephesians 1 goes on to mention some of the awesome ways He has blessed and is blessing us: He predestined us to be adopted as his sons; He has freely given us His glorious grace; we have redemption through his blood; we have the forgiveness of sins; He lavished wisdom and understanding on us; He made known to us the mystery of his will, which he purposed in Christ; we were chosen; we have been predestined; we were included in Christ; we were marked in Him with the Holy Spirit; we are His possession (verses 4-14).
Whoa. Does that sound like something as happenstance as ‘luck’? Not hardly.
What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? . . .
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow - not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below - indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord
. (Romans 8:31-39, NLT)

So, I guess if I were looking down the barrel of Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum - the most powerful handgun in the world - I’d have to respond, “No, I don’t feel lucky. I’m blessed.”

Monday, November 2, 2009

Verbal Clouds

Because he understood that the world financial markets hung on his every word when he served as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan tried to be very careful about what he said and how he said it. He knew his words could be taken out of context and misconstrued in ways that could cause major market fluctuations. Yet he also knew that definitiveness and clarity in his pronouncements could similarly cause unintended results as people tried to anticipate future economic performance.
Thus, he felt the need to add the following introduction to one of his briefings: “I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you've probably misunderstood what I've said.”
Similar to lawyers and politicians, Mr. Greenspan learned the art of using lots of words to not really say anything that could come back on him. It’s what I like to refer to as a ‘verbal cloud’ – it appears to say something, but when you really get into it, it has no substance. ‘Smoke and mirrors,’ ‘sleight of hand’, ‘bait and switch’, ‘dissimulation’, ‘chicanery’. There have been lots of different ways of referring to the ‘verbal cloud’. They all involve erroneous implications, over-complication, or some type of double entendre meant to cause more confusion than clarification.
But that has never been the way God communicates His truths. He pretty much lays it out there in plain, easy to understand language.
Is there room for confusion or debate about language like: “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12); “Love one another” (John 13:34); “[B]e quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19)? Sure, people will try to justify or excuse their behavior (or lack thereof) by ‘qualifying’ or ‘rationalizing’ what the Bible says, but that doesn’t really change how plain, simple, and straightforward the Bible really is.
For example, consider the ultimate truth of the Bible – the gospel. Have you listened to how convoluted, complicated, and almost incapable of understanding some people have made ‘the gospel’ message? They take parts of the gospel message and try to make it fit within the confines of their pre-determined concept of God, and everything gets messed up.
When you try to conform the gospel to ideas like: everyone eventually goes to heaven, there’s not a real hell, ‘God is love’ (without righteousness and justice involved), our ‘goodness’ relative to others (rather than juxtaposed against a holy and perfect God), etc., you lose a simple truth to a mish-mash of politically correct theological garbage.
So, how simple and plain is the real gospel? Paul laid it out in perfectly clear language: Jesus died for our sins; he was buried; he rose again. (See 1 Corinthians 15:3-4) That’s it!
Certainly each of those concepts can be expounded upon and details added, but that is the entire gospel in only 11 words. Any addition to that message which seeks to make it more palatable or ‘reasonable’ or logical is just wrong. It’s a lie. Such addition (or change) would be a verbal cloud, intended to obfuscate and divert your attention from the real object of the gospel message - Jesus.
So, any time someone mentions ‘the gospel’ but focuses on anything other than Jesus died for our sins; he was buried; he rose again, understand that they are conjuring up a verbal cloud.
Step back, look to the heavens, and let the Son shine through those ‘verbal clouds.’

Today: Present the gospel message in its simplicity – don’t add any ‘fluff’ or sugar-coat its reality. And when you hear someone else ‘profess’ the gospel, don’t let them ‘cloud’ the message.