Two Ears

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak!”

Epictetus
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I write about prayer–how I pray, when I pray, how other people pray, what the Bible says about prayer– but prayer is a two-way street. God desires to hear from us. But He also desires that we should listen. In fact, there is really nothing that we can “tell” God that He doesn’t already know. But there is much that we can learn when our mouth is shut and our eyes and ears are attuned to what God is telling us!

God rarely speaks to us directly, as another human would. God spoke to Moses face-to-face (see Exodus 33), and Jesus spoke directly to hundreds of people during His earthly life and ministry. He also spoke directly to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, though not face-to-face (see Acts 9). But most of us never hear the actual voice of God. Yet He is constantly sending us messages– if we are listening.

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Often, He sends messages through His word. When we read the Bible, or hear it read aloud, a certain passage or phrase will suddenly stand out, offering comfort, conviction, or insight as we need it. Sometimes, it is the gentle prick of our conscience, or an urgent “sense” that we are to do something (or NOT do something). It may even sound like a voice in our head– our own or someone else’s–urging us to do something out of the ordinary or out of our comfort zone. Sometimes, He speaks to us through the wisdom and insight of someone else–a neighbor, a friend, a family member; sometimes even a stranger–and we get a sense that what we are hearing is “bigger” or more important than just words. And sometimes, God “speaks” through our other senses– in the beauty of a sunset, or the cool breeze at the end of a hot day; through the wordless songs of a bird or a rippling brook; the smell of warm bread–His way of reminding us that He is present, and He is Good.

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We need to listen for such moments and messages. But we also need to listen carefully. Not all “feelings” are from God; not all “wisdom” is inspired. God will NEVER send us messages that are in conflict with His character. He may call us to do things that seem impossible, uncomfortable, “strange,” or even potentially “dangerous,” but He will not tell us to do something that contradicts His own word. God may nudge you to leave a toxic relationship, or move to another city or country to spread the Gospel. He may urge you to speak to a stranger on a bus, or give something away to a friend without knowing why. He may ask you to befriend someone who is homeless, or mentor a child, or volunteer your time in ways or places you never imagined. But God will never suggest (or send someone else to suggest) that you cheat on your spouse, or abuse the trust of a child, or mislead your neighbor, or steal from a stranger– NEVER.

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It isn’t just that God gave us two ears (and two eyes!) so that we can look and listen twice as much as we speak– we NEED to listen twice as much and twice as closely.

How will I listen today? How will God speak? When will I close my mouth, so that I can open my ears? Will I watch as well as listen? Lord, help me to hear You. Help me to discern your voice above the noise and busyness around me today.

Look-alike Morals

It is Morel season in my home state of Michigan. Morels are mushrooms that only grow in mid-Spring. They are usually found in or near wooded areas, and they are delicious! Thousands of eager hunters search woods, roadsides, forests, orchards, and glades looking for the elusive spores each year. While morels can be “grown,” they are not easy to cultivate. Finding them is like a treasure hunt in all the freshness of spring’s new growth!

Morel mushroom

But there are several look-alike mushrooms– some of which are dangerous and even poisonous– growing now, too. It takes a good eye and some knowledge to tell the difference. False morels may have a similar shape, but they usually are slightly different in color and texture. Some false morels will appear brown, reddish, or even slightly purple, while true morels range from yellow, yellow-gray, or gray-black. False morels may be “puffier” or “spongier” than true morels. And while true morel “caps” attach to their stems, false ones may be detached or flared. It is important to know the difference and to be cautious when collecting the elusive morel.

false morel–gyromitra esculenta

The same is true of morals–there are plenty of people masquerading as men and women of integrity. They are polite, clean, charming; many are even respected members of the community. They may volunteer, give to charities, attend a local church, run for public office, hold a job requiring responsibility and trust. They look and act like honest, kind people. But they may be dangerous– even poisonous. They may even rise to positions in the church, destroying faith and trust among members of their flock, or spreading distrust and confusion among neighbors and even families.

So how do we “spot” the difference? Just as importantly, how do know which type we are!?

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There are a few principles in the Bible that we can use to identify “false prophets” and those with “look-alike morals.”

  • First, we need to study what a true “Christ-follower” should look like. It is vital that we take the time to study for ourselves what the Bible says. Asking “what would Jesus do?” does us no good if we don’t know what He actually did and said! Putting all our trust in a role model or a dynamic leader is like choosing a mushroom because it “looks tasty–it could be a morel…”
  • Second, we need to look for people who try to “color” or “shade” the truth to look “tastier.” All the way back in the Garden of Eden, Satan used this trick with Eve– twisting God’s words, adding supposedly “hidden” knowledge, and dismissing the severity of God’s warning:

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:2-5 (NIV)
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  • Closely related to this, we need to look for people who use words to spread division or discontent–including constant critics and complainers. It is tempting to get caught up in arguments about certain traditions, worship styles, external standards, new practices, personal revelation, etc.. But we must avoid such poison, and avoid spreading it! One poisonous mushroom can poison the whole “batch!”
    • Beware of those who arrogantly claim to have “new knowledge” or “new interpretations”– God does NOT change; nor does His Word. New insights and deeper or personal understanding should stand up under testing. Someone who is not willing to be questioned or asked to explain themselves may have a bad reason for their unwillingness. Just because something is traditional, or “old” doesn’t mean it must change.
    • Also beware those who are dismissive toward others in the church, whether they are critical of the teaching, the music, certain ministry programs, or individuals who serve. We are commanded to build one another up, not pass judgment based on personal prefrerences.
  • Look (and listen) closely to make sure we are still “attached” to our stem– the Living Word of God. Many Christians will quote “moral” sayings that are found nowhere in the Bible:
    • “God helps those who help themselves.”
    • “The devil made me do it.”
    • “There are many paths to God.”
    • “All you need is love.”
    • “God just wants us to be happy.”
    • “God will never give you more than you can handle..”
  • Finally, we need to look at the person’s “fruit.” Someone can have an impressive outward show of morals, yet miss out on “bearing fruit.” Such people may display all the trappings of earthly success, yet they seen to have no peace, or their lives seem joyless or filled with discontent or intemperence. In my own life, am I demonstrating Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control? (see Galatians 5:22-23) Am I humble? Or am I impatient, unkind, judgmental, fickle, reckless, complaining, bitter, envious, angry, dissatisfied, greedy, worried, and prone to mock others– especially those in the church?

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

Matthew 7:15-20 (ESV)
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When we find true followers of Christ, we should be able to recognize the treasure of a life redeemed and transformed. While none of us is perfect while we remain in our present bodies, we should be producing a harvest of good fruit that sets us apart from “look-alikes” who are merely outwardly moral.

Qualified

Recently, we’ve been dealing with a lot of bureaucratic red tape. There are forms to fill out, forms to gather and certify, appointments to make and meet, and various qualifications. We must file paperwork for our business, for our income taxes, for our vehicles, our health insurance, our banking, –even a fishing license! We have to fill out paperwork to prove who we are, where we were born, where we live, how much money we make (or don’t make!), what we own, how much it is worth, how much we spend, whether or not we are ill (or have been ill, or might become ill!), whether we are legally married, etc.. Some processes are simple, only requiring a few questions and proof of ID, but most are not. Forms to be filled out on-line are often confusing, and there is no one to help explain the terminology. Forms that must be submitted often require supporting evidence that must be gathered from several different agencies and locations, signed, printed on certain paper, notarized, stapled (or NOT stapled), and sent by mail, faxed, delivered in person, or scanned and e-mailed. And if any one of the steps is not followed to the letter, we are not “qualified” to do business, receive payments, be properly licensed, receive medical treatment, etc. Regulations often run to hundreds of pages, and while there are experts who understand all (or most) of the fine details, most of us are overwhelmed by the “red tape” involved in living from day to day. We are not “qualified” to prove we are qualified to exist!

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I’m so glad I don’t have to make an appointment and prove that I am qualified to talk to God! The bottom line is that I KNOW I’m not qualified–not in my own power or wisdom or achievements. Instead of trying to prove something so impossible, God invites me to come– just as I am!– to meet with Him. He qualifies me through the shed blood of Christ. Jesus Christ fulfilled every qualification I could not– He lived a perfect life, never breaking God’s just laws, never falling short of God’s standards. And then, He paid the price of my failures by taking the death that should have been mine, and defeating it! All the “red tape” has been handled, all the forms filled out, the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed– my name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, with no need for me to re-apply or be approved all over again.

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There is only one thing I must do to be “qualified” for a right relationship with God– with all it’s privileges and benefits–I must accept God’s terms for the qualification process. I must accept that I cannot qualify myself; I cannot earn God’s acceptance through my own efforts, I cannot buy my way into His good graces, and I cannot inherit the qualifications from my parents, neighbors, ancestors, or countrymen. I must also accept that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are sufficient– even extravagant–to meet the requirements. Finally, I must trust that God’s ways are true and right and better than my own. I cannot accept Christ’s qualifications, and still do life “my way.”

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In this life, it can be very frustrating to get “qualified” to do the things we wish to do. But we can be qualified for eternity through Jesus Christ. We are pre-approved to visit any time, to speak to Him– even pour out our sorrows and frustrations and failures. And there is no need to wait for an appointment!

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Testimony

Yesterday at church we were challenged to share our testimony. I have shared my testimony several times, but I haven’t shared it in this space in a long while (if ever), so here goes:

When I was about 4 1/2 years old, I became a big sister. I was excited about this, but after my younger sister arrived, I had a terrible time with jealousy and resentment. She was tiny and adorable, and she had my Dad’s blue eyes (they later changed to a greenish/hazel color like mine, but everyone commented on her eyes, and never on mine). One day, filled with this resentment, I made a rather impulsive decision to poke my sister in the eye with a sharp stick. At that age, I wasn’t completely aware of the danger and damage I would have done, but I still knew it was wrong. I didn’t succeed– my mother caught me in time and got a stern talking-to about what had almost happened. Not wanting to face punishment and Mom’s anger, I burst into tears and said I was sorry. Surely a show of remorse would make everything all right. That’s how it worked on television, and it had worked for me that way in the past.

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But this time was different. Mom was frightened by what might have happened, and unimpressed with my tears. She explained quite clearly that what I had attempted could have ended in disaster, and that no amount of “sorry” would have undone my action. I had to face punishment (probably less severe than I deserved, but it felt awful at the time). She also explained that she was both frightened of and disappointed in my action. She would tell my father, who would also be ashamed of my behavior. Now I was truly frightened. What if Mom and Dad never got over their disappointment? What if they stopped loving me? Not only that, but Jesus had seen everything: He knew what I had been about to do and WHY! I had learned about Jesus in Sunday School. He was kind and gentle and loved all the little children. What if He stopped loving me after He saw what I did? What if I had succeeded in hurting my sister and it could never be made right? What if I said I was sorry, and no one believed me? Even Jesus?

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I can still remember the feelings of terror and shame– that kind and gentle and Holy Jesus might be disgusted with me; that my resentment and anger had separated me from Him, and that I could not “undo” it or “sorry” my way out of it. Certainly, I was coming to realize that He had (through my mom) stopped me from completing my evil plan –WHEW!– but He KNEW that I would have done it. And I wouldn’t have been sorry for my jealousy, or for my sister’s pain in that moment. Not really sorry. I recognized in that moment that I wasn’t a nice person or a good or righteous person. If Jesus loved me, I didn’t deserve it.

Mom must have seen the change in me, because she stopped and took the time to walk me through the lessons I was still learning in Sunday School. We are all sinners, and unworthy of the love and blessing of a Holy God. Yet Jesus came and offered to love us– to love us SO much that He was willing to die to remove the sting and shame of Sin and its consequences. And Jesus’ love is SO powerful that it can take a rotten, sinful heart and cleanse it completely. Mom and Dad could love and forgive me. But it would involve more than just saying, “I’m sorry.” I had to mean it. I had to choose to let Jesus take control of my resentment, and my wrong thinking, and ask Him for forgiveness. In fact, only Jesus can offer complete and everlasting forgiveness! I am not a righteous person; others can see that I am not a righteous person– yet Jesus can see me, not as I have been, but as I can be– perfected through Him! I asked Jesus to do just that– to come into my heart; to live in and through me; to renew me and change my mind and heart to be more like His.

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Jesus Loves ME– this I KNOW
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong.
They are weak, but He is strong!

I had sung this song many times, but now it made sense to me in an entirely new way. That was over 50 years ago, and I must admit that I have had moments of failure and embarrassment; times when I have chosen my own will and emotions over what I know to be right. I have had moments of doubting whether Jesus could still love me after things I’ve said and done. But time after time, I come back to that simple truth that Jesus, for reasons I cannot explain or fully understand, Loves Me– He Really Loves Me! His offer of forgiveness isn’t phony or conditional or limited. Not because I deserve unconditional love or a thousand “second chances.” Simply because HE LOVES ME!

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And He Loves You, too! Right now, right where you are, just as you are– He Loves You! Whether you’ve never known that, or been sure of that, or whether you’ve had moments of doubt because of something you’ve said or done (or left undone or said)–Jesus Loves You! And He wants to give you a New heart and a New Life– one that is free of lingering shame and fear; one that is eternal and filled with joy and peace!

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That is my testimony. That is what I know from experience to be true of God– more true than anything else in the world.

Praying Scripture

This is not a great secret or a new discovery, but a reminder that we can “pray” the Scriptures. Sometimes, we do this in corporate prayer, as in a congregation reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” together. But often, it is when we are reading God’s word, or a particular verse haunts our memory that we echo the words in our prayer life. There are so many benefits from this:

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  • We are joining in a great tradition– much of Scripture records the prayers of the patriarchs and of Jesus Himself. When we echo those words, we affirm them–both to God and to ourselves.
  • We are praying in the light of the truth–God’s own words on our lips can keep us from trying to put our words in God’s voice!
  • We are deepening our understanding and experience of Scripture– making it personal, rather than just a learning exercise or a daily duty.
  • We are deepening our experience of Prayer– it is more than just me talking to God. It is me agreeing with God’s Word, and God’s Word literally speaking through me.
  • We are reminded of what prayer can do– many of the prayers of Scripture are followed by answers, from prophecies to miracles to movements of the Holy Spirit.
  • We are reminded that God answers prayer that is consistent with His will– not all Biblical prayers were answered in the ways that their petitioners hoped or expected!

The Bible is full of wonderful examples of prayers. Here are just a few to get started:

  • Abraham’s prayer for God to spare Sodom in Genesis 18 (v. 23-32).
  • Moses praying for God to forgive Israel’s sin and disbelief in Exodus 32 (v. 31-32)
  • Moses praying for a successor to lead Israel into the Promised Land (Numbers 27:16-17)
  • Gideon’s prayer for guidance in Judges 6
  • Manoah’s prayer for help in raising his son Samson in Judges 13
  • David’s prayer in 2 Samuel 7 (v.18-29)
  • Elijah’s prayer for God to send fire from Heaven in 1 Kings 18 (v.36-37)
  • Several of the Psalms, including 3, 51, 90, 102, 103, 105, and many others.
  • Hezekiah’s prayer for God to save Israel from their enemies in Isaiah 37 ( v.16-20)
  • The prayer of Jebez in 1 Chronicles 4:10
  • Habakkuk’s prayer for revival in Habakkuk 3: 2-19
  • Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 11:25
  • Jesus’ prayer for His disciples (John 17)
  • Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39-44)
  • Jesus’ prayer from the cross in Luke 23:34
  • Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:59-60
  • Prayer of worship in Heaven in Revelation 5:13

https://christian.net/resources/the-top-most-powerful-prayers-in-the-bible/

In addition, Bible passages that describe the Character and Majesty of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be used as prayers of worship and adoration. Bible stories and events can be lifted up in worship of God’s power and faithfulness through the ages. Jesus’ teachings (such as the Beatitudes) can be lifted up as the desire of our hearts, and as requests for the strength and wisdom to follow Him.

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Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.

Jude 1:24-25

Blessed Are the Pure in Heart..

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

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I’ve been looking through the Beatitudes and how they relate to prayer. Jesus said that the pure in heart are blessed, for they shall “see God.” Have you ever spoken to someone who wasn’t looking at you? They looked past you, or around you, or down at their device, but they didn’t attempt to make or maintain eye contact. It can be disconcerting, and even rude. And yet, there are times when, with our divided hearts, we come into prayer without really looking for, or at, God.

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At other times, our hearts cloud our vision, giving us a distorted view of God. We harbor sin or guilt, and we see God as unforgiving or unfair. We are holding on to our own will, and we see God as restrictive or demanding.

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The pure in heart see God as He really is– Glorious, Merciful, Wise, and Just. They see evidence of His lovingkindness and faithfulness all around them. They see themselves through His eyes– beloved and forgiven–and they see others through the eyes of Grace.

This is not our natural state. We are NOT pure in heart. We are self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-conscious. King David recognized this profoundly when he was caught in his great sin of adultery and murder. In his own lust and selfishness, he had seduced the wife of another man, and when she became pregnant, David arranged to cover up the first sin–by having the man murdered. David was not a notorious scoundrel. He was even called, “a man after God’s own heart.” But when he was confronted with his guilt, David “saw” himself as he really was– not a victim of circumstance, or a martyr to passion, or a king who was above the law, but a man who had committed evil against others, and against a Holy and Sovereign God.

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David’s prayer was in line with his vision. Not only did he see himself as he really was; he saw God as HE really is: Holy and Just, but willing and able to restore David’s purity of heart. David’s God is the same today as He ever was. He longs to make us clean; to restore to us the joy of our salvation (see Psalm 51:12), and give us the power to pursue our purpose and leave our past sins behind.

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When we desire to “see God,” we must desire this cleansing and restoration of purity. We can pray without it, but we cannot look at a Holy God with an unclean spirit. All we can do is look elsewhere– talking to the wall or the floor. God still hears us, but he wants to have a real conversation; one full of intimacy and understanding.

So, today, will I make “eye contact” during my prayer time?

Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit

I want to spend some time this month exploring the Beatitudes and how they relate to our prayer life. Today I want to look at Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”

How do I approach God’s throne of Grace? Do I come with a list of what I want, and what I’ve accomplished for God? Do I come reluctantly, grudgingly, holding back some part of who I am or who I have been? Do I come flaunting my self-righteousness? Or do I come empty of all but my desire to be in the Presence of my Maker?

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Many people have interpreted (and misinterpreted) this phrase. Jesus does not insist that we be financially destitute, or drained of all enthusiasm or emotion. But He does require that we come recognizing our need of Him. We may not be physically needy in the moment– we may be well-fed, comfortable, or even wealthy by human standards. But we are all in need of God’s presence and His provision. On my own, I may believe that I have earned all that I seem to possess, but I cannot supply the air that I breathe, or guarantee that my health will remain perfect, or that I will be able to keep what I think I own, or force others to accept or respect me. “Man supposes, but God disposes” is an old phrase, but an accurate one.

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When I approach God in prayer, no matter how rich or poor I may seem, I am dependent on God for everything. And this is true for every one of us. So I don’t approach God as someone “needier” or “less needy” than my neighbor. And I don’t approach God with any power to bargain or demand, or even to request– except that God has invited me and sought me out in His Love and Mercy!

And this is the rest of the Beatitude– “for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” God has opened up Heaven and invited me to walk with Him, to learn from Him, to receive His blessings, and to live with Him throughout eternity. His riches! His Glory! His Presence! Every time I pray, I trade my poverty for God’s bounty. I trade my confession for His forgiveness. I trade my helplessness for His Wisdom and Power to triumph over adversity and confusion, grief and doubt, sickness and lack.

It is when I come to Christ believing that I possess or control all that I suppose to be “mine,” that I lose the Blessing of His sufficiency and His perfection.

“Thank you, God of Mercy, and Ruler of All, for the privilege of coming to you. I come empty and spent–show me where I am holding on to something less than You, or trying to claim Your wealth as my own. Teach me to rest in the sufficiency of Your kingdom, even as I continue to serve you here on earth.”

In My Heart There Rings a Melody

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As I write this, the sun is shining and glinting off new-fallen snow. It’s been a mostly pleasant day, and I’m writing this in anticipation of a pleasant weekend. This will post on Monday morning– a brand new week, hopefully filled with new opportunities and adventures. Of course, not every day is like this. Some days are dreary, full of stress and anxiety, and filled with challenges and even tragedies. But I have been thinking about a song I learned in childhood, one that has blessed me over the years and helped me on many a dreary day, as well as on days like today.

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“I have a song that Jesus gave me,
It was sent from heav’n above;
There never was a sweeter melody,
‘Tis a melody of love.

I love the Christ who died on Calv’ry,
For He washed my sins away;
He put within my heart a melody,
And I know it’s there to stay.

In my heart there rings a melody,
There rings a melody with heaven’s harmony;
In my heart there rings a melody,
There rings a melody of love.

‘Twill be my endless theme in glory,
With the angels I will sing;
‘Twill be a song with glorious harmony,
When the courts of heaven ring.

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On days like today, it is easy to sing a happy tune– sunlight, shimmering snow and icicles, viewed from my nice cozy perch by the window–but the joyful song that Jesus brings rings through good days and bad; sorrow and stress; triumphs and failures. It is eternal and filled with the limitless Love of God. It is a song of peace that passes all understanding, and a confidence that sees beyond circumstances.

Sometimes, when life seems devoid of light and peace, it has less to do with our actual circumstances, and more to do with our unwillingness to look up from them. Throughout the Old Testament (and even in the New Testament) people would create songs as part of their worship–some songs celebrated God’s provision and protection; others spoke of His character and His faithfulness. But these songs weren’t just for celebration and services of worship– they were used to remind us in good times and bad, that God’s love never changes. The same God who brings victory and miracles will be with us in times of despair. The same God who sees us in our most desperate hour of need is there with us when we are enjoying a beautiful sunset.

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Today, I pray that we would take a few moments, find a song or a Psalm, and just sing a prayer to our maker. It doesn’t have to be a peppy song of praise– it may even be a song of yearning or anguish– but let it be a song that rises above our day and finds the ear of the One who loves us better than anyone else. It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune; God listens to the heart! Sing the song that Jesus gives to you today. Your heart will be blessed. And it will bless the very heart of your Maker, as well.

Do You Love Me?

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” 
He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

John 21:15-19 (NIV)
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Today is Valentine’s Day, and many people will be saying, “I love you,” or asking, “Do you love me?” And many others will reply, “Yes, I love you,” or “I love you, too!” Cards and gifts may be exchanged; some couples will dine out or have romantic candlelit dinners at home. It is a day to celebrate love. There are thousands of poems and songs about love– ooey, gooey, gushy love; unrequited love; first love; true and lasting love; even “puppy” love.

But Valentine’s Day can also be a painful reminder– of lost love, betrayal, and loneliness. The story of Peter’s betrayal and reinstatement is not a “Valentine” story of romantic love, but it carries some lessons for today about love in general, and the Love of Christ in particular.

  • Love is a choice– freely given and freely accepted (apologies to Elvis Presley and others who have sung about not being able to help falling in love…) When Jesus first called Peter (and in the above passage as well) He simply asked Peter to “Follow me.” He made no demands, offered no bribes, used no intimidation. There is no long list of requirements or expectations; no bargaining; no “quid pro quo.” That said, Love is not a light-hearted or whimsical thing. Peter’s choice to love Christ, and to follow him cost him his life. Christ’s choice to love us led Him to humble Himself to death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). Jesus could have escaped this fate several times over– He CHOSE to die for each of us!
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  • Love is more than just a feeling. “Follow me” demands an action and a commitment. There are many today who “love” the idea of Jesus; they love the parables, or the gospel story; they are in love with “love.” But the idea that “Love” is all you need (apologies to the Beatles) misses the mark. Feelings change; feelings are transitory and often dependent on circumstances. Love chooses to follow– even when the going gets rough; even when it is not convenient, even when it involves sacrifice.
  • Loving someone involves taking the risk of being hurt, denied, or betrayed. There is no Biblical passage describing the amount of hurt Jesus must have felt when Peter denied Him three times, or when Judas betrayed Him. The Biblical account tells us that Jesus already knew and predicted these two events, but how agonizing–every bit as painful as the nails in His hands and feet! Jesus loved those who spit at Him, abandoned Him, condemned Him, and persecuted Him. And we also see Peter in this passage being hurt at Jesus’ questioning him a third time; Peter was shocked and hurt when Jesus predicted his denial, and when Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan.”(Matthew 16:23) Love is never free from risk– especially the imperfect love we have as humans.
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  • Love leads to restoration and forgiveness. Peter’s denial of Christ could have haunted him for the rest of his life. Had Jesus said nothing; done nothing to address this hurt, it would not have changed the fact that Peter was forgiven. But in publicly restoring Peter, Jesus made it clear that it was “all good” between them– Peter wasn’t just conditionally forgiven, he was completely restored!
  • Love is stronger than death! It is stronger than sin, or betrayal, denial, or hurt. Love is eternal and limitless, everlasting, and enduring. God IS Love and to know God is to know love. To speak to God and to hear His voice and read His Word is to converse with Love. Whether in the presence of saints on a mountaintop, in the midst of a raging storm, or on a quiet beach– Love is closer than our next breath, and more powerful than our deepest fear. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13: 8)

And that’s a love worth endless celebration!

The Measure of Success

My senior year of high school, I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” I’m not sure what that meant to most of my classmates, but it was both an honor and a burden to carry. While I was honored by my classmates’ faith in my ability to become some sort of “success,” I was also daunted by the mantle I felt I had to bear. Would I become famous? Wealthy? Important in public affairs or business? My immediate and modest goal was to become a teacher. But I had visions of becoming a well-known author. I also dreamed of becoming a wife and mother; of having a loving, happy family, and a nice home.

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God’s plans are not our plans. God has placed many opportunities in my path– opportunities to serve myself and “get ahead,” and opportunities to serve others. I can say from experience that serving others brings more satisfaction in the long run, but it doesn’t feel like “success” as defined by most of our society. I’ve never achieved what most would consider “success.”

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Some days, I feel wistful and even a bit resentful about some of life’s circumstances– children I was never able to have, or jobs I might have pursued with more ambition. But then, I think of all I might have missed– friendships, victories over certain struggles, lessons learned. My life isn’t finished– God may yet give me the opportunity to do “great things.” But already, He has given me the privilege of doing small things for Him over the course of many years. And it is more than enough.

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One of the greatest measures of true success is to look at the life of Christ. After all, His life, death, and resurrection changed the entire course of history! Time is measured by His arrival on this planet– everything happened either before or after His birth. Billions of people have called themselves “Christians” after Him, and lived their lives in His service. But what did He actually accomplish in human terms? He was not a ruler or political powerhouse. He never owned a house, let alone villas and mansions. He never wrote a book (even though thousands of books have been written about Him). He didn’t invent anything, or found a corporation, or make a monumental scientific discovery. He never led an army. He healed several people, but He didn’t cure cancer or wipe out leprosy, or put an end to blindness. He didn’t rid the world of poverty, hatred, greed, or injustice. At the time of His death, He owned only the clothes on His back– and they were taken from Him! His friends deserted Him as hundreds shouted for Him to be crucified. He was nailed to a cross between two nameless malefactors, and died. He was placed in a borrowed grave. People who had expected great things of this Messiah ended up turning on Him and thinking Him a failure and a blasphemer.

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Jesus did not pursue worldly success. He told parables. He dined with sinners and saints alike. He laughed. He cried. He prayed. Jesus served others, and yet He challenged authorities. He drew crowds, and performed miracles, but He died alone. Jesus did not come to show us how to “get ahead.” He came to show us how to live more abundantly, not more successfully. (See John 10:10)

 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2: 1-11
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God can use our worldly success, if we achieve any. But He delights in our humble prayers, our small acts of service, and our obedience. Jesus lived a humble life. He could have done anything He wanted, fulfilled the loftiest of ambitions, and crowned Himself King of the universe. But His success came from the unlikeliest of lives, and the most humiliating death. He lived the perfect and abundant life He offers us.

I don’t live a perfectly humble life. I chafe at my own weakness, sometimes. Yet it is when I stop chasing “success” and perfection that I find it –in Christ.

My prayer today is that someone reading this will be encouraged. If life feels like a series of missed opportunities to find success and fulfillment; if you feel like your life has let you down, and that God cannot use you for some great purpose– take heart! He loves to pour His love and holiness into broken vessels and exalt those who are humble and weary and “not enough.”

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