My Father’s World

As I look outside, there are bare branches on the trees, and the grass is covered in fallen leaves. The beauty of early autumn has almost gone, and winter is coming. The air is brittle and chilly, but not as cold as it will be in another month.

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Yet, this is My Father’s world. I trust that winter will come, and pass. Spring will follow, and the trees will once again be covered in leaves and filled with birdsong and new life.

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As I listen to the news, I hear of COVID deaths and hospitals filled with the sick and suffering. I hear of political unrest, and people spewing hatred, anger, and fear for the future. There is chaos and uncertainty, injustice, and pain. There are hurricanes and fires, floods, and earthquakes.

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Yet, this is My Father’s world. He sends rain on the just and the unjust; He brings healing and hope, even in the darkest hours. This world does not belong to any one nation, or political party, or natural disaster, or epidemic. Such circumstances have the power to cause destruction and fear, but they do not have power over the Creator of all things. Their reign is temporary and limited. And ” ‘tho the wrong seems oft so strong,” God is eternally sovereign– nothing that happens today can either take God by surprise, or cause Him to quake.

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I meet with people who are discouraged, angry, bitter, and scared. And I cannot “fix” the world around me with good intentions, or hard work. I cannot give assurance based on my own efforts or my own wisdom. I don’t know the answers, and I don’t have the solutions. I will make mistakes. I will say things that cause confusion, or even offense.

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But this is not my world; and it isn’t the world of those who try to discourage me, judge me, take advantage of me, or manipulate me. This is My Father’s world. And in this moment, I will choose to look for His hand and listen for His voice.

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AMEN!

Sacred Spaces

I love visiting old churches and cathedrals, with their vaulted ceilings and solid stone walls infused with centuries of incense and the echoed prayers. And I love being outdoors surrounded by the glorious beauty of creation. These spaces seem infused with a special sense of the sacred. It is easy to feel close to God is such spaces.

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But God is omnipresent. A crowded bus is no farther from God’s presence than a majestic mesa. The hush of a hospital ward is just as close to His heart as the swelling choir in a cathedral. In fact, when Jesus lived among us on earth, He spent much of His time walking dusty roads, talking and working miracles among the noisy “rabble” of ordinary people. He did not seek out “sacred spaces;” instead, He took the “sacred” into the dark and dirty streets where it was often ignored or dismissed.

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Sometimes, Jesus would go off by Himself into the wilderness or into the hills to pray, as well. It is important to make a time or space to do this. But there is nothing especially sacred about particular spaces– even ones designed to be places of worship. It may not be easy to find a physical space for prayer and worship, but we can make a mental “space”– close off distractions, move or turn away from others for a few precious minutes–focus on God’s presence. Remember, His presence is always with us; we just need to acknowledge it!

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Prayer connects us to God– wherever and whenever we pray. That doesn’t mean that we should not seek out special times and places to be alone with God. But we needn’t wait for a certain moment or location or position in which to meet with God. He is eternally, immediately available to listen. Are we?

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Praying in Perspective

Have you ever seen a photo collage–a large picture made up of hundreds or thousands of tiny photos? If you stand back, you can see a large picture– a face, or a landscape, perhaps–but when you get closer, you can see the many smaller photos that make up the details.

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Prayer is like that. Each of us is a tiny details in the grander scope of the world’s population. Millions of people are praying at any given time on any given day. And we don’t see all of the others– sometimes we don’t see or hear or think of anyone else as we pray. But God sees and hears them all–moreover, God weaves and blends our prayers into something amazingly more than meets our awareness. Prayers of thanksgiving add a dash of bright color; prayers of anguish sound a minor tone; prayers of confession rise like incense, and prayers of worship wrap around all the colors and sounds and scents.

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Yesterday, I was feeling very depressed and small. It was difficult to pray. My perspective was off, and I could only see my own problems and emotions. Prayer helped change my perspective. As I spoke to God; as I thought about His power and omniscience, I began to see that I WAS small–but my God is enormous! And while He sees the entire picture– all places and times and peoples–He also looks on every tiny detail. He knows my name; He knows my every thought. He knows my needs and my desires; He knows my weaknesses and my unique gifts– gifts He has given! Even if no one else noticed, God would be able to pick out the smallest detail in His amazing creation, and bring it into perfect focus.

See Isaiah 55

Heart, Soul, and Mind..

Jesus was asked many trick questions by people who wanted to discredit him during His ministry. One such query involved all the many commands of the law. “Which is the greatest?” With so many commandments, laws, rituals, and traditions, it would be difficult to pick just one. Which is more evil– lying, stealing, murder, idolatry?

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But Jesus didn’t skip a beat. 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 9Matthew 22:37 NIV) Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy (Deut. 6:5), when God was giving instructions to the people of Israel before they entered the Promised Land. Of course, Jesus, as part of the Triune Godhead, was actually present for these instructions– in fact, as the WORD of God, He may have been the very one speaking the same words hundreds of years before!

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The first three of the Ten Commandments all involve this concept. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”–don’t give your soul (your very essence) to someone or something else ahead of Yahweh. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”–don’t give your heart to worship anyone or anything that is created; instead, worship your Creator. “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain”–don’t use your mind to devalue and defame the Sovereign Lord.

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God is Sovereign. He is Supreme. And He IS Love– it is not just something He chooses to do. Love is part of God’s essence, and it cannot live and thrive without Him.

But this brings up two questions: If God IS Love and He created us, why must he “command” us to love Him? This is one of the great arguments people try to use to deny God’s Sovereignty, His Goodness, even His existence. A Good, Wise, Sovereign, All-powerful God should not need to command love and worship from His creatures, should He? And, if He “commands” love and obedience, how can we truly love Him? We can fear Him, obey Him, be ruled by Him, but none of that sounds like Love.

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In theory, such questions seem daunting. But we have dozens of real-life examples of how such commands work. Every nation (and principality, and even every household) has rules and laws directing us how to behave and demanding respect for certain values. “Don’t sass your parents.” “Don’t deface or defile sacred spaces.” “Don’t litter!” We find it distinctly unsettling when we see children treating their parents with disrespect, malice, even abuse. Or when we hear of people whose hatred leads them to burn places of worship, or defile gravestones in a cemetery, or commit treasonous acts that lead to the slaughter of hundreds of innocent neighbors or fellow-countrymen. The planet groans under the strain of people who dump their trash in rivers or streets, or wantonly start wildfires or kill helpless animals.

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God does not “command” our love out of weakness. He could DEMAND abject obedience–overrule our will; punish without delay or hope of mercy; force us to act as robots or machines–but He desires us to Love Him freely. His command is for OUR good–when we choose to seek Him, follow Him, Love Him in ever greater measure, we grow to be more like Him–Loving Him teaches us what Love is really all about!

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The Law itself, the “command,” is NOT what pleases God or makes us Love Him. God’s purpose is not that we become ritualistic, legalistic, or weak-willed. He wants us to be joyful and live abundant and productive lives. But left to our own devices and our own “wisdom,” we will not achieve any of this. In fact, even with the law and commandments, we will still fall short. God’s love is such that He gave us an impossible command– love Him with our entire heart, soul, and mind– and then, He provided the only Way to make it possible.

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It IS possible to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. It doesn’t require that we become hermits or ascetics, wasting away in a cave or mountaintop, starving ourselves and crying out day and night. It does require that we recognize that He is God, and we are not. It requires that we accept His mercy for the times we have strayed. It requires that we seek His counsel, and His correction.

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We need to love Him with our heart–draw near to Him in worship and thanksgiving.

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We need to love Him with our soul–trust Him to direct our lives, now and in the future.

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And we need to love Him with our mind–learn to listen to His words, and to meditate on them; to think more about the things of God, and less about the things of trivial and temporary import.

Walk Humbly with Your God

I’ve been looking at the prophet Micah’s words on how to please God. “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 NKJV)

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Today, I want to focus on the last of these three “requirements:” to walk humbly with your God. As with the first two, this last requirement may seem simple and straightforward, but it is much easier said than done.

Let’s break it down to its component parts:

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  • WALK– this is another action word. “Being” humble, even acting humble will look good and may even impress others. But God requires that we walk in humility–daily, consistently, and deliberately act in accordance with our status vis-a-vis both God and our fellow human beings.
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  • HUMBLY–not in pride, but also not in fale humility or in humiliation and self-loathing. The late, great apologist, Ravi Zacharias, used to quote another great Christian apologist, Edward Musgrave Blaiklock: “God alone knows how to humble us without humiliating us and how to exalt us without flattering us.” We cannot walk humbly in our own power or insight or will. We cannot allow others’ opinions to determine the worth that God alone has given us. And we cannot allow our opinions to judge another’s worth in God’s eyes.
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  • WITH–we will never walk where God cannot go, or will not find us. But we can choose to walk apart from God; to ignore justice and mercy, or redefine God’s commands, or reject God’s grace and wisdom in favor of our own “moral compass.”
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  • YOUR GOD– we can believe ourselves to be walking humbly and justly in our own eyes; we can follow counselors or gurus, or “religious” leaders; we can make a practice of doing “righteous” actions, and still be practicing idolatry. We cannot please God if we don’t even know Him; we cannot walk with Him if he is merely an idea we aspire to worship. God does not want adulation from afar; He created us for intimacy with Himself and with each other. It pleases Him to be our Father– not our adversary.

Just Another Haunted House?

He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!”

Matthew 21:13 (Christian Standard Bible, via Biblehub.com)
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It’s October. Time for apple cider, falling leaves, pumpkin spice cookies, bonfires, corn mazes, and “haunted houses.” I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in my neighborhood, we usually have dozens of local charities decorating barns or old factories or houses, and charging people to visit in the nights leading up to Halloween. They hang cobwebs and mirrors, create mazes and special effects– creaky doors, moving floors, glowing objects, eerie moans, flashing lights, and pop-up creatures , along with volunteers dressed up as ghosts or mummies or zombies to guide them along the way. Hundreds of people tromp and shudder, laugh and scream, as they travel through the house. They come back and bring their friends, eager to watch their reactions, and see if they can remember all the “surprises” to come.

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I’m not a big fan of haunted houses. I don’t like being frightened for “fun.” And I don’t like giving money, time, and thought to making “fun” of death and evil spirits. This year, with COVID still a factor, many of the haunted houses are closed or operating very differently. So are many other venues, including churches.

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Which brings me to a startling thought–have some of our churches become nothing more than a kind of haunted house? People come to be entertained; to feel their pulse beat faster, or get excited about a particularly good worship sequence. They may even come to be “frightened” a little by sermons about hell and death, sort of like watching a spooky movie or listening to ghost stories by the campfire. They meet up with their friends, and go out together afterwards to their favorite restaurant. The service is filled with special effects– lights and videos, booming bass lines and dynamic guitar solos, volunteers dressed up to greet visitors, serve coffee and donuts, collect money, and take attendance; sometimes even gimmicks, and props, and prizes.

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I’m not saying it’s wrong for churches to be warm and welcoming; I don’t think they have to be gloomy and boring. But we’ve spent so much time making our churches “attractive;” put so much of our time and effort into making worship thrilling and fulfilling, that we’ve lost our focus. This isn’t “the people’s house.” It isn’t a “fun house.” It is God’s house. A house of prayer. A house of honor and reverence. A Holy place. We’ve made our churches places of basketball courts and coffee bars; playrooms and gift shops; social networks and small business incubators…

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We read about Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple, but we erect huge signs in front of the church tracking our fundraising efforts for a new roof. We are not a “den of thieves.” But are we a “house of prayer?” Are we meeting together to pray, or to be entertained? To meet with God, or to meet up for fellowship? Are we creating a maze of mirrors and gimmicks, instead of calling out in urgency and humility to Almighty God? Are the pews, or chairs, or stadiums, filled with the (spiritually) walking dead?

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Jesus created a stir when He rebuked the money changers. They hadn’t suddenly appeared and set up shop. They didn’t see themselves as “thieves.” After all, they weren’t stealing from anyone. They were buying and selling items connected with the Temple worship–animals for sacrifice, incense, food for hungry travelers… They weren’t stealing money– not exactly. Maybe they charged extra for their services; for the convenience. Maybe they had bribed someone or used their influence to get a prime marketing spot inside the Temple perimeter. But that’s just business. And, until Jesus kicked up a fuss, no one seemed to notice or mind.

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Jesus wasn’t upset about money– He was upset about those who were stealing from the Father. Cheapening His glory, crowding in on His House, bringing the noise of everyday commerce into the court of contemplation. Bringing dust and pettiness into His Holy presence. Trading the Awe of His Majestic Temple for the “aw, shucks” of a day at the mall– or a trip to the Haunted House.

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We have a real opportunity as “The Church” to take a close look at what we have become, and how we want to adjust to “life after the pandemic.” If Jesus were to visit our church, would He find it a House of Prayer, or a Haunted House?

All the Time in the World..

I never seem to have enough time…

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But that is an illusion. I have the same amount of time as anyone else. And I can’t do anything to add to the amount of time I have in a day, or a week, or even a lifetime.

27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?… 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:27; 33-34 NIV via Biblegateway.com
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What’s more, I was created for eternity– I have all the time in the world! Or, at least, I will. Right now, I feel bound and limited by time. And sometimes, I feel controlled by it. Deadlines, promises, schedules–all hem me in and press in on me, making life stressful and forcing me to make tough choices.

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Will I choose to use my time each day wisely? Will I let pressing tasks and urgent interruptions throw me off-stride or make me feel guilty? Will I see time as a resource, or let it become my master?

Over the years, I have found several things to be true about time– you’ve probably noticed them too (and maybe even more!), but it’s nice to have a reminder every now and again:

  • Time spent with God in prayer, meditation, worship, and Bible study is NEVER wasted time. It is an investment in eternity. No matter how long or short, it never seems as though I’ve spent “too much” time with God at the expense of other things. It’s when my quiet time turns into self-talk or daydreaming, or when my mind is divided with worry and distraction that it eats into the rest of the day.
  • Time spent caring for others is better than time spent amusing myself. That doesn’t mean that I don’t need “down” time, and “self-care”, and boundaries– everyone does. But hoarding time for my entertainment and achievement at others’ expense is a recipe for depression and emptiness.
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  • Time IS a resource. It should be managed wisely. That means having a schedule, but not being enslaved by it. There is always something you CAN be doing, something you probably SHOULD be doing, and something you SHOULDN’T be doing. None of them matter. What you CHOOSE to be doing is what will get done. Someone may argue that they have no choice–” when I’m at work, I don’t get to choose what I do; when I have chores or housework or family obligations, I don’t have a choice”–but that’s a false argument. You CHOOSE to go to work, to fulfill your obligations and family commitments, to do the “next right thing” that comes your way. And every time you make a choice, you show what is important to you. The difference is owning up to your choices– both good and bad– and recognizing that time (in this life) is a finite commodity. You can’t be everywhere at once or do everything at once.
  • God is beyond time and the giver and keeper of time. He doesn’t want us to waste His gift, and He won’t give us “more” time in our day, but He can redeem some of the mistakes we’ve made with time, and He can give us the wisdom to make the most of today, and help us manage each day to come.
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Amen!

It’s the last word in the Bible. It’s normally the last word of our prayers. It is frequently used by the congregation during a particularly inspiring part of a sermon.

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But what does it mean to say, “Amen!”? The original Hebrew word means, “so be it,” or “let it be so.” It is spoken to express confirmation, solemn ratification, or agreement. Saying, “Amen!” is saying that we agree with the words the pastor has spoken, or the words that someone else has just prayed. But, ultimately, it is confirmation that we agree with what God will choose to do, and how He will choose to answer the prayer or speak to us.

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When we say, “Amen,” we are letting go of our will and trusting our prayers, our thoughts, our feelings, and our desires to God’s hands. God is sovereign. He can do anything He wants, regardless of our desires or plans; regardless of our feelings or our actions. He can thwart our plans, upset our circumstances, and set His face against us. But that’s not HIS desire. He wants our willing cooperation and approval. He doesn’t need it, but He desires it. He wants to hear us echo His heart, and respond to His loving care with a hearty “Amen!” Not because He needs it– but because WE need it. We need to rest in His sovereign power instead of trying to fight blindly against our circumstances. We need to wake up and act in accordance with His design, instead of wasting time in apathy and disdain.

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But “Amen!,” like any other word, shouldn’t be used lightly. “Can I get an Amen?” “In Jesus’ name, Amen” These are solemn oaths. “Amen” isn’t just a word of cheer or enthusiasm. It is an acknowledgement of God’s right to rule our lives. Even when it brings testing; even when it involves struggle and pain. All the time, God is in charge, and His ways can be trusted. “AMEN!”

Where Are the Altars?

I’ve been reading through the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.), and there are many references to altars and sacrifices–both the ones built to honor Jehovah God, and those designed for idols.

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Israel and Judah were guilty of building thousands of altars and shrines to false gods. Some of them were found even inside the Holy area of God’s own temple! As part of God’s judgment, He repeated that He would no longer accept the empty sacrifices of His people–He would no longer hear their prayers, unless they repented.

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I read these words and wondered– Where are our altars today? When I was a child, many of the older churches had what we called an Altar. It was usually a raised platform, with a podium for the minister, and possibly a “host table” for communion. My childhood church also had a small table that held a large Bible. Sometimes, the platform would have a railing around the edge, with a couple of stairs on either side. And, while many churches “passed the plate” for offerings, some had a special plate on the railing of the altar, where people would march up and place their offerings for the week. There it would sit for the rest of the service–random dollar bills of random denominations in random states of being crumpled, folded, and worn, along with checks, and, sometimes even coins. All of them brought forward and placed on the altar.

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Today, many churches have stages, like any large theater or event center. There is no railing, but there are hundreds of spotlights and fog machines. There is no podium for the pastor–just a headset and maybe a small stand for notes. Sometimes, the pastor reads from a teleprompter. Often, he or she is joined by a full band or orchestra, and dozens of singers, actors, or other assistants. No one from the congregation approaches the stage– why would they get up from their comfortable reclining padded seat? No one even “needs” to bring a Bible– the sermon text is printed out on the giant screens hanging above the stage. Our worship is comfortable, and entertaining.

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But we have no altars. There is no place for someone to lay their offering before God; no place to meet with Him in repentance or revival. There is no place to remind us of sacrifice and atonement. Oh, to be sure, many churches have a large cross on display somewhere. Some even have the “host table” for communion– somewhere in the wings, just in case–but the concept of an “altar” has all but disappeared from churches in the West. It is an anachronism–something ancient and uncomfortably part of the distant mists of tradition.

I miss the altar. I believe God misses it, too.

10,000!

A few years ago, singer and songwriter Matt Redman came out with a worship tune that has become a favorite for many. It’s called “10,000 Reasons.” But, while the song is recent, the idea and sentiment is not. In fact, it reminds me of at least two older hymns I remember from my childhood.

There is nothing particularly “magical” or spiritually significant about the number 10,000–it appears several times throughout the Bible, and usually signifies a large number or amount–it’s a number big enough to be impressive; it is difficult for most of us to imagine having 10,000 cattle on a farm, or 10,000 trees in an orchard, or 10,000 children to feed and clothe and house! It would be difficult to remember 10,000 names or 10,000 different passwords, or phone numbers– we can write them down or store them, but to remember them all on our own? Nearly impossible. And try to sit down and write out the titles of 10,000 books or movies of songs–or 10,000 people you have met in your lifetime. It might take days (unless you cheat and use a database), and even then, you probably would end up listing items that wouldn’t “count”– people you had not actually met or titles that were unfamiliar to you.

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We live in a world of huge numbers– millions and billions and trillions– numbers so huge that they don’t really seem “real.” The Bible doesn’t use a lot of these numbers; instead, God uses pictures and metaphors, like “stars in the sky” or “grains of sand on the seashore:” objects beyond counting and beyond comprehension. Yet there are large numbers in the Bible– specific numbers of warriors, priests, and people in the nation of Israel at various times in their history; large amounts of money owed or gifts given; large distances…and God is a God of them all. God knows the exact number of hairs on each head (sometimes many thousands, and sometimes just a handful!); He knows the number of grains of sand on the ocean, and the amount of water in each lake and pond and sea. He knows the name and size and position of every star and every planet and all their satellites.

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If we were to list all the many reasons that God is great, and good; kind and loving; powerful and majestic and holy– if we found one new reason every day, it would take more than 27 years to find 10,000 reasons! And we would only be getting started!

But here’s the catch: we will never find 10,000 reasons if we never begin to search for them. God will still be the “fairest of 10,000;” He will still be majestic and faithful; sovereign and glorious– but we can miss it all, and waste our life on 10,000 trivialities, or 10,000 complaints, or 100,000 lesser things.

God doesn’t publish a list of 10,000 (or 100,000 or a million) reasons to worship Him– but He gives us the opportunity to discover new reasons each and every day. And He invites us– all of us– to come and discover “10,000 charms” in the loving embrace of His Son! We are never more than a prayer away from another reason to sing His praises!

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