Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas Gifts

As Christmas approaches one of the things that most people focus on is gift giving.  We spend a lot of money and time finding the right gifts for people that are important in our life.  Sometimes we fail in our gift giving.

One Christmas when my son was a young boy, we nearly ruined his Christmas with one particular gift.  One of the jobs that he was given around the house was sweeping the kitchen floor.  That Christmas we bought a stick vacuum cleaner and thought it would be funny to give to him as a gift.  When it was wrapped, the vacuum was the largest gift under the tree.  When my son saw that the largest gift had his name on it he was very excited.  His imagination went wild.  What could that present be?  His whole Christmas revolved around the largest gift under the tree.  When Christmas morning arrived, all he could think about was that gift.  When he opened it, he was so disappointing that the rest of his Christmas presents couldn't make up for the vacuum cleaner fiasco.

Have you ever been disappointed by a gift?  Has someone been disappointed by the gift you gave them?  What about great gifts?  What is the best gift you have ever received? What made it so special? Was it the value of the gift? Was it the person who gave it to you? Was it because it was so unexpected?

As I think about this question I find it hard to narrow down one particular gift as the best. There is one gift that I received that was very special for a number of reasons. One of the reasons this particular gift was special is that I still don’t know who gave me the gift. Let me tell you the story.

In February 2004, 17 members of my church raised 20,000 dollars and went to San Pedro, Belize in Central America to build a church. While we were there we made lots of friends. We were only in San Pedro for a short time, but by the time we left the walls of the church were finished. During the following months, the church members in San Pedro finished the church building. Plans were made for a church dedication service to be held in February 2005. I was invited to come to the dedication service. I really wanted to go. This church building project had been very important to me, and I had made many friends in San Pedro that I wanted to see again. There was just one problem. I couldn’t afford the trip.

One day I received a letter in the mail from Fare Finders Travel. Why were they sending me a letter? When I opened the letter I was surprised by what it said. Please come in to Fare Finders to make arrangements for a round trip ticket to Belize. Someone has paid for the ticket, but they want to remain anonymous. I couldn’t believe it. My wife immediately tried to figure out who the anonymous donor was. She still hasn’t cracked the case. It is still an unsolved mystery. The mysterious ticket has to be one of the best gifts I have ever received.

We made plans to go back to San Pedro. As we packed and attended to all the details of the trip, the mystery giver was in our thoughts. Who was this person who had given such a meaningful and valuable gift? How could we thank the giver?

Our trip to Belize was wonderful. It was very special to me to see the completed church building. The dedication service was beautiful and moving with people from several different countries participating. We got reacquainted with friends that we had made the year before, and made many new friends the 10 days that we were there. Many times friends would stop by our room with gifts such as fresh coconut water, papaya, or some small trinket. On the last day we were in San Pedro, there was a steady stream of visitors at our room. They wanted to tell us goodbye. Most of them brought a gift.

We received one gift that was very special to me. My wife made a special friendship with a little 2 year old boy who spoke only Spanish. Whenever he would see her his face would light up. He didn’t understand English, but he understood the language of love. The day we were leaving he and his 4 year old sister came to our door with a gift. They gave us a well worn 1941 Walking Liberty half dollar. I have no idea how this little family had come into possession of this coin, or why they gave it to me. Even though the monetary value of the coin is only a few dollars it is one of the most precious gifts I have ever received.

I learned an important spiritual lesson on my trip to Belize. I learned it from the people that I met. They had such a desire to do something for us. Even though they had only meager possessions, they had such a desire to please. They wanted to see us before we left. They had to bring us a gift. It was very important to them. To me that showed how I should relate to God. God, I don’t have anything but I want to give you something. God let me know what I can do to please you. God I want to be with you.

In Romans 6:23 the Bible tells us “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord”. God has given you the best gift ever, what will you give God this Christmas?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thank God For Grace

We recently celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday.  In the U.S. there has been an annual Thanksgiving observed since 1863.  In that year, with the county involved in a horrific Civil War, President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring a day of Thanksgiving. 

One of the traditions of Thanksgiving is talking about the things we are thankful for.  There are many things, but I am truly thankful for my family.  

The Greek word translated thanksgiving is eucharista.  The English spelling is Eucharist.  My dictionary gives the following definitions.   1.  The sacrament of Holy Communion; the sacrifice of the Mass; the Lord's Supper.  2.  The giving of thanks; thanksgiving.

The word that most people use to describe the Lord’s Supper means thanksgiving.  What a great thought.  The Lord’s Supper is a ceremony in which we give thanks for what Jesus has done for us.  The root word in Eucharist is charis.  Charis is normally translated as grace.  That makes sense.  Think with me for a moment.  What happens at the beginning of your Thanksgiving meal?  Someone says “grace”.  Why do we say that they say grace?  Saying grace is giving thanks. 

At a British conference on religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room.  “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, is singularly Christian.  Of all the world’s religions, only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.

In 2 Timothy 1:9, the Bible says, “He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began”.

Before you were born there was grace for you.  Thank God for grace!  As wonderful as it is, grace is not well understood and often not really believed. We use the word a lot but rarely think about what it means. It's probably true that most of us think infrequently about God's grace. 

Part of our problem is in the nature of grace itself. Grace is scandalous. It’s hard to accept. It’s hard to believe. It’s hard to receive. We are skeptical when a telemarketer tells us, "I'm not trying to sell you anything. I just want to offer you a free trip to Hawaii." Automatically we wonder, "What's the catch?" because we have all been taught that "there's no free lunch."

Grace shocks us in what it offers. It frightens us with what it does for sinners. Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them. We would save the not-so-bad. God starts with prostitutes and then works downward from there. Grace is a gift that costs everything to the giver and nothing to the receiver. It is given to those who don't deserve it, barely recognize it, and hardly appreciate it.
Grace means that no one is too bad to be saved. The Bible is full of examples; Liars, cheaters, murderers, adulterers, prostitutes.  God specializes in saving really bad people.

Grace also means that some people may be too good to be saved. That is, they may have such a high opinion of themselves that they think they don't need God's grace. They may admit they are sinners but they don't admit they are spiritually dead.

This view of grace is hard for good people to accept because it means we must give up our "goodness" in order to be saved. We must admit that nothing we have done matters in the least when it comes to being forgiven by God. God has designed our salvation so that he alone gets the glory!

Ephesians 2:8,9 tells us,  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast”.

Imagine what heaven would be like if you had to earn your way there. "I was a preacher." "I built churches across the world." "I gave a million dollars to world missions." "I had hundreds of baptisms at my meetings." "I volunteered at the hospital." “I baked cookies for the school kids.” As good as those things are they will not help forgive even one sin. They will not save you or help save you. 

Can you just imagine someone putting his arm around Jesus and saying, "You and me, Jesus, we did it: You died on the cross and I baked the cookies”? I am so thankful that it's not like that. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the full price for your salvation. Jesus paid the price all by himself.

Grace is never cheap.  Grace costs the ultimate.  It is just that you and I aren’t the ones paying.  “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life”.  John 3:16

Thank God for grace!   Look for grace in unexpected places. I know that you will find it. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 1:14, "the grace of our Lord is exceedingly abundant".

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Verdict

I was reading Shawn Boonstra's blog and read his comments concerning the Casey Anthony verdict. I was so in agreement with his thoughts as he expressed them in his blog that I adapted them for use here at My
Spiritual Journey. I usually only present my original thoughts on this blog, but Shawn's ideas were so powerful that I decided to present them here in modified form.

The most talked about news story of the week was that Casey Anthony was acquitted of killing her 2-year-old daughter Caylee in 2008. One thing is clear: someone is guilty. Little girls don’t end up duct-taped and garbage-bagged in the woods all by themselves. Collective public outrage has been building in the days since the “not guilty” verdicts left the American public speechless.

I struggled with the verdict myself. As a grandfather of young girls, my blood almost literally boils over when I hear about people mistreating them. And the fact that the most likely perpetrator was acquitted is hard to take. She just looked so guilty. Her stories didn’t add up. In the hours since the verdict was read by a court clerk who appeared as visibly troubled as the rest of us, I have begun to consider the possibilities.

One possibility, I don’t want to admit. Twelve jurors might, maybe, somehow, be right. It’s possible that the rest of us have been drawn by the scent of blood into a public feeding frenzy. Like most people, I honestly don’t think so, but I have no choice but to admit that it’s a possibility.

The more comforting thought is that Someone knows every last detail of the case. The Bible reminds us that real justice will have to wait for the final judgement. We can rest in the knowledge that God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:14) He is particularly attentive to the needs and rights of children.

I don’t like it, but the jury has spoken; the judge has agreed. I will make every effort to keep it from happening to someone else, and will guard my neighbor’s children like my own. I will also, to the best of my ability, share the only thing that can bring genuine hope in a cruelly twisted world – the redeeming, converting love of Jesus.

Someone is guilty of something: little girls don’t end up stashed in the woods by accident. If Caylee’s cruel death has stirred such emotion in our own sin-stained hearts, imagine the way it hurts the heart of Christ. I imagine myself to be incapable of such horrific sins, but I have caused my share of pain, for I am a sinner. I have never had to hide a body, but I am painfully aware that Jesus equates hatred with murder. By Jesus’ standards, I have murdered, stolen, failed to honor my parents, taken the Lord’s name in vain, broken the Sabbath. So have you. More times that any of us would care to admit.

Now here’s what is really unfair. I am going to be acquitted. I’m going to be released from the wages of sin, (death), even though I certainly do not deserve it. My sins killed the Son of God, but I won’t receive the ultimate wages of sin because Jesus was condemned for our sins, in which He had no part, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no part. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His.

Now I’m not at all happy with the Casey Anthony verdict. It seems like somebody ought to pay for such a horrible atrocity. But I am also keenly aware that I myself am standing in heaven’s courtroom, with angels marveling at the fact that Jesus plans to take me into the kingdom after all the times I’ve broken God’s law. “He has not dealt with us according to our sins,” the Psalmist reminds us, “nor punished us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:10)

Was Casey Anthony undeserving of her verdict? Quite possibly. Maybe even probably. I know for a fact that I don’t deserve mine.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Higher and Higher

When I was attending grade school during the 1960’s I had two passions that consumed me. I loved baseball. I chewed lots of really bad gum to collect baseball cards. As much as I loved baseball, what really intrigued me was space exploration.

My heroes were the astronauts in NASA’s space program. I read everything about them that I could get my hands on. In 1969 my interest in space was at a fever pitch. Everyone was talking about the race to land on the moon. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, the entire world was captivated. Every newspaper covered the story. I soaked it all in. I couldn’t believe what a marvelous world I was living in. The moonwalk was a part of pop culture. After watching the moonwalk on TV, the Moody Blues drummer, Graham Edge, penned the poem "Higher and Higher", which was used to open their next album.

"Blasting, billowing, bursting forth
with the power of ten billion butterfly sneezes.
Man, with his flaming pyre
has conquered the wayward breezes.

Climbing to tranquility,
far above the clouds,
conceiving the heavens,
clear of misty shroud.

Vast vision must improve our sight.
Perhaps at last we'll see an end
to our own endless blight,
and the beginning of the free.

Climb to tranquility,
finding its real worth,
conceiving the heavens,
flourishing on earth".

As I listened to these words I realized even as a boy that this optimism that space exploration would make the world a better place wasn’t the way things would be. I read in my Bible in Obadiah 1:4, “Though you ascend as high as the eagle, and though you set your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down, says the Lord”.

As a Christian I had always looked at space exploration as a way to learn more about the awesome things God had made. I was excited by the new discoveries and what they could show me about how awesome God is. As I studied science and read about space I always kept God in the picture.

While I went through High School I stayed interested in space, but there were many other things to interest me and take up my time. I realized that as interesting as space exploration was it wasn’t changing things here on earth. By now there had been 6 moon landings and moon walks. In just a few years astronauts on the moon had gone from the most exciting and talked about thing on the planet to ho hum, so you can drive a vehicle on the moon. The space race was over and pop culture had found other interests.

NASA didn’t recapture the interest of most Americans until 1981, when the Space Shuttle Columbia made the first flight of a space vehicle that returned to earth and was reusable. Once again man seemed on the verge of conquering the heavens. One of the exciting new directions in space exploration was the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1979 work was started on this new project. After many delays it was finally launched in 1990. Nothing NASA had done since landing on the moon captured the interest of the American public as much as the Hubble Telescope.

The images that the Hubble produced were breathtaking. When I first saw the images I thought of the words of David found in Psalms 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork”.

One Hubble photo in particular fascinates me. It is called The Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Astronomers picked a seemingly empty spot in the sky. Staring at the spot in the sky for ten days, Hubble kept taking pictures one after another for the entire exposure time, accumulating data. Astronomers put the exposures together into one final picture. Each time they added an exposure, the view got deeper, revealing fainter objects. When they were done they had the deepest picture ever taken of the heavens.

The image is of a small region in the constellation Ursa Major. It covers an area 2.5 arcminutes across, one part in a million of the whole sky. The image contains an estimated 10,000 galaxies. That would mean that the whole universe contains a million times 10,000 galaxies. Astronomers estimate that our home galaxy, the Milky Way, contains between 200 and 400 billion stars. How many stars are in the universe? I will let you do the math.

Isaiah 40:26 tells us “Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out one after another, calling each by its name. And He counts them to see that none are lost or have strayed away”.

The universe staggers our imagination. It is humbling to realize that our planet earth is simply a speck of cosmic dust in the great universe that God has created. David was amazed by God’s love for us. In Psalms 8:3,4 he wrote, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him And the son of man that You visit him?

Go outside tonight, take a look at the sky and know that there is a Creator who cares for you, who died for you and wants to bring you home to live with him.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Let Me Count The Ways

When I was in high school my least favorite class was English. I just couldn’t get into the poetry we were studying. Even though I didn’t enjoy the class, I still remember a few of the poems we studied.

I was recently reading an article that brought a poem from that class back to mind. In a Valentine’s Day survey, a poem written in 1850 was voted the most romantic. I remembered the poem from my high school class.

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach”. The poem was written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was born in Durham, England in 1806, the oldest of 12 children. She began writing poetry when she was 8 years old. When she was 15, Elizabeth injured her spine as a result of a fall. Because of the accident she became an invalid. She spent the majority of her time in her room writing poetry. In 1844, Robert Browning wrote to Elizabeth admiring her poems. He continued to write to her and they were engaged in 1845.

Elizabeth's father disapproved of the courtship and engagement. In 1846, Elizabeth and Robert were secretly wed and moved to Italy where Elizabeth's health improved. She continued to live in Italy with her husband Robert for the rest of her life.

In 1850, Elizabeth's best known book of poems was published, titled Sonnets from the Portugese. They are a sequence of 44 sonnets recording the growth of her love for Robert. He often called her "my little Portuguese" because of her dark complexion. Of all the sonnets, the most famous is #43, which begins "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Even if you do not appreciate 19th century poetry you can tell that these poems were written from the heart.

As great a poem as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, I don’t think it is the greatest love poem of all time. The greatest love poem is found in the Bible in John 3:16,17. “ For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved”.

What beautiful words. We need to keep in mind that it is the world that God loves, not a single nation, not a single race. Not just the “good” people, not just the people who love God back. “God so loved the world.” This includes the lovable and the unlovable; those who are popular, and those who have no one else to love them; the ones who love God, and the ones who never think of God.

Some people find it hard to accept the fact that God’s love and grace are so freely given. They want to place limits on God’s love. They prefer to think that God only loves the same people they themselves love, and that God despises the same people that they despise; That God doesn’t love people who don’t think the same way they do.

To put it quite bluntly, these people are wrong. God loves the world, and that includes both those who are just like us and those who are totally different from us. If Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn people, why are we so quick to? Jesus came to lift up, not to put down. Jesus didn’t come to condemn us; Jesus came to offer us eternal life. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we should follow His example.

God has not only shown his love for us by giving us His son, God has written us a love letter. I was never much of a letter writer, but when my wife and I were dating, 500 miles separated us. I became a letter writer. Every day when I got home from work I wrote her a letter. Imagine how I would have felt if she didn’t read my letters. Imagine how God feels when we neglect to read the love letter he has written to us.

In that love letter God wrote to you it says, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through the one who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor anything above, nor anything below, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Romans 8:37-39

How would you feel if you if you wrote these beautiful words to the love of your life and they were ignored. God says to us, “How do I love thee, Let me count the ways”. How has God shown His love to you? Can you count the ways? He will have to do the counting, because we will never know all the ways he shows his love to us. We so often completely miss the wonderful revelations of his love for us as we go about our daily lives.

There is a sad but poignant story from the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her father disapproved of her courtship with Robert Browning. When they became engaged her father forbid Elizabeth to marry. When she secretly married Robert her father disowned her, but that didn’t stop her from keeping in touch. Almost weekly she wrote him a letter. Not once did he reply. After ten years she received a large box in the mail. Inside she found all of her letters. Not one had been opened! Today those letters are among the most beautiful in classical English literature, yet her father never read the first one.

God's Word is His love letter to us. The love of Jesus waits in each page! Don’t leave your love letters unopened and unread. God loves you and he wants to tell you just how much. Open his love letter to you and listen to what he has to say to you.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Body Armor

How many Bibles do you own? I did a quick inventory at my house and counted over 50. I love to collect Bibles.

There are eight billion Bibles in the world. That's more than one for each person on the earth. This does not include digital versions of the Bible on computers, ebook readers and iPhones. Over 190,000 Bibles are sold or given away every day. But despite all that, according to a Christianity Today survey, less than 10% of professed Christians regularly read their Bible. What that basically means is that we as Christians are biblically illiterate.

In Ephesians 6:11-13 Paul writes, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”

If we are in a battle like this armor is important. No soldier would want to go into battle without armor. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the body armor provided to U.S. troops. A January 3, 2011 Inspector General Report is the fourth report in less than three years criticizing the body armor program. It is an important issue because we want out troops to have the best armor available. We as Christians also need to make sure that we have the best armor available when we go into battle against the Devil. What armor is available to us?

Ephesians 6:14-17 tells us, “Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Notice that there are five defensive items listed, but also listed as armor is an offensive weapon; The Sword of the Spirit. A soldier might rely on his body armor, but he must have a weapon to do battle.

Jesus is our example when it comes to Christian Warfare. I’m sure you remember the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness.

We read the story in Luke 4:3-8 “And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” But Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’” Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore, if You will worship before me, all will be Yours.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’

Jesus used the sword by saying “It is written”. This is our example of how to use the offensive weapon, the Word of God, in battle. To be able to use this weapon, we must place it in our memory. I can’t use the physical book as a weapon; I can only use the wisdom it contains.

The Bible is the only weapon that a Christian has at his disposal, and yet ninety percent of Christians don’t regularly read it. Can you imagine an army going into battle with only ten percent of the soldiers carrying a weapon? Can you imagine the outcome?

The Bible contains God's living water and we live in a world that is dehydrated. We need to keep ourselves hydrated and you can't get a drink just once a week and stay hydrated.

I hope you will join with me in resolving to spend more time with the Word of God. Don’t go into battle without your weapon.