Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Gifts are really just that...

Do you ever wonder “why”? No, not why certain things happen, why there is evil in the world, why traffic acts like a slinky during rush hour? Those are all good questions but the “why” to which I am referring is the one that comes from self-reflection. It is the “why” that pops into our minds when we look in the mirror and notice a gift we have or perhaps the lack of a particular gift. It is then that we wonder why we have (or don’t have) that noticed characteristic. It is the “greater why” asking who we are or aren’t.
Every one of the roughly 6 billion people currently on this earth is different! Some are smart, really smart and some are not so smart. Some are beautiful and others are less blessed with physical beauty. Some are tall, or lean, or blond or even physically challenged. There are different races and some even feel they have the special gift of being from a certain state like say….. Wisconsin (which is generally only considered a gift on February 7th after the Super Bowl). Some are born to rich parents, some to modest families, and some to the very poor. Some are born in America and some in the Amazon Jungle. So the question that often springs into my consciousness and perhaps sometimes yours is “WHY”? Why me, why here, why now, why as I am, why do I have less of something I want and more of something I don’t?
The answer is simply “because!” Well maybe there is a bit more of an explanation, but in the end, it really is “because”…  It is what God has determined according to His plan. Most Christians understand God’s gift and sovereign nature so we are not surprised that gifts are given as God sees fit, at least intellectually. The real challenge for me is then translating that understanding into a living reality each day. That is, understanding that truth does not remove the wondering, the “why” that flows from our inquiring human minds.
Let me explain why this whole “why” thing is important and the struggles that result for me. I sometimes find my pride taking control, stepping to the forefront of my thinking and often I find arrogance creeping into my heart. I struggle as I compare myself with others. I feel good when I sense I am more gifted, especially if the gift is on the list of the World’s most important gifts. Ah, to be smarter, faster, better looking, stronger, richer, American, a cheese-head perhaps! I hope you’ll notice two things about the list. Firstly, those most important things, the one’s that make us feel superior are pretty much a gift of God (or a curse sometimes) and have little to do with us. Sure we can exercise and practice to improve some things, but mostly the foundation is purely a gift. Let me stress that again, those worldly attributes, the ones we brag about and condescend over have virtually NOTHING to do with us. There is absolutely no basis for pride or arrogance. Secondly, I’m not sure those attributes on the world’s list of important characteristics are even the most important, in fact I’m pretty sure they are not very important at all in God’s economy. Where is kindness, humility, a servant’s heart, loving, giving? Isn’t it interesting how truth is distorted and how importance is jumbled in our fallen world? Have you ever asked yourself simply, “would you rather be smart or kind”? If you are honest, it probably isn’t kind. We really tend to look down on the “stupid”… but then when you meet someone who is pure love, perhaps a special needs child, you will be convicted, you will see the real answer.
So I encourage you brother and sister, to resist the lies of the world and of the heart. Remember we are given a place, a purpose, a set of unique gifts for the sole purpose of serving and glorifying God. The gifts we have, the family, the birthplace, the race are neither better nor worse that any others. What we do with them in blessing our Father, in serving Him, now THAT matters. As we read in James, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17) I would argue the gifts from God, no matter which, are always good and perfect.
As Jesus taught, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12) So as you are tempted to be proud of how smart you are, how beautiful, of your nationality or race, I encourage you to remember that you had nothing to do with any of that. You are where you are and what you are at God’s pleasure. And remember, those things you may think are blessings may turn out to be real burdens. I think Paul said it best when writing to the Romans:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: “(Romans 12:3-6a)
Think not too highly nor too lowly but rather in the mirror see an exactly created, deeply loved, instrument crafted to fit the Master’s hand perfectly for his purpose, for his plan, for his glory as we allow him to use us to shape eternity. We are blessed just as we are, to bless others just as our Lord will allow.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Snow Day!!

When I was young, I looked forward to Snow Days when school would closed and winter fun would begin. We would slide and skate and build snow creations. Better than boring school work for sure.
While I don't see snow with that same joyful perspective, with anticipation of free time and fun, snow can still change my outlook. Yesterday we received our first snow of the year, about 3 inches. It was not a lot but just enough to cover the earth and make it new, to make it "white as snow'. It covered all of the world’s little flaws and imperfections and left the landscape beautiful and fresh, pure and innocent. Snow is an amazing phenomenon. You probably know where I am going with this, but it is just as much of a humbling, encouraging amazing phenomenon when we are turned white as snow. As it is written in Isaiah 1:18, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
We, like the world, all have flaws. We are dirtied by sin, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” [Romans 3:23]. It may we practice idolatry as we worship money, prestige, or other of the world's temptations. It might be we are covetousness, that's a big one this time of the year as we celebrate Christmas, as we are bombarded with messages that tell us we need more, we need to have what "everyone else has". We may be murderers. I can almost hear the gasp, the "whoa now" Rick, you have crossed a line. We may have "little" sins but not murder or anything really bad. I agree it is good that you haven't murdered anyone this year, but if we hate, it is like murder. Hatred is murder in our hearts. Jesus taught that "You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” [Matthew 5:21-22]. So as it is written in 1 John 1:8, ‎”If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."
By now you are probably thinking, "Rick, how could you take such a beautiful thing like snow and make it such a downer?". .. but wait, here is the Good News. We CAN BE white as snow. When we confess our sins and surrender to Jesus, we are clean again, white as snow, our sins are as far as the east as from the west, he loves us enough to forgive ALL of our transgressions. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." [1 John 1:9]  Jesus doesn’t just deal with just the little ones, not just if they aren't too bad, but ANY of our blemishes, ALL unrighteousness. Perhaps you are truly racked by guilt or regret over something you have done in the past, your days are consumed by sorry and shame, please know brother or sister, relief is available not in a pill but in a promise. You do not have to clean up your act before you come to meet God, just come and he will do the deep cleaning.
Today the beauty of the snow is fading. Sure it's still kind of pretty and I remember how beautiful it was when it was pure and new, but the impact of the world has spotted it with dirt and corruption again. Yep, just like us. While I may have to wait for the next “act of God” to see the pure snow covered landscape again, I can see an act of God in me today by confessing once again and asking Jesus to wash me clean. He is faithful and once more I will be white as snow.
Isn't it simply amazing that through the ultimate, holy, pure sacrifice, by the blood of Jesus we are offered eternal life, we can be washed and made holy enough for a holy God? By God’s amazing grace, by his love, we are saved from sin, from ourselves, for eternity? Now THAT is a Christmas gift worth celebrating!
If you have not experienced a Snow Day in your life, if you have not experienced the freedom and forgiveness that comes from a relationship with Jesus, I would love to talk with you about that Good News. Please drop me a line at rick@theeyeoftheneedle.org.
May God bless you and your family this Christmas as we rejoice in the gift of life, the true reason for the season.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chasing Contentment in a Fallen World

Contentment …  ahhh. Even the word conjures feelings of peace and tranquility. Contentment sounds so soothing, so peaceful, such a relief in our crazy, hectic world. Do you sometimes wonder if you will ever be content? Are you perpetually unsettled, unfulfilled in your career, your relationships, your daily life? Have you concluded that discontent is probably just part of life, part of being human?

There is certainly some truth to discontentment being part of being human, or at least in our present state. Indeed, we lack contentment because we are fallen, we are sinful. OK, I know that sounds trite but the reality is, we are stiff-necked, covetous creatures and yes, that comes from our sin nature brought to us by Satan through the ever notorious, Adam and Eve. It is curious though that despite our fallen nature, we are encouraged in God’s Word to somehow be content. Paul of course is perhaps the most remarkable model and teacher of how to live a life of contentment in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11) whether in prison, shipwrecked, stoned, or just generally miserable, Paul seemed to have a different perspective than most of us would. To the Corinthians Paul writes, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10, ESV) I don’t know about you, but Paul’s circumstances were much bigger challenges than I am facing today or at least on most days.

As we seek joy it is also helpful to remember that we are sojourners, we are but visitors in this life. Have you ever been homesick? Isn’t that emptiness much the same as that unspoken yearning and gnawing unhappiness you feel daily? So we are wandering as tourists through this fallen, corrupt world feeling empty and wondering why creation, including us, is such a mess. Well, just to be clear, this is not heaven, this is earth. With a fallen world and our fallen nature working against us, happiness will clearly not come easy.

So most of us listen to the world’s wisdom and pursue our quest for happiness by trying to fulfill our fleshly desires. Curiously, even if we become “successful” in this world and somehow become content with our material position, we will still find ourselves unsettled by the lack of Spiritual contentment. I know that may sound unbelievable if you have never been blessed with wealth, but trust me, if you ever receive worldly abundance or have a real heart-to-heart with someone who has, you will find they struggle with the same issues as you. If you are unconvinced, I encourage you to review any of the studies that track lottery winners a few years after their big payday, or perhaps visit an elite Palm Beach party. You will see that despite their “treasures”, the wealthy, like the rest of us, have lives that are a mess and they are often more miserable than you, no matter their position or possessions.

Truly, creature comforts never really satisfy that longing, that Spiritual thirst we all have. Contrary to our culture’s suggestions, material goods and self-actualization (thank you Maslow) do NOT lead to inner peace. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17, ESV) It is particularly difficult for the successful, the famous, the rich to deal with that hollowness, that God shaped void in their heart, since they are blessed with the world’s treasures and therefore are supposed to be happy. Breaking through the enemy’s lies to find true peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7) can only be realized through a relationship with Jesus. Only then do we personally experience the peace that guards our hearts.

We should be cautious though not to confuse contentment with complacency as we live out our faith. John recorded in the book of Revelation, that being complacent with our faith, like the church at Laodicea, is not a healthy condition. In the letter to that church, God explained that he wished the Laodiceans were either warm or cold because in their lukewarm state, God warned that “I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16, ESV) or in the New King James Translation, “I will vomit you out of my mouth”. That is quite a picture of displeasure.

So how do we seek contentment, that peace for which we yearn? How do we fight off the sinful desire to covet, the craving for more stuff, while seeking happiness and avoiding complacency?  It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit, by God’s grace and not by our own power, new age meditation, herbs or vitamin D, that we are we able to reach that place of contentment. And our tool for filling our Spiritual tank with God’s grace is prayer, as Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6-7, ESV)

Perhaps Paul’s instructions to his young helper Timothy are most clear:

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. (1 Tim 6:6–10, ESV)

True contentment, fished from the misguided wisdom of the world by prayer, comes from bypassing the temporal perspective and keeping our eyes on the eternal treasure offered ONLY by Christ Jesus…. Amen?