10 Ways to Live a Holy Life, Part 4

[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life. 2 Timothy 1:9

I hope you’ve had the chance to read at least some of the first three installments of this series on living a holy life. Maybe, though, these last two list items will be just the ones you need to read. God has a perfect track record for getting us where we need to be, when we need to be there.

In Part 3, I included a powerful quote about holiness from a sermon by the late Oswald Chambers, one of my favorite preachers of yore. During that same sermon he went on to say:

God…did not come to save us out of pity – He came to save us because He created us to be holy. Holiness is not simply what God gives me, but what God has given me that is being exhibited in my life.

So don’t get the idea that living a holy life is some sort of means of earning salvation – that ain’t happening. But once we come to faith in Jesus and accept the free gift of salvation God has so graciously offered, then the desire to meet His higher standards for us should come naturally due to being filled with His Holy Spirit. In other words, we can’t not want to be holy.

If you’re indifferent to that desire, then you may want to do some deep searching, kind of like a virus scan on your computer – and not the “Quick” scan but the “Full” one. Not that these 10 ways to live a holy life are definitive or on a par with inspired scripture, but you should find yourself doing or wanting to do some of them. If not – “Full” scan.

The first eight ways to live a holy life are:

Part 1

  1. Go to Church
  2. Read the Good Book (and other good books)
  3. Pray

Part 2

  1. Be Honest
  2. Be a Giver
  3. Be Peculiar

Part 3

  1. Watch What Goes Into Your Body Temple
  2. Watch What Comes Out of Your Body Temple

Just as we did for the first eight, for the final two we will use the only yardstick by which any of these ways to be holy should be measured: Jesus.

The Holiness Listicle (9-10)

9. Don’t Turn That Dial

I know a fine Christian individual – grew up in church, loves to dig deep into the Bible, supports all manner of ministry opportunities. Great sense of humor, loves to laugh – which leads to watching a few sitcoms on TV. In my best “speak the truth in love” voice, I pointed out that one of those sitcoms, while hysterically funny, presents a world view that’s the exact opposite of this person’s world view.

“You know,” I said, “all the characters on that show are sleeping with other characters they aren’t married to. One of them is an atheist and has spoken sacrilegiously about Jesus on several occasions.”

The response: “I know, but it’s just so funny and there isn’t much else on TV I like to watch.”

Apparently, turning off the TV and not watching that program wasn’t an option.

I don’t have a TV, so I can only go by the names of some of these, but with names like “Good Christian B-tches”, “Californication,” and “Dating Naked” I know all I need to know. Shows I used to watch, like “Glee,” “Modern Family,” and “Big Bang Theory,” may not have been as overtly offensive as the others, but they still present a world view that is anything but Christian.

I know there are some fine programs on TV – sports, news, arts, and DIY shows – but for every minute I sit aimlessly scrolling through the channels, I could be writing for this blog or reading my Bible or just getting alone with the Lord. And every dollar I spend on cable just to watch HGTV could be used to feed hungry children in my county, a much greater need than my being entertained by the Property Brothers.

As far as movies, although there are some fine Christian-themed ones that have come out lately (not Noah), thanks to the 21st century obsession with sharing every detail of one’s life through social media I know of Christian brothers and sisters who go to decidedly non-Christian-themed movies, some of which cause them to comment: “They used the ‘F’ word so much we almost got up and left.” (“Almost” – that only counts when playing horseshoes.)

We all have to (or should) listen to that still small voice inside us. And that voice has told me I’m not to go to movies with cursing or other things He doesn’t approve of and to totally do away with my TV. Why? Actually the owner of that still small voice doesn’t ever owe me an answer. “’Cause I’m God and I said so” would work just fine. However, venturing a guess, I suspect it would relate to what Paul told the folks at his church plant in Philippi:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Philippians 4:8

And that doesn’t include sitting in front of the TV laughing at sacrilegious atheists who sleep with their neighbors across the hall.

Would Jesus watch “Big Bang Theory?” No, but He might enjoy watching a YouTube video of a cat wearing a shark suit while riding a Roomba and chasing a duck.

You don’t know.

10. Save it For Marriage

No one reading this needs a detailed dissertation on sex and sexual immorality in the 21st century. It’s up in your face just as much as it’s up in mine. Likewise, no one reading this can claim to be unaware if they happen to be dabbling (or drowning) in sexual immorality. If you are, you know it.

These Bible passages were all written to and about church members:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans…And you are proud! 1 Corinthians 5:1,2

Neither the sexually immoral…nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders…will inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Corinthians 6:9,10

Flee from sexual immorality. 1 Corinthians 6:18

(Those 1st Corinthians must have been a rowdy bunch.)

Sex is everywhere – it’s used to sell everything. Sexual innuendo is so prolific that we’re fast becoming immune to it and we’re so inundated with sexual imagery that it’s almost to the point of having to gouge our eyes out to avoid it. Jesus said that was actually a better choice than ending up in hell, but there are ways to be sexually undefiled and still keep your eyesight.

Regarding sexual immorality, the Bible is plain: JUST STOP IT. And while I can’t really quote many actual words from Jesus about sexual immorality, let’s use this as a benchmark: If you would be OK with Jesus sitting right outside knowing what you are doing right inside, then go for it. Otherwise…

JUST STOP IT

No sex outside of Biblical marriage – period. That should make the rest of these reasons unnecessary, but so many, including Christians, have begun to justify their proclivity to do some of these things with statements like: “We love each other; besides, we’re soul mates.” Jesus cares about your soul, not its mating practices.

And no living together before marriage. Pictures posted by one member of a romantic relationship of the other member still in bed asleep with the caption, “Look who was being a sleepyhead this morning” and photos showing “how nice the view was from our hotel room” scream trash. “Besides, we’re get married soon anyway.” I’m pretty sure Jesus doesn’t care how soon your wedding is.

Stop watching or reading porn. The statistics on porn usage among Christians are staggering. Men, it’s demeaning to women and is ruining marriages and destroying families. Would you want someone to watch your daughters or your sons doing what you’re watching someone else’s daughters and sons doing in those movies?

And women, that includes reading “50 Shades of Gray.” If a “Search inside this book” on Amazon.com turns up 17 hits for the word “orgasm” and 10 hits for descriptions of the 21-year-old female lead character being tied up – and not tied up as in “I’m busy” but as in sadistic bondage – then it’s porn.

Stop flirting with/messaging/sexting someone else if you’re married. Would you hand your phone password over to Jesus? Guess what – He already knows it.

Sex is beautiful, sex is amazing, sex is FUN, but only when it’s enjoyed by a husband and wife – you and your husband or your wife.

Otherwise… (Don’t make me say it again.)


 

I’m kinda glad this series is over – sometimes it felt a little harsh. I had much rather write about love and joy and blessing, but this is what the Lord laid on my heart.

I’m not sure what you believe about the end of this life as we know it, but I believe we’re getting close. It’s time to put up or shut up. It’s now or never.

Are you ready to see Jesus face-to-face? There may not be a second chance. I don’t want to meet the Lord jacked up on caffeine or in the middle of watching porn or doing anything that does not bring absolute glory and honor to Him. I want to hear, “Well done.” If you don’t really care – “Full” scan.

Don’t make these 10 list items into a check list or print yourself a holiness certificate once you’ve conquered them. They’re just for starters. However, they all boil down to one thing: make God first and most important in your life.

  1. Go to Church because God says to “not give up meeting together.” (Hebrews 10:25) The Church (capital “C”) is Jesus’ body, meant to travel through this life together.
  2. Read the Good Book because God says that we are to live “on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) Every word in it – whether penned by Isaiah or Malachi or Paul – is “God-breathed.”
  3. Pray because God says to do so “continually.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Who do we generally want to talk to when something good or bad happens? The person who’s most important to us.
  4. Be Honest because God hates “a false witness who pours out lies.” (Proverbs 6:19) Hates it. Period.
  5. Be a Giver because Jesus said that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) Give because God has given you everything.
  6. Be Peculiar because God said that we should “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” (Romans 12:2) If you’ve been called to salvation God has set you apart.
  7. Watch What Goes Into Your Body because God said His “temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” (I Corinthians 3:17) Don’t let your god be your stomach.
  8. Watch What Comes out of Your Body because God says “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) It literally defines who you are.
  9. Turn That Dial because God said to “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:2) What we fill our minds with affects who we become: garbage in; garbage out.
  10. Save it for Marriage because “God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” Is that few minutes of pleasure really worth it?

If you only remember one thing from this series, remember this: God said, “Be holy because I am holy.”

And He never said anything he didn’t mean.

10 Ways to Live a Holy Life, Part 3

[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life. 2 Timothy 1:9

By now, I hope that Part 1 and Part 2 of this series have convinced you that setting our sights on living as holy a life as humanly possible is God’s will for us. Oswald Chambers, the early 20th century preacher, said it perfectly:

God has only one intended destiny for mankind – holiness. Holiness means absolute purity of your walk before God, the words coming from your mouth, and every thought in your mind – placing every detail of your life under the scrutiny of God Himself.

These words are just as relevant today as they were 100 years ago when he preached them. Putting everything we do, say, and think under God’s holiness microscope is the only way to live the life for which He created us.

Part 1 in the Holiness Listicle included three things to do – or start doing – to inaugurate your holiness journey:

  1. Go to Church
  2. Read the Good Book (and other good books)
  3. Pray

Part 2 included three “Be”-haviors from the lifestyles of the saved and holy:

  1. Be Honest
  2. Be a Giver
  3. Be Peculiar

Continuing on with Part 3, we’ll look at two things to watch out for, while continuing to use Jesus as our benchmark. In my own experience (as you’ll see), these two items may require a heaping helping of enablement by the Holy Spirit.

The Holiness Listicle (7-8)

7. Watch What Goes Into Your Body Temple

Although I think total abstention from liquor is a pretty good idea, this list item isn’t really about that. After all, Jesus drank wine. (However, I can’t imagine that he would sit out on the back deck with you and split a case of cold ones.) The Bible doesn’t condemn drinking – drinking too much, though…

Do not get drunk on wine… Ephesians 5:18

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks. Isaiah 5:22

(That would definitely rule out Mai Tais and Margaritas.)

What this item is about is socially acceptable and the next-best-thing to drug use; notably, the use and abuse of caffeine and other chemical stimulants.

Maybe I’ve just never paid attention, but I’m seeing brothers in Christ coming into Sunday school with the largest cups of coffee McDonald’s sells – one in each hand – that are gone by the end of the 45-minute lesson. I see dear sisters in Christ posting cellphone pictures of enormous whipped cream and caramel drizzled concoctions from Dunkin’ Donuts that are almost too big to fit in their automobile console. When they’re not posting pictures of coffee, they’re posting humorous cartoons about not being able to face the day without coffee.

When caffeine and sugar addiction is a reality in someone’s life, it’s hard to laugh at it.

We (Christians) have joined the world in allowing ourselves to be super-sized, Big-Gulped, venti-ed, and Red-Bulled literally to death. After all, energy drinks are just a little jaw grinding and a couple of dilated pupils away from a bump of crystal meth, and sugary soda is the one thing that has been definitely linked to obesity. And companies catering to the ever-growing market for those things are more than happy to pump our bodies full.

In short, we’ve become a chosen people jonesing for caffeine and chemicals and sugar and saturated fat.

While I don’t expect that everyone reading this holiness series will see themselves falling short in all 10 of these items (maybe even none of them), I certainly did. I found my “aha” moment while writing this very one (and the next one).

I don’t talk much about the details of my pre-salvation life here on “clay,” because I’m not proud of it and want to make this blog about God’s grace and not my sin. For a few dark months during that prodigal period, though, I became fairly well acquainted with recreational “stimulants.” (That jaw grinding and pupil dilation I mentioned was something I lived with for a while.) Although I was not seeking God at the time, I know now that it was Him who gave me the strength to just walk away from it one day – no lasting effects, no need for a 12-step program. I quit and never looked back. Several party buddies from that era weren’t so fortunate.

But caffeine soon took its place. (I could easily chug a two-liter bottle of Diet Mt. Dew during the work day.) When God made me a new creation, though, I realized that I was using caffeine for the same reason I used those other chemicals – to alter my mood, to make me feel like something I wasn’t. He showed me that I didn’t need chemical stimulation – His grace was sufficient for me in every way. So I ditched the sodas and switched to decaf.

Over the past few months, though, I decided – all by myself – that I was ready to handle drinking regular coffee in the morning. Then I decided – again, all by myself – that I could repeat that in the afternoon. (We have an industrial-size Keurig and unlimited K-cups in our kitchen at work.) I also decided I could start drinking sodas again, as well – all by myself.

I’ve mentioned before that quite often I think what I write here on “clay” is as much for my benefit as it is for anyone else’s. This is one of those times. Right in the middle of writing this sermon on caffeine use I got the “practice what you preach” speech from the Lord. I realized that I had gradually justified falling back into those old habits.

The Lord reminded me that I wasn’t living for myself anymore – I belonged to Him. As Paul told the 1st Corinthians:

You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

So a few days ago I switched back to decaf. Other than a couple of headaches, the Lord has done for me just what He told the Israelites He would do for them in Isaiah 41:10:

I will strengthen you and help you…

How about you? What would you do if you woke up to a broken coffee maker tomorrow morning? What if there was a sudden sugar shortage, or if Red Bull was banned by the FDA?

None of those things are nourishment; they’re not what God had in mind when he created food for us to eat. It was not named the McGarden of Eden.

How can we set ourselves apart from the world if we can’t face life without mood-altering chemicals? The potential short- and long-term effects of even moderate caffeine and sugar use range from anxiety to heart disease and cancer. Is it worth that? It appears God doesn’t think so:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple. 1 Corinthians 3:16,17

What are you filling your temple with? What does your waistline say? What does your coffee house spending say? Does it say, “What would happen if you took as good care of the inside of your temple as you do the outside?”

If it does, listen.

Can you picture Jesus stopping by the Jerusalem Starbucks for a double-shot Caramel Macchiato because he needed all that sugar and caffeine to help him stay awake while He prayed all night in Gethsemane?

Neither can I…

8. Watch What Comes Out of Your Body Temple

David wrote:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14

Had he lived today, he would have most likely added “…and the things I type or share on Facebook…”

As Christians, it’s important that everything we say or otherwise express is honoring to God – which requires constant vigilance, as we’re inextricably entangled in an age of immediate and never-ending communication. We can share instant messages, tweets, status updates, and have phone conversations to and from anywhere on the planet any time of the day or night. Within seconds everyone from your close friends to the entire Twitterverse can watch that video you liked or know where you were 35 minutes ago or that you call your pets your “fur babies.” And with ever-increasing and alarming regularity, I’m seeing respected brothers and sisters in Christ carelessly saying, texting, and sharing things that are crude and off-color.

Sometimes it’s from a lack of information; other times, it’s because we’ve just gotten used to talking and tweeting like the world around us.

I grew up in an era when Wally and the Beaver were innocently “gee-whizzing” their way through every TV episode. However, a quick visit to dictionary.com confirms that:

  • “Gosh” and “golly” are actually just euphemisms for “God.”
  • “Darn” is a euphemism for “damn,” as is “dang.”
  • “Dadgum” and “doggone” and other variations are euphemisms for “God” and “damn” combined.
  • “Gee whiz” is a euphemism for “Je-sus.”

C’mon – really?! It’s “Leave it to Beaver” for crying out loud – which is a euphemism for “for Christ’s sake.”

The sad thing is that most people who say “oh my God” or “gosh darn it” are not trying to insult God. It’s just that His name doesn’t mean anything to them and has become nothing more than a trite way to express a negative emotion.

And then there are the various digital communication abbreviations, like “OMG” for “Oh My God.” You can say that you mean the “G” to stand for “gosh,” but even when trying to soft-pedal and substitute “safe” words for the real ones, the intent remains the same. No matter which combination of “G.D.” words you use, the meaning doesn’t really change.

Additionally, simply by “Like”-ing, commenting on, or sharing a video, status, photo, etc. that is off-color to any degree or has cursing in the content, the title, or even the name of the page you shared it from, is basically the same as saying, “I, John Q. Christian, approve of everything you see written, implied, or displayed here.” If we wouldn’t say it or show it to Jesus, we shouldn’t show it to all of our friends, some of whom may be looking at our lives as representative of our faith.

So what do we – I – do? I say “for crying out loud” all the time and am just now learning what it means myself.

I do what list item #3 in Part 1 says: I pray. More specifically, I pray that God will help me change my language – even the mild stuff. And since I pride myself on my vocabulary, surely with God’s help I can manage to express myself effectively without using His name for any other reason than to express thanks and praise and honor and glory.

Of course, the easy way out would be to say, “Who’s even going to care?” But if we stick to our benchmark test, then we have to face this fact:

“Gee whiz” will care…


 

Just be careful what goes into your “temple” and what comes out. Jesus said:

Men [and women] will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. Matthew 12:36

But if you always make sure your heart is full of Him, you’ll find it much easier to answer to Him on that day.

Look for Part 4 soon…

10 Ways to Live a Holy Life, Part 2

[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life. 2 Timothy 1:9

In 10 Ways to Live a Holy Life, Part 1 I introduced the idea of personal holiness in the life of the Christian. The Bible is plain that aiming for holiness should be the goal of every person who has been saved by God’s grace.

For some people, however, the concept of God’s grace is treated as more of a “license to kill,” the thought apparently being that, not only is there nothing we can do to earn God’s grace (true dat) there’s also nothing special we have to do afterward, sort of like having a reserved seat at a baseball game – even if you don’t wander in until the bottom of the ninth, you’ve still got a seat waiting for you.

But looking at 2 Timothy 1:9 (above), there are definitely two parts to the “Livin’ La Vida Christian” equation:

SALVATION + HOLY LIFE = GOD’S WILL FOR US

Living under grace includes a reserved seat all right, but you need to be there for the whole game – and not to just drink beer. To quote myself from Part 1, being holy means that:

…now that I know Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I’m supposed to be different from the average non-Christian guy on the street – different in the things I do, the things I say, and the things I think about.

True dat, as well.

The first three items in Part 1 of the “Holiness Listicle” dealt with things to do to aid you in your quest for holiness:

  1. Go to Church
  2. Read the Good Book (and other good books)
  3. Pray

Part 2 deals with three BE-haviors. And, just like with the first three items, we’re using Jesus as the benchmark. If He would be it, then we should be it.

Continuing on…

The Holiness Listicle (4-6)

4. Be Honest

I’m not talking about grand theft auto or “if you like your health plan you can keep your health plan” types of dishonesty. I’m referring to the everyday things we do without thinking, like making up excuses when we return something to the store we just didn’t like or not correcting the grocery checkout clerk when he charges you for cucumbers instead of zucchini, their more expensive twin. Solomon in his wisdom wrote:

The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful. Proverbs 12:22

Can’t get no plainer than that. So…

  • Don’t “forget” to claim some bit of income on your tax return or inflate your charitable giving (especially not your giving to the church).
  • If the cashier gives you too much change back, return it – even if you have to get in the car and drive back up there. Even if it’s just 50 cents.
  • Drive the speed limit; come to a complete stop at a stop sign; yadda yadda. Those are the laws of our land. Romans 13:1 says we are to obey those laws: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.” Of course, if a law contradicts God’s law, then we are to obey God first. Interestingly though, God is strangely silent on driving down the interstate like you’re demon possessed…
  • If you agree to do something, do it. If later you can’t or just don’t want to do it, don’t make up an excuse – simply initiate an honest apology: “I know I told you I would do this, but I just don’t want to do it. I’m so sorry; I don’t have a good excuse. I hope you can forgive me, but if not, I understand. Please don’t key my car…”
  • Sick days aren’t meant to be taken just because you’re sick of working; and there is no such thing as a “mental health day,” at least not in any company policy manual I’ve ever seen. If you just can’t bring yourself to come in, ask for last minute vacation day or a day without pay. Better yet, ask God for strength, put on your big boy underwear, and go to work.

“Little white lies” are not little; “fibbing” is not cute; and “fudging the truth” is in no way related to that creamy, delicious, chocolaty confection. Be honest. And that includes not trying to make yourself look more exciting or more interesting than you are on social media. If you’re quiet and kind of uninteresting, just know that no one ever went to hell for being boring.

Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No”. Matthew 5:37

So be totally honest, even if no one will ever know. Actually, you know who will know?

Yep – Him.

5. Be a Giver

When we become followers of Jesus, part of the process of becoming a new creation is the development of traits or abilities we can use to serve the Lord and further His kingdom (or the re-direction of abilities we already have). In Romans 12:6 Paul says:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.

There’s no other way to read this – we should all have a gift (some of us more than one).

Paul lists those gifts in the next two verses:

  • Serving (Singing in the choir, passing out church bulletins, working in the nursery, going on mission trips)
  • Teaching (Sunday school, vacation Bible school, classes in managing ones finances in a Biblical manner)
  • Encouraging (Emails to your pastor, “Six months sober – that’s awesome, bro!”, “You go, girl – that song touched my heart!”)
  • Contributing to the needs of others (Giving money or – even better – food or clothing to the “least of these”)
  • Leadership (Pastoring, leading a church committee, holding a Bible study)
  • Showing mercy (Visiting those who are sick or just being a good listener)

No doubt there are others. As the saying goes, “It takes all kinds.” Be sure whatever kind you are, you’re using what God has given you to serve Him in the manner and amount He specifies.

Was Jesus a good steward of the gifts He possessed?

Well, duh…

6. Be Peculiar

Nobody likes to feel different from everyone else around them (except maybe Miley Cyrus). That’s one reason personal holiness can be a tough journey. But as Christians, that’s our calling. Paul said:

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world… (Romans 12:2, NLT)

A few weeks back I read an article written by Christian writer Roberto Rivera who had some really spot-on things to say about separating ourselves from the world:

People [referring to Christians] who couldn’t begin to tell you about the biblical Noah can talk your ears off about ephemeral pop culture matters. In our desperate desire to seem “relevant,” Christians are clamoring to join this vacuous conversation.

I love to talk about the Lord and the (hopefully soon) return of Jesus. I love to talk about what I’ve read in the Bible and a bit of commentary I thought was really compelling. I love to talk about why we shouldn’t be surprised at what’s going on in the world, because the Bible pretty much lays it out in detail for us. But in my circle of close friends, I can only count on two of them to not glaze over or get that “I’ve just been Jesus juked” look on their face while mumbling the obligatory “God is good, all right” when I try to start that conversation.

How can we as Christians not spend more time talking about the Lord than we do about the new season of “Downton Abbey”? David says this about God:

You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. (Psalm 16:11)

He’s done – and will do – that for me, too – and I can’t stop talking about it. It saddens me and sometimes makes me feel like I’m the only person in the world (besides those two friends) who can’t get enough of talking about the Lord.

Would Jesus be the third? You betcha.


So “be” all that God has called you to “be.” If He’s truly made you a new creation, He’s placed these things in your heart – you can’t not do them.

From here on out the list gets a little hairier – Part 3 will detail a couple of things we need to watch out for in our holiness journey. Buckle up…

To the nth degree

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Ephesians 3:20-21

When I was 12 or 13, my sister and I, along with my cousins up the road, created our own township in my Great-Uncle Buford’s backyard. His backyard was the perfect place for us kids to play, as he had a collection of ramshackle sheds, barns, and lean-tos he had built to hold farm tools, woodworking equipment, vegetable canning supplies for my great-aunt – basically, the random stuff old country people collected and held on to in days of “yore”.

We laid out streets on which to ride our bicycles amongst uncle Buford’s outbuildings and we each chose a profession. My oldest cousin was the banker and kept tabs of everyone’s bottle caps, our currency. (The more common the soft drink – RC Cola or Sundrop, for example – the less the top was worth. I’m sure that illustrates some economic principle perfectly – the law of soda and carbonation, maybe.) He also created checkbooks for each of us to use to draw funds from our stash of bottle caps stored in the bank vault (which, best I remember, was a shoe box).

I owned the store where I sold jars of my great-aunt’s canned tomatoes and shovels and hoes. No credit cards were accepted – mine was strictly a bottle cap-only business.

My youngest cousin was in charge of law enforcement and would stop anyone who ran one of her imaginary stop signs (which tended to move on an ever-changing and unpredictable whim) and levy some sort of fine. She was always on the take, though, and could be bought off for a couple of Nehi Grape Soda tops.

Down past the garden in a copse of pine trees, was our residential neighborhood. My dad brought us each a big cardboard box from the manufacturing plant where he worked and we cut a door and windows and arranged the fallen pine straw as best we could on our individual plots to give our kid-size McMansions some semblance of curb appeal.

Not only did these activities help develop my imagination, they kept me busy and out of my mama’s hair.

Without the internet and video games as distractions, it was much easier to develop a rich imagination that kept one from ending up on the 10:00 news for all the wrong reasons. And mine was indeed rich. In addition to being retail entrepreneur in Backyard-ville, I pretended to be a rock star and lip-synced to the latest 45s with a toilet paper roll as a microphone, built condos for my sister’s Barbie dolls out of album covers, and flew around the house wearing a super hero cape made of a bath towel.

It was never boring being me.

That imagination continued to follow me throughout my life. Eventually I traded in my cape for a drafting table and began imagining the cool house I would design and live in when I became an architect. Later, I banged out tunes on the piano, imagining the huge choir and orchestra I would conduct one day while they sang and played one of my compositions, a piece so moving and powerful that it would bring the audience to their feet in tears and thunderous applause. (One thing I never had to imagine was being overly dramatic.)

But neither of those ever came true. In fact, none of my imaginings came true: super hero, rock star, seller of canned tomatoes and shovels and hoes – none of it. Big dreams; unfulfilled life…

…At least until June 17, 2010. On that Thursday morning the faithful, loving, merciful, gracious almighty hand of the one true God (as David so beautifully wrote)…

…lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. (Psalm 40:2)

On that day I became an adopted son of God, a follower of Jesus, a Christian. Exit unfulfilled life, stage left; enter Spirit-led life, stage right-hand of God. For all my life I had imagined with my imagination and not God’s. Suddenly, anything I could ask, anything I could imagine, anything I could hope for, He could do to the nth degree without even breaking a sweat. (I realize that totally anthropomorphizes the Lord here, but you get my point.) He makes what I always thought was a vivid, well-honed imagination, sharpened from years of wishing and dreaming and flying around the house wearing a towel, look like a pre-schooler’s crayon drawing hanging next to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

God’s imagination and His ability to make it a reality is infinite – and not only as revealed in the spectacular, like the creation of everything we see, but also in the comparatively simple human things he enables us to do. Paul said it beautifully in his letter to the church at Ephesus (3:20-21):

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!

(I especially like how Paul puts an exclamation point at the end.)

So keeping that verse in mind, let’s revisit my unfulfilled past life…

Designing a house? I absolutely could have done that. Composing a moving piece of music? I could have done that, too. But instead of choosing salvation by faith in Jesus early on in life and letting God work through His Holy Spirit, possibly opening up an opportunity down one of those paths or one far more fulfilling, I chose another path: a dead-end path that seemed exciting at first but ended up being self-indulgent and empty. And as Shakespeare wrote, “There’s the rub.”

Although God in His love and mercy saw fit to bring me unscathed, for the most part, through those dark times (in spite of some of my best efforts to the contrary), He let me go my own way down the path I chose – though, thankfully, not forever. Looking back now, I can only imagine (that word again) the blessings He might have had in store had I chosen a life of faith in His Son.

However, during these past four years – again, His love and mercy ever on display – He’s made up for the time I wasted by giving me opportunity after opportunity to grow my relationship with Him and take stuttering but sure steps down the path of sanctification. (Of course, He never makes me walk that path alone.)

Here are some of those steps:

The B-I-B-L-E

As Psalm 119:105 says. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” I recall day-dreaming through Bible reading before I became a Christian. The classic Bible verses were OK – John 3:16, for example – but anything that didn’t make it on a sign at a football game was of no import to me. Now, though, I can’t get enough. I’ve read it through twice in chronological order and at least that many more times in bits and pieces. (Right now, I’m doing a topical study on end-times prophecy – you know… just gettin’ ready…)

And now that I have a living relationship with the Lord, it’s never just passive reading – it’s an interactive adventure. These are God’s words, and reading them is like having a conversation with Him. Sometimes a passage I’ve read dozens of times before will suddenly hit me like a Blackjack dealer in Vegas. And when it does, it may be just the card I was hoping for or it may be the one that makes me “go bust.” (Let’s just think of that as conviction.) Either way, it’s worth the odds.

Let us pray

I’ve developed – am still developing, actually – a pray-without-ceasing kind of prayer life. I’m learning what it means to pray in Jesus’ name, and when to talk and when to listen. And when it’s time to talk, I’m learning to do just that – talk to the Lord just like I would a cherished friend. No pretense (He can see right through that); no Pharisaical pride and pomposity (nothing will shut Prayer Time down quicker than that); no pity party. Just seeking Him with simple, straight-shooting supplication, and – all too often – sorrow at falling short of what He wants for me. But He’s quick to forgive. He’s even teaching me to pray in public without my voice going up an octave from panic. (Talk about doing immeasurably more than all I can ask or imagine…!)

Testify

In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that I would be blogging about my spiritual life – I used to not even have a spiritual life. Yet, here I am, depending on God to give me the words to share what He’s done for me, writing about the day-to-day process of living out His will for my life, testifying to His ability to truly and totally make a new creation out of the vilest sinner. Because of God’s hand on my life, what I write may even touch hearts and lives, or have eternal significance, or be turned into a book. Again – immeasurably more…

Re-imagined

Because of that new-found relationship with God, I find my imagination lingering on totally different things:

  • I imagine how things I’ve read in the Bible really took place, like what that wheel within a wheel looked like that Ezekiel saw and what John heard in Revelation 10:4 when the voice from Heaven told him: “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.” I’m dying to know.
  • Speaking of Heaven, I imagine what it’s really going to be like. While reading Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven, my imagination truly soared, as he piqued my interest with his own interpretation of what the Bible says about eternity. Maybe once I’m there I truly will conduct a composition so moving and powerful it will bring the heavenly hosts to their feet. Except that any adulation will be directed to the Lord and not to me – and, miracle of miracles, I’ll be totally fine with that.
  • I imagine what it will be like when I meet Luke and Ruth and Rahab and Daniel face-to-face. Even better, I imagine that day when I finally meet Jesus face-to-face. (Actually, I can’t even comprehend what that will be like; at this point, I typically have to just stop and mull on that one for a while.)

So even though I’ll probably never become an architect, or build that cool house I imagined; even though I’ll never tear through Gotham City in the Batmobile or leap tall buildings in a single bound; even though this blog may be the most significant thing I ever do while on this earth, I have something bigger than rock stardom and composer fame to dream about – this former kid-encaped-in-a towel is now imagining what God has for him in this life and, more important, in the next.

Whatever it is, it will be to the nth degree more than I could ever ask or imagine.

Strength Training

Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings as eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.  Isaiah 40:31

Although I’m pretty protective about giving out my main email address, it seems that somehow the purveyors of substances promising to make me buff or tuff or virile enuff have managed to get ahold of it. Unsolicited messages fill my Spam folder; messages trying to sell me something that’ll boost my testosterone or flatten my abs or make me Semper Paratus (Always Ready) just like the U.S. Coast Guard. Should I ever want to short-cut my journey from zero to hero, somebody out there will gladly sell me a shot or a pill that’ll do it.

Although I’m not into any of that (I ab what I ab), judging from the onslaught on my email Inbox, there are apparently enough desperate folks out there who are to make those grammar-poor messages worth the trouble.  (Sorry – had to get that dig in. I loved this subject line on one of them: “Be the man you’re lady has always wanting.”)

The desire to be all that and a bag of chips is nothing new, though. We can trace our aspirations for superiority back to our first ancestors in the Garden if Eden. (And they’re both equally at fault. Eve may have taken the first bite, but it’s not like she had to wrestle Adam to the ground and cram that apple down his throat.)

Ever since then, we’ve been trying to get through life under our own strength, whether through ingesting something, paying somebody to listen to us, or by any number of methods of making our rabid libidos go pitty-pat – all the while ignoring the true source of strength.

Several times in Isaiah’s writing (40:29-31), he declares God as the supplier of strength:

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings as eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

I love that verse, don’t you? I take great “strength” from it. (nyuk nyuk nyuk) Strength seems to be in short supply amongst my social set: work is hard, money is tight, and the car is making that funny noise again; kid number one has an event on one side of town while kid number two has to be on the other; the laundry is piling up and dinner is not going to cook itself.

But right here in Isaiah, God says He will give us strength, doesn’t He? Yay. I could stop right here and we would all get a warm fuzzy and hold hands and sing “Kum Ba Yah.” But I don’t think that’s the story the Lord wants me to tell, because I’m pretty sure that’s not the whole story of this verse.

Honestly, I struggled with writing about this verse, because it seemed too easy. I love the thought of soaring like an eagle and running without breathing hard, but is that all God is saying through Isaiah here? That He’ll give us the strength to get the clothes folded before we pass out?

I don’t think so – at least not to me.

Admittedly, I catch myself taking verses out of context and hearing what I want to hear. “OK,” you may say. “At least you’re getting it from the Bible, right?” Yea, but that doesn’t give me a pass to not ask the Lord for wisdom in order to get the full meaning of His words.

We love to quote uplifting “life verses.” We want to hear preachers preach about blessings and prosperity and “I know the plans I have for you.” And it’s wonderful to take comfort in God’s word – it is. Even here in the midst of Isaiah’s most dire predictions and warnings to the Israelites – warnings of being taken from their homes and hauled off to a strange land – God promised to send them a Savior. We want to bask in God’s love – and there’s plenty to bask in – but we don’t want to think about the price we may have to pay as the recipients of that love.

I can’t say that I’ve paid much of a price. I have it pretty easy. I have a good job and a sweet little house and a dependable car. I can go to the grocery store and not think twice about what I’m putting in my cart. I have a good reputation with friends and coworkers, those “saved by grace” and those “not so much”. I have a great church where I fellowship with folks who are like family and a big grand piano I get to play in our 2000+ seat, wifi-enabled, high definition camera-equipped sanctuary.

And none of that is threatened because of my faith in Christ; none of it is at risk because of the moral and spiritual stand I take.

But…

What if it were? What if Jesus doesn’t return soon and the declining moral and spiritual climate in our country finally hits bottom? What if those friends and coworkers stop being tolerant of my relationship with Jesus, writing me off as a religious nut because I don’t have a TV or refuse to go to movies because they espouse a world view that’s diametrically opposed to that taught in the Bible? What if I risk losing my job because of something I say here on this blog, or – maybe sooner than we think – take a chance at getting arrested by simply praying in a public restaurant before a meal? What then?

Will I proclaim God’s truth anyway and trust in Him to give me the strength to endure? Or will I just keep quiet and eat at home?

These changes in attitude are not just happening in the world at large. I have an evangelist friend – a Godly, truth-proclaiming man with a heart for those who are lost and in need – who says that he’s no longer invited to speak at some churches because the pastors there say he’s too straightforward. What are those church leaders afraid of? That their church members might finally hear the truth? That they’ll lose numbers or full offering plates or bragging rights?

Not to be an alarmist, but Paul warned us about this. In Romans 1, he said:

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

(Created things like big houses, expensive cars, fame, entertainment, leisure…)

They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil

(I just saw a headline for a review of a new video game that read “Raunchy new game is sweet.” The description of the game goes on to say: “There’s a cringe-inducing scenario set in an abortion clinic. And more.” Oh good – more; because poking fun at abortion isn’t entertaining enough.)

They disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Sound familiar? If we love the Lord totally – heart, soul, and mind – and serve Him with no reserve, this is what we’ll be up against. And if not, we might need to examine our heart, soul, and mind.

I sometimes think about the apostles – almost all losing their lives for the spread of the gospel. “But that was then – this is A-mur-i-cuh, land of the free, home of the brave.” OK. While I don’t know of anyone in this country who’s lost their life for their faith, I’m watching Christian-owned businesses in the headlines even as I write who may well lose their livelihood because of it.

Can the worst-case scenario be that far behind?

So where’s the application? Where’s the transparency I’ve always tried to maintain when I write? What’s happening in my life that’s causing me to need God-sized strength? Where is the growth moment?

There isn’t one – yet. But the Lord must have me writing about needing strength for some reason. For my first draft for this post I really did plan to end with a chorus of “Kum Ba Yah” (figuratively speaking). But again – not the story I was supposed to tell.

Maybe this is written for you – maybe it’s for all of us who truly call on the name of Jesus. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were sentenced to be incinerated because they refused to compromise their devotion to the Lord. Would you have done the same if you were in their situation? Would I?

I don’t know – but I have a feeling I’m going to find out what the need for God’s strength really feels like if Jesus’ return is delayed much longer. I haven’t had much strength training; but, then again, neither had Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego before they were tossed into the fire. Gives the phrase “trial by fire” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

So back to Isaiah 40:31… God definitely promised to give us strength; but strength to endure to the end after paying the price of true discipleship – not strength to do the laundry.

I’m not eager to have to pay too great a price but I want to be if that’s God’s calling for me. I’m not there yet – but, by the grace of God, I will be.

Will you?

Heavenly Father, I don’t know why you’ve called me to write this – I had much rather write about gnats or TV shows or iPads. But this is the message you laid on my heart, and you don’t owe me an explanation. If I’m the only one who reads this far, then I’m still certain your purpose for these words will be fulfilled.

I’m not ready for the trials – you know that. But I want to be ready. If your plan for me tomorrow is to walk through the fire, then my plan needs to be to get used to hot feet, because I am yours, bought at a price.

And if I haven’t thanked you sufficiently today for paying that price, then please forgive me – I owe you everything I am or have; which will never be enough, but it’s all yours.

Jesus paid it all; all to Him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain; He washed it white as snow.

Amen.

Siri-ously

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. James 1:5

Recently, I publically bemoaned the fact that my first-generation iPad could no longer be upgraded and was, in effect, becoming an obsolete relic. However, I do solemnly swear that had nothing to do with the fact that I drove to work recently with it laying on top of my car, resulting in its untimely demise. (The iPad case is dark gray, the top of my car is dark gray, yadda yadda…) I’ll never forget the sight of it in my rear-view mirror doing a triple summersault dismount into traffic – it would have definitely garnered a “10” from the American judge…

Of course, that immediately freed me up to buy a new one – an iPad Mini, actually. (Kind of reminded me of getting a new puppy after having the old dog put to sleep, but without any piddling on the rug.)

About half the size of a regular iPad, the Mini is a one-handed, light-as-a-feather, camera-equipped bundle of portable computing power. Plus, it has Siri.

If you’re not familiar, to quote Wikipedia:

Siri is an intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator which…uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of Web services.

In other words, I can press a button on my iPad to summon Siri and ask her a question, and she will reference various internet-based information resources and answer me in an eerily conversational tone – in a multitude of languages.

I know this technology has been out for a while, but it’s new to me so I decided to put Siri through her paces by asking her a few simple questions. Right out of the box, she understood my poorly enunciated, sloppy diction without missing a word. It was love at first byte.

Here is some of our conversation…

Me: Siri?

Siri: You rang?

(Note to Apple Inc.: If she had said that in her best “Lurch” voice from “The Addams Family,” I would have bought stock in your company. Just sayin’…)

Me: What is the temperature outside?

Siri: It’s currently 47 degrees F.

First, she knows we like our temperatures in Fahrenheit where I’m from; second, she also included a detailed list of hour-by-hour projected temperatures for the next 12 hours. (I’m gonna need another blanket.)

Me: Thank you.

Siri: You are most certainly welcome.

Nice manners – she must be a Southern gal.

Me: Where is the nearest Starbucks?

Siri: I found ten places matching “Starbucks” a little ways from you.

Her definition of “a little ways” and mine differ, but I guess if you’re really jonesing for a little caffeine, 19 miles isn’t that far to drive.

Me: Who was the 15th president of the United States?

Siri: Let me check on that… (I doubt she really needed time to think about it or anything – she just didn’t want me to feel stupid for not knowing all the U.S. presidents.) The answer is James Buchanan.

I thought I would test her facility with foreign languages. (Not that I would know if she was correct, as my facility with foreign languages mainly consists of “burrito” and “spaghetti”.)

Me: Hola, Siri.

Siri: Good evening. (She knew I was faking.)

Me: ¿Cuál es la capital de México? (What is the capital of Mexico?)

Siri: México Distrito Federal es la capital de México. (Mexico City is the capital of Mexico.)

Me: Gracias.

Siri: Para eso estamos. (That’s what I’m here for.)

I was curious if Siri’s programmers had a sense of humor…

Me: Do you know the way to San Jose?

Siri: Getting directions to San Jose…

I guess she didn’t catch the reference to the 1960s Burt Bacharach tune. You’d think somebody would have thought of that…

So far, her responses were all just information. I thought I would check to see how complex her (or her programmer’s) reasoning abilities were…

Me: Should I vote Democrat or Republican?

Siri: I’m sure I don’t know.

Smart girl. To quote Linus from the “Peanuts” comic strips: “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people… Religion, Politics, and The Great Pumpkin.”

Me: What is the meaning of life?

Siri: To think about questions like this.

(If she had said “42” I definitely would have bought stock in Apple.)

Next, I thought I would check her spiritual knowledge.

Me: Who was Jesus?

Siri: Here’s some information:

She displayed a snippet from Jesus’ “bio” on Wikipedia with, of course, a link to the full article.

Me: What must I do to be saved?

Siri: I found quite a number of movies matching ‘saved’…

Movies? Not what I was looking for, but her list was interesting: The Dog Who Saved Christmas, Beer Pong Saved My Life, Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style, and a movie called, simply, Saved, about a teenaged girl named Mary who gets pregnant by her possibly gay boyfriend because Jesus appeared to her in a dream and told her to do everything she could to help the boyfriend not be gay.

(Ai-yi-yi… That’s a whole other blog post.) I thought I would try a different tack…

Me: How do I get to Heaven?

Siri: Which Heaven? Tap the one you want…

Which Heaven? Not what I expected. Her list of links used “Heaven” and “Haven” interchangeably. The links included “Holiday Inn Hotel Winter Haven” and “Hog Heaven Smoke House.” A Holiday Inn in Winter Haven, Florida is not quite where I want to spend eternity. (No offense.) Barbecue would be good, though.

So what I learned from this fun little experiment is that Siri is big on information but short on anything deeper, like ordering information into something resembling wisdom. (What did I expect – she’s just a machine that can only respond as she’s been programmed to respond.)

But it made me think about the nature of wisdom. I’ve heard wisdom defined as putting bits of knowledge into the proper order, or knowing to do – or not do – something. But it’s one thing to know when the interest rates are ideal to justify refinancing, but quite another to know how to comport oneself in a manner pleasing to God. (However, if you’re a follower of Jesus and need help making financial decisions like that in order to be a good steward of the resources God has given you, I know from first-hand experience that, if you ask, He will waft a little financial wisdom your way.)

Throughout Biblical history, wisdom was something to be desired. God asked new king Solomon what he wanted and Solomon told him that, more than anything, he wanted to be wise enough to rule the Israelites properly. This pleased the Lord to no end, so He gave him what he wanted. Solomon’s writings (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon) reflect this gift from God:

For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. Proverbs 2:6

Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she [wisdom] is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Proverbs 3:13-15

Obviously Solomon knew a little about wisdom, as did Daniel. Daniel said of God:

He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. Daniel 2:21

Paul prayed for wisdom for the Christians in the churches he planted:

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. Ephesians 1:17

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Colossians 1:9

Jesus’s brother James said:

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. James 1:5

(I bet He got that from His brother.)

He’s right, of course. If you look at all these verses (a mere smattering of the verses in the Bible on wisdom) they all have some key points in common:

  • Wisdom comes from God.
  • Wisdom is a thing to be treasured.
  • God wants His children to have wisdom.

God is the author of wisdom and, as noted by James, doles it out through the Holy Spirit as needed. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who I would consider as possessing true wisdom outside of that given by the Lord.

Oh, throughout history some folks have stumbled into some really deep insight, and people like Confucius and Plato came out with some thoughtful and witty bon mots, but they were no Jesus.

And even though there may seem to be very little wisdom percolating around us these days, God is still passing it out. I can testify to that personally – not Solomon-esque wisdom, mind you (Solomon would have never left his iPad on the roof of his car and drove off), but at least the ability to post content here on “clay” in a reasonably coherent manner that testifies to the depth of God’s grace and His ability to create new life in old people – and the wisdom to know when that’s not what I’m doing.

I’ve also been blessed to share some insight from the Lord with friends and family members who were struggling with this and that. Interestingly, I’m not really known as someone people run to for advice, so when a good friend came to me recently with a bit of a struggle…

Without revealing anything personal, let’s just say that he had an exciting opportunity from the Lord that looked doable at first, but, as the time to carry it out neared, grew increasingly daunting, and finally a little bit frightening. Before I knew it, I had a guy out on the ledge ready to jump (so to speak).

Just to be sure I was remembering the situation correctly as I’m writing, I dug around and found our whole email exchange. Had the tables been turned, I’m not sure I would have been able to follow through, no matter how much Godly advice I got. So I knew my response was not something I could come up with myself. But the Lord stepped in. The first few lines I wrote in my initial reply make James’ point in 1:5 perfectly:

“I just stopped to pray and ask God to give me wisdom to respond. So here goes… (This may be kind of all over the place, but I’m praying that the Holy Spirit will translate it so that it makes sense.)”

I wish I could include the entire email exchange here, because it wasn’t all over the place; it was just what God wanted me to share. I lacked wisdom and asked for it and, just as James said, God gave it to me – in abundance. A couple of messages later, my friend had climbed back in off the ledge and locked the window tight against Satan, ready to do what God had called him to do.

I also wish I could say that receiving and responding to wisdom from God was the rule and not the exception, but, again – remember the flying iPad.

In spite of all the scripture about wisdom, though, having it shouldn’t be our only desire – after all, Solomon made some pretty unwise choices. Marrying 700 wives, for instance. Plus, it’s way too easy to not handle that type of gift with any degree of humility.

In Paul’s list of the traits that every Christian should possess in Galatians 5:22-23 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – wisdom isn’t mentioned even once. (A little wisdom would certainly be a nice accompaniment for some of those, however.)

We can be obedient and love and serve the Lord in a way that brings glory and honor to him in abundance with very little in the way of wisdom. But when the time comes for a little five-star decision making, just know that God promised He would be there to give us what we need.

Siri-ously.

Me: Siri?

Siri: Your wish is my command.

Me: Would you go out with me?

Siri: I’m not really that kind of assistant.

Atta girl – I may make a Christian out of you yet…

Off the hook

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10 (NIV)

I’ve learned that getting people to read blog posts can be challenging. (Thank you for reading, by the way.) For starters, most people don’t like to read. Twitter has trained us to shut down after 140 characters and Facebook has taught us to never click that See More link at the end of a status update. After all, who wants to read even more nattering on about the Chinese chicken and sweet potato casserole recipe someone found and plans to try for dinner tomorrow night?

The fact that it’s a Christian blog makes it even trickier. Start a blog post with “The Bible tells us…” and you can rest assured that post is DOA. (Welcome to the age of “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”)

So in order to grab the reader’s attention right from the start, it can help to open with a “hook”. A hook (an aptly named literary device) can be:

The unsuspecting reader starts out reading a funny story about gnats colonizing the kitchen garbage can and, before they know it, they’re reading about Jesus.

I know – it’s a little mean. But so is letting someone die without hearing about God’s grace.

My original intention for this post was to say that Isaiah 41:10, the verse at the top, didn’t need any sort of hook or distraction:

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about this? Who wouldn’t revel in the message of this promise from God: “Don’t worry – I’ve got you covered”?

However, I’m realizing now that I actually did start this post with a hook – a hook about hooks.

So sue me. Anyway, since you’ve read this far…

I love Isaiah 41:10 – I want it screen-printed on a t-shirt. (I guess it would need to be written backward so I could read it when I looked in the mirror – or upside-down so I could just glance down and read it. The t-shirt place would probably look at me funny.) This verse lets me know that, with God in control, when it comes to having the strength to do what I have to do, I’m totally off the hook – I got nothing to fear.

Sweet.

One (minor) caveat: even though everything from God is ultimately good, that doesn’t mean that it won’t ever hurt. After all, Christians get killed in car wrecks and end life with Alzheimer’s. Christians who manage their money Biblically still sometimes struggle to live from paycheck to paycheck. Christians lose their jobs, their homes, and their loved ones.

I’m reminded of a dear friend who, a few months back, wrote me on Facebook: “I need your prayers. I was diagnosed with cancer last week and am having surgery Thursday. I’m not scared of the surgery, just the unknown afterward…”

(Side note: to be requested specifically by someone to pray for them is probably as great a blessing as there is. Seriously.)

I confess: I would have been scared of the “unknown afterward” too, had I been in the same situation. So where does that fear come from? Maybe it’s due to the reality of our frail humanity or our struggle with trusting God without reservation. Fear is nothing new, as Isaiah was writing about it 2700 years ago, give or take a couple of days.

Obviously it doesn’t come from God, because in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, chapter 1 verse 7 he says:

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (NKJV)

He knows we have a tendency to do so, though. “Do not fear” and “Do not be afraid” are some of the most oft-repeated phrases in the Bible.

So do not fear, for I am with you…

That’s a difficult lesson to learn, but one God wants to teach us. So I wrote my friend back with some encouragement and the promise to pray, then ended with, “One more thing: read Isaiah 41:10 before Thursday.”

And I waited – and prayed…

The post-surgery message I received was, “I read the scripture before surgery. I had this beautiful image of God with his huge hands holding me in the palm of his hands! I am going to be fine. Whatever the outcome, I feel a great peace.”

I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Indeed He will; He did for my friend and He has for me, just as He promised through Isaiah. He can – and will – do it for anyone.

So if you got hooked into reading this and have made it this far, just know that, in addition to strengthening and helping and upholding us and taking away our fears, God has taken everything else on Himself as well:

  • He came and lived as a man and willingly gave His life to pay for and cancel our sin debt – we couldn’t do it ourselves.
  • He offered this cancellation of our sin debt to us as a free gift, out of graciousness and mercy – there’s no way we can work hard enough to earn it.
  • He made the gift of salvation simple – we only have to believe, ask, and accept.

And not only will He do all of these things in this life, He will do even more in the next. (I just finished reading Randy Alcorn’s book, “Heaven,” so I’m all up on how eternity’s gonna work.) There will be no more cancer, no more death, no more fear. In other words, if the upholding we get from God’s righteous right hand now happens to pinch a little (or a lot), it won’t pinch forever.

So before you get the hook in this life, be sure you get hooked on Jesus. Trust me – life with Jesus? It’s off the hook.

Carols, communion, and candlelight

The animated television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, offers one of my all-time favorite, quintessentially classic Christmas moments. It’s the moment during rehearsal for the Christmas pageant when, frustrated by the materialism and commercialization of Christmas, Charlie Brown cries out in desperation, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

In response, Linus – quirky, philosophical, security blanket-toting Linus – answers, “Sure, Charlie Brown; I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

He steps downstage, blanket in tow, and calls out, “Lights, please.” The unseen but obedient lighting technician brings all the lights down to a single spotlight on Linus, who says:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

“‘And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

Linus collects his blanket and walks back to his frustrated friend. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Indeed it is.

The Christmas Eve service at my church tonight – a night of carols, communion, and candlelight, three of my favorite church-related “C’s” – will offer another of my favorite Christmas moments.

Everyone will be given a candle when they enter the church. After an evening of beautiful music, fun (and always entertaining) moments with the children, a moving message by my pastor, and communion, the pastor will light his candle from the large Christ candle on the stage. He will then light one of the other pastor’s candles, who will light someone else’s candle, who will light someone else’s, until the light is passed throughout the packed sanctuary. The house lights will gradually be turned out as the room is filled with the strains of “Here I Am to Worship” sung by candlelight:

Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness, opened my eyes, let me see
Beauty that made this heart adore You, hope of a life spent with You.
Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that You’re my God.
You’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me.
Here I am to worship.

I promise you the beauty of that moment will surpass the Charlie Brown Christmas one hands down.

Each year as I watch the pastor’s single tiny flame multiply to fill the room, I’m always struck by the thought that what I am witnessing is very much like the spread of the gospel that began almost 2000 years ago.

It all started with Jesus, the light of the world, a light brighter than millions of candles. He spread His light to His apostles who, in turn, spread that light to…

…all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

And all these years later that light hasn’t died or stopped spreading.

The world was in desperate need of Jesus when He became “God with us” that night in Bethlehem. I understand that, because three-and-a-half years ago I was in desperate need. Although I was doing everything I could to hide that fact, even from myself, I still had a dark place in my life that nothing – or no one – could break through.

Well, someone could; someone did.

On June 17, 2010, Jesus shattered that darkness. He offered me a gift better than any Christmas present I’ve ever been given. It wasn’t money or fame or anything we usually count as valuable. Instead, He gave me the gift of His amazing grace, a gift I didn’t deserve, but one that changed my life – forever.

You see, Jesus purposely set aside His deity in order to become one of us. He ate, drank, and slept; worked, loved, and socialized; and faced temptation, pain, and, most significantly, death. He became the only acceptable atonement for our sin, freely providing salvation – that gift of grace – for anyone who calls on his name.

He wasn’t an unwitting martyr, a good man who accidentally got caught and punished. He unselfishly and willingly allowed himself to be put to death for me – for all of us. He was born knowing that was His role, knowing what His future held. In other words, His birth was only the beginning.

This Christmas season, don’t leave Jesus as a baby in the manger. That image is miraculous and beautiful and sweet and a key part of God’s plan, but it was just the beginning of the story of His grace and His gift of salvation through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of His son.

So tonight on a midnight clear, I will be sitting in church, singing “Silent Night” and quietly reflecting by candlelight on the baby who grew up, not only to teach me how to live, but to give me light and life – incredible, unimaginable, eternal life.

And if you know Him as your Savior then you, too, know that the best gift is yet to come.

Merry Christmas.

Say the word

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. Psalm 119:105

On December 31, I will read John’s final words of the book of Revelation and, as a result, will have read the entire Bible this year – all 31,000+ verses in 1,189 chapters in 66 books.

I’m actually reading it chronologically. Since the Bible as it’s traditionally printed isn’t presented in chronological order (for example, most Bible scholars think the events in Job happened sometime after the flood but before Abraham – not after the story of Esther), I jumped around to read things in the order they probably happened (as close as possible). For example, after reading in 1 Samuel 19 how David went on the lam after King Saul tried to have him killed, the next thing I read was Psalm 59, where David writes:

Deliver me from my enemies, O God; protect me from those who rise up against me.

Totally puts that particular Psalm in perspective, doesn’t it?

And after reading about Paul’s first missionary journey throughout the province of Galatia in Acts, I stopped right there in the middle of the book and jumped over to read his letter to all the Galatian Christians who were members of the churches he and Barnabus planted during their time spent in the cities of Antioch, Iconium, and Derbe.

This is actually my second time to read the Bible through. I read it a couple of years ago as a new Christian, so some parts were still a little fuzzy. Now, though, after two years of studying and reading and spiritual growth, this time through the Bible truly came alive – and it’s amazing.

The Bible is filled with…

  • History (practically the entire thing)
  • Romance (Ruth and Boaz)
  • Comedy (Balaam in Numbers 22)
  • Action/Adventure (crossing the Red Sea)
  • Intrigue (the spies in Jericho)
  • War stories (the fall of Jericho)
  • Legal thrillers (Jesus’ trial)
  • Fantastical tales bordering on science fiction (except they’re all true)
  • Time travel (John transported to the end times in Revelation)
  • Transformation (Paul’s encounter with Jesus)
  • Redemption (the entire New Testament)

…all in one volume.

Interestingly, I grew up being exposed to the Bible on a regular basis. I memorized some Bible verses, like John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” I knew Matthew talked about the wise men and Luke talked about the shepherds. (I watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” enough to be able to recite that whole passage in Luke 2 right along with Linus.) I knew Revelation was complicated and little scary. I could name all the books of the Bible in order. (I actually learned to sing the books of the New Testament: ”Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Acts, and the Romans…” Even now, I find myself humming that tune in my head when I’m trying to find Colossians.)

But beyond all that, I didn’t get it.

  • I didn’t get the basics, like why the children of Israel were called that or what God meant when He referred to Himself as “I AM.”
  • I didn’t get any of the cultural/historical significance, like why the parable of the Good Samaritan rubbed all the Jewish leaders the wrong way, or even who the Samaritans were.
  • I actually didn’t get any of the parables, like the fact that the parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant was a picture of God’s incredible grace and forgiveness and an illustration of why we should do likewise.
  • None of Paul’s letters – the foundation of the Christian faith – did much for me.

Back then, it didn’t mean anything to me – no light bulb ever went on in the cartoon thought bubble above my head.

I used to blame it on the hard to understand King James translation, or preachers who preached too loud, but the reason it went in one ear and out the other – the reason no light ever broke through – was that I was still stumbling around in the dark, lost and a stranger to God and His promises. Jesus often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Apparently my ears were tuned to another voice – and it wasn’t the voice of Jesus.

But in June of 2010 I became a Christian. That light bulb went on and the darkness was shattered – forever. (Here is more of that particular story.) In John 8:12 Jesus as much as said that would happen:

“Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

That includes me (and, hopefully, you). But, you may ask, how does one get from the initial act of becoming a follower of Jesus to someone who can actually understand and apply what’s written in the Bible?

I’m glad you asked.

The author of Psalm 199, verse 105 (most likely David) writes…

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

…which makes me think of John chapter 1, one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible (in my opinion). Right at the beginning of his gospel, John writes about Jesus (who he calls “the Word”). Here are some excerpts:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness…The Word became flesh…full of grace and truth.

Wow; tell me that’s not amazing to ponder.

So just “thinking out loud” here…

Jesus is God…the Word…the Creator…bringer of life and lightlight that shines in the darkness…my darkness… He is full of truth

He is the Word that is a light for my path…

By becoming a follower of Jesus I gained not only the words in the Bible, but the author of those words, the Word himself. And the Word, the author of those words, is the light that illuminates those words and their truth.

“Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness…”

Previously mysterious parables and symbols and metaphors merely skimmed over by someone who was walking in darkness (me) now illustrate eternal truths and shed light on living realities to that same person – a person whose path is now brightly lit.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy (3:16) he says that:

All scripture is God breathed.

When I’m reading the words of the Bible I’m literally hearing God speaking to me.

So understanding the Bible takes no special skill; you just have to know the author…

…and He’ll do the rest.

It just keeps going and going and going…

I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. Psalm 52:8

Devotees of Apple products are a smug lot. (Apple devotees reading this just said, smugly, “Yea we are!”) However, some of my best friends are Apple users, so what’s a guy to do? (Other than a lot of eye-rolling.)

I’ve never owned an iPod or an iPhone or used an Apple computer with any success. I tried to use my friend George’s Mac a couple of times but all the buttons I needed to click were in the wrong place and I spent half the time yelling to him in the next room, “What happens if I click this little red thingy?” It was a lovely machine with the processor and hard drive all built into the monitor (which was as big as a truck windshield) but the learning curve was just too steep for a long-time and impatient PC guy.

In the spirit of full disclosure, however, I must confess – I do have an iPad, my only Apple product.

Although I vowed not to succumb to the siren song of Apple Inc. with their be-all, end-all technology and bank-account-draining tech trinkets, a co-worker, who was dashed against the Apple rocks long ago, bought the latest generation iPad and sold me his first generation one for a mere pittance. (The first app I downloaded was a Bible app; I feel that justified the purchase…)

It’s a handy little machine and makes me feel all Star Trek-y. (It’s just like the ubiquitous Star Trek PADD – Personal Access Display Device – that no self-respecting 24th century starship captain would be caught dead without.) In addition to about 50 Bible translations, I have apps for reading eBooks, playing games, checking my credit card and bank accounts, posting information here on “clay” – pretty much everything I can do with a computer, except I can do it while getting my oil changed or shopping for groceries.

Each newer version of the iPad that’s been introduced has upped the ante with more power, less weight, a higher resolution screen, a camera, more bling, and a higher price tag, but I’m happy with my basic model; it does everything I want it to do.

Well, sort of.

Apple Inc. has just released the newest version of its operating system for all of its various hand-held iDevices – except ones as old as mine. Sadly, my trusty iPad is no longer compatible with the latest and greatest Apple has to offer. Of course, I can still use all the apps I currently have (New York Times Crossword Puzzles – woo-hoo!), but many of the cool new apps being introduced will only work with the new operating system.

Bummer.

I absolutely get the financial aspects of a company upgrading and creating new technology – at some point, you have to quit manufacturing parts for the Model T and move on. I just trusted that I would be able to use my comparatively heavy, first-generation iPad for, you know, ever and ever.

The Random House dictionary defines the word “ever” as “continuously” or “at all times.” Based on either of those definitions, there was no way my iPad was going to keep going and going and going for ever and ever. It was bound to become obsolete before my first starship flight.

Actually, there’s not much we can trust for ever and ever without fail:

  • The sturdiest, most well-built things wear out.
  • People let us down or – worse – die.
  • VHS tapes become obsolete.
  • Even the polar icecaps melt.

However, there is one thing we can trust in “continuously” and “at all times;” David wrote about it in Psalm 52:8:

I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.

Or, to use our Random House definition:

I trust in God’s unfailing love “continuously” and “at all times”.

God’s love for us will never:

  • Wear out
  • Let us down
  • Become obsolete
  • Change
  • Waver
  • Break
  • Crumble
  • Need repair
  • Melt
  • Die

God’s love is a constant, consistent, dependable, unchangeable, unwaverable, unbreakable, unmeltable, everlasting reality.

I love to sing songs about God’s love and proclaim that God is love; however, let a few monkey wrenches get thrown into my normally well-oiled, smooth-operating daily life – like lately, for example – and it’s like all memory of His love for me gets tossed in the garbage disposal. With work stuff and car repair stuff and just stuff in general taking center stage the past few weeks, I’ve stressed and whined and been absolutely self-possessed with anxiety and worry.

Egoism at its worst. Not pretty.

But here’s the thing – I think that maybe those wrenches were allowed by God. While He might not have been the one doing the tossing, He certainly didn’t stop the tossee. (Ooh – spellcheck does not like the word “tossee”) And, while God is quick to tell me that His ways are not my ways (Isaiah 55:8) and that I can’t always know what He’s thinking (Romans 11:34), I can certainly take a stab at guessing why He allowed these things to happen: He knew I needed a lesson – another one – in trust.

Recently, I found myself falling back into old, pre-salvation patterns of behavior – letting my pride and self-sufficiency take over, trying to manage everything under my own power. And when I got too focused on trying to handle my stuff all by myself, God let a little rain fall so I would be reminded who my umbrella is.

I got kind of soaked there for a while. My Prayer Time (capital “P,” capital “T”) was one long to-do list for God: “Please help my car stop dying on me so I can get to work and finish this hard project on time that I’m struggling with and let this weird looking spot on my back be nothing but a weird looking spot and…” on and on.

When He finally broke through my little self-centered, quivering, stressed-out voice with His own comforting, still, small voice, I heard Him say (in that way that I know He’s speaking to me), “I can do that. And while we’re at it, how about you also learn to trust that I love you no matter what?”

Ouch. But He didn’t stop there. (He almost never does.)

“Do you think this is really about your stuff? Hardly; it’s more about your reaction to your stuff – more precisely, about trusting that I love you no matter what and that, even when stuff comes your way, I’m in the stuff, too. It’s about – and here’s a novel concept – you trusting that even if things are happening that are out of your control, they’re not out of mine; that I’m in control of everything – even your stuff.”

I was kind of surprised He used the word “stuff” so much…

And through all this, He also kept sending me back to the verse from Isaiah 41:10 that I had used several times recently to encourage friends who were going through their own challenges:

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

(No fair using my own encouragement verse against me…)

Of course, it’s not like He promised there would never be a time when I would struggle to keep all the plates spinning. In John 16:33 Jesus said, plainly:

“In this world you will have trouble.”

Just so you know, I’m aware that those things I was dealing with were minor in the grand scheme of things. A little car trouble is nothing compared to Christians throughout the world fearing for their lives because of their faith. And dealing with work challenges is trivial compared to worrying where one’s next meal is coming from. And that weird looking spot on my back? It was just a weird looking spot – it could have been cancer.

If the car and work and dermatological stuff had been a pop quiz, God would have written on my test paper in red before handing it back: “If you can’t trust me to be your umbrella in a little rain shower, how are you going to trust me when the real storm comes?”

In looking around at the world we live in, I’m afraid that storm is coming – and I want to get an “A” on that test (or at least a B+). Which shouldn’t be hard, since God has already given me the answers:

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

That’s all I need to know.

So even though things and people – even my own best efforts – will eventually fail me, there is one thing I know from experience I can trust in continuously and at all times: God’s unfailing love.

Now – New York Times crossword puzzle, anyone…?