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This Is True Grace

After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace,…will himself RESTORE (PERFECT) you.  I Peter 5:10

One evening, G.K. Chesterton and some writers were discussing what single book they would choose if they were stranded on a desert island.  One writer quickly said, “The complete works of Shakespeare.”  Another responded, “I’d choose the Bible.”  When Chesterton was asked, he replied,  “I would choose Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.”

Now what Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding would be to a person stranded on a desert island, the Bible is to those whom Peter says are “strangers in the world.”

All through this letter of 105 verses Peter has talked of what it means for them to live as followers of Jesus:

Joy in midst of sadness,
loving life,
and stewards of the grace of God.

He sums it up in a final and wonderful encouragement to stand firm, because God will “exalt you” (v 6).

Then he adds one more basic necessity for spiritual victory, to come out of a world like this intact: v10- “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace,…will himself RESTORE (PERFECT) you.

It is not easy to live as strangers in the world.  There are pressures—our internal weaknesses, circumstances, others, even persecution.  Most of all Peter reminds us of the enemy of souls, who like a roaring lion prowls looking for victims.  Living in a world where we are strangers and which is often hostile can take its toll—deterioration, wearing and tearing.

Who of us have not retreated from engagement with life, the worse for wear—wounded, damaged, broken.  What congregation has not known conflict, division, in the struggle to be God’s people.

But Peter reminds us, restoration is God’s special work.  God is not a throw-away God.  He puts things back together, restores, perfects.   Frazzled, at loose ends, in pieces?  God will repair to perfection.

What is special here is the emphasis—it is God’s personal work.  God does not leave this to instrumental means, but it is His own “personal active ministry to His people.”  And it is true grace.  Peter was exhibit A.  This could not have been lost on those to whom he wrote.  They were too near to it.

When the struggle, the battle has taken its toll, God’s word to us is not just “try again”, “try harder” but grace, “true grace” which is all we need.

And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32)

Be My Valentine

For God so loved…that He gave…His son…. John 3:16

Today, Valentine’s Day, love is on everybody’s mind, everywhere you look and crosses lips where it’s seldom at any other time mentioned.  We are told by retailers to say it with flowers, chocolate, jewelry and anything else they’re trying to peddle.

But we have a problem with the word “love.”  We say, “I love ice cream, my house, baseball, to swim, listen to good music and my wife” (not necessarily in that order).  We can really get confused about what love means.  I once heard Stuart Briscoe say we think love means “to like an awful lot.”  However, it is possible to love someone and not like them at all.

The benchmark, the standard of love’s expression is found in these words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever heart-cross-thumb12673094believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)  And that provides us with the clearest idea of love.  It is not in words but deeds.  It is not about how we feel (as nice as that might be) but what we do.

Even in the church we are not always clear.  I heard someone say that Jesus came to show us God’s love.  It is as if our only message to the world is “smile, God loves you.”  It’s great to know that but the real message is because of God’s love Jesus died on the cross for my sins (yours too).

Then Jesus really set the bar for us when He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  Nothing less than to love the way God loves will do.  The only way that can happen is to receive God’s love and let God express that love through us.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny ? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father…. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.  –Matthew10:29,31

For those of us living in the NE corridor of the United States and the path of Hurricane Sandy, today we are either breathing a sigh of relief because we were spared or we are assessing the damage and trying to make sense of it all.  And in the midst of a disaster like this we need perspective.  As I have been thinking about it I just want to share what I wrote after the Haitian earthquake of 2010. Read it.

“Helpless No More”

At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. –Romans 5:6

          Did you hear about the plane that left Chicago bound for LA.  As it leveled out at 40,000 ft., a voice came over the loudspeaker:

          “This is a recording. You have the privilege of being the first to fly in a wholly electronic jet.  This plane took off electronically. It is now flying a 40,000 feet electronically.  It will land in LA electronically.
          This plane has no pilot, no co-pilot, no flight engineer.  But don’t worry.  Nothing can go wrong…go wrong…go wrong…go wrong…go wrong.”

          There is perhaps no human predicament more frightening or unsettling than that of
                   to be out of control,
                   unable to do anything,
                   to alter a particular circumstance,
                   to be at the mercy of events or another person.
          John Bunyan begins Pilgrim’s Progress by describing the despair of helplessness.
          Therefore it is particularly important to remember:
          It was hard to be a Christian under Roman Empire.
          It was hard to be a Christian during the time of Martin Luther.
          It was hard to be a Christian during the time of John Wesley.
          It was hard to be a Christian early in our history.
Well, we’ve moved beyond a lot of the problems of those times but it is still hard to be a Christian.
          I remember an Annual Conference (yearly regional gathering of our denomination’s leadership) when we heard a wonderful sermon during the ordination service.  It was on being servants of God, how that is our calling—to  express God’s love.
           The sermon was delivered with great zeal and in an inspiring way.  It      was true.  You could hear and see the consensus, the affirmation of those who heard it.  My good friend expressed it—“It needed to be said.”  There, however   is a catch.
          The Bible says we are helpless.  And there is nothing more frustrating or discouraging than to be told what we ought to do or how we ought to live and not to be able to do it.  It is hard to be a Christian—i.e. to live like one!
          But the good news is not first about what we are to do.  It is about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  We were helpless/powerless but by now trusting in Jesus we have a new life that makes it possible to live as followers of Jesus.  God’s love becomes the central driving force of our life.  We are helpless no more.

Squeezed by Life

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?…How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? … But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. -Psalm 13

Do You ever complain?
Do you ever complain to God?
Get angry with Him?
How do you feel about that?

            Did you know there is a whole group of Psalms that are characterized by complaining to   God—Psalms of Lament.
            Furthermore, there are other Biblical examples of holy people, God’s own people saying things to God we would never expect—complaining, accusing, etc.  Listen to the great prophet Jeremiah:

He tells God he is suffering for Him, he has  fed on God’s words, they were his joy and heart’s delight.
            I never sat in the company of the revelers,
              never made merry with them;
            I sat alone because you hand was on me
              and you had filled me with indignation.
            Why is my pain unending
              and my wound grievous and incurable?
            Will you be to me like a deceptive brook [“liar”-King James trans.],
              like a spring   that fails? 

            What we have here is the real life of God’s honest believer living in a world where we get squeezed by life and the practical example of how they have reacted.  These people are human, fallible, struggling, yet believing.
            I was introduced to Brian Sternberg years ago in a book by Philip Yancey called Where Is God When It Hurts.  As I was working on this I did some research and came across the following from a sermon by R.J. Tusky just last month:

            Once upon a time, Coach Grant Teaff wrote a book called “I Believe.” It’s about a young man who was once the world’s greatest pole-vaulter. His name is Brian Sternberg.
            In 1963, Brian was a sophomore at the University of Washington. He was not only the world’s best pole-vaulter, but also America’s trampoline champion. Teaff says:  “Word around track was that Brian Sternberg was the most self-centered, young athlete to come along …in a long time.”
            Teaff tells how he watched Brian perform the day he broke the world’s record. He says: “The thing that caught my eye was his poise, self-confidence, and that he never smiled.”
            The next day at breakfast, Teaff was stunned when he read the newspaper headline: “Brian Sternberg Injured.”  Brian had been working out, alone, in the gym. He did a triple somersault and came down on the trampoline …off-center. His neck hit the edge of the frame, snapping it and leaving him totally paralyzed, able to move, only …his eyes and his mouth.  Brian was left a helpless, hopeless cripple, and …a very …very …bitter  …young man.
            Five years later, Coach Teaff saw Brian again. It was at a convention for coaches and athletes at Estes Park, Colorado.
            Once everyone was seated, the auditorium was totally darkened. Suddenly, a movie projector lit a large, panoramic screen. There was Brain Sternberg …racing down the runway, executing that record-breaking pole-vault. Every coach and athlete in the room “oohed” and “aahed.”
            Then the auditorium went totally dark again …except for a single, brilliant spotlight, illuminating a single chair, with arms, on the, otherwise …bare, stark stage. It looked like some tractor-beam from a spaceship, locked onto that chair.
            Then, out of the stage-shadows, came a huge, nationally-known, football player named, Wes Wilmer. In his arms was what looked like a large ragdoll. Its long arms and legs hung limp at its sides and flopped this way and that, as Wes Wilmer walked across the stage. The ragdoll was six-foot, three-inch Brian Sternberg, all 87 pounds of him.
            Wes placed him in the chair and carefully, propped him up with pillows, so he wouldn’t fall over. Then, in a raspy voice, Brian Sternberg began to talk:
            “My friends-Oh, I pray to God that what has happened to me, will never happen to one of you.  I pray that you will never know the humiliation, the shame…of not being able to perform one …single …human …act.  Oh, I pray to God you will never know the pain I live with everyday.  It is my hope and my prayer that what has happened to me will never happen to one of you.  Unless, my friends …that’s what it takes for you to put God …in the center of your life.”
The impact of Brian’s words on that particular crowd was absolutely electrifying. No one there will ever forget them.

            I read somewhere that it was said the place to go if you wanted encouragement is Brian Sternberg’s house.
            Brian, Joni Eareckson Tada (paralyzed in a diving accident) and untold multitudes more, squeezed by life find in Jesus Christ meaning and purpose.  And they become shining examples of how life with God overcomes all obstacles.
            Brian once closed a Look magazine article this way: “Having faith is a necessary step toward one of two things. Being healed is one of them. Peace of mind, if healing doesn’t come, is the other. Either will suffice.”1

1 “The Spirituality of Suffering,” http://www.theaword.org

God Has a Plan

You intended… harm…, but God intended…good. Genesis 50:20 
In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

My daughter, Heather shared this story with us:

Her sons, Carter (5) and Kanu (2) were playing with Legos, and she heard Carter say very calmly, “Don’t get mad Kanu. You know what?”
     “What?” Asks Kanu.
     Carter continued, “God always has a plan. Even if things seem bad, he always has a plan.”

How are things going for you right now? 

Not too good.  God has a plan.
Things are going wrong at work.  God has a plan.
I lost my job.  God has a plan.
My son/daughter is struggling with growing up.  God has a plan.
My husband/wife wants a divorce.  God has a plan.
We’re losing our house.  God has a plan.
The doctor’s news was bad.  God has a plan.
I’m overwhelmed with my children, my job, life.  God has a plan.

In the Genesis story, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery but God had a plan. 

God always has a plan.  Even if things seem bad, he always has a plan.  What a powerful truth.  You may not know or understand what it is, but it is for your good in spite of how it seems right now.  Trust God and God will work out the plan for your good.

The Over-the-hill Gang of the Christmas Story

A priest named Zechariah, … his wife Elizabeth,  a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, [and] a prophetess, Anna. -Luke 1 & 2:              

One of the fascinating aspects of the Christmas story is the people who are part of it.  We all know about the Wise Men, The Shepherds, Herod, and of course Mary and Joseph, even the Inn keeper.  But there are four others, which sort of like background scenery are there but seldom noticed.  It is strange how little attention we have given to them in light of the fact that with Mary and Joseph they are the only ones named who are “in on” the meaning of Jesus birth. They are Zechariah, his wife Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna.  You can read their stories in Luke chapts. 1 and 2.
            Zechariah, a priest and Elizabeth were childless.  Elizabeth was a relative of Mary, perhaps a cousin.  One day an angel visits Zechariah in the temple and promises them a son.  That son was John the Baptist.
            Simeon was “righteous and devout.”  He was waiting for God to fulfill a promise to him.  The promise was an assurance that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.  At God’s direction Simeon was sent to the temple where he met Joseph, Mary and Jesus.
            Anna was an 84 year old widow. She was close to God and never left the temple.  There with Simeon she met the holy family.  Along with Simeon she carried a special message about Jesus.
            These four shared two traits.  The were all faithful people who lived close to God.  But beyond that perhaps the most obvious thing they share was their age.  They were old.  We might call them “The Over-the-hill-gang” of the Christmas story.
            Because of that they provide an important reminder to our youth-worshiping culture—THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR MATURE SAINTHOOD!
            The younger are often busy—having a good time and making a living, occasionally touching bases at church.
            These old-timers—last of the Old Testament  Saints (Godly People), held on hoping, trusting.  And as a result they were visited by God.  They are representatives of those faithful through all the years who did not live to see the day!  I wonder: how much did they have to do with it being “the fullness of time”?
            Isn’t it strange how “golden agers” think the gospel, church, etc. are for younger (and vice versa).  Too many have “folded up their tents” spiritually speaking—retired, stopped looking, hoping, anticipating.  Instead they are often living in past.
            In my first pastorate after seminary, I was serving a Friends (Quaker) congregation.  As part of my pastoral responsibility I was systematically calling on the members to “inquire about their spiritual health.”  I was to ask one of the basic Small Group questions—“how are you doing?” with an added word—spiritually?
           Luella Jones was an old-time Quaker, approaching 90.  She had served with The American Friends Service Committee, a ministry known around the world for their work for peace and justice.  When I asked her that question, she looked at me and said matter-of-factly, “He talked to me today.”
            Now it’s good to say, “I talked to God today,” but to be able to say, “He talked to me today,” models a relationship with God to be pursued.  One of Lulella’s common expressions spoke volumes about her.  When relating some ministry, event or positive development to her this old woman would invariably respond, “Goodie!”  Patience, vision (world-wide), enthusiasm! –near 90 years old.
            Age should not be a liability in God’s family.  Of course we need the young, but where there are mature saints, there is a depth, a power that we cannot do without.
            You do not become an aged saint by deciding at 65 you want to be one.  You do it by living faithful lives all the years.  One of the wonders of the Good News is how it fits every age and how important each age is to the full picture.
            Thank God for the “Over-the-hill-gang” of the Christmas story.  I want to be one of them.  Don’t you?

Some Old Bones + A Breeze=An Army

a valley;…full of bones…. and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army. -Ezekiel 37

“Some  Old Bones + A Breeze=An Army”

In an article about a reunion of old time aviators, the lead read: “Two veteran aviators met here yesterday for the first time in 40 years and discovered that of all the things that fly, time is the fastest.” (RD,2/89,p.114)

A human being has dreams, hopes, aspirations.  It is the soul and substance of life’s meaning.  It is, in fact, part of the definition of human.  This is best seen in the young before the corrosive effects of time take’s its toll. Lorraine Frontain, a kindergarten teacher, told about a little girl named Gina, whom she had warned several times, to pay attention.  It was to no avail.  Finally in desperation,  she asked, “Gina, why are you so excited?”  “I can’t help it,” she replied.  “My daddy said I could have a horse when I’m 35.”1

The anticipation of the young.  Dreams, hopes, plans are laid for life.  But as surely as we have dreams, we also have failure of dreams and hopes, set-backs and reverses.  Dreams and hopes can be lost, abandoned and not replaced.  It may be hard for youth to identify with that.  For them, hope is easier.  But few escape defeat which can lead to lowered expectations and hopelessness (loss of dreams).  Sometime ago an article on social workers quoted one as saying,  “I wanted to make a difference for the kids. Now I realize it was a totally unrealistic expectation.”  Lost dreams, cynicism.

There is an interesting and mysterious story in the Bible which tells about a vision given to a strange man called Ezekiel.  In the vision, Ezekiel sees a valley full of old dry bones.  As he speaks God’s word to them, flesh and breath are restored and they come to life—a vast army.

It is a vision symbolic of a people discouraged, defeated, hopeless as bleached out bones in a desert.  But God says he can and will bring life back to dead bones of shattered dreams and lives.  When we lose, when we fail, when a dream goes up in smoke, when life throws us a wicked curve, what can we do?

We can pick up the pieces because what left is usable by God, even old bones.  We can learn, we can adjust, we can “roll with the punches.”

In 1920, a young man by the name of Oswald Smith had a dream to be a missionary.   He had   prayed and dreamed for the opportunity and now stood before a board selecting missionaries.  He was turned down.  Did not meet qualifications, failed the test.  Decided if he couldn’t be a missionary, he would build a church that could send missionaries.  That church, People’s Church, Toronto, Canada became one of the greatest resources for missionaries in history,  sending hundreds to share God’s good news about Jesus.

Nothing given to God is lost.  A Christian, who gave money to build Baylor University,  later lost everything he had.  Someone asked him, “Don’t you wish you had the money back that you put into that school?”  “Not at   all.  It is all that I have saved.  If I had kept that money, I would have lost it too.”

We just need to let God breath life into what’s left.  When you do, life is an adventure(not easy, comfortable, predictable) but adventure.  We are too focused on winning or loosing, success or failure.  We miss the pure joy of living.  Gene Stallings tells of an incident when he was defensive backfield coach for the Dallas Cowboys.

Two All-Pro players, Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris, were sitting in front of their lockers after playing a tough game against the Washington Redskins.  They were still in their uniforms, and their heads were bowed in exhaustion. Waters said to Harris, “By the way Cliff, what was the final score?”2

When you love and are immersed in the game, the score doesn’t matter all that much.

Walter Peyton was one of greatest running backs in National Football League history.  During a telecast of Monday Night Football, one of the announcers remarked that he had gained over 9 miles rushing in his career.  The other said, “Yeah, and that’s with somebody knocking him down every 4.6 yards!”  That’s 3443 times!

Life will knock you down, wreck your dreams, but God is not foiled by that.  Just remember WHEN YOU’RE DOWN, THE WAY OUT IS UP.

God’s word to Ezekiel was “Then they will know that I am the LORD.”

1Reader’s Digest, Jan., ‘89, p.80
2 Penney F. Nichols, Leadership