texturequalitypro_walls01

Do you ever feel like you are facing  obstacles with walls so tall and strong you cannot get past them? In spite of the oft-quoted promise that, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” the truth is that we frequently face things that are greater than we can handle on our own, but not bigger than the God who loves us, and wants to lead us to victory.

Many of us grew up believing that we were supposed to be self-made, and that life was about giving it our all. If things got really bad, we asked God for help, but then went on to do our best to overcome our circumstances. Apparently, God’s help was to make us better at what we were already trying to do.

What if God’s plan in those difficult moments was not to make us a little better or stronger than we were before? What if the bigger agenda was to invite us deeper in our relationship with him and to lean into God more? What if God’s goal was to move us away from our efforts to be independent and instead, allow us to be more dependent on him?

Yesterday’s sermon was based on the story of Joshua, and the victory at Jericho, found in Joshua 6 (listen to the message here http://cortlandumc.net/January_12-_2014.mp3). As I worked through the preparation for the message, I couldn’t help but think of how difficult it must have been to accept God’s plan for victory. Marching around the city with priests and trumpets is not much of a military strategy. Faced with an imposing obstacle, God did not ask Joshua to try harder, nor was the answer in better military planning. God’s divine solution was to march around the city in worship for a week, and then shout for victory on the last day. Unexpected, but as it turns out, quite effective.

In the book of Isaiah, God tells us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.” (55:8) God’s perspective is not our perspective. There is no trembling in heaven as God confers with the angelic host to come up with a response to the problem we are facing. There is no question in the heavenly throne room of who is, and will remain, victorious. God does not lose, and never plays to tie. God is the victor, and shares that victory with us.

Rather than trying harder, or focusing on our weaknesses, we are encouraged to press into the love of God and to trust him for the plans for victory. Instead of focusing on the walls before us, we worship the One who can break down the walls in a moment, and send us on to victory. The triumph at Jericho did not come from weapons, it came from worship. The answer can be found there in our circumstances as well.

This is not a passive response, where we sit back and wait for God to do something. Instead, we actively worship God and we activate our faith. We seek God for wisdom and insight, stretching our faith to meet that divine direction. Then, when it is time, we put feet to our faith, doing what God asks us to do, even if it means seven days of walking around a city.

As we trust in the Lord, leaning not on our own understanding, and as we put our faith into action, we discover that, by the grace of God, we are more than conquerors.

20140109-170045.jpg

I keep a small flashlight by the bed so that I can find things and get around without disturbing my wife as she sleeps. I noticed that the batteries were growing weaker, and the light a little dimmer each night, but I kept forgetting to replace them until I try to use it after we were in bed. It is no surprise then, that the last time I went to use it, the light came on, but was too dim to provide any help.

In Psalm 119, a psalm devoted to the importance of the divine teaching of the word of God, the psalmist declares, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (V.105) A few verses later, we read, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” (V. 130)

The light we use to navigate our path will make all the difference in how well we find our way. The wrong light will have a significant impact on our journey. While there are many voices encouraging us to follow our own path, or to live by a substitute to the direction of God, there is no other source that can successfully lead us where we need to go.

Looking over the substitutes offered in place Of the word of God, I am reminded of a hiking excursion I took in college. Walking along the path, we passed a beautiful stream. The scenic beauty made the clear running water seem all the more inviting, and after all of the hiking, many of our group were ready to savor the refreshment it offered.

Our leader suggested we wait until we crested the next hill where would have better access. He was right, it was better, and clearer. In fact, it was in that clarity that we could now see all of the beaver dung at the bottom of the stream. The water no longer looked so appealing.

I learned a valuable lesson there: the source matters. The beauty of the stream, the depth of my thirst, even the popular opinion, were nothing compared to the source of the water.

The same is true as we navigate life. We need pure light to show us the way. It doesn’t matter how appealing or popular something is. What matters is, is it true? Just because something sounds reasonable, or loving, or nice, doesn’t mean it is truly any of those things. Just because it comes from a celebrity voice, or in beautiful words, doesn’t make it truth.

To truly see where we are going, and where we need to go, we need a standard that is beyond ourselves, something that reveals the way things really are, and who we really are, as well. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Real liberty, real light, and real life, come from walking in the divine direction of the word of God. There is no substitute, no matter how enticing it appears.

The word of God is a treasure. It is a pure stream from which we can drink deeply. It provides refreshing for our spirits, and clarity for our minds. Indeed, it is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. The more we allow the Holy Spirit to unfold it in our lives, the more we will be able to see by its light.

How do you allow the word of God to enlighten your journey?

“People don’t believe the story is true. Many don’t believe that God is real, or that God can make a difference in their lives. Why should they? Do they ever get to see the transforming power of God made manifest? God is not a fairy tale, but people need to see it, to believe it is true.” This is how I began this morning’s sermon. (You can hear the entire message here after it is posted on Monday, http://cortlandumc.net/January_5_2014.mp3).

The Apostle Paul warned Timothy, the young pastor he was mentoring, that a time was coming when people who claimed to be following Jesus would have, “a form of godliness, while denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5). He knew, even at the early stages of Christianity, that there would be great temptation to leave behind the truth and the power of God, for something that seemed safer and easier. In our day, many hold to forms of faith, practicing rituals and attending services, but one has to wonder, “Where is the power?”

Is it possible, that we have lost faith in the story, or its Author? Do our frustrations and fears hold us back from believing in big things? Have we begun to view life through our own limitations, instead of the limitless possibilities of God?

I confess that, at times, this has been very true for me. I can easily lose sight of the promise from Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (4:13) In its place, I begin to look at my own strength and abilities, and quickly discover that I come up short. Trapped in the walls of my own ability, I begin to accept my circumstances, and try to do my best to make things a little better.

This, however, is not the life of faith, it is the life of belief, and that is not my (or your) calling! God’s invitation is to a life filled with faith in what God can, and will do. It is so much more than simply believing God exists. It is the opportunity to experience the awesome, life-transforming, circumstance-changing power of God!

A number of years ago, when I was taking martial arts lessons, my instructor had a sign he loved. It was the word “Can’t” written in bold letters, crossed out by a large red line. At the bottom, the sign read, “Can’t is a Four-Letter Word.” This was good motivation, but with God, it is the truth. There is nothing God call us to do, that we cannot accomplish in his strength.

How will people know that the story is true? It will happen as we demonstrate our trust in its authenticity, and as God begins to move in response to our faith.

One of my favorite promises comes from the blessing found at the end of Ephesians Chapter Three, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…” (3:20) Think about it – abundantly far more that we can ask, or imagine, and God does it through his power at work in us.

Our God is greater than we imagine, and we are stronger in him than we believe.

How do you strengthen yourself in God?

 

“I can’t wait until I…” was a mantra from my past. There were numerous markers on the path to ordained ministry. Barely would I complete one, before I was anticipating the next. Whether it was completing a phase of education, or passing another interview with the Board of Ordained ministry! I could not wait to get passed the next step.

Thankfully, another pastor who served on the Board, encouraged me to look at what I was doing. In my efforts to get through the next checkpoint on my way to my goal, I was missing much of the blessing that came with the journey. It was, and is, important to have goals and pursue them, but not at the expense of living in the moment with God.

Along my journey, one of the voices that has helped me find my balance is that of Henri Nouwen. In his book, Bread for the Journey, he reflects on what it means to cultivate the virtue of patience, “Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now to be who we are.”

There is great truth in his words, and wisdom for leading our lives from reflecting in them. The real value of patience is not in the waiting, but in being fully alive and alert in the present. This way, we do not miss the treasures of God waiting where we already are.

In Psalm 34:8, the psalmist declares we should, “Taste and see that The Lord is good.” It is a call to savor the richness of God in the place he has us now. There is no place we can go, no situation we can be in, where the greatness of God’s presence is not there to enrich our lives. To hurry past the moment we are in, to get to something that lies ahead, robs us of the blessing God intends for us to experience where we are.

As we press on to embrace the opportunities and goals that await us in 2014, we must also plan to feast on the marrow of each day, each moment God gives us on the way. If we learn to experience the fullness of each moment with God, we will be training ourselves to capture all of possibility that is yet to come as we fulfill our God-given destiny.

I invite you to pray with me,

“Creator God, you planned this day before you knit me together in my mother’s womb. You chose me before the creation of the world to be adopted in your family. Help me to discover all that you have for me, today. Let me see all of the hidden treasures along my path, and more importantly, be aware of your presence with me along the way. I choose to be fully alive, and alert to the leading of your Spirit, so that I can savor every moment of this day with you. Amen.”

30
Dec

Be still and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10

I didn’t know how exhausted I was until I took some time off after Christmas. I knew things were busy, very busy, and I knew I was feeling some stress from it all, but I didn’t realize how much I needed to stop.

Busyness can be one of the greatest challenges in my life, and one of the greatest obstacles to healthy relationships with my family and with God. Caught up in the flurry of activity, some of the more valuable parts of life are slowly, imperceptibly eroded. Due to a series of unique events that occurred near the beginning of September, my already active schedule was overwhelmed with extra responsibilities. Many wonderful things happened during the past four months, but the experience was quite draining.

Unfortunately, I am not alone. Conversations with people I minister with, reading numerous social media posts from friends, even casual conversations in restaurants and the coffee shop all point to a growing sense of hurry and stress. Work requires more to be done in less time. Family issues create new layers of concern and frustration. Holidays mingle their joy with mountains of added responsibilities. In the midst of all of the activity and concern, our bodies feel the anxious weight and can even add health concerns to our over-full plate. All of this is set against a backdrop of local, national, and global concerns. It can all be draining and disheartening.

Thankfully, this is not God’s plan for our lives, nor do we have to settle for this way of living. No, we cannot abandon our responsibilities, and we should be living with a passion for our goals and our purpose, but we can make space to be renewed in spirit as we open our lives to the refreshing wind of God’s Spirit. The Psalmist declared a great invitation from heaven with the simple words, “Be still and know that I am God.” Successfully living life is more than completing tasks on a list, it is savoring the presence of God and drawing strength from his Spirit within us.

God prodded my attention to this on the day after Christmas; the second day of my winter vacation. While reading a book on my Kindle, one I bought for pleasure, not for work, I found myself trying to push through to finish quickly. Sitting in the grocery store parking lot, waiting for my wife to return to the car, I was rushing to reach the end. Embarrassingly, I even caught myself thinking of how soon I could add another completed book to Goodreads! What was worse was that this was symbolic for so much of my life. As I spent time discussing this with God in prayer, later in the day, God made me very aware of how easily I can miss being with God while I am busy doing things for God.

Successful people know what needs to be done. They set goals, know their purpose and their gifts, and they track their progress. Being goal-oriented is important, but so is being balanced. Those who are truly successful also know how to tend to their souls; how to pause and be renewed, in order to be their best in the other areas of their lives. Even Jesus knew the sacred value of being with God. A quick look at his life reveals a daily routine of rising early to spend time in prayer, soaking in the presence of God. He also took extended times away with the disciples. If the Savior made time for this renewal, we should too.

No matter how busy our schedule is, we can make time to be still with God. In fact, it will be in our busiest times that we will need that time the most. This is an investment. It is time well spent as we regain our creativity, as God recreates us. In our hurry to accomplish things, we must not neglect time to be with God, and we must not make this one more thing to check off of our list. Healthy relationships take time, and healthy living takes attention. When we are willing to be still, and give our time and attention to God, we will find the balance, wisdom, and strength to accomplish all that lies ahead, and remain healthy as we do.

27
Dec

Philosopher George Santayana is famously quoted as saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This can be true of nations and individuals, and it is certainly true within the Christian faith.

For a while now, I have been watching posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, which are filled with pop theology, and they certainly are popular. Apparently,  the more emotional and sentimental the theological idea seems, the more popular it is. Here, the connections to Scripture are vague, and usually expressed in some ambiguous reference to being like Jesus, but this is typically based upon the author’s claim that their belief must be what Jesus believes. I even read one post recently that suggested that having convictions about your faith is actually in opposition to being like Jesus. Instead of being sure of what you believe, you should apparently just try to feel and act like Jesus felt and acted. That would, of course, require having some convictions on the way Jesus would feel and act, but pay no attention to the poor reasoning behind the curtain. One of the happy respondents to this post was even quick to support the author’s position because, “Christ had a different outlook than his father from the Old Testament.”

The truly, sad reality, is that these sentiments are nothing new. Despite the fact that the church faced, and overcame, such heresies in the past, it seems that they are quickly forgotten, and we are condemned to repeat them once again. Sometimes, this tendency is simply due to a lack of knowledge, while other examples are the result of an intentional effort to resurrect the heresy once again. It can even be trendy in some circles to do so. It is in the face of these attempts that we, as Christians, must continue to hold to the truth, while sharing it in love. For, as Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

Jesus is not a historical figure, isolated from the rest of Scripture. In his teachings he referred to the divine authority of the Old Testament. He quoted from it 78 times, including quotes from 27 Old Testament books. He stood on the convictions of his faith, even when that made him unpopular. He overcame the devil in the wilderness temptations by standing solidly on the word of God, and declaring it as truth. He challenged the faulty ideas of the religious leaders, by pointing to the authority of the Scriptures. His approach was never, “Do it because I said so!” instead, he said, “As it is written.” Thus, to act like and think like Jesus, is to value the authority of Scripture and stand upon its truths.

The writers of the New Testament were inspired by a personal relationship with the resurrected Jesus, and empowered by the presence of his Holy Spirit within them, who anointed them to put Jesus’ ideals into words that continue to teach us his way. Jesus, then, stands as the apex of the whole story. It all finds its meaning in him, and he is connected to it all.

The beauty, in the midst of all of this philosophical and theological reflection, is that we have the inspired word of God, given as the means to know where we stand, to know the truth so we can walk in it, and to be able to test all things so we can hold on to what is true. Within my faith tradition, we hold the methodology of John Wesley as a powerful standard for discerning our way. For him, there were four primary steps, and resources for discerning God’s truth: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. Wesley knew it was important to include our experience and the reasoning skills God gave us in the process, but he also wisely put them after the authority of Scripture and the powerful resource of tradition. This was to keep all of our beliefs and actions rooted in the full witness of the whole Bible, and to keep us from falling away from the truth we already discerned. When we use these tools rightly, we can avoid many of the pitfalls of the past, and we can remain rooted in God’s abiding truth.

Santayana’s words may be true, but it is then, also true that those who remember the past will be blessed, and avoid repeating its foolishness. We all like things that feel good, but it is much more important to embrace the truth, for when we walk in its light, we do not stumble. May we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth so that we may walk rightly in its way.

I remember some of my first camping outings, and the valuable lessons that came from those experiences. One of the most significant insights I quickly gleaned, shared a theme with a famous real estate axiom: location, location, location. Where you camp makes all the difference. From the insulation beneath you, to loose limbs in the trees above, there are important things to consider before making camp. One part I wish I’d learned faster was recognizing how the runoff would affect my tent once it started to rain. Waking up to a small river inside the tent doesn’t make for a great night of rest.

For the last 15 years, I have been captivated by the power of the message of Psalm 1. Six simple, yet profound, verses establish the importance of where we choose to camp spiritually. The author of the Psalm begins by declaring blessed the person who does not camp on the paths of the wicked, sinners, and mockers. He then goes on to say that the person who puts their roots into the law of The Lord and meditates on it constantly will celebrate abundance in God.

This is a very powerful truth. If we follow the ways of the wicked and make our spiritual home there, we will miss out on tremendous blessings, and may suffer great loss here, and in eternity. However, if we delight ourselves in God’s way, we become like trees planted by streams of fresh water that give life, we flourish, bear fruit, and find strength. In the end, those who camp with God will prosper in what they do, for their foundation will be strong and solid.

In our day, as it was in the Psalmist’s time, there are a myriad of temptations to follow ways that are not of God. Some of these ways come with great cultural support, and we can even be made to feel that we are wrong for not embracing what the world around us says is right. The Bible is clear, however, that God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s thoughts our thoughts. It even says that the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.

It makes all the difference where we camp, and it affects much more than our comfort in the experience. God’s way may not be popular, but it is always right, and if we want to flourish, we must be planted near the streams of healthy water that allow us to grow and thrive.

Unfortunately, there will be times when we will need to choose between being popular and accepted, or being where God calls us to be. When we face these difficult times, it is important to remember where life and blessing are truly found. The world, even our friends, may choose to camp in unhealthy and destructive paths, but we must wisely make camp where God calls us to go.

God’s call may lead us away from what others embrace, but God is not seeking to keep us from enjoying life, instead, God is calling us to the place of blessing, where we can experience God’s abundance, and prosper in all that we do.

May the tree of your life flourish and bear fruit, and may you prosper in all you do as you build your life upon the solid, healthy foundation of God.

Juggling the many details and situations of life can leave us so busy that we only have time for the most pressing priorities. Even the things we love can suddenly be eclipsed by the things we need to do. Sometimes, as we cross off some of the higher priorities, other valuable things rise to the surface, but then there are the times we must dig in and make room for what we love.

The past two months were full of surprises and ministry needs that left little time for me to write something meaningful. I experienced enough to provide material for many days of writing ahead but, unfortunately, the free time I carved out of my schedule, usually came while experiencing the impact of sheer exhaustion. Frequently, I thought about how much I missed blogging, but the effort to create a good post seemed like too much to give.

I would love to say that things slowed down, but my schedule is every bit as busy as it was, with a few new things added in. I simple came to a point when I realized that I needed to take action to pursue something I love. It was not going to happen on its own, and waiting for a time that worked was a losing proposition.

In Revelation 2:4, Jesus is speaking to the Ephesian church and he says to them, “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” This sounds a little harsh at first, but when we realize it was said as a healthy challenge, in the midst of other affirmation, it becomes clear that Jesus is calling them back to something important they left behind. Some people believe that Jesus was talking about their love for him, but it is more likely that he was addressing the heart of love they had for God, each other, and the world. Their love was growing cold.

It is not always easy to love. When we are tired and drained, the energy to look outward can be hard to summon. When time is short, compassion can be as well. When we are hurt, wounded, or offended, love can be a very elusive thing. The power to let our love grow cold is ours to wield, but so is the power to fan it into flame. It may not be easy to love, but we can choose to do it anyway.

I realize that making time to write a blog post is quite different that stirring up love for others when the weight is heavy on our heart, but the answer is often very much the same. We simply must choose to do it. We must acknowledge our feelings, and all that stands in our way, and choose to love anyway. It may not be an easy choice, but decisions of value rarely are.

So, as I take time to welcome myself back to writing, I am challenged to welcome back the more important love I had at first. Maybe, you need to welcome back your love as well. Could it be that God is calling all of us to remember our first love, and kindle its fire till it blazes once again? Could it be that the first step is saying, “Yes?”

May the love of God rise within you that you may be God’s love to the world.

I find it hard to see, and remember, some important truths. I find that others do too. They seem so obvious in the moment, but later, it seems I must learn them all over again. Jesus’ disciples wrestled with this trait. They ministered alongside Jesus, but often failed to see the bigger picture Jesus taught them.

Once, while traveling in a boat, Jesus taught his disciples to beware of the yeast of the religious leaders. Jesus wanted them to be cautious of what they allowed to grow within their spirits, their thoughts, and their actions. It was a simple lesson, but one that quickly became much more significant, for the disciples heard a different focus in Jesus’ words. Instead of being concerned with the spiritual issue at hand, they began to discuss with one one another their belief that Jesus was concerned that they only brought one loaf of bread with them.

The situation is only amplified by the fact that the disciples watched earlier, as Jesus took a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish and used them to feed thousands of people. He did this in two separate occasions, yet the disciples were still arguing over bread in the boat, believing Jesus was concerned about what they would eat. They were unable to lift their vision to see the larger truths of Jesus’ spiritual message, and God’s provision through Jesus himself. These precious followers of the Savior struggled to see the miraculous gift that was right in front of them.

Hearing their conversation, Jesus interrupts them to address the situation. The Gospel of Mark tells the conversation this way: Jesus said, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:17-21)

I wonder how much frustration Jesus felt at this point. I am sure Jesus’ compassion far exceeds mine, but I know how disheartening it can be when the people you love and minister with seem to keep missing the point. A few instances come to mind:

After preaching a strong sermon on why gossip is so destructive and should not be a part of Christian conversation, I walked into the entryway to find several people who only moments ago were shouting, “Amen!” deep in a personal gossip festival.

I frequently preach on the power of words, encouraging people to watch the negativity of their tongue. Many times, these services conclude with conversations where people pour out the litany of everything wrong in their lives and the world.

A personal favorite is the ubiquitous, “It’s too bad the people who needed to hear that weren’t here to hear it, pastor.” Of course, this is usually spoke by people who really needed to hear it themselves.

There is a long list of similar situations, but these are not the concerns that truly affect and concern me. What really challenges me is that I do the same thing, and I do it repeatedly. Lessons of faith and trust learned in experiences with Jesus along my journey, seem quickly forgotten in the face of a new problem, or difficult season.

When I look back over all of the compassion and provision God demonstrated in my life, it is hard not to believe that I am cared for in my current circumstances, and that God is not planning provision for my future. The problem is, frequently, I don’t look back. I become so focused on the issue I am facing at the moment that I forget to remember what I learned along the way. So, when faced with a financial concern, I tend to focus on my immediate need and neglect all of the times God miraculously met my need in the past. When faced with a difficult message to craft, I fail to remember the inspiration I previously received. You get the picture.

This kind of selective memory weakens our faith and inhibits our actions. It applies to disciples in the boat with Jesus, to me when I face challenging circumstances, and to all of us when we forget the places the power of God blessed us in the past. When we lose sight of where we’ve been and who goes with us, we lose the vision that propels us forward through our difficulties.

Jesus asked the disciples, “Do you not yet understand?” When I say it to myself, I usually ask, “Are you slow to see?” However the question is asked, it is a necessary challenge to our vision. When we look back and remember the power of God at work in our lives, we find the faith to look forward believing that God is, “able to exceedingly, abundantly beyond all we can ask or imagine,” through his power that is at work within us. It is in this knowledge that trust, vision, and hope are found. We may be slow to see, but once we do, we capture a vision that knows no boundaries!

I challenge you to join me in a quest to remember the powerful lessons we learned. We have been taught by God along the way. If we remember those valuable lessons, the future will be more exciting, more amazing than we we can imagine, and it will be filled will a host of new, more wonderful lessons to learn. May we all have eyes to see.

30
Jul

20130730-130416.jpg

I thought I would add a face to the front page. Not to worry, a real post is on its way!