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Love Rather than Judge (November 25, 2009)

I talk to a lot of people – huge surprise, I know – Christians who attend church, those who do not, as well as people who do not believe in God at all. In fact, I just had a conversation with a friend who grew up in a Baptist church, but no longer attends any church with her family. Her rational was exactly the same issue I hear from most people who are not actively participating in their faith, especially Christians. It is simply a fear of judgment from the members of the church. This fear may or may not be legitimate, as Satan is the father of lies, and thus tries to pass on self-doubt to individuals. He hopes that this will prevent people from living the lives God has designed for them. However, I believe that a person’s fear of judgment within a church body can be rational. Sometimes people who have grown from certain sins want to help other people going through similar events, and this may come across as judgmental – although it’s likely never the intention of the more mature believer.

Simply put, our job as Christians is to love other people. This doesn’t only apply to lovable people. We should love sinners and less mature Christians, just as Christ loves us, even though it may not always be comfortable for us to do so. We should love others, especially other believers, without judgment or condemnation. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1).” Even if we have spent our entire lives as Christians, and have no major skeletons from our own past, we still fall extremely short of Jesus’ perfection. Jesus died on the cross for everyone, not just us. We need to reach people and share God’s love without any strings attached. We should love others where they are, and encourage their spiritual growth without coming across as if we believe we are better than them.

God is responsible for judging everyone and will hold us accountable for our actions here on Earth. Christians passing judgment on other Christians is essentially saying that God cannot accomplish His will without our help. It is not our place to articulate all of the sins of every person we come in contact with. Believers should establish accountability partners to help facilitate their Christian growth, with people they trust and respect. This way, if you start to engage in inappropriate behavior, there is always a gentle voice to guide you back along the path to righteousness. Any spiritual correction that is necessary should always be given in a humble, loving, private manner. It should be accompanied with understanding and support, rather than judgment and superiority.

In general, we should always remember the words of Matthew 7:3 “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” This is an exhortation to believers, and reminds us that we will be judged according to the manner we judge others. Trust in the fact that God can and will change believers into the person He desires them to be. Once a nonbeliever truly accepts Christ into their heart, they will be personally convicted by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works differently in everyone’s life. Sin problems are not all tackled immediately when someone becomes a Christian. God is gentle, loving, and will guide people through their Christian growth. We should nurture this growth as sisters in Christ. Paul sums this up perfectly in Romans 14:1-4:

“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

God is in control and will accomplish His will regardless of how much we help Him ‘fix’ other people. This holiday season, may we all live out the words of Ephesians 4:32 “Be kind to one other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Help make the church a safe place for all people, no matter what their past, present, or future sins may be. Through love, not judgment, we can show others how incredibly fortunate we are to have such a merciful God.

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Read Any Good Books Lately? (October 13, 2009)

I have never really enjoyed reading, especially novels and other works of fiction. I rarely read any of the assigned books in my English literature classes or even my college courses. In fact, I would purchase the Cliff Notes and only read the two page summary. Needless to say, my grades suffered! It wasn’t until I started doing Bible studies that I realized that you can read something with the intent of understanding. Even more surprising is that I have gained an appreciation for the Bible as a phenomenal work of literature!

You may be scratching your head at this point, wondering why I would describe God’s Word as a piece of literature, but I assure you I mean no disrespect. The Bible is the inspired Word of God, and for that reason alone, we should study it and apply its truths to every aspect of our lives. I completely believe that! But, how many times do we look at the Bible as reference material, something to adorn our bookshelf, or as a stuffy super-spiritual manual that may leave us feeling like a failure? We all know we should be reading the Bible, but seriously, isn’t it easier to pick up a copy of Danielle Steele’s latest romance novel, or the latest fad diet promising to help us lose 30-pounds in 30-days? I know those struggles; I’ve had them all of my life – studying God’s Word was always a chore, something I had to do, not always something I wanted to do.

Over the past couple of years, I have gained a new appreciation for the Bible. Not only is it perfectly relevant in modern times, it contains an excellent mix of all literary genres. Biography, history, genealogy, law, poetry, parables, allegory, tragedy, comedy, sarcasm, speeches, monologues, controversy, love stories, words of wisdom, prayers, letters, etc. No matter what type of literature you prefer, I’m certain you can find it in the Bible. Let me briefly tell a couple of my favorite Bible stories to encourage you to look for more (and I assure you, there are tons of interesting things to read about).

I really love the story found in Acts 20:9-10 when Paul is preaching in Troas and is rather long-winded. Eutychus not only falls asleep on the windowsill, he falls out of the window and dies. Luckily, God allows Paul to bring him back to life, and the ending is a happy one, but hopefully Paul learns that long sermons can be deadly! Comedy, tragedy, and a miracle all rolled into two verses!

In Genesis 18:10-15, God tells Abraham that Sarah will become pregnant. Sarah overhears this and laughs, thinking to herself “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?” God questions Abraham, asking if anything is too difficult for the Lord. Of course, Sarah lies to God, out of shame, saying she never laughed. Isn’t that something we would do today – doubting that God can perform a miracle and then lying to Him when He questions us?

Some hysterical words of wisdom (tons of humor in the book of Proverbs):

“If only you would be altogether silent! For you, that would be wisdom.” Job 13:5

“Better to live in the desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife.” Proverbs 21:19

“Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish.” Proverbs 31:6

As I often tell people, what I enjoy most is that the Bible shows how God used real people to accomplish extraordinary feats. I love how the apostles were just regular people: fishermen, a tax collector, a doctor, a tentmaker. Better yet, they showed their humanness frequently by not understanding Jesus’ teachings, betraying Jesus, and being selfish. It’s awesome that God uses people, such as prostitutes and ego-maniacs, despite their sin to further His kingdom and bring others closer to Him. Reading how people even fell short despite their conversion from their terrible pasts inspires me that I, too, can make a difference and be a light in an otherwise dark world.

Again, I am not disregarding the sanctity of the Bible – I firmly believe in daily study of God’s Word to guide all of our lives. I just know that reading the Bible can sometimes be a formidable task, and if we can also appreciate the Bible in a light-hearted manner, it might make it easier to become immersed in the Word. The Bible is God-breathed, and I completely believe that God wanted it to be an enjoyable read for us. I know that once you start reading the Bible regularly, you’ll be hooked and will continue studying God’s Word. There is definitely something for everyone in the Bible!

Never Say Never (September 14, 2009)

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whichthe world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14)

October has turned into such a pivotal month in my life. I’m not sure why – maybe it’s the return of normalcy to the school and work year after a hectic summer; maybe because the temperature is just beginning to chill; maybe it’s the gentle transition into the holiday season. I can’t put my finger on it, but clearly the last two Octobers have taught me an important lesson – never say never!

Take a brief walk with me!  On October 18, 2007, my son and I were enjoying dinner and kid’s bingo at a local restaurant, when a chance encounter with a family from our church would soon change our lives.  This family invited my son to visit Awana at their church. I knew of Awana at the time, as my aunt had spoken very highly of the program, but I never really understood the purpose of useless memorization.  However, I was open to the possibility that my son could benefit from learning to memorize, since he had just begun kindergarten.  As someone who struggles with memorization, I saw Awana as a purely academic endeavor.

I made it incredibly clear that night that my son was welcome to try Awana out, but I did not want people to try and ‘convert’ me.  I was Catholic, and after years of falling in and out of favor with my faith, I knew there was no benefit to my attending church.  Church was filled with hypocrites and spiritual people who would not understand me; God and I were doing just fine with our relationship, I reasoned.

My son attended Awana and loved it, so I registered him, reminding everyone my position about church had not changed.  No one pushed me; they were friendly and great with my son, but never crossed the line with me.  One month later, I found myself as a back-row church-goer when a friend of mine was going through a disastrous period that affected both of our lives.  Shortly after, we met with our pastor and I re-articulated my feelings on church.  Our pastor remained true to his beliefs, but never pushed me.  The rest is history, as you can tell.

God continues to show me that church is not perfect, as it is made up of fallen humans, just like me.  But, He has shown me that a few bad apples shouldn’t spoil the barrel.  In other words, the benefits of attending church strongly outweigh the negatives.  Fellowship with other believers, an organized, systematic way to keep studying the Bible to continue spiritual growth, an opportunity to serve, etc. – these are the reasons that I need and love church!

I wish I could say the story ends there, but last October, I allowed myself to fall a little.  Granted, my personal standards had improved, and this particular altercation would never have bothered me in my non-church days.  But, as a growing Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit – it was painful!  To this day, I don’t know what happened, other than spiritual warfare at its finest.  I was traveling on business, and my week was difficult.  It was at a time where I was getting complacent in my faith; the novelty had worn off.  I was starting to lose my enthusiasm and drive.  It was a hard week and I remember saying to a colleague, “I am a Christian now and I would never…”  Cockiness and pride at its best!  Acting like I, little ol’ me, had any power in overcoming sin.  Do you ever notice that the more you try to show someone that you’re different from who they think – the more you prove their case?  I suspect you know where this story is going; the “I never” happened and the conviction the Holy Spirit sent my way was enough to last a lifetime.

Luckily God has a sense of humor, or rather purpose, in His plan.  Last October, immediately after I was convicted like never before, the topic of my Bible study was faith.  At a time when I wasn’t feeling like I had any, faith was our topic of discussion.  Amazingly, God used this to show me that even mature Christians had similar struggles to mine.  It was an eye-opening experience for sure!  And those hypocrites I feared so much?  I learned that while there are bad people in every organization, many of those hypocrites that I feared were no different than me – people trying their best to walk with God, but not always making the progress they’d like.

God’s even given me the perspective of those who mentored me, by allowing me to interact with people who have the same beliefs that I once had.  I’ve even learned that memorization is not so terrible, and can help with spiritual warfare.  As long as I remember to put God first in everything, I find that my walk is infinitely easier and my relationship with God is headed in the right direction.  Being prideful and saying that dreaded word ‘never’ is simply an open invitation for temptation or for God to lovingly remind me who is in charge!

Reflections of Christmas (December 25, 2009)

December 25th, 3:00 AM…for those of you who don’t know me well, I often write in the middle of the night.  My rational is that since I rarely have a chance to slow down, God messes with my sleep and uses my down-time to talk to me.  On this Christmas morning, my mind struggles to focus on one particular thing.  Mostly, I am thinking about the meaning of Christmas – the true meaning, Jesus’ birth.  But, since we’re nearing the end of December, I cannot help but reflect about my spiritual walk over this past year.  What makes me even more pensive is that we are approaching the one-year anniversary of this newsletter.  That means I’ve written eleven devotionals, but have they – have I – glorified God and inspired women in the process.

At the surface, it may seem like my thoughts are jumbled, but I submit to you, there is a definite connection between the Christmas story and our daily responsibilities as Christians.  As we embark on yet another year of our life on this Earth, let us remember the joy we feel because of Jesus’ birth, and the love of God the Father, who gave us the ultimate Christmas gift over 2000 years ago.  Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection are not mere events to consider twice a year, but really something that should be at the forefront of our thoughts every day!

That sounds great, but is that what we do?  Is that what I do?  Are sometimes my ideals simply words on a page that lack meaning and application in my life?  When someone looks at me, do they see God’s love, or do they see some self-centered woman who cannot seem to get things right for any appreciable amount of time?  Am I really progressing in my spiritual walk?  Is it that two-steps-forward-one-step-back type of maturity, or do I find myself sliding down the spiritual mountain?  I ask these questions to myself, but really, we should all consider where we are and where we’re going.  If we truly believe the Christmas story, we need to ask these questions, and, we need to be honest enough with ourselves to answer them, but without condemnation.

When I reflect over the year, I see a few shining moments where God’s love radiated from me, but I also see some moments where I must have been demon-possessed! I honestly relate to Paul when he writes, “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.  Now, if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it (Romans 7:15-20).”

I have to include the whole text to help you appreciate my thought-process.  Paul has rehashed my entire spiritual journey in this passage, including the agonizing frustration that goes along with it.  I’ve had this identical conversation with God, even taking it to the point of yelling, begging, and crying over it.  I ask Him, “What’s wrong with me?  God, come on, please help me be consistent.  Help me show Your love; help me do the things I sincerely want to do.  Why is that the more I want to show You, the more I end up disappointing You, and myself?  Why?”

Paul was able to point out that our problem with not reaching our ideals is because of sin living in us.  I don’t know about you, but looking at the magnitude of sin in my life, Paul’s words alone are not too reassuring!  I mean, sure there’s been progress in reducing my sin, but it’s an incredibly slow process, like using an ice-pick to break up a glacier the size of Greenland.  It would be enough to overwhelm me if I had to tackle this problem on my own.  But, I am comforted to know that our sinful nature is overcome because of Jesus!

And, that brings us back to the Christmas story, the true meaning of Christmas… the birth of Jesus, who would later die to redeem us.  We are completely undeserving of His sacrifice, especially considering nothing is required for us to accept His ultimate gift.  For me, this puts everything in a different light.  I’m not just forcing a mere ‘thank you’ to be polite for a gift I didn’t want.  I am truly humbled by the magnificent gift that God has given me – a gift I didn’t even realize I needed for a large part of my life!  I want to grow spiritually; I want to share God’s love with everyone; I want to honor the amazing God who loves us unconditionally.  This doesn’t mean I will always get everything right, or even come close, but I can and will accept I am a work in progress and continue persevering towards to the goal.  This year, let’s make it a daily priority to remember what we’ve been given and put God first in everything that we do.  May you have joyful and blessed New Year!

“For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being so that Christ may dwell in your hearts.  And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled in the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19).

To Live is Christ, August 13, 2009

Philippians 1:21 “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”

Paul penned these words to articulate the importance of living life completely for Christ.  Paul, once a persecutor of Christians, spent his entire converted life enduring the same suffering he previously desired for others.  At the time of Paul’s letter to the Philippi church, Paul was imprisoned and conflicted regarding the direction his life should take.  For Paul, dying meant being with Christ, something he desired more than anything; but continuing his ministry meant bringing more people to Christ, his ultimate purpose.  Paul was crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20), giving up complete control of his life – allowing Christ to live in him.

God uses many techniques to help people understand His direction.  One of them is through confirmation of many sources.  It never ceases to amaze me that God will point everything in His particular direction.  Unfortunately, for me, there has to be a lot of repetition before I finally catch on!  Lately, God has been directing me towards a better understanding of Paul’s ministry and a greater appreciation for Paul, himself.  The verses above have been recently discussed in church sermons, Sunday school, Christian books, and through songs on the radio.  To make matters even more clear, children’s Sunday school has focused on Paul for a while now – both his conversion and mission trips.  In the midst of this, my son was singing a song on his MP3 player that I wasn’t familiar with.  It turned out to the Apologetics song “I Love Apostle Paul” (sung to the tune of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll”).  So, it shouldn’t have surprised me that when the women’s ministry was discussing Bible studies for the fall, God led me to one of Beth Moore’s early studies.  It is appropriately named “To Live is Christ – The Life and Ministry of Paul”.  What better way to become closer to God than study His Word, and what a great way to study His Word by focusing on the apostle Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament!

“To Live is Christ” is more than a history lesson about Paul – it provides amazing hope and encouragement for every woman.  Paul reminds us that God doesn’t care about our past; his mercy will overcome any sins we have committed.  If God will use a self-absorbed, persecutor of Christians, who allowed the law to become his god, then He wants to personally call each of us to be His disciple.  Paul was a passionate, unashamed man, who persevered through countless trials.   He was faithful to God despite the constant opposition he faced.  Everything in Paul’s life and ministry is as relevant today as it was during his lifetime.  There is so much to take from this study, including (but by no means limited to): raising Godly children, dealing with temptation and difficulty, witnessing to non-believers, Godly relationships and mentoring, and even how to avoid being long-winded (uh-oh).  I encourage you to commit to attending this awesome 12-week Beth Moore study on Sunday nights.  There will be surely something for everyone, in addition to the opportunity to fellowship and discuss scripture with other women!  What an inspiration to all women to learn about the man who gave his entire existence to God’s will after his conversion along the road to Damascus.  Paul demonstrates that God’s power can and will overcome human weakness, if we allow Him to take control of our lives.

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.  (Colossians 3:2-4)

Heart Cultivation – July 10, 2009

Jesus taught the ‘Parable of the Sower’ as explained in Matthew 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-8, and Luke 8:4-15, which is the first parable told in each of the Synoptic gospels.  It is interesting to note that after Jesus shared this story with the crowd, he offered additional explanation to His disciples (Matthew 13:18-23, Mark 4:13-20), who frequently required clarification when hearing Jesus’ metaphors and allegory.  This fact, in itself, offers tremendous comfort to me, as it reminds us that the disciples were ordinary people who had the same challenges that we do today.  This can and should inspire us to live according to God’s great purpose for our lives!

The ‘Parable of the Sower’ illustrates:  “A farmer went out to sow his seed.  As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.  Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil.  It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.  But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched because they had no root.  Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plant.  Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”  (Matthew 13:3-8)

The four parts of the parable are described to the disciples in terms of how people use God’s Word in their lives (Matthew 13:19-23):

1)  The seed sown along the path is analogous to Satan snatching up the Word from the nonbeliever before it has the opportunity to take root in their heart.

2)  The seed sown in the rocky places relates to the spiritually immature believer who is initially excited by God’s Word, but when trouble comes into their life, they quickly return to the ways of the flesh.

3) The seed sown among the thorns describes a believer who becomes caught up in the worries and concerns of life and wealth, and does not focus all of their efforts on God.  In this case, the soil can produce life; it is just being used for ungodly pursuits.

4) The final seed, which is sown in the productive soil, shows how spiritually mature believers accept God’s word – they take it into their heart, understand it, their faith grows, and the results are fruitful for God’s kingdom.

If you consider how soil forms and becomes fertile for the growth of vegetation (and you likely haven’t), you will see that the process correlates to the ‘Parable of the Sower’.   Soil is not formed overnight; it takes years for a good, productive soil to develop.  It forms from the top surface downward by the weathering of rock and requires nutrients that come from plant, animals, water and air.   Its texture results from the amount of sand, clay, and silt that are present in the soil.  A soil that contains only sand, clay, or silt could not support life, and thus the most fertile soil for plant growth contains a mixture of these three textures.

More than you wanted to know about soil, I’m sure, but here’s how it all works together – and isn’t God awesome for how everything interrelates?  The soil depicted in Jesus’ parable is our heart, and its quality is related to our receptiveness of allowing God’s Word to govern our daily life.  We first must protect ourselves by wearing our spiritual armor on our exterior; then, we can start developing inwardly.  The rocky parts of our heart must be weathered by the trials and difficulties that take place in our lives.  We require nutrients, such as fellowship, encouragement, Godly counsel, and scriptural teaching in order for our hearts to soften and develop.  We must remain balanced in our faith, just as a fertile soil is balanced in texture, focusing on studying the word, helping or encouraging others, and praising God in everything we do.  The time it takes for our hearts to develop is related to our level of spiritual maturity.  This is a dynamic process – we do not have to remain stagnant in our current condition!  Our hearts can be cultivated, as our relationship with God is nurtured.  As we actively seek God’s guidance in our lives, our hearts will hold God’s Word for protection, we will grow as Christians, and produce the Fruit of the Spirit.

“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”  (Colossians 2:6-7)

Make a Joyful Noise (June 3, 2009)

There is an endless song

Echoes in my soul

I hear this music ring

And though the storms may come

I am holding on

To the rock I cling

How can I keep from singing Your praise?

How can I ever say enough?

How amazing is Your love?

How can I keep from shouting Your name?

I know I am loved by the King

And it makes my heart want to sing!

(Chris Tomlin)

Music ministers to my soul; it speaks to every fiber of my inner being.  I can completely find myself in certain songs, where the lyrics seem to illuminate all of the vulnerabilities I possess.  I’ve always had a strong connection with music, although I’ve spent the majority of my life with a terrible fear of singing or playing the piano in the presence of other people.  God has made amazing progress in this weakness of mine, and I am so grateful for the confidence I now have to ‘make a joyful noise’ when worshipping Him!  It doesn’t matter if your pitch is not perfect (like mine), singing songs of praise and worship can be an amazing way to communicate with the Lord.

Natalie Grant is one of my favorite artists, and I love all of the songs on her Relentless CD.  The bonus track on the CD is a cover of “In Christ Alone” by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty.  I fell in love with her version of the song the first time I heard it.  My favorite verse is:

No guilt in life, no fear in death;

This is the power of Christ in me.

From life’s first cry to final breath,

Jesus commands my destiny.

No power of hell, no scheme of man

Could ever pluck me from his hand.

Till he returns or calls me home,

Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

These lyrics serve as my comfort in times of struggle, and strength in times of weakness.  They help remind me that God is in control of everything and that no matter what happens on earth, I will spend eternity in His presence!  Several months ago, this song was our anthem for choir and I was thrilled to sing these words with all of my heart behind them.

A couple of days after our pastor talked about not becoming complacent at a church business meeting, Matthew West was a guest on KLOVE radio.  His testimony about having vocal chord surgery before releasing the album Something to Say is powerful.  However, it was a story that he told about a young fan’s commitment to his song “The Motions” that brought tears to my eyes.  Ryan McAfee was an 18-year old fan of the song, and posted the lyrics to “The Motions” on his Facebook page as a plea for accountability from his friends.  If you’re not familiar with the song, let me share the chorus with you:

I don’t wanna go through the motions

I don’t wanna go one more day

Without Your all consuming passion inside of me

I don’t wanna spend my whole life asking

What if I had given everything?

Instead of going through the motions.

The day after Ryan asked to be held accountable to these lyrics, he was killed in an automobile accident.  There were several thousand people at Ryan’s funeral, and “The Motions” was played.  At the funeral, 15-20 people came to Christ as a result of Ryan’s love for Jesus.  What an incredible testimony of a young man who God continues to use to bring people to Him even after his untimely departure from this world.  This song has become one of my favorites, since it rings so true in my ears.  I want my time on earth to have an impact on others, just like Ryan.  I don’t want to spend my whole life asking what if…  In the words of Aaron Shust, from the title song of his upcoming CD being released in August 2009:

Can you take over, take over

Can you take over me?

I’ve been here over and over

Came over on my knees

I’m moving closer and closer to where I want to be

When you take over, take over

Can you take over me?