spiritual growth

Pressing on into 2017

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Three days into 2017, are your New Years resolutions still intact? I’m not one for making such resolutions, but I do strive (however feebly) to live by the Scriptures every day of my life. The very end of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gives us some good things to shoot for as believers in Jesus in 2017 (and beyond, should the Lord tarry). His last three statements (prior to the “amen”) are powerful:

  1. “Our Lord, come!”
  2. “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.”
  3. “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus.”

If we could wrap all of that into one resolution for the new year, it would look something like this: Long for the Lord’s return while living in the light of His grace and loving one another.

Can you imagine how transformed the Church of Jesus Christ would be if our lives were so defined? Can you imagine the focus we would have? Can you imagine the trivial things that might fall by the wayside in our lives as the things that really matter rise to the forefront? Can you imagine the impact we might make for Christ?

 

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West Side Story and the Word of God

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For about six years of my life, I acted in community theater productions. In the first year of that experience, I landed the role of Officer Krupke in a production of my favorite play, “West Side Story.” I was thrilled to be part of telling that story and listening to Leonard Bernstein’s amazing music as I sat in the wings when not on stage. Ah yes, that music.

Krupke makes his initial appearance in the story during the musical “Prologue.” A street fight has broken out between the Jets and the Sharks, and at a certain point in the music, Krupke rushes on stage, blowing his whistle, followed by Lt. Shrank, and they break up the fight. The entry and blowing of the whistle have to be precise. There is a brief pause in the score where the whistle is to blow, followed by the orchestra playing its final measure or two. Therefore, Krupke has to blow his whistle at exactly the right time, which means he also has to enter at exactly the right time. The problem I had with this precision requirement was that the music at that moment in the score is all over the place. It’s hard to pick out a discernible melody, from which you can find a cue, upon which you know to blow the whistle. And I was having a terrible time trying to get it right (which greatly humbled me because I usually have a good ear for music).

One night, during a performance, I was waiting in the wings with Shrank, listening for my cue. Shrank actually knew the cue better than I did, and on that night, when I mistakenly thought I had heard it and headed for the stage, in character, whistle in mouth, ready to blow, I heard the actor playing Shrank whisper-yell “No!” But it was too late. I was already in the sight of the audience. I had a fraction of a second to decide that turning back at that point would look like a huge and obvious mistake, so I pressed on. I would have to improvise until the cue came up in the music and I could blow my whistle and break up the fight.

The problem was, though, I couldn’t think of a single thing to do once out I was out there in the midst of the two gangs at war with one another. And to make matters worse, I had gone out a full minute early. So for 60 seconds, I stood there, baton in hand, whistle in mouth, frozen behind the action. And if you’ve ever been in such a situation on stage, in front of an audience (and there were a few hundred there!), you know that one minute feels like about fifteen minutes. It was horrible – my most embarrassing moment on stage by far.

The next day, I went to Borders and found myself praising God that they actually had on hand, in the store, CDs of the original Broadway soundtrack to “West Side Story.” I bought one, took it home, popped it into a CD player, and played the “Prologue” until I heard the whistle blow. I then backed it up a few seconds and listened again. Over and over, I backed it up and re-listened. I must have done that fifty times. By the time I was done, I knew that cue cold. And at that night’s performance, I was right on time, as I would be for every performance thereafter.

Out of curiosity, just before writing this, I put on the “Prologue” to see if I could still hear the cue. It’s been about eight years, and that cue sticks out to me like a sore thumb. If I ever play Krupke again, I will be right on time with my entry and whistle.

As I was reliving that incident in my mind this morning, it got me thinking about how important it is to get the Word of God into our hearts and minds. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” What this is saying is that, when we take the Word of God into our hearts again and again and again – in other words, we make a regular practice of ingesting the Bible – its truths will speak to us during those crossroad moments when we decide how we will act or speak or think. The more we take it in, the more we will hear its cues – KNOW its cues – and we will be better adept at being where we need to be, when we need to be there, in our walks with God.

This Scripture ingestion can take the form of memorizing Bible verses, which is usually the way I hear Psalm 119:11 applied, but it also involves just reading the Bible regularly – daily, even. Sometimes, people try to read the Bible and then stop because they don’t understand it. Just keep on reading. Ask God to make it clear to you. The more you read it and put it into practice, the more you will understand about your own human condition and about God. In fact, in time, you will begin to think biblically, sometimes without even realizing you’re doing it. The Word will become to you what that musical cue became to me when I listened to it over and over and over again. It will guide you as you walk with God.

Glory Days That Never Were and Yet Are

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I heard the Bruce Springsteen song “Glory Days” while driving into the office this morning. If you don’t know the song, the first verse talks about him running into an old friend who had been a great baseball player back in their high school days. They sit down to do some catching up, and all the old friend can talk about is his “glory days.” It got me thinking about the glory days for me that never were.

Now, before you stop reading, thinking that this blog entry is just going to involve my reminiscing about my past, let me assure you that I am going somewhere with this.

In high school, I was not one of the “cool kids,” and I tended to look up to the “jocks.” I had not been particularly athletic prior to high school. In fact, I remember an incident in Jr. High P.E. where we were playing flag football and, in one game, I intercepted two passes just by being in the right place at the right time, standing there not knowing what to do. In both instances, as I held the intercepted football in my hands, I froze, still not knowing what to do, as my teammates yelled, “Run!” So I did.

By the time I got to high school, I was starting to take an interest in sports, and as I approached my junior year, I had become quite a good basketball player and seemed to have hands like glue as a receiver in pick-up football games. My friends tried to talk me into going out for the basketball team, but I was afraid to try. The star tight end on our football team even tried to talk me into going out for football, but, once again, I was afraid to try. So I contented myself with excelling among my little group of friends and missed out on the glory moments that might have been mine in a packed football stadium or basketball gym. And then, following high school, I kicked myself over and over again for years.

I kicked myself for being afraid to go out for sports. I kicked myself for being afraid to ask a girl to the prom. I kicked myself for learning to play guitar and then being too afraid to play it in front of my best friends. And when I got serious about my faith as a young adult, I hated that I would become intensely fearful when, at a Bible study, we would go around the circle we were sitting in and would tell our names and something about ourselves. As my turn would draw near, I could feel my heart pounding and my palms getting sweaty, and when I spoke, it felt like the air that came out of my mouth was restricted. And in spite of all of this, God called me to stand before people and preach and teach His Word. Go figure.

I can’t really explain how I knew that God had called me to preach and teach His Word. It was something I just knew in my heart – deeply in my heart – and when I tried to run away from the calling, I felt like Jonah running from Nineveh. The first opportunity I got to teach adults was in the College and Career Sunday school class I attended. There were probably about 60 people in that class, and our teacher, Herb Williams, gave me a chance to teach a four-week series on the book of Habakkuk. On day one of that series, Herb introduced me, and I walked to the podium, my legs feeling like Jello. Before beginning, I went to a table on the wall behind the podium to get a drink of water from a cup I had placed there, turning my back on the audience so they could not see how much my hand was trembling as I pulled the cup up toward my mouth. I was shaking so badly that I had to brace my hand against my body as I lifted the cup so that no water would splash out over the rim. I don’t know that I have ever been more scared than I was in that moment. I approached the podium in abject fear, set my Bible and my notes upon it, said to the audience, “Turn to the book of Habakkuk,” and all the fear instantly went away.

Since that day, my life, regardless of what else it has been about, has been about preaching and teaching God’s Word – the Bible. I have either been planning for it, training for it, looking for opportunities to do it, or serving as a pastor. And as much as I love life – my family, spending time with Nancy, going on vacations, playing fantasy football, petting my dog Molly, etc., etc., etc. – there is nothing that cranks my clock like standing in the pulpit delivering God’s Word. I’ve never had large congregations (in fact, they’ve been downright small); I don’t speak at conferences; I don’t have any book deals; I don’t have any of the things that many would deem evidence of success at what I do. But, as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” The boy who was afraid to try, and the man who was afraid to say his own name and favorite color when sitting in a circle among friends, is doing what only God could have brought about in his life.

Maybe someone who reads this is thinking, “That describes ME!” And perhaps you quote 2 Timothy 1:7 over and over again – “God has not given you a spirit of fear” – only to wind up in frustration at your failure to rise above the fear that God has not given you. Let me encourage you with something I’ve learned from experience: the fear may not leave until you take the step of faith. And this is not just something I’ve learned from experience; I’ve also learned it from the Bible. Moses was scared to death to do what God was calling him to do, but, after failing to talk God out of the idea, he stepped out and did it anyway, and it was in that stepping out that he found God was there with him. When it came time for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, one thing stood between them and their destination: the Jordan River at flood stage. If they had stood there waiting for the river to be held back, they would still be waiting (or at least their descendants would). God’s plan wasn’t for them to wait until the obstacle subsided; His plan was for them to line up in procession, with the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant at the head of the line, and then to march as if the river wasn’t even there. It wasn’t until the soles of the priest’s feet touched the water that God held back the river, and Israel crossed over on dry land, even as they had done forty years earlier when God had parted the Red Sea.

If you are a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ, God has glory days ahead for you. They won’t be for your own glory; they’ll be for His, which is far greater and much more fulfilling. And stepping into the things that God has for you to do in those days in which you get to bring glory to Him will inevitably involve stepping out in faith. But you can do that, following His calling and His leading. Then, someday, when we meet in heaven, we can talk about glory days – i.e., the glory that God brought to His name through our unworthy and incapable lives. What a conversation that will be! I can hardly wait.

Faithful Still

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This world sometimes seems like it’s spinning out of control. From those times when we access our bank accounts and discover there is so much less in them than we had thought, to those times when we turn on the news and hear reports of unspeakable violence, to everything in between, I find myself sighing and massaging my own forehead, eyes closed and feeling the weight of it all. And then comes a thought brought on by the beauty of a song: faithful still. “You are faithful still,” the singer sings. Indeed, He is.

Scriptural truths come to mind. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful,” Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:13). To the young disciple, Paul also wrote, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that He is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12). God is neither surprised by nor worried about the events of this world. He is on the throne, and my life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).

“You are faithful still,” the singer continues. And anxiety melts into peace.

We Need Never Stop Growing

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Today, I had to the privilege of visiting a woman who is dying of cancer. She is not an elderly woman; in fact, she’s middle aged. She does not fear death, for she knows without a doubt that her eternity is secure in Christ and that she will be with him when she passes from this life. At the same time, she would love to remain in this life for the sake of her family.

While I was impressed by her strong faith and the certainty it has given her for her eternal future, I was even more blessed by another aspect of her faith: namely, the spiritual growth she is experiencing through her ordeal. Here is a woman who no longer eats solid food, who is exhausted by more than ten minutes of conversation, and for whom the simple act of shifting her position on the sofa brings excruciating pain. Much of her life is shutting down, but her spiritual life continues to grow like a weed. She spoke of how she is learning to submit to the sovereignty of God as she has prayed for healing and has not received it. She spoke of things she is learning about God and hopes to learn in the future, even as her future appears to be very limited. The doctors tell her that she is nearing death; nevertheless, she continues to grow in grace and in the knowledge of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). When the Lord does call her home, she will cross the finish line at a full sprint.

We will all one day face the end of our lives on this earth, and for many of us, our ends will come in a manner similar to this woman’s in that our bodies will shut down gradually. But one thing we can all learn from the shining testimony of this dear saint is that, regardless of what happens to our physical bodies, spiritually we need never stop growing.