The Shepherds


That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.  The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!  And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”  Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”  Luke 2:8-14 (NLT)


“The Charlie Brown Christmas” first introduced me to this verse about the birth of Jesus and began my love of Vince Guaraldi and jazz music.  I was in college before I found out this passage didn’t begin with “Lights please.”  I still love listening to Vince and the trio.


The shepherds were the truck drivers and red necks of Jesus’ time.  The job they did was essential to the life and economy of the time, but the city folks ignored them the best they could.  I’m sure they smelled funny and they probably talked funny.  I can relate the shepherds. I grew up in a place where the folks were mainly “shepherds.”  Good, hard working folks that city folks couldn’t live without.  But the city folks would try to ignore them if they could and would laugh about them if they couldn’t.  The shepherds lived a pretty solitary life in the fields with their sheep.  They would come together at night to a camp, pen their sheep with other flocks and join the other shepherds for company and safety.  When this scene begins, they were sitting around their camp fire trading stories and finishing their dinner.  Soon they would be kicking out the coals and going to bed.


What happened next would change the shepherds’ lives forever and make them the center of the conversation when someone asked the ice breaker, “What the wildest thing you have ever seen while watching your sheep.”  Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about the people who received the angel’s message.


As I mentioned above, the shepherds were the common people.  They were social outcasts doing work-a-day jobs.  Probably they were shepherds because they were following in their family’s footsteps and there was no other option for them.  If you asked them whether they were important to anyone besides the sheep and their family, they would laugh.  Yet, these are the very ones God chose to first to hear a message that the Jewish people had been waiting hundreds of years to receive.  God had promised a Messiah, one who would lead the Jewish people.  If they had time to go to their local synagogue when they were in town, the shepherds may have heard the words of Isaiah announcing the coming of the one who would be called Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God and Everlasting Father.  If they thought about when the blessed event would finally happen, I’m sure they thought they would be the last to find out.  The Messiah would certainly arrive in Jerusalem.  When he got to Jerusalem, he would go straight to the temple so he could introduce himself to the religious leaders and rich folks and make plans for the restoration of the nation of Israel.


The shepherds didn’t know that, this time around, it was going to be different.  This time around, God was going directly to the people.  The common folks were about to receive an extraordinary message and the religious leaders were not going to like it when they were not the center of attention.  That’s the point of starting with the shepherds.  God’s message is for the common folks; the People who are not highly regarded, the left out and the laughed at.  The message of Christmas is for people like me, and you.


As you go through the week, finishing up your shopping, cleaning the house, and wrapping gifts, take some time to think about the message, “The Messiah, the Savior, has been born.”  And, remember the message is to you.  Not “you” meaning a group.  “You” meaning you.  When they angels declared this message of good news to the shepherds, they weren’t looking over your head to someone else. They were looking you in the eyes.


Press On!



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But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)


Years ago, I heard some simple advice for interpreting the Bible, “When a passage begins with ‘therefore,’ you should ask what it’s there for.”  The point is, the word “therefore” tells you

the writer is completing a discussion and is about to give you the summary.  While the summary is important, you can’t appreciate it without first reading the discussion.  You should apply the same approach when a passage begins with the word “but,” like today’s verse.  The word is a signal you are about to get a negative “bookend” to a point the writer has just made.  You can’t understand and apply what follows the “but” without first understanding what comes before it.


Let’s test that principle of interpretation on today’s verse.  This verse is at the end of Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia.  They had fallen back into the practice of legalism, or the belief that their salvation was based on how well the followed the Old Testament laws.  Paul has spent most of his letter telling them why they don’t need to live that way and has begun his summary.  He concludes the letter by reminding the believers that they are free from the law and its condemnation.  And then Paul reminds them that they are not free to do whatever they like even though the law no longer condemns them.


If you read Paul’s entire discussion, you will get today’s verse and the “but” in context:

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves.  The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions.  But when you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.  But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another.  Galatians 5:16-26 (NLT)


You may have noticed that the fancy calligraphy version of this verse on coffee mugs and inspirational posters leaves off the word “but.”  As a result, if you don’t know there is an important discussion leading up to Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit, you are left to believe Paul’s message is all love and sunshine: we become believers, our life is transformed, and we walk about exuding love, joy, peace, patience, etc.  That is great sound-bite theology.  It is not Paul’s message and it is not what we experience in real life.


Our experience, and Paul’s message leading up to “but,” is that the acts of the flesh are at war with the fruit of the Spirit, for example, hate is at war with the Spiritual fruit of love and fits of rage are competing with the Spiritual fruit of peace.  He doesn’t set up a one-to-one correspondence, but you see the tension he is describing.  When you read only the list of the fruits of the Spirit, you feel guilty because your life isn’t perfect you don’t exhibit all the fruits of the Spirit all the time.  When you read the part that comes before the “but,” you see that Paul wasn’t writing about living a perfect life.  Instead, he is describing the life you live every day.  When we are faithful and allow God to work through us, we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.  When we fall back into our old ways, we exhibit the works of the flesh.  This tension is always with us.  The Galatians were saying it was OK to fall back into their old ways because God’s grace would save them in spite of what they did.  Paul’s response to this point was clear and sobering, “Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:21 (NLT))  Verse 21 will never make it on a mug or lovely poster.  But it is essential to understanding Paul’s message.


I am encouraged when I read today’s verse with the “but” in it because it reminds me that all the things I do when left to my own devices are balanced by the things that God will do through me if I let him.  The battle between good and evil believers fight all the time tells s that God is at work in our lives changing us into the people he wants me to be.


I am finishing the year and my list of Bible verses.  Would you like to suggest a verse or passage for a post in the new year?  Please leave a comment.



Press On!



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Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.  1 John 4:7-8 (NLT)


As someone who grew up in the 60’s, my first response when I read this verse is to have a “Kumbaya” moment where we all sing around a camp fire and strum a guitar.  I don’t think John was humming Kumbaya when he wrote this letter.  When John wrote his letter, the church was about 60 years old.  From its start in Jerusalem with Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost, the message of salvation from sin made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection had spread throughout the Mediterranean rim.  But it was not an idyllic society.  The church was made up of people from different nations, languages, cultures, faith, and race.


I don’t think John would have admonished his readers to “continue to love one another” if they were doing it already.  That’s the Kumbaya interpretation of the passage.  Instead, John was seeing outside influences break down the gospel message that he and the other disciples had given their lives to spread.  The letter covers several important doctrinal issues woven around a framework of love.  His conclusion is this, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers.” 1 John 4:20-21 (NLT).


The believers to whom John was writing were not very different from believers today.  There were divisions in the church over a new teaching called Gnosticism.  There were divisions over race, the religion a person held before becoming a believer, social status, and gender.  If John were here today reading the news or social media, he would likely say things had not changed much.


But, as I read John’s letter and reflect on the history of the early church, there is something that seems different and it concerns me.  The believers in John’s time seemed to do a better job of applying the simple command to love one another when they disagreed with each other.  For example, the first church dispute recorded in the Book of Acts was an allegation that the Greek widows were not being treated fairly when food was distributed among the believers.  They were accusing the church leaders of race discrimination.  The Apostles didn’t get defensive, issue a press release denying the allegations or kick the Greeks out of the church.  They told the believers to do what they thought would make it right.  The people selected a group of men to oversee the distribution of food to the widows, all the men were Greek.  As far as we know, no one complained of bias and the widows were fed.


Later, when there was a dispute over whether Gentiles could become followers of Jesus, the Apostles talked to people on both sides of the dispute, concluded that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus, and sent a group of Jewish believers to deliver the message.


This new movement cut across many traditional barriers and caused friction and outright disagreement between the followers.  The believers didn’t respond with rejection and angry memes.  They talked to each other.  They prayed. They studied the scriptures.  They talked some more.  They reached a decision and went on.


My heart breaks when I see how believers are responding to each other today.  We have allowed political affiliation, race, gender, wealth and social status to become points of separation rather than opportunities to work through hard issues for the good of Church and the believers.  If John were here today, he would resend his letter to us.  But he would first underline all the sections about loving each other.


This week, you will encounter someone with a different point of view on a subject that is vitally important to you.  Before reacting, take time to talk, pray, study the scriptures and think about your response.  Can you use this as an opportunity to demonstrate the love you have received from God and bring healing and not division?


Press On!



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Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.  James 1:22 (NIV)


In the gospels, we get a few descriptions of the Jesus’ relationship with his family.  His mother, Mary, knew from the beginning that Jesus would be different.  The angel Gabriel told her Jesus was the son of God.  She knew Jesus was conceived while she was still a virgin.  God had sent people from a foreign country to welcome Jesus when he was a child. God led Joseph to protect Jesus by taking him to Egypt when Herod the Great wanted to kill him.  Mary relied on Jesus to resolve family problems, like when the wedding party ran out of wine at the wedding in Cana.  She didn’t know that Jesus would resolve the problem by turning water into wine, but she knew Jesus was her oldest son and he would do something.  (John 2:1-11)


We don’t know what Jesus younger brothers and sisters thought about him.  In talking about a time at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John says his brothers didn’t believe in him. (John 7:3).    I suppose that’s not so hard to understand, they had spent their lives thinking of Jesus as their big brother and it was hard to think of him in any other way.  We know that Jesus’ brother James, the person who wrote this letter, did become a believer at some point.   James must have been hanging out in the crowd when Jesus was teaching – or he later talked to someone who took pretty good notes – because we find in James’ letter a good summary of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  Take a minute and read James Chapter 1 to put this verse into context (


In this section of his letter, it seems James is thinking about Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15).  James reminds people to “humbly accept the word of God that has been planted in their hearts, which has the power to save their souls.” (James 1:21) Then, he reminds them they need to go beyond just hearing the word.  They also must do what it says.  Back to the parable of the sower.  All of the people in the parable heard the word, which is represented by the seed falling on the ground.  But only a few people provided the good soil where the seed could grow, which would have been demonstrated when they did what it said.


It is important to know the “listeners” James is addressing in his letter were church folks.  They were meeting on the first day of the week to worship and break bread together.  They were good people doing all the right things.


When I read the letter, I like to think, “I’m glad I’m not part of that group.  James isn’t talking to me.”  Then, I think about what I do in response to my faith.  I go to church.  That’s listening.  I have a Christian radio station on in the car.  That’s listening.  I listen to podcasts of great Bible teachers.  OK, that’s obviously listening.  I lead a Bible study once a week.  That’s listening and a little talking.  It turns out I spend a lot of time letting God throw seeds on me.  So, how can I tell when the seed has begun to grow?  James tell us that too.  He gives three examples of what it will look like when the seed begins to bear fruit, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” (James 1:27 (NLT)).


What?  I thought living out my faith would be more – I don’t know – dramatic than that.  If I want to be a real believer, shouldn’t I be slaying dragons and fighting giants?  James would say, “OK.  But do that after you have mastered the basics: caring for widows, caring for orphans, and living in the kingdom of God.  When you feel like you have those things down, you can move on to dragons and giants.”


I have written a lot lately about living in the kingdom of God.  Here are a few links:,,,


How can we apply James’ admonition to care for widows and orphans?  The people James was writing to knew plenty of widows and orphans.  Women in that culture were generally young when they married, and their husbands were older.  It was not unusual for a woman to outlive her husband.  Becoming a widow could be financially devastating if there were no family to help care for her.  Orphans, too, were common.  When a child lost both her parents, there were no social nets in place to help.


Most of us probably don’t know many widows and orphans.  But you likely know people who make up the widows and orphans for our culture, they are the singe moms and children with absent parents.  Also, if you get to know organizations like World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse and Back2Back Ministries, they will give you opportunities to care for widows and orphans all over the world.  Your involvement can be simple, like packing a box for Operation Christmas Child or sponsoring a child through World Vision.  It can be more involved, like going on a mission tip or helping a single mom start a business to support herself and her family.


This Christmas season is a great time to get started.  Find a place where you can volunteer or donate food and clothing.  Maybe you can mentor kids after school.  Want to give a gift that keeps on giving?  Get the World Vision catalog and buy a goat for a fatherless family in Africa.  When you drop off your box at the food bank, stop and listen, that’s not thunder in the distance, that is a giant falling. When you walk to the mail box to send the check for the child you are sponsoring, watch the horizon for the vanquished dragon flying away.  You’re bearing fruit.


Press On!



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The Pop Culture Commentary


I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  Galatians 2:20 (NIV)


If there were a popular culture commentary for the Bible, the illustration for this verse would be the genre of body snatcher movies.  I haven’t seen enough body snatcher movies to point you to a particular title as the best example.  You probably have never thought there was a need for a pop culture commentary and you don’t want to talk about body snatcher movies this close to Halloween.  But, before you click on to the video of the cat catching a dinosaur, let me explain.


Think of the common theme of most body snatcher movies.  People are going along living normal lives and something takes them out and moves into their body.  The person may look the same on the outside, but they act differently.  To make body snatcher movies scary, the “snatchees” usually try to maim or kill other people whose bodies haven’t been snatched.  Therefore, the goal of the unsnatched is 1) avoid being snatched and 2) avoid the snatchers.  The movie’s resolution usually includes mayhem.


I imagine the idea of people dying and coming back to life was no less scary to people in Paul’s time than it is to us.  It must have seemed strange to them that Paul would present the idea as a good thing.  And, especially strange that he would claim that is what happened to him and he would like the same thing to happen to everyone.  Paul is suggesting that people seek out the body snatcher and allow themselves to be snatched.


The big difference between the world that Paul envisions and the dystopian world of the body snatcher movies is the conduct of the “snatchees.”  Instead of the snatchees trying to maim and kill other people, they begin to act like Jesus.  Now imagine that.  No really, take a minute while you sip your coffee and imagine that.  Imagine a world where your good friend dies and comes back to life.  Now, instead of trying to eat your brain like in the dystopian movies, she loves you unconditionally.  You begin to follow her around to see what other strange things she does.  You catch her caring for sick people and feeding hungry people.  This is really strange because before she was snatched, she was never without hand sanitizer and poor people made her uncomfortable.  She begins to think differently, she talks differently, sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes not.


You see, in the world Paul envisions, the body snatcher is God.  When people decide to follow Jesus, they die and come back to life as Jesus.  In the movie version, you would have a utopian society.  All these little Jesuses living in the world: men, women, every race, color and nationality working together to restore the world.  Instead of ending with mayhem, this movie ends in with heaven on earth.  That’s not such a far-fetched idea.  I understand that the word “Christian,” which was first used to describe the believers in Antioch, means “little Christs.”  My guess is that the label came from those outside the church and not from within it.  You can imagine their surprise when their friends started listening to this Paul guy and, the next thing they know, there friends start acting like Jesus.  They warned their other friends, “Don’t hang out with that Paul guy or you will become a little Christ.”  They didn’t mean it as a compliment.


As you might imagine, the movie version of the utopian body snatcher world is much better than the real version.  Paul’s goal was that he, and all believers, would die to themselves and be like Jesus.  The problem is, we die figuratively and not literally.  Instead of going away completely and letting Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, take over our bodies, we continue to live in our body and fight for control.  Paul talks about that in other places.  He laments that he is always doing things he doesn’t want to do and he doesn’t do the things he would like to do.  He warns others of the same thing when he tells them to stop living like they used to live and to let God change them into the people God intends them to become.


Are you snatched by God?  Don’t fight the changes.  Seek them.  Be sensitive to where God is trying to change how you think, talk, and treat people and, rather than fighting, cooperate.


Press On!



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I can do all this through him who gives me strength.  Philippians 4:13 (NIV)


Many of you are familiar with the more common translation of this verse, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”  That translation has been pulled out of context and used to support endeavors ranging from good and righteous to completely absurd.  After all, if I can do all things through him who gives me strength, I should be able to grow a full head of hair and run a four-minute mile.  If you know me, stop laughing.  You get my point.  When Paul wrote these words to the church in Philippi, he was not envisioning that believers were about to become the next generation of super heroes.  But, if you just bought a T-shirt with this verse on it to train for your first marathon, don’t throw it away yet.  Paul’s words are much more encouraging than simply “naming and claiming” you will finish your 26.2 miles in under five hours.


There are references in Paul’s letter to the Philippians indicating that he wrote it from prison, probably when he was under house arrest in Rome around 61 AD.  In this section of the letter, he has just thanked the Philippians for the gift they sent to help take care of his needs.  He goes on to make this remarkable statement, “for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”


The Philippians would have been familiar what Paul had been through for the five years or so before he wrote this letter.  In case you’re not, I’ll give a quick review.  Around 57 AD, he had finished his final missionary journey and returned to Jerusalem.  While there, Jews from the province of Asia recognized him and accused him of taking gentiles into the Temple.  That caused a huge riot in Jerusalem from which he was “rescued” by a Roman centurion who promptly placed him under arrest.


Immediately following his arrest in Jerusalem, a group of men vowed they would not eat until they killed Paul.  The centurion heard of the plot and moved Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea under a heavy guard.  Paul spent over two years in prison in Caesarea while the current governor tried to decide what to do with him.  When a new governor came to Caesarea, he heard Paul’s case and decided to send Paul back to Jerusalem, where Paul would have faced certain death.  Paul asked for his case to be heard by Caesar and the governor sent him off to Rome.  The trip to Rome took over a year because the first ship he and the centurion boarded was caught in a storm and wrecked in Malta.  When he finally made it to Rome, he was placed under house arrest and waited for a trial.  When Paul wrote this letter, he had not been a free man from the time he was arrested in Jerusalem five years earlier.


In spite of all that had happened, Paul doesn’t dwell on the hard times.  Instead, he says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”  And we ask, “Paul, how did you do it?  How did you find contentment in such difficult circumstances?”


Paul’s reply is our verse today. “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  Paul knew trouble.  He knew hunger, hardship, suffering, loneliness and betrayal.  But more importantly, Paul knew Jesus.  He didn’t just read about Jesus, think about Jesus, or believe Jesus was a good person and wise teacher.  Jesus gave Paul a peace that passes understanding, which we also call contentment.  (  Through the good times and bad times over the 30 years since Paul first met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul found his peace and contentment in his friend and savior, Jesus.


What is your “this”?  As you look back over the last five years, have you encountered a string of trials and hardships?  Are you facing problems now?  Write them down. At the end of the list, write, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  As you go through the week, when you face problems and difficulties, instead of saying, “How will I ever get through this?”  say, “I can do even this through him who gives me strength.”


Press On!



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Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.  Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)


These two verses always seemed straight forward to me.  If we seek God’s direction in all our decisions, he will make our paths straight.  This seemed simple enough and I moved on to the next verse.


I never thought about what it meant to have “straight paths” because I assumed I knew.  In my mind, straight paths meant walking on God’s enchanted path and having the ability to make hard moral choices.  You know, staying on the “straight and narrow.”  If I was faced with a decision whether something was right or wrong, I reached into my bag of answers and pulled one out.  Life was simple that way. I didn’t realize that I was developing a moral condition known as “hardening of the categories.”  I stopped asking what God had to say about moral decisions and started taking the easier approach of leaning on my own understanding.


A few years ago, I was working with a group of people to understand God’s direction in a moral decision we were addressing.  Instead of reaching into my bag of answers, I decided to start fresh and trust in the Lord by digging into the Bible and reading what other people had to say.  In the end, I found my “canned” answer was mostly right.  But, I was left with an uneasy feeling that the world wasn’t as simple as my bag of answers made it.


My guess is that you have a bag of answers like mine.  When you look inside, you may find categories, like: Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Conservative, Protestant, Catholic, New Earth, Old Earth, Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, etc.  Some of the categories are very personal and reflect our upbringing and life experiences.  Some come from our political or religious affiliations.


I came to see that I made many decisions according to my categories.  And now, It seemed God was calling me to leave behind my categories and adopt his.  That was the source of my uneasiness.  I had developed what I believed were good, solid Christian categories and I didn’t want to go back and re-examine them.  I risked finding out that my categories were built on the different ideologies I described above and not on what God has said in his word.  I didn’t know what people would think if I changed my long-held opinions about things.


The light began to go on as I looked again at Jesus’ teaching.  He said again and again, “You all have the wrong categories. God doesn’t look at the world the way you look at it.  You won’t get into the kingdom of God relying on your own understanding.”  When asked to choose between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and he chose neither.  When asked to choose between the Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles, and he chose all three.  When asked to choose between God and civil responsibilities, like paying taxes, he chose both.  The people he chose as his closest friends were rejected by mainstream society.  People in positions of power found that Jesus made them uncomfortable.


If we are going to follow Jesus, trust God and lean not on our own understanding, we too will reject our culture’s categories when they don’t line up with God’s categories.  We will be unable to choose between the options our culture is offering.  They will be uncomfortable when we reject their options and give God’s answer instead.  Here’s a way to try this as you go through your week.  As you are reading Facebook today, listening to the news, or talking to your friends, ask yourself what choices you are being asked to make.  In choosing, are you relying on God’s word or on your own understanding?  Endure the discomfort and see how God will change your heart.


Press On!



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The Desires of Your Heart


Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalms 37:4 (NIV)


This is a beautiful promise.  Sadly, though, we may read it the wrong way.  Our culture has adopted the view that stuff is the best measure of success.  For many of us, this verse is the spiritual equivalent of the bumper sticker: He who dies with the most toys wins.


I have fallen into that trap on occasion.  Maybe you have too.  The idea has been given the name “prosperity gospel” and there are a group of people within the church who have turned the idea into one of their central message.  Where our culture promotes the view that stuff is the measure of success, these folks have taken the position that stuff is the measure of faithfulness.  If you want a big house and new car and you don’t have one, the problem is you are not faithful enough.  After all, if God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, surely, he could free up a little of his capital and throw a fortune your way if only you were one of his true followers.  When the folks who preach the prosperity gospel use this verse, they rephrase it just a little: Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you everything your heart desires.  You picture the words on a poster, written in calligraphy, under a pile of stuff.


The prosperity gospel interpretation of this verse bothered me for a long time.  It wasn’t consistent with how I understood the Bible and how I had seen God work.  But, my explanation of the verse was always long and complicated.  Then, one day, I ran across a simple way to explain it: the verse doesn’t promise stuff, it promises desires.  The verse says, if you delight yourself in the Lord, He will give you your deepest desires.  Or, if I delight myself in the Lord, he will lead me to desire for myself that which he desires for me.


That understanding of the promise was helpful because I know what God desires for me.  I talked about this last week.  God wants me to love him with all my heart, soul and mind and to love my neighbor as myself.  So, if I reconstruct this verse with that background, the promise is, if I take delight in the Lord, he will give me a desire to love him and love my neighbor.


Take time this week to read and pray about this verse.  Ask God to lead you to desire those things for yourself that he desires for you.


Press On!


Love Story


I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. (Psalms 119:11 (NIV))


What was your first thought when you read this verse?  It may reveal your approach to faith and to your relationship with God.

One place we could start when we talk about this verse is the idea of “hiding” the word in your heart.  I have talked in other posts about the importance of regular Bible reading.  So, I won’t use this time to repeat that message.  Instead, let’s focus today on the second half of the verse, “that I might not sin against you.”  This is the part that will give insight into your approach to faith and your relationship with God.

Do you think of the Bible as a rule book?  The Jews of Jesus’ time did.  That isn’t meant to be a criticism.  They were good God-fearing people who wanted very much to please God.  They believed following all the rules was the way to God’s heart.  People who were very good at following the rules looked down on those who did were not good at following the rules.  In Jesus time, those people were the scribes and Pharisees, the experts in the religious law.  If you read the gospels, you know that Jesus’ harshest message was to that group of people.  He was angry that they had taken God’s message and turned it into a rule book that neither they nor anyone else could follow.

Jesus message was different.  Which is why the religious leaders, who made their living from teaching people to follow the rules, hated him. It is also why the folks who saw that it was impossible to follow all the rules loved him.  Jesus told the people that the Bible was not a rule book, it is a love story.  As people began to understand his message, it changed how they thought about the Bible and about God. They learned from Jesus that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not a heavenly referee who watched them playing the game of life from the sidelines and blew his whistle and called a sin every time someone broke a rule.  God was their loving father who created them and wanted them to know him.  Yes, their relationship with God had been broken by sin.  But, the way back was through confessing the failure and not through following the rules.

At one time, I too thought the Bible had a complete list of all God’s rules and regulations.  I wanted to hide God’s word in my heart so that I might not sin against him by breaking the rules.  Even though I believed that I was saved by grace, I put a lot of emphasis on following the rules because I also thought of God as a heavenly referee.  But, the more I read the Bible the more I caught the profound simplicity of Jesus’ message.  We find a great example of this when Jesus was approached by the Pharisees and asked what he believed was the most important rule out of all the rules God had given them.  It is helpful to know that the Pharisees had identified over 600 rules that people needed to follow and from which Jesus could choose.  The exchange is recorded in the gospel of Matthew.  The Pharisees went to Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV))

If we look at today’s verse through this different understanding of the Bible, you can see how the verse gives insight into how you see God and the Bible.  If the Bible is a rule book, you want to hide it in your heart so that you won’t break the rules and make God mad at you.  If the Bible is a love story, you want to hide it in your heart because it tells you how much God cares for you.  Because you know God cares for you, you want to live your life in a way that pleases him.  You see that the two greatest rules are not rules at all, but the call to have a loving relationship with God and those he created.

When I was new in the faith, I thought it was important to study the Bible to uncover its intricate complexity.  Over time, I have come to see instead the Bible’s wonderful simplicity. The Bible is not a list of complicated rules.  It is a detailed answer to the question, “How do I love God with all my heart, soul and mind and love my neighbor myself?”


Press On!


The Eternal – Part 2


So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18 (NIV))

Last week, we talked about the importance of deciding what is eternal.  My search started by looking at the evidence for believing that stuff is eternal.  I found that it took as much faith to believe there is no God as it did to believe in God.  I was stuck in the middle with too little faith to move in either direction.  I became a believer because I was at the right place at the right time.  I had decided that, even if I wasn’t ready to decide about “religion,” going to church was a good habit.  So, I went.  At the end of each service, the minister would ask people to come forward if they wanted to accept Jesus as their savior.  One Sunday, I felt the urging to respond and my life has never been the same.

My “accidental” conversion didn’t take away my questions.  Though, I found that my search for answers had helped me refine the questions that science or religion would need to answer.  When I looked at Jesus’ claims again, his answers seemed to be a more satisfying response and required no more faith than believing the scientific explanations.  For example, believing that God created the universe made as much sense as believing the universe had created itself.  Believing God created life made as much sense as believing life sprung spontaneously from the chaos of the self-created universe.  And, believing God gave us the moral laws made as much sense as believing the moral law is just one more piece of our evolution from one-celled organisms to complex societies.  I had decided that God is eternal, that he has always existed and will always exist.

As I said last week, this discussion of the eternal is important when you dig into this week’s verse.  In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he talks about the trials that he and the other Christian leaders had experienced.  It is a theme he returns to several times in the letter.  He sets up those descriptions with this explanation for why the hardships had not caused him to give up:

Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV))

Paul is saying that our view of the eternal should determine how we respond to life’s day-to-day trials and hardships.  Let’s take three examples from our discussion of the eternal.  The first view is that matter is eternal.  Could we take Paul’s view of our hardships if we believed only in an eternal universe in which life happened by accident?  I don’t see how we could.  We couldn’t say that our hardships and momentary trials are achieving for us an eternal glory.  We would need to acknowledge instead that, if matter is eternal, the future isn’t very bright.  Our bodies will run down and die just as the universe will eventually run down and die.  What we do today doesn’t matter and has no purpose.  I have heard folks try to mask this reality by saying things like, “The Universe willed it to happen.”  Like the universe has a consciousness and the ability to manipulate people and events.  Unfortunately, if someone denies the existence of the spiritual world, saying the universe willed something to happen is like saying your refrigerator willed something to happen.  The first way sounds very grand and mystical, but it has the same meaning as the second.  If matter is eternal, there is no basis for hope in the future because we can see already that the universe will end badly.

Many people take another approach. Rather than deciding whether God or stuff is eternal, we allow our day-to-day experiences to shape our thinking about what is eternal.  This is the land of perpetual indecision where I found myself when my search for the eternal had stalled.  If we have a good day and things happen that we like, we believe there may be a god or some greater power watching over us.  Though, we don’t have a good definition of what that god or higher power might be.  If we have a bad day and bad things happen, we believe there is no god, or at least no god we want to know or trust.  We become a ship that has slipped its moorings.  Instead of remaining steady in the storm of life, we are tossed about by waves of doubt, trials, and hardships.

By fixing our eyes on the eternal God, we tie our ship to a pier that will not move as we ride out the storm of life. Our connection to God is the source of the “peace that passes understanding” Paul talks about in his letter to the Philippians.  We can have great hope if we follow Paul’s admonition to fix our eyes on the eternal.  When we view the world through the lens of belief in an eternal God who created us and redeemed us, we understand that what we see and experience now will pass away and that which is now unseen, the kingdom where God reigns, will continue forever and we will be there with Him.



Press On!