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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Constructing Devotion


Life creates a lot of tumultuous times.  Divorce is certainly one of those, but it is clearly not the only one.  When something comes in life and turns your world upside down, you often find the reordering of life difficult and managing your schedule almost impossible.  Things that are important get shoved to the side as time and energy are in short supply.  One of the important things that can easily suffer neglect is our relationship with God, either by faltering church attendance, personal compromise in ethics, or when daily time with God in the scriptures and prayer is neglected.  

It is to the overcoming of the last one that I want to offer some suggestions.  These ideas have come out of communications with individuals actually struggling with these concerns, as well as my own experiences.  Perhaps some of the ideas may be helpful in developing your own relationship with God.

1)  Don't try to do your prayer/devotional life based on how somebody tells you to do it.  Instead, experiment to find the method that works best for you.  I also suggest think in terms of establishing a "baseline" and then the other things you would like to do.  In my case, I have a simple little quarterly published devotional book that I have used years which is my minimum baseline.  Over the years, I have supplemented that baseline with other things, such as programs to read through the Bible, focusing on memorizing verses, using a written prayer list, journaling thoughts and prayers, other devotional materials…it has varied.  But throughout the years, I have made a point to maintain the baseline:  I have always kept the one booklet going; other things have varied...without guilt.
A side piece to this is that using variation, trying some different things can help you discover what best fits who YOU are in YOUR relationship with God.  While the Bible is clear, prayer and Bible study are uniquely central to our faith, working out how to apply those to your daily walk with the Lord may well be different from what works for others (or even what worked for you at other, less disruptive times of your life). 
2)  Begin bite sized.  Don't jump into the idea of an hour prayer time every morning and evening.  Instead, think in terms of five minutes as a baseline.  The first five minutes before you get up, or five minutes at the end of lunch.  Don't try to read chapters, read a paragraph, or focus on one meaningful verse, and talk about THAT with God.  Don't try to go over all your prayer concerns each time, select one to talk with God about.  On days you have more time, fine, but focus on making the HABIT, not the amount of TIME or ACTIVITY. 
3)  It seems best to prioritize a specific time each day that you set aside and protect.  Some people do so early in the morning (me!), while others prefer the end of the evening; some find lunchtime their consistently best opportunity, while some use their break at work.  I knew of a man once who actually marked it into his appointment book at work, and would not accept phone calls or visitors or other appointments during that time....(obviously he had the kind of job where he had that option).
4)  Consider redefining prayer.  What if you simply had conversations with God through the course of the day, could that count?  You hear an ambulance siren, and say, "God, help those workers and the victim in that emergency."  You get more bad news from you ex, "God I can't handle this alone, help me."  At the lovely spring flowers or striking sunset, "Thanks God, you did really good with that one!"
5)  Find a way to include listening in your time with God as much as speaking. 
6)  Give yourself reminders.  My wife sometimes tapes little cards with verses on them onto the inside of her bathroom mirror where she kept her makeup, or on the face of the mirror where she does her hair.  Another man I knew taped a verse onto the dash of his car.  Something along those lines can be helpful so that, if you get busy and forget or don't have time, you can still have a moment...

7)  Maybe a way to help you keep on task as you start could be to include your child.  Perhaps as a bedtime prayer, or prayer over breakfast.  Share with your child that it is a habit you are trying to start, and for him or her to remind you if you forget.  That could be a good example and learning experience as well...
8)  Ask God to help you.  He wants to spend time with you even more than you do with him...he can help. 
9)  Give yourself grace.  Don't make this another LAW in your life, or a RELIGIOUS WORK....make it something that is relationship based and positive and upbuilding.  When something happens and you miss one day, "call in sick"....reschedule for another time, just like you would with a client. 
10)  Some people find it helpful to get a partner in these kind of things, someone who calls or whom you call for a prayer time together once a week say, or with whom you just touch base with to see how each other is doing.  This can become something that can feel like pressuring or guilting, but done well, it can be helpful.

11)  Finally, if you don’t know where to begin in the scriptures, a few ideas I have run across might be helpful. 

One is to read one chapter a day in the book of Proverbs, which happens to have 31 chapters in it, which works well for many months of the year! 

Another idea is to read 5 Psalms a day, using the formula of the day’s date and multiples of 30.  It’s easier to illustrate than explain--  On the 1st of the month, read Psalms 1 (add 30), 31 (add 30), 61 (add 30), 91 (add 30), 121.  On the second of the month, it would be Psalms 2, 32, 62, 93, 122….etc.  This formula will work for 30 days, since there are 150 Psalms.

A third option would be to focus on certain books and do a careful reading of them.  The Gospel of John is a great place to start, but any of the four Gospels is a good starting point.  It could also be helpful to choose to start with some of the shorter books of the Bible…1 John, 1 Peter, 1 Timothy, Hosea, Ruth….those kinds of books.

There are lots of devotional materials out there you could also access to help guide you.  When you are starting to build that ballast, that baseline to keep you going, it is more important to get the HABIT going, than it is which program you use.  As time goes by, you can adapt and adjust, experimenting with various ideas until you find what works best for you.

Well, maybe those will help.  Getting some kind of baseline going can serve as good ballast to steady your ship through the times of rough waters.  Even the fact that you WANT to spend this kind of time with God touches his heart...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Parkland: An Issue of the Heart


Sadly, once again, the headlines are filled with reports of another shooting at a school by a young man with malicious intent on doing harm to as many fellow youths as possible.  As many have already said, our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the victims.  

Questions arise once again:  

How can anyone do something like that?  

Why didn’t the FBI act on the information they had?  

Why didn’t someone catch this and help prevent it?  (as, I understand, was done with a similar threat up in Washington state.)  

How can we stop this madness?  

When is enough enough?  

Why doesn’t the government act?  

Isn’t it time to get serious about gun laws and shut down the trade on assault weapons? 

It is another terrible tragedy.  The answers are not easy.  Certainly it is true that if these kind of individuals don’t have rapid fire weapons, they will be less able to commit mass murder as quickly.  Would outlawing those weapons produce that result?  That seems doubtful to me, because murder is also outlawed, and the fact that it is illegal has not hindered these individuals from making their attacks.  While I may not object to efforts in that direction, I don’t hold illusion that such laws would solve the problem.  After all, there are laws against burglary, yet my house was burglarized.  There are laws against sexual harassment, yet the headlines are filled with one accusation after another.  There are laws against embezzlement, but how many have chosen to misappropriate the pension funds of others?  Passing a law does not stop the behaviors.  It may hinder them.  It may allow for punishment of violation.  

But it cannot solve the problem.

Others cry out for mental health monitoring, with the belief that the problems these individuals have are mental health issues.  Having worked at a mental health facility myself, I have concern that such statements wrongly characterize those who suffer with mental health issues, and creates an unfounded prejudice against good people who struggle due to difficulties arising from brain chemistry, abuse or trauma.  Still others look to economic causes that lead to hopelessness and anger, or to social issues such as bullying that build resentment.  Personally, I believe there is a degree of truth that can be defended in all these different perspectives.  

But I believe the neglect the real issue that all too many in our country choose to ignore:  the issue of the heart.

What is the answer?  I am always reminded of a passage in the prophet Jeremiah at times like this:

“The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?
‘I the Lord search the heart
    and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his deeds.’”  ---Jeremiah 17:9-10  (ESV)

The scriptures teach very clearly that the sinful nature of humankind has infected every person who has ever drawn breath except Christ himself, although the way that sin nature manifests itself varies from person to person.  Jeremiah pointedly informs us of the deceitfulness of our hearts, a charge many today choose to disbelieve.  Or we believe it about other people, but do not put ourselves into that same boat…which is itself one of the ways our hearts deceive us.  In fact, a common admonition these days is for people to “follow their heart.”  But if Jeremiah is accurate, as I believe he is, is that really the good advice it is assumed to be?  I don’t think so.  God’s voice through Jeremiah then follows up with the statement that God’s assessment of each of us is achieved when he looks deep into our hearts at the essence and the deceitfulness that exists there, which is then manifested in our actions.  

What is the solution?

Well, once again, I find powerful thoughts in the Hebrew scriptures, this time in the book of Ezekiel:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.       ---Ezekiel 36:26-27  (ESV)

The answer to these problems is to deal with the heart, which is something only God can do.  God’s offer is to deal with the issue by giving us a new heart, when the Spirit of God comes to take up residence inside us, and to shape us into people who live lives of righteousness instead of pursuing sinful lifestyles.  It matters not whether our hearts lead us to sins of dishonesty, or selfish living, or mass murder as we have witnessed in Florida; in each case it is the sinful nature within manifesting itself through actions far less than the righteousness of God.  

We need to take seriously the need for God to cleanse and transform our hearts, and take that message and opportunity to individuals whose lives are in such desperate need of genuine change from the evil intentions that have consumed them.  The good news of the Gospel is that, as Ezekiel describes, God is ready and willing to come to us, to take up residence within, and to transform the hardness of our hearts into conformity with the love and righteousness of God.  We have but to invite him to do so. 

I invite you to join me in praying for God to give hope and comfort to the sorrowing families in Florida tonight.  I also invite you to join me in living with a transformed heart, and to do our part in helping prevent such tragedies by sharing that message of hope with people bound in the anger and despair that comes from sinful hearts.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

God's Everlasting Valentine


Valentine’s Day, a day that celebrates love in honor of St. Valentine and his brave stand for love and marriage in a time when doing so was forbidden, has become ingrained in the culture of the United States.  The florists, card companies, and the merchandisers make sure of that.  For someone who has recently suffered a divorce (as well as those who have never been married or who have lost a spouse to death), it can be a difficult day instead of one filled with joy.  

If you are a person who, instead of looking forward to the celebration, you are wrestling with what to do to take you mind off of it all, perhaps this blog might have some ideas for you.

There is, naturally, a genuine sadness and grieving that this holiday can foster, when one you loved has passed away, or when one you loved has rejected your love and turned away.  The holiday reminds you of a love you once experienced and cherished, but a love which is no longer part of your daily life, except through memories.  If the one you loved passed away, then nostalgia, longing and loss may make the memories bittersweet.  If the one you loved turned against you through divorce, the memories may bring pain and rekindle difficult feelings of rejection and betrayal.  

Not much of a celebration for Valentine’s Day, is it?

In worship today, as we discussed the biblical concept of love,  we recalled together the words of 1 John 4:8 stating that God is love.  

Isn’t it interesting that in self-definition, God did not choose the words Judge, King, Law Giver, All-powerful, or many other attributes of God?  

For a defining of God’s essence, the revealing of God found in scripture is that...
...God is love.  

There are other descriptions of God, but very few in the formula stating what God is….though another passage also states that God is light. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, for Valentine’s Day, to turn to the very source of the essence of what love truly is, to God himself?

A couple of verses I particularly like are Jeremiah 31:3b and Lamentations 3:22a, which (in ESV) say, respectively,

I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

In the second passage, the term steadfast love is a Hebrew word that is translated several other ways, including “covenant loyalty,” which I also like when thinking about God’s love toward us as his people.  In a world of fickle and shallow love, a world in which those we love and who love us can suddenly be lost to us through death, it is a wonderful thing to realize that God’s love is everlasting toward us, steadfast, never ceasing, and his faithfulness continues forever. 

So here is my simple suggestion.  If you are feeling blue in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, consider choosing to use the day to remember and celebrate the highest, purest, strongest and most enduring love you will ever experience:  the love GOD has for you.  Search through the scriptures to find passages that describe God’s love for you, and let their teaching soak in as you absorb the love of God into your heart and being.  Look back over your life and recount for yourself some of the experiences in which God has revealed his love to you.  Stop and reflect on the fact that even the most loving relationship any of us experience here on earth is but a poor shadow of the great love God has for us as his children.  Maybe even pick up a Valentine’s card that expresses some of your love for God that you could read for God in prayer, or find one that images well for you what God might write into a Valentine card for you!  Better yet, write both of those yourself from scratch. 

Then, make a Valentine’s date with God, the love of your life.  Have a nice dinner together.  Sit and visit with God, pouring out your heart to him and open yourself up to a fresh experience of his love.  It might just be the best Valentine’s Day you have ever had!  Just one more verse to close with, from the love poem in the Bible, the Song of Songs---

He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.—SOS 2:4