Friday, October 28, 2011

The Return

"In those days and in that time, says the LORD, the people of Israel shall come, they & the people of Judah together; they shall come weeping as they seek the LORD their God.  They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, and they shall come and join themselves to the LORD by an everlasting covenant that'll never be forgotten."
(Jeremiah 50:4-5)

The exile was one of the most difficult times for the people of Israel.  Multiple generations were carried away from their homeland for 70+ years.  Forced to grow up in a foreign culture, it was hard for them to stay immersed in their faith.  The question of "WHY?" echoed loudly from many.  Prophets like Jeremiah & Isaiah saw the exile as God's chastisement & cleansing (which was long overdue).  God wanted them to return to Him with their whole hearts.  God had not forgotten or abandoned them.  God was changing them... for the better (though they didn't recognize that at first).

In Jeremiah 50, the prophet speaks of the time when the people will return to Israel.  Their physical return will match their spiritual return to Him.  They'll come hand in hand with their brothers and sisters (whom they'd been divided from before).  They will be weeping - presumably over their past sins & failures, and their estrangement from God.  They will intentionally seek the LORD.   They'll have to ask the way to Zion (home), because they've been living so far away for so long.  They'll turn their faces toward Home - an expression that indicates their hearts & minds have resolved to accomplish this endeavor.  And finally, they'll make an everlasting covenant with God... on that will never be forgotten.


Thousands of years may have passed since that specific time in Israel's history.  Yet I dare say their "return" experience holds lessons for us even today.  We may not be in physical exile, but we often become distanced from God, spiritually.  The Scriptures tell us that it's God's desire for an intimate relationship with ALL of us.  At those times in our own journeys when we recognize our distance and seek to be restored, we should do so with sincerity of heart (and tears may flow).  We may need to ask about the way back (from spiritual friends & faithful people we trust).  Resolve to do so.  Set your face & heart on Him!  For God will always welcome us back.  Always.  His love (and forgiveness) is everlasting. 

It's never too late...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bread crumbs or Guideposts?

"Set up road markers for yourself, make yourself guideposts; consider well the highway, the road by which you went. Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities."
(Jeremiah 31:21)
The famous children's fable, HANSEL & GRETEL, tells the story of two children who wander off in the woods & eventually get lost (eventually meeting a witch with a gingerbread house!).  They were wise enough to know that getting lost might be a possibility.  So to prevent that from happening, they leave a trail of bread crumbs along the pathway into the forest... only to discover later (much to their horror) that the crumbs had been eaten by birds.  The way back home was nowhere to be found.

The prophet Jeremiah lived during the time of exile in Israel.  Foreign superpowers (Assyria & Babylon) came and not only destroyed much of Israel & Judah, but also carried away the best & brightest of the people.  Thus, the vast majority of the nation was forced to live in exile - far away from their homeland.

But God had not forgotten or forsaken his people.  The prophets (like Jeremiah) tell us that part of the reason for the exile was years & years (centuries, actually) of unfaithfulness towards God.  So God used this "super time out" as an opportunity to change the hearts of his people.  But he told them not to fear, for one day they would return home.  In fact, in Jeremiah 31:21, he tells the people to PAY ATTENTION to the path that took them to the exile.  I think this is more than simply inviting them to notice significant landmarks on their physical journey to captivity (so they can eventually find their way back, a la Hansel & Gretel).  I think God was calling them to take a thorough & searching examination of their spiritual journey to captivity.  What were the spiritual landmarks they passed on their way to ruin?  Remember them, says God.  They are important reminders... so you can find your way back (avoid going down that same path in the future!).

Wise advise, isn't it?  We, too, should be paying attention all the time in our spiritual lives.  We need to be keeping track of the guideposts we pass along our journey (both the positive ones & negative ones), so we can remember which paths lead to which destinations.  If we try to do it on our own... to navigate by our own power... it's like throwing bread crumbs down in the forest.  It may seem like a good idea at the time, but it will not last.  We need to pay attention to the signposts God has around us... especially those memorable events in our lives.  What might they be saying to us?  How might God be using them in our lives?

May they be road markers that help lead us down the path of righteousness.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Prayer

"Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually."
(Psalm 105:4)
[NOTE: Normally blog about my reflections on one passage from my devotional reading.  Today my heart was moved to simply pray.]

Lord, there are so many things I seem to be seeking.
Acclaim & recognition.
Success & achievement.
The adrenaline rush of sports (playing & watching).
Beauty (in nature, music, art, etc.).
Peace & joy.
Significance in relationships (especially with my family).

I don't seem to be caught up in desiring security, stability & a future of ease.  I'm not ignorant in these areas, it's just never been much of a priority for me.  And I think that's a good thing.

Part of my challenge as being a pastor is that my "job" is to be about your business, Lord.  So it's easy to equate "doing my job" with "being in relationship" with you.  And, honestly, many times those two do overlap.

But when I read this passage today from Psalm 105, I was reminded of just how important it is.  SEEK THE LORD AND HIS STRENGTH; SEEK HIS PRESENCE CONTINUALLY.  That needs to be my focus.  Not just because I'm a pastor, but because I'm your child.

So help me to seek you.  Remind me of my need for you.  Do not let me be satisfied with anything less.  AMEN.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


"Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ..." 
(2 Peter 1:1)

What's the most valuable thing you have?  Your car?  Antique jewelry?  Property?  Your house?  Stock?

What if the questions was phrased this way: What's of most value to you? 

Maybe then the answer would be something along the line of relationships: spouse, parents, children, friendships?  Possibly health?  Or one's career?  Or faith?

That last item is what the author of 2 Peter would say.  "To those who have received a faith as precious as ours..."  What an understatement!  For so many of us, faith is one of the most precious things we have in life - yet we don't always treat it that way, do we?  If something is truly precious to us, we go out of our way to care for it, protect it, nurture it.  We spend time with it.  It becomes forefront in our hearts & minds.  Unfortunately, that's not always the case with our faith, is it (not even for us pastors!)?  We get around to it when we have the time... or when we remember.  We go to church (most Sundays), but too often that's all.

I was speaking to someone this week who regrets not working harder to give his (now grown-up) children a consistent experience with God and a faith to build their lives on.  "They're good, moral people... they just don't have a spiritual foundation."  When I've met people living in extreme poverty, they recognize their greatest resource is their faith - and their faith blows me away!  That's valuable!

PRAYER: Dear Lord, you are all I need.  You are my strength.  Help me to cherish this precious, precious faith & not take it for granted... or neglect it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Have you been FIRED yet?

"So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel.  The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him." 
(Jeremiah 18:3-4)

Jeremiah 18 is a famous chapter about the Potter and his clay vessel.  God was using this "field trip" to teach Jeremiah about God's reworking of human lives.  Many of us in the church know this "potter & clay" imagery.  We are challenged to yield to God's molding (and remolding) in our lives.

But then there's chapter 19.  Jeremiah's still at the potter's house, so God asks him to pick up one more item: an earthenware jug.  Then God asks Jeremiah to go out to the trash heap... the town garbage dump... and also the place where worshiper's of Ba'al sacrifice their children (ugh!).  In this place of rot, in the stench of refuse & death, God has Jeremiah shatter the jug so people will see what is about to happen to them (yikes!).

What changed between chapters 18 & 19?  Why is God willing to remold & remake... then simply shatter?  Is chapter 18 for "God's people," and chapter 19 for "sinners"?  I doubt it.  God's people ARE sinners (as ALL of us are!).  Is 18 for those "in God's will" and 19 for the "rebels"?  Maybe.  But I think we're more often "rebels" than not.  Could it be as simple as the firing process of ceramics?  Think about it.  Clay can be worked & reworked, over and over again, as many times as the master potter desires.  But once it goes into to the kiln... once it's fired... it's shape is permanent.  It may feel "stronger"... more firm, solid & permanent.  But it's now also capable of being shattered.  The clay, on the other hand, can't be shattered.  It may feel crushed, smashed, dented & disfigured... but it can also be REMADE!  Completely.  Over and over again!

So what would the "firing process" be for us?  LIFE?  No.  Life is all around us.  God doesn't cocoon us away from the sometimes-painful realities of life.  Plus, some of God's best "reworking" in our lives comes out of the painful life lessons we get ourselves into!  Is it turning our backs on God?  Maybe.  But Jesus told parable after parable about God's love for the "lost" and the desire for things lost to become "found."

I think it may have something to do with our willingness to learn & change.  Once fired, a clay pot is "set."  Have we become so "set" in our ways, thoughts, & lifestyles that we cannot (or will not) change... or allow ourselves to be changed?  [NOTE: I know this metaphor is slightly flawed because pieces of clay cannot choose to be fired.  It's up to the potter.  But in real life, I think it's the opposite.]  We choose the kiln.  We choose permanence over pliability.  It seems more "safe."  More permanent.  But I believe that God would be content to a lifetime of reworking, if only we'd let him.  Only at the point of entering eternity would we then be "fired" in the kiln of Jesus Christ (who's GRACE saves, remember!).  But God never forces himself on us.  We have to be willing to let him work.

May we forever be open to God's reworking... stay away from the kiln!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Envy & Selfish ambition

[From October 11, 2011]

"For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind."
(James 3:16)

As an athlete, a healthy sense of ambition and competition is very good.  As a follower of Jesus, however... not so much.  Actually, says the author of James, it's "selfish ambition" and "envy" that leads to trouble for believers.
  • Selfish ambition...  aka "Looking out for No.1!"  This mindset puts ourselves ahead of everyone else.  It only desires "what's best for me," without regard to the impact it has on others.
  • Envy... Wanting what someone else has (or has been given by God).  This isn't just materialistic desires either (envying another's car, home video system, house, gaming console, etc.)... we fall into other cases of envy - including in the ministry.
As a pastor, I know God has gifted me a certain way.  It's who I am.  Who He created me to be.  I am an integral part of the Body of Christ.  But so are you!  You have unique gifts & abilities God has given you, too.  It does neither of us any good to wish (desire, long for, envy!) we had what each other has.  God reminded me of this on my trip a few weeks ago to the Philippines.  I was humbled by the incredible dynamic power present in my fellow pastors.  And for a while, I was having a problem with envy.  But God changed my heart.  I am content with who he created me to be.  What a gift!

Oh, how He loves us!

[From October 2, 2011]

"...And he became their Savior in all their distress.  It was no messenger or angel, but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old."
(Isaiah 63:9)

Early on in the wonderful film "HOOK" (the story of Peter Pan as a grown-up with kids who has forgotten who he once was), Peter (played marvelously by Robin Williams) is a very busy businessman.  So busy, in fact, that he has no time to attend his son's baseball game, even though he promised his son that he would.  Instead, he sends one of his assistants to video the game so he can watch it later.  The look on his son's face, when he's searching for his father in the stands, but instead finds the video-taping assistant, is crushing.

 But that's how it is in the world sometimes, isn't it?  We are busy.  People in positions of power & influence are especially busy.  They have assistants to take care of the things they're not able to get around to, because of greater priorities.

Isaiah 63 speaks of a time when God could have operated like that.  Who's more powerful than The Almighty?  Who has priorities that we can't even begin to comprehend?  If anyone had the right to delegate tasks it would be God.  That's why he's got prophets and angels & other messengers, right?

But God did a remarkable thing.  When we were lost in our sin & faithlessness... when we were mired in the consequences of our (not-so-good) actions... God himself came to save us.  No angels.  No messengers.  No intermediary.  God came.  In his love & pity, he redeemed us.  He lifted us out of the muck & carried us, as a Father or Mother lovingly carries their child.  God did that.

In the words of John Mark McMillian (made famous by The David Crowder Band):  "Oh, how he love us, oh!  Oh, how he loves us.  How he loves us, oh!"  (Amen to that!)