Thursday, May 26, 2016

Crying Alone in the Dark

Last weekend, while attending a church function, I was reminded just how important it is for us, as Christians, to bear one another's burdens.  A friend and I were standing in the shade discussing the weather, the volleyball game taking place a few feet away, and other mundane things.  Just your basic chit chat.  Soon, however, my dear friend began to pour out her heart to me.

It seems she has been under a lot of stress lately, and I had no idea.  She confessed to a spiritual battle taking place within her heart and mind and to having spells where all she could do is cry.  As I listened, two thoughts came to my mind.  First off, why hadn't I seen this?  How could I have not noticed that one of my dearest friends was in such turmoil?  Second, I thought of how I could totally relate to what she was saying because I had been going through the same thing.  Though many of the circumstances surrounding our spiritual battles were different, some of them were the same.  The more we talked, the more I realized that we had been experiencing the same feelings of frustration, discouragement, and utter fatigue.  And we had both kept it to ourselves thinking no one else would understand or that others would think poorly of us if we admitted our feelings of total despair.

The rest of the weekend, I found myself wondering if my friend and I could have escaped some of the turmoil we had been through if we had only turned to someone for help.  After all, I did feel better after having talked with her and realizing that I wasn't alone.  It helped to talk to someone about my problems, but it also helped to hear that someone else was dealing with the same issues.  It sounds strange, I know, but when she told me some of the things that she had been feeling, a wave of relief swept over me.  I know this woman, and I hold her up as a beautiful example of what a Godly woman should be.  To learn that she had the same feelings I did made me feel like less of a failure.  Again, I know it sounds weird, but I think you understand what I'm saying.

I wonder how many of us go through our days and weeks crying alone in the dark because we fear that no one will understand or that people will judge us if they knew about the spiritual battle taking place deep within our hearts.  Rather than taking the risk of exposing our faults and feelings, we keep them to ourselves and try to bear the burdens alone.  But that's not how it should be.  We need each other!  God designed it that way from the very beginning.  Remember, in the Garden of Eden, after God had created man, He said that it wasn't good for man to be alone.  The Bible reinforces that fact many times, but none makes it clearer to me than Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, which says, Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Today, my friends, I want to make two things clear.  First off, Christians do go through hard times.  They get frustrated and can even suffer from depression.  Knowing Christ does not exempt us from difficult circumstances or a lot of tears.  Life is hard, and while faith in Christ does help us to get through, it doesn't mean that we don't experience times of discouragement and despair.  Just as the psalmist, David.

Secondly, I want to remind you that there is strength and comfort in sharing our burdens with one another.  We don't need to cry alone in the dark or hide our problems from others.  True friends are there for one another in the good times and the bad.  Reach out to them for help, and also pay attention to those around you and see if someone else needs to pour out their heart to you.  Everyone is going through something, so let's make sure we're there for one another.  It's easy to get so caught up in our own problems that we forget that others are hurting too.  I'm reminded of a line from Mark Bishop's song, Can I Pray for You? which says, “Let me be there for you. We’ll divide all your problems by two. And very soon there’ll be three – you and Jesus and me. That’s what friends are supposed to do.”

You don't have to bear your burdens alone.  None of us do!  It's okay to cry, but please, don't cry alone.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What Do Angels and Orange Lizards Have in Common?

After nearly a week of rain, I was itching to get out of the house on Saturday (as was my dog, Mitch, who had taken to running through the house at break-neck speed.)  The forecast for Saturday was partly sunny skies with a slight chance of a shower in the afternoon.  We awoke that morning to overcast skies, thick fog and a slight mist in the air.  Hopeful that the foul weather would pass, we packed up our gear and headed out for a much-needed family hike.

When we arrived at our hiking spot, the weather remained unchanged.  It was cool, damp and less than pleasant.  Still, we soldiered on.  I'm bummed to tell you that it drizzled on and off the entire hike, but on the bright side, the Lord sent out a welcomed reminder (and an excellent idea for a blog post, at least in my mind).

Within just a few minutes of hiking, Jason pointed out a bright orange lizard on the leaf-littered floor of the trail.  He was quite small and dazzling.  As we studied him, I noticed another one just over a foot away.  We resumed our walk, and a few minutes later, we spotted two more, then three more, then another one.  By the end of the hike, we must have seen two or three dozen of the fluorescent creatures.  It was awesome!

But here's the amazing part. Jason and I have been hiking the trails in this area on a regular basis for eight years or more, and in all that time, we've only come across an orange lizard like that on two or three other occasions.  And on each of those occasions, we spotted one, not dozens.  Because of that, I assumed that they must have been some rare species, but Saturday's hike told me that such was not the case.  And after a little research, I discovered that the Eastern (Red-Spotted) Newt is quite common to the wooded areas of eastern North America.  Interesting, huh?  That they could be so popular, yet seasoned hikers like us barely knew of their existence because we'd hardly ever seen them.

Come to find out, the newts prefer moist wooded areas, so the environment on Saturday was perfect for them.  Also, the newts that we saw were the juvenile of the species, for when they mature, they turn to a "normal" lizard color of greenish brown.  Who knows how many adults were present but unseen because of their ability to blend in with the terrain?  It's crazy to think about.

Here's what the Lord brought to my mind about the whole instance.  I don't know about you, but I've heard accounts where someone was in danger, and they believe with their whole heart that they heard a voice that gave them instructions or felt a touch that woke them in time to see the oncoming vehicle. I haven't heard a lot of them, but I've heard enough to know that God has angels watching out for his children.  But seeing those lizards on Saturday made me wonder just how many angels are here on this earth watching over you and me.  Like the lizards, the encounters with angels are rare, making it appear as if the angel population is small, but God reminded me that in the proper circumstances, the angels will make themselves known, just like those lizards.  And we'll be amazed at how many there truly are.

Isn't that a comfort to know?  We are aware that God is looking out for us and that He can protect us, but there's something that calms the soul when we realize that we're surrounded by a heavenly host, much like Elisha and his band were in II Kings 6.  Whether we see them or not, they're there, and they've been commanded to protect God's children.  And I thought the lizards were awesome!

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. - Hebrews 13:2

Monday, May 23, 2016

What Kind of Shoes Are You Wearing?

Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; - Ephesians 6:13-15

There is a lot to be said about the armor of God.  In fact, I'm teaching through a series on the armor in my ladies' Sunday School class, and let me tell you, there's a lot to sift through.  But this morning, I would like to focus on verse 15:  And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;  In essence, God is telling us to put on our "gospel shoes."  But what are gospel shoes?

For starters, we need to understand what the gospel is.  The word "gospel" literally means "good news," but from there, people are left to interpret their own definitions.  Paul tells us in I Corinthians 15 that the gospel (good news) is the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and all that is made possible because of that (heaven, victorious Christian life, etc.).  This is the good news we are supposed to wear and share.  Unfortunately, not everyone is following this gospel, for they have created gospels of their own.  I would like to discuss a few of these today, and since we're talking about having our feet shod with the gospel, I'm going to relate them to shoes.

First off, we have the dress shoes.  They are beautiful and shiny on the surface, but the truth is that they're only brought out for special occasions or Sundays.  This is the gospel that declares that people are doing God a favor by showing up for church in their Sunday best, and God will bless them for that.  It's not about worshiping God.  It's about doing good and being seen, nothing more.

Then we have the bedroom slippers, which are becoming increasingly popular.  This gospel is comfortable and feels good but has no real substance.  Have you ever walked out on the wet grass in your bedroom slippers?  They didn't hold up, did they?  This gospel is preached by those who don't want to offend, so they avoid preaching about sin and instead tell their congregation that everyone is okay as long as they try to do right.  It's a "come just as you are" philosophy.  Unfortunately, people also leave just as they came.  Without real preaching, their hearts remain unchanged.

We can't forget the flip-flop gospel.  Like bedroom slippers, flip flops are casual and comfortable, but they're also easy.  I equate these to people who don't agree with the teaching of their church, but they're too lazy to study the Bible for themselves or to take the effort to find a church they can agree with.  They're content to stay put because it's the easiest thing for them to do.  The problem with flip flops is that they offer no protection neither do they hold firm to the foot, which makes it easy to slip.  For those who are wishy-washy in their faith--not certain what or who they believe--spiritual catastrophe is inevitable.

Let's talk about the work boots.  In general, the work boot gospel sounds good.  It is rigid and protective, but the problem is that it has become too rigid, and it weighs people down with a long list of rules and regulations.  Like the Pharisees of the Bible, they're all about the work to be done.    According to this gospel, grace and faith are not enough to save.  There must be more. . . much more. This crowd is always working to ensure their place in eternity, and they're very proud of themselves for being so holy and righteous.

What about tennis shoes?  Obviously, when running a race (as we are), tennis shoes are great shoes.  They give much-needed support to the foot and are perfect for speed and some endurance.  Unfortunately, they are lightweight and often composed of mesh which won't hold up well in the battles or storms of life.  This reminds me of newer or weaker Christians who don't yet understand the complexities of the Christian life.  In their minds, they still see the Christian journey as a walk in the park, free from heartaches and trials.  They equate God's promise of joy and peace to an absence of trouble, but such is not the case.  They're ready to run the race, but they're unprepared for battle.

Finally, we have our hiking boots (you knew I had to go there, didn't you?).  Hiking boots are supportive, protective and offer a sure grip.  They are made for steadfastness and endurance.  While they are rigid to a degree, they are also flexible enough to allow the foot room to move and grow.  These are the shoes that represent the true gospel, giving us a firm place to stand and holding us securely through every storm.

Just as shoes allow us to walk on painful terrain without fear, the gospel enables us to walk down painful roads and through the trials of life without fear.  Shod with the gospel, we can travel down rough and rocky roads and journey through the fire.

So, I ask you again:  what kind of shoes are you wearing?

Friday, May 20, 2016

What's Your Title?

This morning as I was searching through Amazon for the video to accompany today's Song of the Day, I was disturbed by some of the results that came up under my search.  I typed in "If Not for the Love of Christ," but that was not the first or even second thing that popped up on my screen.  On the contrary, the song was several items down the page.  If you're familiar with Amazon, you'll know that the items are listed according to popularity (which is, unfortunately, why none of my books show up on the first page unless you're searching for the exact title or my name, <sigh>).  That means that every item listed above the one I was looking for was more popular and had sold more on Amazon.

Here are a couple of items that struck me by their titles alone:  If God Gets Angry Why Can't I? and If God Is Not for Me, Then He Must Be Against Me.  I don't know about you, but as soon as I read each of these titles, red flags went up in my mind.  The first struck me as a petulant child making excuses to have his/her own way.  The second brought to mind someone who is going through a rough patch in life and has resolved himself to the fact that God is his enemy.

Disturbed, yet intrigued, I had to pull up the two books and read through their descriptions.  It turns out that I was pretty close on the first one and way off on the second.  The first book is about how we all have feelings and emotions and that all of those emotions are a good thing and are within us to serve us (there's that red flag again).  Dangerous ground, to be sure!  The second is actually a work of fiction about two military lovers (both men from what I can tell) who are separated when a "Stranger" from above enters their relationship and promises salvation for the soul.  Honestly, without knowing where the story is headed, I don't know what to think about it, but I do know this:  I would change the title.

As a writer of ten years, I've come to two important conclusions:  (1) People do judge books by their covers. (2) People are drawn or turned away from a book by its title.  For example, I am drawn to books that use titles that I can relate to such as, "You'll Get Through This" or "Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World."  These titles relate to me what the book is about, and the topic is one I want to know more about.  With a title like, If God Is Not for Me, Then He Must Be Against Me, what kind of readers is it going to attract?  Those who feel like God is against them.

Whether you realize it or not, we are all book covers of salvation's story, and each day we plaster a title across our face (i.e. an expression).  Some days our titles read, God Is Good!  Ask Me Why or I Am So Blessed, and they attract others who want to know more about the topic.  Unfortunately, some days, our titles turn to those of distress like I Can't Face Another Day Like Today or I'm So Weary of This Fight, and guess what happens.  Yep, we invite the gloomy guses to our company and scare everyone else away.  One glance in our direction is enough to make most people scurry away.

Please understand, I'm not saying that we should plaster a fake smile on our face as we go about our day.  What I'm saying is that we shouldn't have to.  Our smile should be real because our joy is.  Yes, things may be hard.  Yes, the day may seem bleak.  And sure, we may be going through a rough patch.  But if we'll keep in mind that if God is for us, no one (and nothing) can be against us, we'll find the way to smile genuinely through our tears.  And others will see that smile and inquire about the strength we have to praise in the midst of our storm which will, in turn, open the door for us to be witnesses for Christ.

As you go about your day today, keep in mind that the world is studying your "cover" and reading your "title."  Will they desire to know more or be turned away?

What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? - Romans 8:31

Thursday, May 19, 2016

There's Something in Your Eye

In I Samuel 14, Saul orders the people not to eat anything until they've won the victory over the Philistines.  A crazy request, to be sure, since the Bible tells us that the people were faint from hunger and not really in any condition to fight.  But then again, Saul wasn't always in his right mind, was he?  Unfortunately, Jonathan wasn't present when his father issued this command, so when he came across a batch of honey in the woods, he had a taste.  When Saul found out what had happened, he was ready to kill Jonathan for it.

Then Saul said to Jonathan, Tell me what thou hast done. And Jonathan told him, and said, I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand, and, lo, I must die. And Saul answered, God do so and more also: for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan. - I Samuel 14:43-44

Fortunately, the people convinced Saul not to do it and pleaded with him to keep Jonathan alive.  They reminded Saul of Jonathan's great victory over the Philistines in the past.  If they were going to win the war once and for all, they advised, they were going to need Jonathan.  So, Saul relented, though I don't think he was particularly happy about it.

Here's what gets me about this passage.  Saul was ready to kill his son for disobeying one of his rules when in the chapter before and the chapter after, Saul disobeys God's rules.  In chapter 13, we find him offering the sacrifice that only Samuel was supposed to offer.  When Samuel rebuked him for it, Saul's reply was, "Well, we waited for you as long as we could, and then I did what I had to do."  No remorse.  No regret.  Only justification for his sin.

Then, in chapter 15, Saul was instructed by God to kill the Amalekites and everything in the land.  But instead, Saul spared the king, Agag, and also brought back much of the livestock.  When Samuel confronted him, Saul again sputtered out excuses.  "I know what God said, but I only brought back these animals so that we could offer them to the Lord."  Evidently, Saul didn't realize that obedience was more important to the Lord than any worldly sacrifice.

Do you see the irony in Saul's story here?  On two separate occasions, he disobeyed God then shrugged it off as nothing.  But when Jonathan, his son, violated Saul's order, he sentenced him to death.  Why was Jonathan's disobedience worthy of death when Saul's was barely worthy of a slap on the wrist (in Saul's mind anyway)?  I think it's because Saul suffered from the same thing we do:  Sin Comparison Syndrome.  In other words, when we look at our own sins, we say, "No, I shouldn't have done that, but hey, everyone makes mistakes, right?"  But when we look on the sins of others, we say, "Whoa!  They did such a bad thing.  I hope God punishes them for that."  In short, everyone else's sin is much worse than our own sin and, therefore, worthy of a much greater punishment.

I believe this is why we sit in church services and think, I hope so-and-so is listening.  He needs to hear this instead of examining our own lives and seeing how to apply the message to our personal sin.  Like Saul, when our sin is pointed out to us, we often have a tendency to shrug our shoulders and make excuses.  But the fact of the matter is that sin is sin, whether it's worrying about tomorrow or stealing a car.  God hates sin. . . all sin, and none of it is excusable.  It's time we get that through our heads and spend more time dealing with our own faults instead of examining and pointing out the faults in others.  I don't know about you, but dealing with my own issues is a full-time job.

The next time you want to criticize someone or condemn them for their faults, remember Saul.  His sin and the consequences of those sins led him to madness, but he was too busy pointing fingers at others to notice.  Don't make the same mistake.  Own up to your sin.  Confess it to God, and live in sweet fellowship with Him.  Then, let everyone else do the same.  It's their job to deal with their sin, not yours.  Just leave it alone!

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. - Matthew 7:1-5