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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Turning Curses Into Blessings

On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever; Because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing. - Nehemiah 13:1-2

Are there any sweeter words than that last phrase in verse two?  Howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing.  Wow!  Once again, my mind is drawn to the story of Joseph where he told his brothers, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good."  Doesn't that just bless your soul?  To know that what Satan means for evil, God can turn into good.  What the world means as a curse, God can turn into a blessing.  Any trial.  Any trouble.  Any tribulation.  It doesn't matter.  God is in control of it all, and somehow, some way, He will turn those curses into blessings.

I'm reminded of an old gospel song that says, "God will make this trial a blessing though it sends me to my knees.  Though my tears flow like a river, yet in Him there's sweet relief.  There's no need to get discouraged.  There's no need to talk defeat.  God will make this trial a blessing and the whole wide world will see."  Perhaps Nehemiah 13:2 was the basis for this song, or perhaps the songwriter had seen the truth of it in his own life.  Who knows?

What I do know is that this phrase reminds us that God is sovereign, and everything in life that happens to us must first pass through His hands.  Knowing that, we can now face our trials with a refreshing new attitude.  Instead of being discouraged and wondering when the trial will end, we can be excited, looking forward to how God will turn our curse into a blessing.  Our trials give us a very real opportunity to see God move in our lives.  Isn't that wonderful?  Isn't that what we long for?

Whatever you may be facing today, don't give up or give in. God's isn't through with your situation yet.  Hang in there.  This same God that turned water into wine can turn those curses into blessings. . . and no powers of hell can stop Him!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Putting Feet to My Prayers and Prayers on My Feet

My mind has been fixated on feet for the past few days.  I have no idea why.  In the last post, I talked about how the children of Israel journeyed through the wilderness for forty years without swollen feet or worn out shoes.  In fact, I was thinking about that post as I walked my dogs this morning.  I thought about the "small" and "big" miracles, and at that point, I realized I was wearing one of those "small, not-so-obvious" miracles.

Last year, I decided to make a better effort to get out and walk every morning, weather permitting.   (Unfortunately, I've been very lax in making that happen, but after a recent appointment with my doctor, my discipline has been renewed.)  Anyway, I wanted to walk.  I knew I needed to walk.  The problem was that my walking shoes were in terrible shape.  They were worn out in the heel (as usual), the mesh at the toe was torn and worst of all, the foundation of the shoe was beginning to collapse. 

If I was going to walk each and every day, I knew I needed a better pair of shoes.  At the time, however, I didn't have the money for a new pair of shoes.  Please understand, I cannot wear cheap shoes.  There was a time when I could, but since my back injury and the onslaught of arthritis in my knees and back, I must have quality shoes, which means I would need to dish out some serious money. . . money that I didn't have.  So, you know what I did?  I prayed.

I know it may sound silly to some, but I prayed every day that the Lord would somehow provide me with a good pair of walking shoes.  I laid out my petition before Him day after day, and I knew in my heart that God was going to take care of that need. 

About two weeks after I started fervently praying for my new shoes, I was at a thrift store picking up something for a friend.  As I walked down the shoe aisle, my eye caught sight of a name-brand, hardly-worn pair of walking shoes.  I picked them up and examined them carefully to determine what was wrong with them.  The soles looked great.  There were no holes or tears anywhere that I could see.  The insides were completely intact.  And believe it or not, they were even my size.  I tried them on and smiled.  They felt wonderful.  And best of all, the grand total was $3.  Yep, $3 for a very nice pair of walking shoes that I'm still wearing to this day.

But God's goodness doesn't stop there.  About a month or two later, Jason and I were popping into several different thrift stores, looking for a particular book that we wanted to read for our evening devotions.  Once again, a pair of shoes caught my eye.  They looked brand new, and when I examined them more closely, I realized they were Asics.  Further examination, however, told me that they weren't my size, but I decided to try them on anyway.  I'm so glad I did.  The shoes fit fine.  They are roomier in the toe than my other shoes, but they weren't so big that they slipped or slid. I looked up to find out the price and smiled again.  The shoes only cost me $4.

Within a few months, God gave me, not one, but two pairs of wonderful walking shoes, both of which are still in great shape today (although they might be a little more worn if I had been walking like I should have, but we won't go there).  God answered my prayers.  They weren't big prayers.  They were fancy.  They weren't extravagant.  And honestly, the need was not that dire.  But God provided anyway.  That's just the way He is.

Perhaps you have a need today, but you feel it's not really big enough to take to God.  After all, He's busy dealing with big problems like war, famine and disease.  Does He really care that you need a pair of walking shoes?  In a word, absolutely!  He cares about every need, no matter how big or small.  And He wants us to make our requests known to Him.  Yes, He already knows what we need, but by asking Him for my shoes every day, I showed God that I was serious and that this need was important to me.  And you know what, since it was important to me, it was important to Him.

Mind you that I'm not saying that God will give you anything you want, but He will always give you the things that you need.  So go ahead and ask.  Don't be embarrassed.  Don't wait until the need is greater.  Just ask.  Show God you mean business.  And then stand back and watch.  If you'll put feet to your prayers, God will answer those prayers for your feet!

 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. - Hebrews 4:16

Friday, September 26, 2014

Don't Overlook the Not-So-Obvious

I'm teaching a series on the miracles of the Old Testament, and frankly, I'm finding it difficult to narrow the study down to a dozen or so.  There are so many, and I'm talking big, wonderful works of God.  David and Goliath.  The walls of Jericho.  Daniel in the lion's den.  The three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace.  Abraham and Sarah's miracle child in their old age.  The opening of Hannah's womb.  Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  On and on, the list could go.  Such fantastic accounts.  Such wondrous events.  And the lessons that we can learn from each story are innumerable.

But I'm afraid that we sometimes become so fascinated by the "big, showy miracles" that we overlook the ones that are just as awesome, but not quite so obvious.  Take this one for example:

Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years. - Deuteronomy 8:4

In this passage, the Lord is talking to the children of Israel, reminding them of all He had done for them.  Obviously, He did mighty things during that period of time, like parting the Red Sea and raining down manna from Heaven.  But notice what the passage above states.  It may not be dramatic or flashy, but take it from an avid hiker, this is a miracle!  Their clothes (including their shoes) didn't wear out, and their feet didn't swell.  Seriously?  Wow!

I don't care how short or easy of a hiking trail we walk, my feet swell.  Obviously, they swell more on warm days or when the trail is long or strenuous, but they always swell some.  It's just part of the hiking experience.  Another part of the experience is knowing that you'll be replacing your hiking boots on a regular basis.  Good shoes are important when hiking, and no matter how tough or expensive the shoes are, they will wear out before long.  

My poor shoes don't stand a chance.  I wear out every pair of hikers I have in the exact same spot--the inside of my right heel.  Because of my back injury, I have an odd gait, which evidently causes me to rub my foot more against the heel portion of my right shoe.  But once they're worn, they have to be discarded.  Otherwise, they cause blisters.

Can you imagine walking for forty years and never having to get new shoes?  Better yet, can you imagine being on your feet for that long without them being swollen afterwards?  No, it may not be a jaw-dropping, eye-bulging type of miracle like some of the others, but it is a miracle nonetheless.

So, how often in life do we make the same mistake?  We look around at the miracles that God is doing for others and wonder, "Lord, when do I get a miracle?"  Meanwhile, God has been working those not-so-obvious miracles in our lives without our even noticing it.  The gas in the car lasts longer than it really should have.  Friends and family invite you to dinner throughout the week, saving you the cost of groceries, not to mention the time and energy to fix the meal (always a good thing in my book).  Nearly everything you bought at the grocery store was on sale or marked down.  A friend or family member offers you their used television, refrigerator or microwave when they update their own.  

Do you see what God is doing?  No, He's not dropping $1,000 in your lap.  No, maybe He's not giving you a raise or a bonus.  Perhaps He's not allowing you to get those new toys you've been wanting.  But He is taking care of you in ways that you're often too busy to notice.  Instead of giving you money, He's saving you money.  He is providing for you, just in a different way than what you were hoping or expecting.  But isn't it a miracle nonetheless?  Absolutely!

We respond to God's "big" miracles with oohs, ahhs and lots of praise, but how will we respond to the "not-so-obvious" miracles?  Well, first off, we need to be paying attention so that we won't overlook them.  Second, we should respond in the exact same way as if the Lord had parted the Red Sea for us.  He has provided.  What difference does it make how He provided?  Are we really going to be that picky?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Covered by Grace and Mercy

I do believe that fall has finally arrived!  The past couple of weeks have brought about cooler temperatures, and I'm loving every minute of it.  I have literally giggled with glee as I've pulled out my sweaters, boots and heavy socks.  I cherish this time of year!

That being said, the transition from summer to fall can be a little tricky for us.  For the past several days I've had my windows open around the clock. The fresh, cool air is inviting and invigorating, but I must admit that this morning it was also quite chilly.  So I was torn whether or not to start a fire in the wood stove.  I reasoned that a small fire would take off the chill, and then I could just let it go out as the day warmed up.  But I also know that sometimes I tend to leave it burning too long, and then it gets stuffy in the house as the outside temperature increases.  So, I decided to simply snuggle up in a blanket and wait for the warmer air.

I wasn't far into my devotions when I realized that the couch was trembling.  I looked up and noticed that Tippy, my nearly 14-year-old beagle was shivering at my feet on the couch.  She was lying on top of the blanket, so rather than move her, I simply grabbed her night blanket from the bedroom and draped it over her shivering form.  She relaxed almost immediately.  Mitch, however, had the exact opposite reaction.  He jumped down from his spot on the couch, took me by the hand and led me to the place where his blanket had been stored for the warmer months.  As soon as I grabbed the blanket, he ran back to his spot on the couch, snuggled into the cushions and waited expectantly for me to cover him up.  Within just a few minutes, he was snoring.  Spoiled dog!

I understand his reaction though.  There's just something so cozy about being snuggled in a warm blanket on a cool morning.  But even that joy and pleasure pales in comparison to being wrapped up in God's tender mercies and never-ending grace.  When the harsh, bitter winds of this world blow, when the darkness hides all warmth as well as all light, when the world seems like such a cold, dismal place, isn't it wonderful to find ourselves covered by God's blanket of grace and mercy?  It shelters us from the harshest winds and warms us despite the bitter chill around us.  It brings about a sense of peace and calm that cannot be found elsewhere.  And unlike Mitch, we never have to ask for it.  We don't need to take God by the hand and lead Him to where His grace for us was stored.  It is always available, poured out upon us daily.

Hmm, and I thought my dogs were spoiled!  I guess we have no room to talk, huh?  After all, look at what our Master does for us! 

Grace be with you, mercy, and peace, from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. - II John 1:3

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Camera Doesn't Lie. . .Or Does It?

This weekend, while browsing through Facebook, I came across a picture of a dear friend.  She was out and about, having a good time with other friends and family.  This is not unusual, for unlike me, she's a social butterfly.  What was unusual were the feelings that overcame me as I looked at the picture.  My friend, who suffers from many health issues just as I do, looked so happy, vibrant and healthy. She was thin with well-proportioned curves in all the right places.  Her skin was perfectly tanned, and her straight teeth gleamed white.  Despite the activity taking place around her, every hair was in place.  She looked perfect.  She looked so alive and youthful.  And it made my heart ache with envy.

You see, I immediately thought of the last picture that I had taken with my friend.  In that picture, she looked just as she did in this recent photo--absolutely perfect.  I, on the other hand, looked like something the dog had just dug up in the yard.  My clothes were bunched, giving me an overweight, frumpy appearance.  My hair, while decently arranged, was much in need of a good coloring. (Yes, I dye my hair.  Otherwise, it is white!)  My skin was pale and pasty.  My eyes had dark circles and droopy bags under them.  My smile seemed forced.  The contrast between the two of us was unmistakable.  Once again, my friend looked alive and vibrant.  As for me, I looked like I had died several days before (maybe a bit like Lazarus).  It's a horrible picture (of me anyway), and I can't bear to look at it.

Unfortunately, other recent photos of me reveal the same corpse-like appearance.  I look tired when I face the mirror each morning, but these pictures go far beyond tired.  I look downright exhausted and a good bit overweight!  In fact, it's time for me to get some new photos made for my author page and marketing materials, but I can't seem to talk myself into it.  I know three very talented photographers who would do the photo shoot for free, but I don't know if I could bear to look at the pictures.  I can't stand seeing myself looking like the living dead.  Not only does it stir up self-pity, but it fills my heart and mind with envy.  "Why can't I look like my friend?  Why can't I look so happy and alive?  Why do I look like death warmed over?  It's not fair!"

Interestingly enough, after my weekend feelings of envy (for which I have already repented to the Lord), my morning devotions today were on the topic of. . . guess what. . . .yup, envy!  During that time, the Lord helped me to realize that envy was just a form of disappointment, but it was disappointment that was being mishandled.   Basically, my envy this weekend was my way of saying, "God, you messed up.  Why didn't you make me better?  You did it for my friend.  What about me?  I'm so disappointed in you, and I'm going to pout about it and feel sorry for myself."  Spiritually mature, huh?

The thing is that I didn't want to be envious of my friend.  I'm happy that she's happy.  I'm glad she can still smile and go like crazy despite her physical ailments.  I'm thrilled to see that she's just as beautiful on the outside as she is on the inside.  I didn't mean to envy her.  It just sort of happened, but the problem came about when I realized what was happening and didn't stop myself.  I allowed the feelings to linger and brew.  And before long, I felt as weary and worn as I looked in that picture with my friend.  I was allowing my envy over someone's outer beauty to destroy my own inner beauty.  It was being tainted by my own jealousy, disappointment and bitterness.

After reading through my devotions this morning and asking the Lord to forgive me for my sin and bad attitude, I made myself stare into the bathroom mirror.  I examined my reflection, forcing myself to focus on the areas that I found the most pleasing to my own sight (for example, my green eyes).  Then I repeated over and over again, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made."  But I didn't just say it with my mouth.  I allowed the words to sink down into my soul.  I needed to feel it, and before long, I was able to walk away from the mirror, leaving both pride and envy behind.

Do you realize that you are also fearfully and wonderfully made?  Every part of you has been perfectly designed by God.  If you are saved, then you are His child, and He loves you just as you are.  Sure, He wants us to improve where we can.  He longs for us to be more like Him.  He urges us to do what we can to maintain good health so that we can serve Him better.  But then, when we've done all we can do, it's time to be still and watch Him work the miracle.

When I saw that picture of my friend, my thoughts were of envy and anger toward God that He had messed up. In the midst of that reaction, I failed to realize that perhaps my friend looks more alive and vibrant than I do because she's doing more to take care of herself than I am.  I wasn't willing to take the blame, so I shifted it elsewhere.  And the cycle began!

Do me a favor.  Don't let it begin again with you.  Do what God has asked you to do.  Do your best, and leave the rest up to Him.  And while you're working, keep in mind that God is more interested in inner beauty than outer appearances.  If you have both, good for you.  But if you can only work on one, focus on the inner.  It may not show up in photographs, but I guarantee you, it's noticeable in God's eyes.  What else matters?

Okay, everyone, say "cheese!"

A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones. - Proverbs 14:30

Monday, September 22, 2014

Lyre, Lyre!

Have you ever heard of the lyre bird?  Perhaps he would have been more aptly named the "liar bird," for he pretends to be that which he is not.  This Australian native can mimic nearly any sound.  Other birds, wildlife, cars, cell phones and even chainsaws are sounds that are not too difficult for the bird to master.  The lyre bird is a master of disguise.  He can hide in the brush and confuse or mislead innocent bystanders.  He really is an amazing creature, and I understand that he is simply doing what God created him to do.

Man, however, was never intended to deceive.  Unfortunately, the Bible tells of a prophet whose deception puts the lyre bird to shame.  For the sake of time and space, I won't post the entire passage, but you can find the story in I Kings 13.  Basically, a prophet out of Judah makes an appearance before King Jereboam, and when the king invites him to dinner, the prophet tells him that he has been commanded by God not to eat, drink or tarry in that place.  Basically, he was to deliver his message and go home.

When a prophet of Bethel heard tell of this prophet from Judah, he rode out and met him.  He told the prophet from Judah that he, too, was a prophet and that an angel had appeared to him with a message.  The message was that this prophet out of Judah was supposed to go home with the prophet from Bethel and eat, drink and refresh himself.  So, without a thought or prayer, the prophet from Judah complied, never realizing that he had been lied to.  In the end, he was killed by a lion for his disobedience.

This is kind of a strange story.  I mean, first off, was the prophet from Bethel really a prophet at all?  And if so, why in the world did he lie?  Why would he purposely try to trip up the other prophet?  Perhaps God was testing the prophet from Judah.  I don't know.  What I do know is that the prophet of Judah should have known better.  He already had orders from God, and God never contradicts Himself.  He wouldn't tell the prophet to do one thing and then turn around and say, "Well, never mind.  I want you to do the exact opposite."  And if the prophet had taken the time to seek God's face, He would have discovered the deception.

Perhaps that's the same problem we're facing today.  Too many people are content to hear preachers, singers, evangelists, authors and even celebrities tell them, "Thus saith the Lord."  The problem is that the Lord hasn't said some of the stuff they're saying He said.  In fact, in many cases, He has said the exact opposite.  Don't you owe it to yourself to find out the truth for yourself?  Don't take another's word for it. . . including mine!  Get in the Bible and find out for yourself what God says.  Don't make the same mistake the prophet from Judah made.  After all, the prophet from Bethel isn't the only "liar bird" out there.  There are too many to count.   They are deceiving good people into believing that they're good enough for Heaven.  They are fooling people into believing that once a week church attendance is all that really matters.  They are tricking people out of their money, but more importantly, out of their faith.  And whenever I see it happening, I have the all-consuming desire to shout from the housetops, "Liar!  Liar!"

Don't be fooled.  Keep in mind that God says what He means and means what He says.  He won't counteract His standing orders to you. If you're not sure what those orders are, I urge you to get into His Word.  Seek His face and His wisdom.  He'll clear things up for you, just as He would have done for the prophet from Judah, if only He had bothered to ask.  But, he didn't, and he paid the price.  Need I remind you that we, too, are being preyed upon by a hungry lion?  He is seeking whom he may devour, and from what I know of predators, they always go for the weakest prey.  Are you malnourished on God's Word?  I hope not. . . for your sake!

And he said, Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and the time draweth near: go ye not therefore after them. - Luke 21:8

Friday, September 19, 2014

Bridging the Gap

Those of you who have followed this blog for any length of time know that I rarely comment on world events or political matters.  To be honest, some of these events disturb me to the point where I don't want to discuss them.  However, there are situations taking place right now that cannot be ignored, specifically the persecution of Christians around the world.  Reading the newspaper has become like reading Foxe's Book of Martyrs.  It's frightening.  It's sickening.  And it's sobering.  We are living in the end times--there is no doubt about it.

I fear, however, that we are not doing all we can to intercede on behalf of the thousands who are suffering for their faith.  We know the Bible says that in the end times, perilous times will come, so as far as we're concerned, things are simply working out the way God said they would.  Well, yes, but does that mean we are to idly stand by as our brothers and sisters in Christ are being slaughtered?  Absolutely not!

I know many have made a point to pray daily for these persecuted souls, for our nations and government and the world as a whole.  But I wonder how many of you, like me, have merely been praying for grace and/or deliverance instead of praying a prayer of repentance for our nations/governments as the Bible teaches.  To be honest, it never crossed my mind until the Lord started dealing with me about it.

"You need to pray for forgiveness for your nation.  You need to repent from your wicked ways," He whispered.

"But it's not me, Lord," I complained.  "I'm doing my best to serve you.  I don't agree with what my nation is doing.  I am against abortion, gay marriage and throwing you out of our schools, courthouses and other places of business.  It's not my fault.  Why I should repent?  Why should I ask forgiveness?  What good will that do when the nation, as a whole, isn't sorry for their sins?"

The Lord answered by opening my eyes to the many examples in the Bible where one man stood in the gap between God and his nation.  Daniel did in Daniel 9.  Ezra did in Ezra 9.  Job did in the first chapter of the book of Job.  Moses did in Exodus 32 and several other passages.  Nehemiah repented for the nation in the first chapter of Nehemiah.  And the list goes on.  These men were not guilty of the crimes for which they were repenting, but they pleaded for forgiveness on behalf of their nation.  They put aside all pride and selfishness and bowed their faces before God, begging Him to spare their nation and to forgive them of their many sins.  After all, God had made a promise:

At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them. - Jeremiah 18:7-10

We may not be able to change things in Washington (or your capital city, for those of you who live outside America).  We have no control over the minds, thoughts and deeds of those in power.  However, we have direct access to the One who does.  Instead of focusing on what we can't do, how about we focus our efforts on what we can?  We can intercede for our nation.  We can pray that prayer of repentance, just like these faithful men in the Bible.  And if enough of us pray and repent, perhaps God will spare our lands.

And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none. - Ezekiel 22:30

Oh, may that not be the case in this day and hour!  May God find us faithful and willing to set aside our pride and own selfish desires to stand in the gap for our country, government and world system.  Yes, we need deliverance, but I fear repentance must come first.  Perhaps it's the single most important ingredient we've been missing.  Forgiveness comes before healing.  Will you help me pray for both?

 Moreover as for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you: but I will teach you the good and the right way: Only fear the Lord, and serve him in truth with all your heart: for consider how great things he hath done for you. - I Samuel 12:23-24

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Leaning, Leaning

Do you ever have trouble keeping some of God's commands?  "Do not kill" is not a problem for me (unless you count insects).  "Do not steal"?  I feel that I have a pretty good grip on that one.  "Do not covet," well, now things are getting a little tricky.  And what about "fret not thyself"?  Ouch, that's a tough one.  Or, how about this one:  "lean not on thine own understanding"?  Who would have ever thought that would be such a difficult thing to do?  But, let me tell you, it is.  I'll give you a couple of examples--one from the Bible and one from a personal experience.

Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink. . .And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. - Numbers 20:8,11

Poor Moses!  I would not have wanted his job, to lead that bunch of whiny people through the wilderness.  No thank you!  I imagine there were many times that Moses wished he was shepherding sheep again rather than the children of Israel.  But, he was doing his job, and when the people complained of being thirsty, he felt he knew what to do.  They had done this before.  The last time the people were thirsty, God had told Moses to strike a rock with his staff.  He did, and the water gushed out.

Unfortunately, this second time, either Moses wasn't listening when God gave the orders or he thought to himself, "Well, God said to speak to the rock, but I know it works just to bang on it with my staff.  I've seen it work, so I'll just do that again."  Either way, Moses leaned on his own understanding and cost himself entrance into the Promised Land.  Can you imagine traveling for forty years and never being allowed to enter your destination?  What a bummer!

A similar thing happened to Jason several years ago.  As the sound engineer for our church, he was given the task of playing the CD soundtracks for a guest singer that was scheduled to be in our morning service.  We arrived early that morning so that Jason and the singer could get together and make all the necessary arrangements.  During the sound check, I went up into the sound room to see how things were going.  At that time, Jason showed me the list he had been given--the list that told Jason which tracks to play and in which order.

"But the song he's singing now is track 16, but he has it listed here as track 15," Jason said. "I wonder if he made a mistake."

I shrugged my shoulders, and unfortunately, because of timing and other issues, Jason wasn't able to check with the singer before the service.  So when the time came to play that particular song, Jason had to make a choice.  Play the number on the list or the next track, which he was certain was the correct one.  He chose the latter, and the music began in the middle of the song.  The singer had to stop and ask Jason to back up a track.  Evidently, it was one of those songs that stretches between two tracks.  When Jason looked, it was on track 16, but the song actually began on track 15, just as the singer had written down.

Jason was embarrassed.  The singer was embarrassed.  And I was embarrassed for both of them.  It was a simple mistake that could have happened to anyone, but it proves my point very well.  It's hard not to lean on our own understanding. We know how things work.  We see how the puzzle pieces should fit together.  We think we have it all figured out.  It makes sense. It seems logical.  So, why shouldn't we trust in that?

Honestly, because sometimes we're wrong!  And how can we possibly know if this time is one of those times we're wrong?  We can't.  That's why God doesn't want us leaning on our own understanding.  That's why He doesn't want us to try to figure things out for ourselves.  That's why He frowns upon our plotting and scheming to make things work.  He doesn't want our guesswork.  He wants our trust.  He wants us to acknowledge Him and to allow Him to direct us.

The old hymn writer said it best, "Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey."

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. - Proverbs 3:5-6

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Prospering in a Predicament

And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither. And the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand. And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand. - Genesis 39:1-4

And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king's prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison. But the Lord was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph's hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it. The keeper of the prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand; because the Lord was with him, and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper. - Genesis 39:20-23

I believe we are all familiar with the story of Joseph, from the time his brothers sold him into slavery to the time he became ruler, second only to Pharaoh, in all of Egypt. It wasn't until recently, however, that I discovered a little golden nugget hidden within this familiar story. If you notice, both within Potiphar's house and also while imprisoned, Joseph prospered in all that he did.

As I thought about this truth, I came up with the phrase, "Prospering in a Predicament." You see, yes, Joseph was prospering; however, he still found himself in one predicament after another. We often have it in our minds that prospering means a lack of trouble or an ease of life, but according to the Scriptures, that is not the case. For example, if Joseph had had a choice, I'm sure he would have chosen an existence outside of slavery or imprisonment. But we know, from the outcome of his story, that such an existence would have been outside of God's will for his life.

Let's face it, sometimes it seems as if life hands us a basket full of lemons. It's as if no matter how hard we try to do God's will, we can't seem to prosper in anything. But the truth is, if we really are living out God's plan for our lives, He will see that we prosper, even in the midst of our predicaments. We must simply understand that we may not prosper in the way we expect. Chances are, in fact, that if we will allow God to have his perfect will in our lives, our prosperity will be above and beyond anything we could possibly comprehend.

Are you struggling today? Do you find yourself a slave to time or imprisoned by financial bonds? Are you overwhelmed by the tasks before you and feeling ready to give in? If so, take comfort in this lesson from Joseph. Do your part by following the Lord's will, and leave the results up to Him. He knows where you are, and He knows what you need. Trust Him to bring about your prosperity.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Missing Out on Miracles

Have you ever noticed the many similarities between the Bible characters, Joseph and Daniel?  Both were men of integrity and perseverance.  Both were tried for their faith.  Both became slaves.  Both men found themselves in a pit and then a palace.  And both had the gift of interpreting dreams.  I never really noticed how much these men had in common until recently when I was studying about Joseph for my Sunday School class and reading in Daniel for my daily devotions.

Interestingly enough, I found another similarity that is easy to overlook yet holds such a powerful lesson for us.  Check out these verses below:

 And Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad. And he asked Pharaoh's officers that were with him in the ward of his lord's house, saying, Wherefore look ye so sadly to day? And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto them, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you. - Genesis 40:6-8

The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, The thing is gone from me: if ye will not make known unto me the dream, with the interpretation thereof, ye shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made a dunghill. . .
The Chaldeans answered before the king, and said, There is not a man upon the earth that can shew the king's matter: therefore there is no king, lord, nor ruler, that asked such things at any magician, or astrologer, or Chaldean. - Daniel 2:5-10

On both accounts, there was a dream and a desire for an interpretation of that dream.  And at the same time, we see a common viewpoint from some of the key characters--"It's impossible.  Nobody can do that!"  The butler, the baker and the Chaldeans all agreed that the task before them was an impossible one.  But if we continue reading each passage, we'll see that that's certainly not the case.  God allowed both Joseph and Daniel to interpret dreams on more than one occasion.

So, what's the lesson for us?  Simply this.  Just because we can't see how something will work doesn't mean that it won't.  Because something seems impossible doesn't mean it is.  Simply because it appears that there's no hope doesn't mean that there isn't.  And just because we don't know the answer doesn't mean that there isn't one.

Too many times in life we're like the butler and baker, sitting in our self-made prisons and complaining about the things that didn't work out the way they should have.  We're sad, discouraged and frustrated.  Like the Chaldeans, we're ready to throw up our hands and cry, "Nope, it's too hard.  That's just too much to ask.  It's impossible!"  And we quit.  We quit on God.  We quit on life.  We quit on our families.  We quit church.  We give in, give up and give out.  And all the while, we leave our miracles on the shelf.  God would have worked through us.  God would have made the way.  He's promised us that time and time again.  But we give up before He has the chance to perform His plan.  How many blessings have we missed out on because we didn't think it was possible?

You may be facing a situation today that looks impossible.  You may not see a way out.  The solutions may be far beyond what you can see.  As far as you're concerned, there is no hope.  But, my friend, don't let Satan deceive you.  As long as Jesus lives, there is always hope.  He is the Way.  And God specializes in the impossible.  You may not see it.  You may not understand it.  But you don't have to.  Just believe, and hang in there.  Don't give up.  After all, you don't want to miss out on another miracle!

And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God. - Luke 18:27

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ready or Not

There is a lot of controversy currently taking place over Victoria Osteen's recent comments on
worship.  In case you missed her speech, here's a clip of her message:  "So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy," she said. "When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God really. You're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy. Amen?"

Well, first off, that's blasphemy.  Secondly, it's idolatry.  It is putting ourselves and our happiness before God.  Some have tried to explain that what she was really trying to say was that worship should be a delight and not a drudgery, and while I agree with that, that is certainly not what she said.  What I take away from her message is that we do good, not because it is right and commanded by God, but because it will make us happy in the end.  According to her, I should worship because it makes me feel good, whether it's glorifying to God or not.  Well, how can it be glorifying to God if I'm doing it for myself?  That's ridiculous!

The question was asked how people can listen to this kind of teaching week after week and never realize that these are false teachers.  How do they miss the truth?  Why can't they see the lies?  I believe the answer is that they don't want to.  To illustrate, I'll use the three examples below:

1) Ted has started a new diet, and he is determined to have a healthy salad with every meal.  So, true to his word, he fixes a salad, complete with lettuce, carrots, peppers, onion, cucumber, squash, radish and other assorted fresh vegetables.  But then, he drowns the salad in a high-fat, highly-processed salad dressing.  Is Ted still eating healthy?

2) Felicity was told by the doctor that she needed to include more fruits in her diet.  For the first few days, she lived by the old adage, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."  But pretty soon, she grew bored with fresh fruit and started examining other ways to obey the doctor's orders.  She began making caramel apples, candied apples, peach cobbler, chocolate-covered strawberries, blueberry pie and other fine baked goods.  Felicity convinced herself that her new delicacies were just as healthy as eating the fruit on its own, and besides, they certainly tasted better.

3) Jesse was overweight--dangerously overweight.  And unfortunately, he had a terrible habit of eating fast food on a regular basis.  When Luke finally decided to do something about his weight, he opted for a low-carb diet plan.  But instead of fixing healthy, low-carb meals at home, he continued to eat at fast food restaurants, opting to eat their salads and burgers without the bun.  Unsurprisingly, his weight only increased and his health continued to deteriorate.  Several friends tried to point out that his plan would work if he would simply cut out the fast food and replace it with home-cooked meals, to which he replied, "Probably, but this tastes better."

In each of the above examples, the person had the chance to improve his/her health by adding quality nutrition to his/her diet.  But their efforts were for naught when they began implementing their own plans to make the nutrients taste better.  All of their additions turned healthy meals into unhealthy foods.  The quality food lost most or all of its benefits when it was combined with sugars, fats, starches and other empty calories.  That's what the world is doing with God's Word.

Let's face it, some of the truths in the Bible are hard to swallow.  They don't taste good.  No one likes to be told that he/she is on the way to hell.  It's hard to hear that the best we can do will never be good enough to get us to Heaven.  It's not pleasant to know that hard times in life are a guarantee, and there's nothing we can do about it.  These truths are difficult to hear, so people would rather not.  They'd rather hear someone tell them that everything is going to be okay.  They prefer to hear that whatever makes them happy is just fine, and it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks.  They relish in the knowledge that God is good and that He wants nothing more than for all of us to be happy.  They don't care if it's true or not, just as long as it tastes good.  That's all that matters to them.

It breaks my heart and makes me wonder how many of these people are going to stand before God one day and try to explain why they didn't want to hear the truth.  But their excuses won't matter, and God will say, "Depart from me, for I never knew you."  How happy will they be then?

Oh, dear friends, we are in a battle for souls, and with false teachers like this spreading their lies across the world, the battle is growing more difficult.  People are eating this up!  They love it!  They are buying the books and attending the meetings.  And all the while, they are thinking and believing that they have God.  But there is a big difference between knowing about God and actually knowing God.  It is up to us to spread the truth.  But in order to do that, we have to know the truth.  That's why it's so important to read and study the Bible every day, to attend church and Sunday School and to fellowship with like-minded believers.  We can't share what we don't know.  Otherwise, we'll be no better than these false teachers.

The battle is raging.  Are you armed and ready to fight?

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. - II Timothy 4:2-4

Thursday, September 11, 2014

We Will Remember

Today, millions of people across our great country will gather together to remember the many lives lost on September 11, 2001.  As I think back on the event, I am filled with sadness, heartache and anger.  I feel for those who lost so much on that dreadful day.  I sorrow for the many who still mourn for loved ones they will never see again this side of Heaven.  And I fear for our country which is becoming less of a Christian nation day by day.  Yes, it is a sobering time, but as I was reminded this morning, all hope is not lost.

It is in the darkest times that it is easiest to see the light.  The beam of a flashlight is indistinguishable in the brightness of the sun, but in the darkest gloom, the beam shines brightly and lights the path before us.  II Corinthians 12:9-10 reminds us, And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

There is light in our darkness.  There is hope in the path before us.  There is strength for the journey.  Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ssh! Did You Hear That?

And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it. - Numbers 12:1-2

I believe the last sentence in verse 2 has to be one of the most comforting and yet convicting statements of all time.  And the Lord heard it.  For Moses, this was a comfort.  Such was not the case, however, for Miriam and Aaron.  God heard what was being said about his faithful servant, and He wasn't pleased.  In fact, he punished Miriam and Aaron for their disrespect toward Moses and basically told them that they needed to shut their mouths because they didn't know what they were talking about.

I think it all boiled down to jealousy.  Notice the envy in their question, "Is God only speaking through you?  What about us?  Aren't we just as important?"  With attitudes like that, no, you're not!  The Bible tells us that Moses was meek.  To my knowledge, that term is never associated with either Miriam or Aaron.  But that's another story for another time.

For today, let's focus on the fact that God hears.  He hears each broken heart, each desperate plea, each mournful sigh and each falling tear.  And in that respect, it's such a comfort to know that He hears.  What a blessing to comprehend that He hears our unspoken prayers, those disjointed sentences that we simply can't seem to piece together.  He hears the words that hurt too much to utter.  He hears and understands it all.  What a joy!

On the other hand, He does hear and understand ALL.  That means He hears our complaints and groanings.  He hears our accusations and hurtful words.  He hears our sarcasm and cynicism.  He hears our gossip and ridicule.  And the scariest part of all is that we don't even have to say it for Him to hear it.  We need only think it, and He hears.

How can something be such a blessing and such a curse all at the same time.  Well, truth be told, it needn't be a curse.  We need only take a lesson from Moses and adopt an attitude of meekness.  The word "meekness" means quiet strength, humility, submission, obedience.  Isn't that what we're supposed to be anyway?  Humble, submitted to God and His will.  When we are, we will have no fear of what God may be hearing from us, for it will all be good.  Even our falling tears make a joyful sound when they're accompanied by the proper attitude.

As you go about your day today, I implore you to think about what God may be hearing from you.  Does He hear praise and worship or pity and complaints?  Does He hear good things or bad?  And remember, He can even hear what is unsaid, so keep an eye on your thoughts as well.  After all, if we're thinking about it, it won't be long before those thoughts find an outlet.  

God is always listening.  What kind of sounds are coming from you?

Monday, September 8, 2014

One Day You'll Understand

Have you ever seen the movie, The Neverending Story?  As a child, it was one of my favorites.  It had it all:  a love of books, fantasy, adventure.  It was an enjoyable and unique tale, but it wasn't until recently that I took the opportunity to read the book.  Oh wow!  What a masterfully-woven story, indeed!  The movie is actually pretty true to the book, but the ending of the movie is only halfway through the book.  The rest of the book is the story of Bastian's rebuilding of Fantastica, and honestly, that's where things get truly intriguing.

The thing that has most amazed me as I'm reading is how often I feel as if I'm reading an allegory such as The Chronicles of Narnia.  There are so many moral lessons and even spiritual applications, although I'm not sure that the author intended any of it.  Nevertheless, I see it, and I'm spellbound.

One of the most powerful lessons I've seen is that what we think we want is not always what's best for us.  Take Bastian, for example.  In our world, he was a chubby, clumsy, unpopular child.  He had no friends, and even his father didn't seem to care what happened to him.  When Bastian is transported to Fantastica, he is given the task of rebuilding the kingdom, and to do so, all he has to do is wish.  With a single wish, he can make any dream come true. 

Naturally, some of the first things Bastian wishes for are good looks, courage, strength, wisdom and popularity.  Unfortunately, there is a downside to his wishing, for with every wish, he loses a memory of who he was before he came to Fantastica.  And so, as the story moves on, Bastian goes through many changes.  The more he wishes for things for himself, the more of himself he loses.  What was once a kind, compassionate soul is now cruel and arrogant.  He sees himself as wonderful, better than anyone or anything, but Atreyu, the one true friend that has known him from the beginning, sees the transformation that has taken place because of Bastian's desires to be the exact opposite of what he was.

The more I read of Bastian's transformation, the more thankful I've become that God doesn't always give me what I want.  I ask for sunshine, and He gives rain.  I ask for more money, and He sends more bills.  I ask for healing, but my cries seem to fall on deaf ears.  But now, more than ever, I see and understand that the things that I want may not be for my good.  Those changes could change me, and not for the better.  Perhaps it's all the "bad things" in life that have made me the person I am today.  If I, like Bastian, could wish away the "bad" and bring to life my own desires, who would I become?  Would I still be compassionate and tenderhearted?  Would I still have a desire to serve the Lord?  Would pride and self-sufficiency become my gods?

By the way, as Bastian has transformed and wished for more and more things to make him happy, he's become more miserable.  With each wish, he grows more solemn and melancholy.  In a state of paranoia, he sent away his only true friend, and now, he sulks and pouts, no longer sure what he wants to wish for.  Unlimited wishes didn't bring him peace and happiness.  If anything, they drove it away.  Having our own way could do the same!

So today, I offer you this challenge.  Instead of fussing and complaining about not having the things we want, let's thank God for not allowing us to have them.  Let's praise Him for His great love that is so encompassing that He'll risk our anger at Him just to ensure that we have what is best for us.  Let us thank Him for caring enough to protect us from our own desires in order to build and maintain our character.  Remember a loving parent is not the one who showers his/her child with everything the child could ever ask for.  A loving parent is one who cares for the child enough to say, "No, you don't need that, and one day, you'll understand why."

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have four chapters left to read, and I don't think I can wait any longer!

If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him? - Luke 11:11-13

Friday, September 5, 2014

The "V" Has Had It!

Have you ever noticed how some people tend to break everything they own while others use their things until they're completely worn out?  Jason is a breaker.  I've had to throw out his clothes, not because they were worn, but because of mysterious stains that "appeared" on them.  He's tough on clothes, shoes, tools, equipment, etc.  He also has a tendency to be heavy-handed.  In fact, I remember when I received a violin for Christmas many years ago.  He was so eager to tune it for me that he immediately broke one of the strings.  Bless his heart.  He doesn't mean to be that way.  It's just the way he is.  Thankfully, he can usually repair (or somewhat repair) what he breaks.

As for me, I've broken a few things in my time, but more often than not, I just wear stuff out.  I was reminded of this fact a few days ago when I began having trouble with my computer keyboard.  For some crazy reason, the "v" key seemed to only work when it wanted to, and unfortunately, it didn't want to very often.  (You'd be amazed how often one actually needs the "v" key.)  I have another keyboard I could use, but I absolutely love my keyboard.  It's ergonomic and designed "just so" to provide the greatest comfort and ease of use.  That's very important for someone who sits at the computer for the majority of the day.

So, I broke down and ordered a new keyboard (exactly like my current one), which should be arriving any day now.  Hooray!  In the meantime, I've set up a quirky little system.  I am using my keyboard, but I have the extra keyboard set up in front of my monitor, and each time I need a "v," I simply type it from that keyboard.  Is that crazy or what?  But hey, you do what works!

As I thought back to when I got my keyboard, I realized that I've probably had it for over ten years.  That's a long time for a keyboard, especially one that gets used as often as mine does.  Still, I hate to see it go, and I hate even more that I had to plunk down $30 to buy a new one.  But, as ingenious as my current two-keyboard system is, I don't know that I could tolerate it for long.  It's a bit annoying!

Let's face it.  Sometimes things just grow tired and worn out, but aren't you glad that God's compassion isn't one of them?  According to Lamentations 3:22-23, it is new every morning.  Fresh, renewed.  His mercies never cease.  His compassion never runs out.  His well of grace never runs dry.  No matter how often we fail Him, His light of love never dims.  These things will never have to be replaced, for they never wear out.  They are faithful just as God is faithful.  They are always abounding and ever present.  There's no need for a backup or quirky system to get us by, for we are never without, and we never will be.

I don't know about you, but that certainly brings a smile to my lips and a spring to my step!  As for my keyboard, well, it will probably be laid to rest early next week.  May it rest in peace!

It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. - Lamentations 3:22-23

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Harboring Hope

I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. - Psalm 16:8-9

A few days ago, I came across a quotation that read, "Where there is hope, there can never be despair."  I want you to think about that for just a minute.  Where hope is present, despair cannot be.  The two cannot coexist.  We either have one or the other, and sadly, it seems too many of us hold tight to despair rather than hope.  After all, despair seems safe.  Hope is risky.  What if we hope for something that doesn't happen?  Won't that just lead to disappointment?  So why bother hoping in the first place, right?

To be honest, I've struggled with this train of thought.  The Bible instructs us to hope for things, but I'm so afraid of being disappointed that I fear to even hope for it.  I don't want to end up mad at God because He didn't do what I expected.  I don't want to find myself mired in a pit of disappointment and discouragement.  I don't want to feel as if God has let me down.  So, instead of taking the risk, I find myself refusing to hope.  And in the process, I miss out on so much.  I miss out on joy and peace.  I miss out on blessings that I could have had if I had only dared to hope and believe.  And according to the passage in Psalm 16, I miss out on blissful rest.

David, the human author of this particular psalm, was certainly acquainted with disappointment.  He knew what it was like to hope for something with all his heart only to see his expectations crumble like stale crackers.  As is evidenced by some of his other writings, he even knew what it was like to feel forsaken and "let down" by God.  Yet, the verses above tell us that he uncovered the secret to living a life of hope, and it all begins with that very first phrase:  "I have set the Lord always before me."

Do you realize what that means?  It goes beyond a simple implication that David was following the Lord.  That singular statement tells us that David put the Lord's will and desires above His own.  "Whatever you want, Lord, that 's what I want too."  David could hope in the Lord once his interests were aligned with the Lord's.  It's really quite simple.  If I want the same things that God wants, where's the harm in hoping for them?  God's will will be done, so there's no chance of disappointment or despair.  There's no risk in hoping as long as I'm hoping for the things that God wants me to have.  And when I do, I can say the same as David.  My heart is glad.  My glory rejoices.  My flesh can rest in hope.

So, now the question is, how do I know what God wants?  Well, often I don't, but that's when I present the situation to God and, instead of asking for the results that I want, I ask that He have His perfect will in the situation, whatever that may be.  I also ask that He will give me the grace and strength to accept His will without complaint or bitterness.  Then I can rest in the knowledge that whatever happens will be according to God's perfect will.  No risk.  No fear.  No panic.  Only peace.

"Where there is hope, there can never be despair."  Which one are you harboring today?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Fields of Love

Some books of the Bible are easier for me to read than others.  Despite its length, I could read the entire book of Psalms in one sitting.  I love it!  Books that are action-packed or full of romance like Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, Joshua, the Gospels, and the like draw the reader in.  Books of prophecy tend to give me a headache, but I do my best to follow along.  Then they are some of the minor prophets that are quite difficult to wrap my brain around.  To be honest, Jeremiah and Lamentations tend to depress me.  And Ecclesiastes, well, it's just different.

In one verse, it's as if Solomon is saying, "It's all in vain, so why work?  Everything you do is just going to be left to someone else, so why bother?"  But in the very next verse, he's saying, "It's good for man to labor with his hands and to eat the fruits of his labor."  Well, which is it?  Can it be both good and in vain?  And it's not like this contrast occurs only once.  It happens over and over again throughout the book.  Please understand, I am not saying that they is a contradiction or any type of error in the Scripture.  Any error is on my part, I assure you.

What I am saying is that sometimes Scripture can be confusing, and it's easy to become baffled by its meaning.  During these times, the best thing we can do is to compare Scripture with Scripture.  We know and understand that it is the perfect Word of God, so it cannot contradict itself.  So, when dealing with an unclear passage, it's best to compare it with a clear one.  In this case, my mind is drawn back to the book of Ruth, probably because that's where I've been meditating for the past few days.

Then said Boaz unto his servant that was set over the reapers, Whose damsel is this? And the servant that was set over the reapers answered and said, It is the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the country of Moab: And she said, I pray you, let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves: so she came, and hath continued even from the morning until now, that she tarried a little in the house. Then said Boaz unto Ruth, Hearest thou not, my daughter? Go not to glean in another field, neither go from hence, but abide here fast by my maidens: - Ruth 2:5-8

In this passage, Ruth is begging for permission to gather up the leftovers after the reapers had finished in Boaz's field.  Boaz answers her with a plea of his own, "Stay and work in my field."  He goes on to say that she will be protected and provided for and even orders his servants to leave some of  "the good stuff" behind for her to gather.  It's a beautiful picture of God's provision for us, but I want to focus on Boaz's plea, "Don't leave my field."

Our question with Ecclesiastes is whether it's good to labor or whether it's all in vain.  According to this passage in Ruth, it's good to labor.  Just as Boaz pleaded with Ruth, so is God pleading with us, "Stay and work in my field."  I don't think Solomon was saying that the work was in vain.  I believe it's more the motive behind the work.  For a man to work to build up a good life for himself, to have riches, to be successful--that is in vain.  This life is a vapor, and all that work will be for naught when the man passes away.  

To labor in God's field, on the other hand, is never in vain.  To work hard to win souls, to encourage the hopeless, to lift up the fallen--this is good, very good.  God has given each of us a task to do (actually, many tasks).  He has placed us in a field and opened up the opportunities for service.  He has provided "the good stuff" for us to glean, but it can only be found in His field.  When we leave His field and His service, we're destined for a life that is meaningless.  On the other hand, when we allow ourselves to be used of God and continue our labor in His field, we discover those "handfuls of purpose" like Ruth discovered.

There are so many blessings to be had in serving God, but it all boils down to our motive.  Are we trying to make a name for ourselves or to lift up the name of the Most High?  Are we striving to be successful or faithful?  In what field are you serving?