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For years I drove by the fast food restaurant on a busy corner in town. As time passed, a fresh coat of paint or a new sign would change its look, but inside you could tell it was the same old building. One day I noticed the words “Closed for Remodeling” on the lighted sign in front of the building. I chuckled as I wondered how they could possibly succeed in giving this old place a new look.

It shocked me the next day when I drove by and saw that the entire building was gone. Only the familiar “Closed for Remodeling” notice remained out front. It was readily apparent they were not interested in papering over the old condition of the building, but wanted to make a fresh start. In the weeks that followed, many that passed by that busy intersection took note of the emerging new restaurant.

It’s a good example of what can happen in our Christian life. Sometimes it seems easier to paint over lingering sin than to admit our struggles. We want others to see our fresh coat of Christian paint, but inside we still wrestle with the flesh of our old way of life. But as we grapple with these remnants of our former life, we should think of it “as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want (1 Peter 4:1-2 MSG).”

Pursuing what God wants means we have to tear down the walls that formed our old, worldly life. It’s a painful process that requires us to remove self-centered pieces that are more concerned about ourselves than following Jesus. Some of these bricks are so securely cemented into our old life that it takes a chisel to break them free. It’s part of the painful process of putting off “your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds (Ephesians 4:22 NIV).”

As we make a new life with Jesus, we replace the bricks of selfish desire with bricks focused on serving him. We build a new life in Christ that others take note of on the busy intersections of life. We become part of something bigger than ourselves: “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5 NIV).” You become part of God’s kingdom which will stand forever. “For in Scripture it says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame (1 Peter 2:6 NIV).’”

#ThrowbackThursday – This post originally published Sept. 3, 2010.

England 2012 Cross Web

I have often found it a challenge to put into practice 1 Thessalonians 5:16: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (NIV).” As much as I want to, I just can’t seem to maintain a constant state of rejoicing and prayer. I began to wonder if it was even possible until last week when I ran into Sandy, a woman I have know for years.

Sandy is a giving person who has served on a village council for more than 10 years. When she first joined the council, their small village was depressed and not very prosperous. One person described it as being stuck in the 1950s, but she persevered with a grateful heart. Over the years she worked to implement one positive change after another. A mural here, an improvement to a park there, a repaved street here and there. Before long a positive momentum emerged as people saw the town change for the better.

I remarked to Sandy about all the good things happening in her village. “We are so blessed,” she exclaimed to me. Then she listed all the good things going on just this year. “I don’t have all the answers, but I keep praying for our town, our businesses and our people.” I smiled as I realized she is an example of 1 Thessalonians 5:16. In essence she bathed everything in prayer, rejoiced always and was thankful for everything.

Then she told me what really mattered to her. “Oh but what we really need is Jesus,” she said to me with a smile. “Now you know my real passion.” She had shown me that I had 1 Thessalonians 5:16 backwards. Her optimism wasn’t just out of her efforts to have a positive attitude about everything, it was a joy born out of her love for Jesus and her deep desire for others to have that same joy.

For too long I focused on the first part of the verse, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances,” as this challenge to be joyful about everything; to lift up everything to God in prayer. I was treating it almost as a chore, keeping track of how many times I failed to pray or be thankful about something. What Sandy taught me is that the second part of this verse is really the answer: “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

It is God’s will that in Jesus Christ we can rejoice always in continual prayer. Through Jesus we can find the ability and the will to gives thanks in all things. We can see God at work in all things. When our optimism is born of the Spirit of God through our faith in Jesus Christ, we are aligned with God’s plan and his will. It is having a passion to serve Christ Jesus, to bring Jesus to others, that makes us want to constantly rejoice, to constantly pray, to continually thank God.

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. – Colossians 4:2 (NIV)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. – Philippians 4:6 (NIV)

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people – Ephesians 6:18 (NIV)

#ThrowbackThursday — This post originally published May 14, 2010.

There was Simon at Lake Gennesaret, wrapping up another night of fishing like he had done so many times before with his partners. All night long they plunged their nets into the lake and each time they came back out empty. They repeated the same process over and over and each time they came up with empty nets. They had nothing to show for their work when they returned to shore.

By the time Jesus comes on the scene (Luke 5:1-11) Simon is with the other fisherman cleaning their nets after an exhausting night of work. That’s when Jesus steps into Simon’s boat and his life. He asks him to push-off from shore so he can address the crowd. There in Simon’s boat, in his life, something happens. Jesus shows him and his partners James and John how to trade their empty nets and emptiness for a life full of meaning.

They are astonished at what they see. “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will catch men,” Jesus tells them ( NKJV). With that, they ditch their boats on shore and follow Jesus. They leave behind their life work, the family business, to start a new career showing others how to trade their emptiness with fullness in Christ.

What about you? Do you find yourself on an all too familiar lake fishing for something big in your life but only finding emptiness day after day? There at the end of your day, exhausted and with nothing to show for your work, Jesus steps into your life and asks you to ride with him for a moment. Do you grudgingly agree like you do each Sunday when you agree to go to church?

Yet there he is in your boat, right in the middle of your life. He’s teaching to the crowds but it seems he’s speaking directly to you. In the same places you’ve fished all your life for meaning, he has you cast your nets. Knowing the routine, you protest but give in. But this time they come up with the fullness of Christ. He shows you how much fuller your life will be following him. When you see a direct comparison of a full life with Jesus compared to the emptiness of your old ways, why wouldn’t you drop everything and follow him?

“Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” (John 4:14 NKJV)

#ThrowbackThursday — This post originally published April 16, 2010

The author of life created us with a purpose. He gives us the words in the Bible to define our life. Yet too often we choose the sinful words from this world to describe our existence. We build our life story around temporal things that lack meaning and purpose, settling for a life that’s disoriented and distant from Christ.

Galatians 5:16-26 reminds us that there are two sets of words to live by – those that describe the sinful nature and those of the Spirit. Verse 17 tells us “the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other so that “you do not do what you want to do.”(NIV) It’s a daily struggle to choose the right words to build a life story around Christ.

The Message translation of the Bible gives us a striking list of words that describes the sinful nature in verses 19-21: “repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” You don’t have to look far to see these words in the world today and the kind of story they tell about a life caught up in the sinful nature.

If we live by the Spirit our lives will tell a different story, a story that reads as it was originally written before it was edited and revised according to the sinful nature. Verses 22-23 tell us the “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” It’s interesting that verse 23 ends with “Against such things there is no law.” Laws abound around trying to control the sinful nature.

The story of a life lived with the Spirit will bear fruit that communicates Christ clearly to others. In the struggle to write our life story each day according to God’s design, let us carefully choose our words. Paul advises us in Gal. 5:24, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.”

Throwback Thursday – Originally published March 26, 2010

When Christ pries open the bulging suitcase of our life, the contents spill out before us. There, spread out for everyone to see is all the junk we have carried for years. Just as when a bag bursts open in an airport, our first reaction is to stuff everything back in before anyone notices the personal items in our life. The last thing we want to do is to stop and take time to examine our dirty laundry.

But an emptied life is a chance to see how you can repack for a journey with Christ. It’s a new mindset that is different from the world you once knew, a mindset that requires you to only focus on what you need for your destination. Romans 12:2 reminds us: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will know what God wants you to do, and you will know how good and pleasing and perfect his will really is (NLT).”

Our life is designed to only need a small carry-on bag filled with God’s goodness. The challenge is to not put everything back in again so that Christ gets misplaced in your overloaded life. Paul writes in 2 Peter 2:20, “If they have escaped the corruptions of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.”

A commitment to Christ means sorting through your life and dealing with the contents one by one. It means reading the Bible and praying and meeting with other Christians to help you sort out the things that do not belong in your life. When you pack for a journey with Christ, you will be amazed at how everything fits in your life. Christ said in Matt. 11:30 “For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light.”

The news was not surprising, yet it was still hard to hear. Hospice was being brought in because it looked like the end was near for my wife’s stepmom. In the last few months she had told me not to visit because she was not feeling well. I suspected her cancer was getting worse and she did not want me to see her.

As I thought about the inevitable, I reflected on how this feisty woman in her 80s had been such a blessing to me. She could be offensive at times, full of insults, swear words and anger toward people, particularly religious people. Yet she taught me so much about God’s love; taught me that God’s love and grace is even for the so-called unlovable.

Because of her temperament, my wife’s stepmom did not have a good relationship with the family. Over the years, her sharp tongue didn’t help bridge that gap. As it turned out, by God’s design, my wife and I were the only ones with her when her husband died six years ago. Afterwards I felt compelled to visit her at her home more than just around holidays. She lived a few hours away so I would visit her maybe 6-8 times a year. Usually when I was in town on business.

Eventually her health declined to the point where she had to move to an assisted living facility. With each visit I saw my heart transformed from being a bit scared of her to a genuine love for her. When I first started to visit her, I thought maybe I could change her to becoming a follower of Christ. Instead I was the one changed by her.

During each visit she would share stories about her life over the last 80 some years. As her tough exterior veneer began to peel back, I learned about the pain and abuse she had suffered at the hands of others. I began to understand why she was so bitter and angry, I started to empathize with her. I learned that God knows people from the inside out. He sees through our exterior veneer and knows our true self and our pain. He wants to heal us if we’re willing to let him. God is the one who equips us to offer his love and grace to people who desperately need it.

I’d like to say she eventually came to Christ, but I do not know for sure. She never expressed it to me, that is between her and God. Occasionally we would talk about God and religion, but she never showed an interest in going deeper. But at the end of each visit I would give her a hug and tell her, “love you.” It was sincere and from the heart. Ultimately I felt she was the one teaching me about God’s love, teaching me how to love the so-called unloveable. Showing me that he is the one that gives us the strength to do what we often see as impossible. Demonstrating that sometimes all an unsaved person needs is to feel God’s embrace and the words, “love you.”

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8

There was seemingly no end in sight as the trials continued to pummel us. I lost count of the times that I cried out to God to spare us; to rescue us and others experiencing the excruciating emotional pain each week. But it just continued, the trials were relentless with seemingly no end in sight. Yet there were times when the eye of the hurricane would pass; times when God would remind me of his grace and his love. There were frequent times when dear friends would lift us up in prayer and the peace of God would suddenly be evident In the storm.

There is no doubt the suffering of the last few years has changed me. I cannot go back to the person I was before the storm blew through my life. Certain passages in scripture now resonate with me like they never did before my trials. When Paul writes about the thorn in his side in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, I can feel the piercing of the thorn and the torment that shook his confidence. I understand more fully Paul pleading for God to remove it. And I understand better that the Lord’s grace is sufficient, that God is made perfect when we are weak.

I have found that when I come to the end of myself and my arrogance, God can begin a new work in me for his kingdom. I am better able to rely on God for my strength to see me through the trials in life. Where once I did not understand James 1:2-4, I now know that the trials I face help me to persevere in my faith. The more I draw closer to Christ Jesus, the more I mature in my faith.

I feel I am only beginning to understand perseverance and how it is shaping me in my faith In Jesus. I am only beginning to appreciate how Christ can meet all my needs. Perhaps I am getting closer to the point where I can thank God for blessing me with trials.

There are people in my life that I have know for years, but who are no closer to experiencing redemption through Christ. Month after month I pour myself into their lives, but I feel as if I am trying to create a lake by pouring one bucket of water each day onto a vast desert. It’s discouraging to watch the dry sand quickly soak up the water as if it was never there.

Then I read Isaiah 43:18-19: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” This verse is a good reminder that even if I do not “perceive it,” God is still at work “doing a new thing” in the lives of these people. The process of a heart change has begun, even if I do not notice.

On the surface, each bucket of living water I pour out quickly disappears into the dry sand, but below the dry surface the moisture continues to collect, creating the beginnings of a stream of life-giving water. While it seems my efforts to build Christ into the lives of these people is futile, the love of Christ is at work healing past hurts even if I cannot see it. My faith in God tells me he is making a new way, a stream of living water in a dry and parched land.

We sat together talking about faith in Christ and spiritual matters. As the hours passed I forgot where we were sitting and became absorbed in our discussion about what it means to be a committed Christian. But soon reality set in as a guard announced the end of visiting hours. We hugged and he returned to his prison cell and a guard escorted me to the visitor entrance.

As I walked through the metal detector and then watched the guard wand me, I thought about how as believers in Jesus Christ we are one in the Spirit. Even though my friend was paying the consequences for his poor choices, I was was no better than him. As Paul reminds us in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

That is the beauty of the Kingdom of God. Despite our differences; despite our history; despite all our failings, we are one in the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-5). Galatians 3:26 tells us, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

As I drove away from the prison, I looked at the towering fence and razor wire that separated us. It was a blessing to be able to visit my friend. It encouraged me greatly to see how God was working in his life through other believers in prison and the prison ministry in the area. I left with greater empathy for his struggles and an understanding of how to better pray for him — a better understanding of what it means to be one in Christ.

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. — Hebrews 13:3

How often do we go through life and wonder why certain things happen to us; life-changing events that can be very emotional and gut-wrenching. In the midst of these traumatic events. we can’t always see how they can shape our character and strengthen our faith. Jeremiah 18 gives us a vivid picture of how God works in our life to mold us into someone with Godly character.

In verse four, Jeremiah notes, “But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him (NIV).” God uses this image to show Jeremiah how he is working to remove the blemishes from Israel to shape them into a vessel for his purposes. God shows Jeremiah how he will continue to apply pressure on Israel to stop them from continuing as a marred pot that refuses to follow His ways.

In our own life we can act like Israel, pushing back on the pressure God applies as he works to mold us. We try to form our own life in our own way, preferring to remain a marred pot or even a lump of unusable clay. As we struggle it may seem like God has abandoned us, but all the time God’s loving hands are wrapped around us, gently applying pressure to shape us in his image so we can become a vessel for His kingdom.

In Jeremiah 18:6, God said to Jeremiah, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand.” It is a good reminder that God touches our life with his love and grace. Even though the pressure may seem like too much to bear, God’s hand is always upon us.

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