Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Psalm 119:62 With All Your Mind

At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws.

Psalm 119:62
I don't know about you, but at midnight I'm usually asleep, and likely dreaming.

I don't actually remember my dreams these days, certainly not as often as I did when I was younger.

In my dreams I tend to be in some specific, recognizable place from my memories. When I dream about work, I'm almost always in the University of Missouri warehouse, one of the workplaces where I've actually spent the least time. I don't dream much about being in school or college like I did when I was younger, but throughout those years, the "school" of my dreams was always the same building, and that not a school at all but a museum I used to visit when I was a little kid.

Most people have similar experiences. Many dreams contain bits and pieces of  memories and experiences that aren't that hard to identify, but are jumbled like a pile pieces from several different jigsaw puzzles. .

Scientific theories about why we dream run the gamut from an expression of suppressed Freudian urges to the brain's need to sort recent input and integrate it with stored memories.

The brain processes input all day long. Whether I'm analyzing complex data at work or thumbing through my Facebook feed, the brain is taking in a massive amount of data. God designed the human brain to retain an incredible amount of memories, but not an infinite amount. The brain chooses which memories to add to the "files" and which to jettison.

As I get older I more frequently notice that process taking place in real time. Something pops into my mind and I'll make the conscious decision, "I'll get back to that just as soon as I finish what I'm doing now." My brain, however, makes a seemingly independent decision to toss that thought aside. Try as I might, I can't retrieve that piece of data.

Most scientists who study the brain think our dreams are a by-product of the brain's attempts to sort through the input of the past few days and either integrate it with existing data or jettison it as superfluous. The brain does this while we sleep because that's when it gets a rest from the constant flow of input during waking hours.

The people, events, and places that repeatedly show up in your dreams, even decades later, are the ones your brain has tagged as most important. That may be because of repetition (you spent thousands of hours around that person) or because of a high emotional component to that memory (maybe I had a traumatic experience in that museum when I was little).

Sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of a truly disturbing dream. My heart is pounding as much as if I were actually experiencing whatever trauma was happening within the dream. Whenever that happens, I try to intentionally think about other things, more relaxing and pleasant things, hoping to avoid slipping back into that nightmare when I slip back into sleep.

The mechanism of the brain is essentially the same whether it's processing input from a conversation I had that day about the Missouri Tigers or from my time spent in meditating on the Word.

If you really want to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might and with all your mind (Luke 10:27), you can make use of the things we know about the brain to help make that happen.
  • Intentional and repetitive input sticks better than casual and passive input. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace (Romans 8:6). Your 5 or 10 minutes in the morning with your Daily Bread is a great idea, but it's going to have trouble competing for the brain's attention if you're spending several hours every day glued to Facebook or Netflix.

  • Taking intentional action on the Word you're reading and the subjects of your prayer will brain-tag those things as highly important. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2) Mind renewal happens when you devise and implement ways to test God's will. Try out the commandments. See if they really do work. Experiment to how to work out the ideas His Word is working in to your mind. Train you mind for action (I Peter 1:13).

  • Becoming emotionally invested in your Bible meditation and prayers will supercharge their ability to have a lasting impact on your mind. I've always loved Paul's description in II Corinthians 10:5 of meditation with moxie: We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. How can you do that? By putting your imagination to work. If you're reading about an event, imagine yourself in the story, right alongside Noah or Ezekiel or Jesus. If you're reading a section of teaching, imagine yourself living out that teaching in the most extreme situations possible. Or imagine the non-Christian people you know learning those lessons in their lives.

  • Periodically set aside time for more intensive meditation and prayer. Your brain is going to pay attention if you spend a day in fasting and meditation and prayer. Or if you stay up late, get up early, or "rise at midnight" to devote yourself to dedicated "data input." 
Training your mind to think God's thoughts as its default mode requires intentional habits. Only then will God really be enough.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Psalm 119:61 Freedom to Follow

Though the wicked bind me with ropes,
I will not forget your law.

Psalm 119:61
When Delilah set out to discover Samson's weakness, he told her a few fibs (Judges 16).
Samson answered her, “If anyone ties me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”

He said, “If anyone ties me securely with new ropes that have never been used, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”

He replied, “If you weave the seven braids of my head into the fabric on the loom and tighten it with the pin, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”
By the end of that chapter we discover what really bound Samson: his own pleasure-seeking habits.

What's binding you?

Are you too tied up in bad habits - or wicked habits - to set yourself free to follow God's law?

As a friend told me once, "I want to want to be faithful." That's not a typo. He wanted to want to be faithful.

What he really wanted was to continue doing whatever he pleased.

Are your finances so tied up by your drive to satisfy your cravings that you can't free yourself to live a life with God as your portion?

Are you so bound up in your quest to "discover yourself" that there's no energy left for discovering who God has been molding you to be?

Have you lashed yourself to the mast of your career, unable to spare time and attention for the tasks God has prepared specifically for you?

It's easy to think of the wicked that binds me as being those other people. But the wicked person who gets in my way the most ... is me.

The best way to get yourself unbound from the things you're tied to is to bind yourself to the Word.
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.

Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
This isn't necessarily a literal commandment, although it can be. My wife prints out scriptures and posts them in various places around the house where we'll be reminded of them daily. She's bound His Word on the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator door, and above the stove and sink in the kitchen.

Binding the Word around the house and around your life can help to achieve what the writer of Deuteronomy was really getting at - to bind the Word of God on your heart, on your life, so that it transforms you and frees you from those other things that threaten to tie you down.

With the Word wrapped around your daily life, God will be enough.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Psalm 119:60 Obedience is Enough

I will hasten and not delay
to obey your commands.

Psalm 119:60
In 1985, God made it clear to my wife and I that He was presenting us with the opportunity to be foster parents.

We had just recently learned that we were unlikely to have biological children of our own.

I had never been inclined toward adoption or foster parenting.

We were hesitant to become intricately involved in "the system", with all it's governmental regulations and oversight.

And yet we saw God's clear command in James 1:27.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
We had both been raised in churches where more emphasis was generally given to the latter part of that verse than the former, but nevertheless, the mandate to look after orphans and widows is clear.

And so we dove in. Through the decades that followed, we had reason to wonder on more than one occasion whether God intended to follow through on our obedience by giving us every blessing we desired.

We did our level best to follow the commandment-with-a-promise of Proverbs 22:6.
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
But sometimes that verse has seemed a mockery of what happens in the real world. Great patience is required to see that result come to full bloom, whether your children came to you biologically or otherwise.

God laid another great opportunity in our path several years later when it became clear the Mizzou Christian Campus House prison ministry needed our help, and then our leadership.

The opportunity was put in front of us in a manner that would have been difficult to ignore, and the command was clear in Matthew 25:36 & 40.
I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ . . . ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
And, as seems to be true of any great challenge to obedience, there have been times when we would have preferred to see a few more tangible results and blessings from obedience.

Most of the women we teach and counsel in prison leave and go on with their lives, and we never hear how they're doing. Those we do see again tend to be the ones who wind up back in prison, back in the chapel, sometimes repeatedly.

Of those we hear from or cross paths with on the outside - usually because they land in the same city as us - the vast majority of them, sadly, fail to continue in the same level of faithfulness they showed while in prison.

It can be hard to keep on obeying when the "return on our investment" appears to be so minuscule.

It can also be difficult to keep on going when the level of assistance we've received in the ministry has often been minimal or non-existent. We've come close to calling it quits a number of times - closer than most people know.

We pray, asking for help, asking to see the results, crying out for a little encouragement. The help comes, but not as much as we need. The results do appear, but it's hit and miss. The encouragement comes like like a trickle of water from a crack in the granite face of a cliff \.

But God is enough. Obedience is enough.

The Lord does not ask us to succeed in what we do for Him. He simply asks us to obey, to do, to go.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Snatching Division from the Jaws of Multiplication

Getting down to the root of the problem
The disciples were sure Jesus was about to declare Himself as the Messiah and deliver the nation of Israel from the combined oppression of Rome and the Sanhedrin. But as the moment of victory approached, Jesus allowed Himself - there's no other way to say it, but He allowed Himself to be arrested, tortured, and crucified, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

But then, on the morning of Jesus' third day in the grave, God snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Jesus came back to life and left the tomb empty. The woman who arrive first at the empty tomb were overjoyed, as were the other disciples who learned of this victory from them.

The Sanhedrin, learning what happened, paid off the guards to peddle fake news. The news of the disciples stealing the body of Jesus went viral throughout the Jewish diaspora. The Jewish leaders had turned the tables, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

"Or did they?" That's the question Trent Schake, the preacher at Blue Ridge Christian Church, asked at this point in his Easter sermon this morning. "Did the Jewish leaders really snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?"

No, of course not, was his answer.  He went on to describe the events fifty days later, at the feast of Pentecost. Thousands of Jews and proselyted were in Jerusalem that day to hear Peter's polyglot sermon.

Luke reports in Acts 2:41 that about 3,000 souls were baptized and added to the church on that day. Certainly a successful sermon, that one.

Trent then pointed out that by Acts chapter 6, Luke switched from talking about addition to counting the numbers by multiplication.
Acts 6:7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem
That doesn't look like snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, Trent said. No, they were snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, he crowed.

It was a good sermon.

However, being who I am, and considering how my mind works, my thoughts took a detour at that point of the sermon.

Yes, Christ's Church did indeed snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, in spite of the opposition of the powers that be. The added thousands on the first day. They multiplied their numbers within the coming weeks and months.

But quite soon thereafter, the church went from addition and multiplication and moved on to division.

By Acts 7 there was division in the ranks about equitable treatment of the needy, especially the widows. The apostles solved that problem by getting better organized.

By Acts 15 the growing division over whether to require adherence to Old Testament Law led to a conference where the leaders of the church made a ruling. It doesn't take a deep reading of the epistles to know the decision at that conference didn't settle that division once and for all.

In fact, many of the epistles were prompted by the apostles and prophets addressing an ever-increasing number of disputes and divisions.

Church history is interwoven with a continuum of division, with denominations branching out like a tangled grape vine.

In the church where I was raised, and in the Bible College I attended, a large percentage of the teaching seemed to be focused on describing and dismissing the various factions of the church's division.

I hear less of that from today's church.

And yet still there are many in the church, from the preachers and leaders to the common Facebook and Twitter-wielding members, who seem to think the church's mission is no longer addition or multiplication, but division.

In the twenty-first century we no longer rail as much against the splintered teachings of other denominations. Instead we sound off against people who disagree with our politics.

We don't seem to care much if a prominent Christian verified Tweeter expresses a doctrinal distinction, but watch the tweets fly if their political opinions seem to fall on the wrong side. Or even just on the not-enough-right said.

A majority of Christians seem to have their own version of political correctness, even if they deny any connection with such correctness. It's a political correctness tied to what they see as a theological correctness.

It really is nothing more than loving rightness more than loving righteousness. And snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

It's the non-believers who are hurt most by this. They see the church obsessed with their modern Inquisition, seeking out and discrediting people with the wrong political view. That constant noise tends to drown out any and all attempts at seeking and saving the lost.

What the church needs is to focus on Purposeful Correctness. We need to remember our purpose and stay on message. If our missional purpose is written on our hearts, we can get back to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Psalm 119:59 His Ways Are Enough

I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes.

Psalm 119:59
Does this describe you?

Or does one of the following sound more like you?

I was frustrated because my plans and actions landed me in a big mess, so I'm going to make a half-hearted attempt at a different approach to life.
I was accused of doing wrong and I chose denial, refusing to admit my guilt.
Someone pointed out the error of my ways, and I resented them for it.
I narrowly escaped disaster because of my own choices, and I refused to face my fears, pretending everything will be just fine.
Chasing my desires keeps coming back to bite me, so I gave up on controlling myself.
I know I need to make big changes in my life, and I keep wishing I had the passion and discipline to do what it would take.
I was punished for the things I've done wrong, so I went through the motions of acting sorry, begging for another chance.
I've embarrassed myself in front of others, so I put up a good front to convince them I'm different now.
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.

II Corinthians 7:10-11
It's your choice. Do you want to cling to your own way of doing things, when when they continually fall short?

Or are you ready to admit that God's ways are enough?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Psalm 119:58 Seeking His Face; Seeking His Grace

I have sought your face with all my heart;be gracious to me according to your promise.

Psalm 119:58
I've lived in Columbia, MO, for the past 39 years. I've worked in the healthcare field and for the University of Missouri, the two top employers in the city, which means I've interacted with a lot of people over the past four decades.

There's a high probability that any time I go to the mall or a store or a restaurant or any other place where people gather in Columbia, I'm going to see someone I know.

As I'm looking around, quite often I'll see faces that are familiar. I don't know their names, and I really don't know them personally, but I know I've seen them around town. It's that sense of "where do I I know them from" that nags at all of us sometimes.

Of course, I'll also see the faces of people I instantly know, but not the type I would just go up to and greet. These are the local celebrities: the TV reporters, the politicians, the movers and shakers. I'm not a part of their world, for the most part, so while their faces catch my eye, not too many of them will notice me.

But then there are the co-workers, friends, and neighbors, who I wave to or say 'hello' to, and they - hopefully - respond in kind.

But, of course, what I'm really looking for is the face of someone who is truly a good friend. Even better,a good friend I haven't seen in a long time.

Every year or two I see Mark Martin's face at Walmart or at a concert or festival downtown. When he sees me, he gets a wry, half grin on his face, his eyes reflecting the shared memory of our rambunctious youth. We talk for a couple of minutes, catching up on the latest major changes in our lives. In the past couple of years we've asked each other about the possibility of retirement. It's a question that will never stop seeming strange when talking to someone who was part of my group of closest friends when we were in our teens.

I used to run into Alex Miller in Walmart about once a year. He had been my oldest brother's best friend back in high school, and then he had been a good friend of mine for a few years when we were both going to church at the Mizzou Christian Campus House. His face would always break into a grin when he would see me, as I'm sure mine did in return. We enjoyed a shared curiosity and idealism about many things during those years before our paths separated.

I also occasionally see the face of people I recognize from a decade and a half of Monday nights in the chapel at the women's prison. When I see these familiar faces, I wait before greeting them, especially if they're with someone else -  or, as has happened frequently, if they're working at a fast food place or restaurant where I'm eating. I don't want to embarrass them if their companions or their co-workers aren't aware of their past.

Usually, though, they'll initiate the conversation. Sometimes their face is familiar but I'm not sure where I know them from, so I'll just say, "Vandalia?", which is specific without revealing too much.

The faces of these women are almost always beaming with joy at seeing me again. Sometimes that joy is instantly mixed with a bit of guilty apology. They know they're not living up to everything I taught them and encouraged them to be. But after a few questions and answers, I'm almost always able to offer them a bit of encouragement and perhaps a bit of advice, if they ask.

But generally, what their eyes crave most, is grace. Because that's what they need the most.

All of us, when we seek the face of God, especially if it's been a while since we last looked for Him, desire grace above everything else.

I know, Lord, that I've fallen short. I don't turn to you as often as I should.  But what I need is to know that your promise is still good, that grace is still on the table.

Any thing else, any other blessings, would be fantastic. But your grace is enough.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Psalm 119:57 You Are My Portion

You are my portion, Lord; I have promised to obey your words.

Psalm 119:57
Our son, Cody, enjoyed the advantages of life as an only child throughout most of his childhood.

When we would visit his cousins in Kansas, the difference in their lives compared to his was a huge culture shock for him. His Uncle Chuck and Aunt Nancy had 14 children.

He noticed the difference in an elemental way at mealtime. Aunt Nancy would portion out the available food among the children, Cody bringing the number to 15. Those portions were significantly smaller than what Cody was used to.

When he asked me about it later, I explained that everyone got what they needed. He might be used to getting more, but the portion he got was the same as all his happy, healthy, rambunctious cousins.

It seems to be a part of human nature to always want more. In the 21st century we see that played out in the consumer culture. It isn't enough to have a phone that provides the basic things we need. There's always a newer model with options and features we didn't even know we wanted, but now we just have to have them.

We carry that desire for more over to our relationship with God, forgetting that He has promised to give us everything we need.
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

II Peter 1:3-4
God Himself is enough. The closer I get to Him and the more I allow His divine nature to permeate my character, the greater my portion of Him.

The goal of Bible meditation should always be to know the heart of God. As both Peter and David agree, knowing and obeying His Word - and His heart - is the key to enjoying God as my portion.