Thursday, July 31, 2014

From College-Bound to "I GO Bound"

From my article in the August issue of Christian Standard magazine:
Then he went on a CCH trip to Mexico.
That week Sellers helped mix cement, paint walls, and seal a roof. He carried bricks and worked until he could barely walk. He slept on a concrete floor. “But at the end of each day, I knew every ounce of energy I expended was for the Lord. I had never had that feeling before, and I thought, What would it be like to have a job like this? To go to bed each day knowing that the energy I’ve expended was directly related to spreading the gospel? I want a job like that!”

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Meditation Metaphor: Walking through the Word

The other day I climbed into my car and headed out on an errand.  As I drove through the streets of our neighborhood I passed my wife.  She was taking a walk with the two-year-old son of our friends and neighbors.

I slowed down and said hello to Johnathan, who was amazed to see me driving past while he and Nana were on a walk.

I drove on out of the neighborhood, leaving them to enjoy their walk.  And they do enjoy their walks.

Karen, my wife, writes about her walks with Johnathan frequently on her blog, Titus2Tea. The two of them have great adventures.

"Wook!" Johnathan shouted in the middle of our walk around the block, "Oh, otay! Wain!"

"It's not raining. That's the flower petals blowing from the tree," I laughed.

His pudgy toddler hands raised toward the sky as he blinked in wonderment at the hundreds of tiny white petals raining down and the thousands more piled at his feet.

"There shall be showers of blessings," I sang to him. "Showers of blessings we need. Mercy drops 'round us are falling! But for the showers we plead."

Johnathan began to laugh at this event too marvelous for words as we twirled and danced in the shower of soft petals. He was delighted at the prospect of rain showers and mud puddles on our walk. He was prepared, dressed in rain boots and a jacket. But, this miracle of flowers in what looked like rain was too marvelous for words.
She writes about another day when Johnathan first discovered that the "sky music" he has enjoyed all his young life is actually coming from the birds. He reacts with pure joy at this miracle of God's creation.

I seldom experience such adventures on the streets of our neighborhood.  My knee doesn't take kindly to extended walking on uneven paths anymore. Usually when I travel down those same streets I'm behind the wheel of a car. I'm paying more attention to the road ahead than to flower petals and singing birds.

Direct me in the path of your commands,

    for there I find delight.

        (Psalm 119:35)
For many people, their only experience of God's Word is when they take time to read a brief snippet in a book of meditations, or when the preacher reads a few verses before going on to preach about topics that may or may not be all that relative to those scriptures.

That is not meditation, and it gains them about as much insight into the heart of God as my quick trip down the street teaches me about what God is doing in the neighborhood.

True meditation requires taking a long and leisurely walk through the pathways of God's Word.

Sometimes you find yourself taking a side road you hadn't anticipated. When you encounter an unexpected glimpse of God at work, you can take time to stop and marvel.

Heave you ever been so taken with something you've learned about God's heart while reading the Bible that you begin to laugh and dance? I once gave Him a standing ovation after reading what His psalms.

That sort of experience only comes when you slow down and spend time wandering through lines and columns of His words.
May my lips overflow with praise,

    for you teach me your decrees.

May my tongue sing of your word,

    for all your commands are righteous.

        (Psalm 119:171-172)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Meditation Metaphor: Sunshine & Superman

Sunshine is sweet; it is good to see the light of day.  (Ecclesiastes 11:7)

When the weather is good I eat my lunch out on the deck at my office building. After a morning spent in a windowless office, staring at a computer screen, the feel of the sun's rays on my skin is fantastic.

Before I even begin eating my lunch I sit and spread my arms out and soak up the sunshine.

Sometimes I imagine myself as Superman, floating in space, absorbing the energy of the yellow sin.  According to the comic-book legend, his powers come from Earth's yellow sun.

As I absorb the sun's warmth, I picture myself becoming more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound.

Yes, I grew up on comic books and still have super hero thoughts flash like a speeding bullet through my mind occasionally.

It's truly wonderful, though, that for something you can't actually grab and hold in your hand, the effect of sunshine can be felt in an instant.

Equally so, the effect of a gloomy and sunless day can have a quick effect on a person's mood. Seasonal disaffective syndrome (SAD) is a medically proven physiological and psychological problem resulting in part from too little sunlight.

Exposure to the sun causes specific reactions in the human body. It encourages the production of beneficial vitamin D.  It also causes increased production and color-changes in melanin, resulting in sunburn or suntan.

Over-exposure to the sun's rays can lead to skin cancer, can accelerate aging and wrinkling of the skin, and can impair the immune system.

I really dislike using sunscreen. Some people like the smell of it, but me?  Not so much.  I know, though, that by using sunscreen the negative effects of sunlight can be prevented or slowed down. They contain chemicals and particles that absorb or scatter ultraviolet light. This allows the body to receive the benefits of sunshine while reducing the risk of harmful over-exposure.

And so I use sunscreen if I'm going to be out in the sun for a long time. Because, unlike Superman, my body isn't suited to handle that much of the direct power of the sun.
He is like the light of morning at sunrise
on a cloudless morning,
like the brightness after rain
that brings grass from the earth.’
  (II Samuel 23:3)
Meditating on the Word is much like soaking up the sun's rays.

Like the sun, the Word gives me power - to overcome sin and live a godly life (Psalm 119:11).

The scriptures light my way and help me find my way through life (Psalm 119:105)

Just as sun-enriched vitamin D gives makes me healthier and strengthens my immune system, meditating on the Bible nurtures both my spiritual and physical health (Proverbs 4:20-22) and protects me from Satan's attacks (I John 2:14)

And, like soaking up the sun, soaking up the Word just plain makes me happy (Psalm 119:16,24, 143).

Reading the Bible also provides a similar protection as sunscreen. Very few people in history have spoken directly to God, and they were not allowed to see His face.

  Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”  
  And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.  But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”  
  Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

(Exodus 33:18-23)
Even after being protected from the full force of God's glory, Moses' face was radiant when he came down from the mountain. (Exodus 34:29-20) I've often wondered if he had a sun burn from the experience.

God hasn't asked us to shield ourselves behind a cleft in a rock. Instead, He has put us at a safe distance by revealing Himself to us second-hand, through the writings of the prophets and apostles.

Have you ever wished God had been more clear in the Bible?  Perhaps He could have given us an indexed encyclopedia instead of a book full of history and poetry.

The next time you wish for a clearer picture of God's heart, be thankful for the sunscreen of the Bible. He's given us more than enough to provide the benefits we need, without over-exposing us.

Meditating on His Word may not give us the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but...

You, Lord, keep my lamp burning;

my God turns my darkness into light.

With your help I can advance against a troop;

with my God I can scale a wall.

(Psalm 18:28-29)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Meditation Metaphor: Three Hots & a Cot

Janie confessed one day that until the first time she went to prison, she had never in her young life been sure she would get to eat three meals in any one day and have a bed to sleep on at night.  To  her, three hots and a cot is a luxury.

In prison she has found her niche.  She's learned the institutional rules - both the official rules and the unwritten ones - and she knows how to get through her days without too many problems. She even has a circle of friends to make her life a little brighter.

Whenever she finishes a prison sentence and is released back out onto the streets, her outlook turns dismal.  She has difficulty seeing beyond the needs of the moment on her best days, and being out in the world only worsens her reasoning capabilities. The streets don't operate according to rigidly defined rules, leaving her with too many options requiring choices.

Before long, she makes one too many bad decisions and crosses the wrong lines, landing herself back inside the only place she feels comfortable.

Some might attribute the stark contrast to increased stress or the availability of drugs or alcohol. Those certainly play a factor.

But I'm pretty sure the key difference is the three hots and a cot.

The human body is designed to function best when fed regularly.  It requires daily recharging during a regular and comfortable sleep cycle.

When the body is deprived of regular nutrition and sleep, the mind also suffers. The results are never good.

The same dynamic holds true for our spiritual well-being.

Without regularly slowing down and spending time feeding on God's Word, my mind and soul suffers. For awhile I can rely on the reserve of Bible knowledge I've picked up over the years. At least once a week I go to church and the preacher gives me a spiritual meal that don't require any effort on my part.

It doesn't take long, though, for the spiritual hunger to drag me into looking for love and joy and peace in the wrong places. Breaking the downward spiral of bad decisions is hard.

Until something happens to knock me down to a place of desperation and I remember to look to God for nourishment. He's always there, a feast set before me on His table, holding a chair out for me.

I'll never understand why I keep snacking on the spiritual junk food of fast times and pop culture when there's a banquet table waiting for me.
You prepare a table before me
  in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
  my cup overflows.
    (Psalm 23:5)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Meditation Metaphor: Swimming Lessons

I'm not a swimmer.

I never learned how to swim as a child.  I remember taking a single swimming lesson at the local pool.  When the teacher had us put our faces down into the water and count to 5, and then to 10, and so on, I panicked.

As a child with chronic breathing problems, the idea of not being able to inhale whenever I wanted to was frightening.  I was scared my body would gasp for breath without me being able to control it, because that was a daily occurrence in my life when my face wasn't immersed in water.

I was so unnerved by the thought that I panicked and threw a major fit.  For some reason, my parents let me drop out of the swimming class and never made me try it again.

My son, though, did take swimming lessons, and we did make him stick with it after the initial panic passed.

Once he learned the basics of swimming, he took to the pool like a fish.

He had asthma problems as a kid he said the humidity of the indoor pool somehow made him feel better.  I found that odd, since my own breathing problems (not asthma) make me feel like I'm suffocating if I'm in an enclosed pool for very long.

As a result, I have tended to stay away from pools and the water, while my son, Cody, loves swimming.

He took swimming lessons for several years and became increasingly good at it.  He seemed more relaxed and in his element in the water than out of it.

He loved it so much and became so good at it that he became a lifeguard when he was 15, which was his entry point into an enduring attraction to jobs - both paid and volunteer - as a firefighter, emergency first responder, security guard, and the like.  On more than one occasion his experience as a lifeguard has come in handy when responding to rescue situations at lakes and rivers.

For many people, getting used to spending time in the Word are is as difficult as spending time in the water has been for me. They're put off or even panicked by their first experiences.
  • The somewhat archaic language of even the newer translations can be intimidating to some
  • For some people who don't read much at all beyond a headline of an article or blog, reading the scriptures just seems like too much effort
  •  Others dive into the Word, only to be put off by what they see as all the do's and don't's of the Bible.  As one person told me, "every things I read just gives me more reasons why God should be mad at me."
  • Many people are like I was with my early swimming lessons.  They have a negative experience with reading the Bible and never want to go back and try it again.  And no one forces them to try again.  The entire programming of many churches actually encourages members to rely on the preacher and other leaders to do the reading, digesting and distributing of scriptural truth.  

What people fail to realize in what they're missing by giving scripture meditation another try.

You don't have to become a theologian. You don't have to understand even most of what you're reading. Just as with learning to swim, there are ways to ease yourself into it.

  • Step into the wading pool and simply read the scriptures in manageable sections.
  • Read  to get a feeling for the heart of God.  What does He like?  What does He not like?
  • Choose carefully which sections of the Bible to begin when you're just learning to read it.  The Psalms and the Gospels are the best places to begin.  Proverbs can also be a good book for early readers.  Stay away from most of the Old Testament at first.
  • Find a fellow Christian whose heart you trust.  Ask them questions when you get bogged down or begin to panic about something you're reading.
  • Make a habit of your reading.  Schedule it.  Gradually increase the duration and frequency of the time you spend in scriptures. The more time you spend in the Word, the easier it will become.  Like learning to swim, you become acclimated your surroundings and learn to become more comfortable in deeper waters.

The more you meditate on the Word, the deeper you go, the deeper your relationship with the Lord will go. Your heart will begin to align with His heart.  You'll soon discover you love jumping into the Word with Him.

For in him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

Stick with it long enough and you'll not only become comfortable in the Word, you'll also discover yourself able to be a guide to others, using your knowledge and experience in the scriptures to lead others into a deeper relationship with Him.

Those Christians who have been your teachers and mentors and question-answer-ers began where you began, stepping their toes carefully into the Word. Now they're lifeguards and first responders for others who are just learning to experience God.

Keep going deeper and you'll find yourself becoming just like them.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Faith on the 4th

If Christians have faith in the God who laughs at the rulers of nations and their schemes, why do they let themselves get emotionally worked up and paranoid about who is in power and the things they're doing?
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:12)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Meditation Metaphor: Living Water

There are many different kinds of people at the gym.

Some are totally ripped, their muscles bulging and their shirts straining as they pump iron. Others, like me, have better muscle tone than we would have if we didn't work out, but we'll never have muscles like that.  And then there's the folks who have little discernible muscle tone, who break into a sweat lifting 5 pound weights.

There are some who climb onto the treadmill and spend over an hour walking, jogging and running.  I consider it a good day when I can last 30 minutes, just walking.

One thing we all have in common, though. When we take breaks, we grab the water bottle or head to the drinking fountain.

Most people who are at all active, whether they do strenuous work or work-outs, discover the importance of hydration. Without it, you won't last long.

The more you work your body, the more you use up the fluids and electrolytes in your system.

What your body needs most is water.  But if you're working exceptionally hard for a very long period of time, sports drinks can be a good idea.  Sports drinks mix water with salt and sugars, which not only speed the body's absorption of fluids but also replenish the electrolytes lost during exercise.

Taking in too much water, though, can result in over-hydration, which can also be bad, because you are, in effect, diluting the amount of salt and other electrolytes in your system.

I've discovered it's best if I drink fluids steadily throughout the day, rather than waiting until I'm actually working hard. Like a camel, I'm able to maintain a steady pace for a longer time.

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
Psalm 42:1-2
I've discovered that I also need a steady infusion of living water in order to make it through an active life of walking by faith. Waiting to get into the Word only when I'm at church, or only when trials come and I suddenly am in need of spiritual refreshment, just doesn't work well.

Just as there are different types of people at the gym, there are many different kinds of Christians at church. Some are quite strong spiritually, actively doing the work God has set for them to do.  Others are comfortable in their usual seats on Sunday morning and occasionally step out in faith, although they wish they knew how to be a little more steady in their faith and in their fruit-bearing. Still others go through the motions of being "churched" and eventually find it easier to join the "unchurched".

People who practice good habits of regular meditation on the Word find their spiritual hydration level stays steady.  They're not only equipped to deal with any situation they encounter, they are filled with energy and eagerness to see what God has in store for them next.

They also learn the value of supplementing the living water with salt:  being salt.  It's important to get out and interact with people and "be the salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of the world" (Matthew 5:13, The Message) . That experience helps them to understand and process what they read in the scriptures more thoroughly and effectively, because they're actively involved in doing the work for which God is is preparing them, bearing fruit.
Blessed is the one
  who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
  or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
  and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
  which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
  whatever they do prospers.

     Psalm 1:1-3
Drink often and drink deep.