A Year of Restoration

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As 2018 ended and 2019 began, the word restoration kept springing to mind. To restore something whether it be a relationship, physical health, or house, simply means to bring an item back to its original state. Restoration is my word for the year as I seek to rebuild my relationship with God and my life.

Restoration in the Bible, like our word in English, can mean many things, such as the restoration brought about by prophecy, healing, the restoration of the Temple, and the restoration of the merciful/righteous. My focus on restoration will be the aspect of returning to God after a period of sin and trials.

2019 will mark twenty years since I first accepted Christ, and it has been a wild ride. I have faced many trials over the course of these years, which have often led to me questioning God’s plan, my decision making, leaving church, going back to church, and so on and so forth. I truly admire those who have spent their lives serving God without reservation or hesitation. I would like to get to that point and stay there.

This year I am working on restoring my relationship with God, while continuing to grow as an individual. There are numerous verses, Old and New Testament, concerning coming back to God after sin and trials. I would like to share a few of them.

“And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.” -1 Peter 5:10 (NIV).

“And when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I’ve commanded you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where He scattered you.” -Deuteronomy 30:2-3 (NIV).

“Restore us, God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” -Psalm 80, verses 3, 7, and 10 (NIV).

As we go forward into this year, let us be mindful of God’s grace. No matter what we’ve gone through, even if the situation pushed us away from God, we can always come back to Him. God bless.

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In the Father’s Arms

What a terrible week!

The Friday after Thanksgiving (11/23), my grandmother passed away after a long illness. We as a family celebrated her life the following Tuesday. My grandmother was a kind, loving, and generous soul whom I will miss dearly. My grandmother’s funeral also marked the first time my wife and family have seen each other since our divorce announcement. Everybody was civil and welcoming  toward each other as we shared in our common grief.

I was informed on Friday that my divorce is final. I’m divorced. I have an ex-wife. I never thought I would utter those phrases. It all sounds so strange to say and hear. Eighteen years of marriage was dissolved sixty-two days after the paperwork was filed. A judge’s signature and a court stamp was all it took. It’s officially over. The time has come to begin the rebuilding process.

I went to church on Sunday and the pastor preached the first in a series on dreams. I  listened intently to the words as they ministered to my spirit. I don’t know where all of this fits into a plan, but it has to be leading to something. Of all things, God used a guinea pig to illustrate His point.

After church, I came home to clean out the cage of  my guinea pig, Bugsy. If you ever had a guinea pig or other rodent for a pet, you know they can sometimes be anxious and jittery animals. As I took Bugsy out of his cage and was transferring him to a box while I cleaned, he came to rest in the bend of my elbow. I stroked the top of Bugsy’s head and told him, “It’s okay, Bugsy, you’re in Daddy’s arms.” Just a simple phrase to comfort a nervous animal brought me a spiritual revelation.

All of us who have a relationship with God are in our Father’s arms. God is holding us tight and comforting us through the trials we face. I don’t understand the reason for some of the trials I’ve faced these last three years, but I know I am not alone. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:39, there’s nothing that can separate us from God’s love- not death, not divorce, not sickness, not job loss, nothing. As I go forward with my life and this unexpected journey, I will take comfort in the arms of my Heavenly Father and traveling companion.

 

Jesus Crosses Social Barriers

“Now he had to go through Samaria,” John 4:4 (NIV).

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Have you ever tried to avoid driving on a certain stretch of road or try to bypass traffic in a particular city? What if going through said stretch of road or city was the shortest, most direct route to your destination? Would you still avoid it? Is there some long-standing bias or bad memory associated with the road or city?

During biblical times, the average person walked everywhere or they may have rode a donkey, camel, or perhaps a horse. When there are great distances involved, especially while traveling on foot, you would want to walk the shortest route possible. In one instance, Jesus took the shortest route and crossed a major social barrier.

Jesus and his disciples were traveling from Judea to Galilee and went through Samaria, which was the shortest route. “Now he had to go through Samaria,” seems like a pretty innocuous statement for a 21st Century reader, but in Jesus’ time, Samaria was controversial among the Jews of Israel. In fact, many Jews tried to go places by avoiding Samaria all together.

The controversy dates back to the Old Testament. Samaria was the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel, while Jerusalem remained the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judea.  The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC and deported many of the Jews. The Assyrians brought in Gentiles (non-Jews) to settle the land. These Gentiles intermarried with the remaining Jews, which created a “mixed race,” which the Jews of Judea did not recognize the Samaritan as “authentic Jews” for lack of a better term. The Samaritan Jews also believed Mount Gerizim was the holy site for sacrifice, not the Temple in Jerusalem, and recognized only the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) as Scripture.

Understanding the conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans gives a different context to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which probably would have angered many in his Jewish audience that a Samaritan would be hero of the story.

I will not go through the entire story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:4-42), but I want to discuss some of the highlights. We live in such a divisive time, where people only read and listen to what confirms their confirmation bias, from which they do not budge. Let us take a look at the barriers Jesus crosses in this story:

-Jesus goes directly into what many consider “hostile territory.”

-Jesus, a Jew, speaks with people who are Samaritans.

-Jesus, a man, ministers to a woman.

-Jesus does not condemn the Samaritan woman for her past.

-Jesus does not debate doctrine, cast judgment, or threaten anyone with hell.

-Jesus brings a message of hope for all people, regardless of their background.

-Jesus breaks down the barriers of  institutional racism.

After Jesus ministers to the woman, she goes back and brings people of the town to see Jesus. Jesus and the disciples end up staying in Samaria for two days and many Samaritans come to faith in Christ.

I recognize that during my more fundamentalist days, I was a very divisive Christian. I have seen the error of my ways and I am now trying to break down these man made barriers. I believe the church and all of society can benefit from this example of Christ. Just because someone isn’t the same skin color as you, believes a different political philosophy, goes to a different church, or lives a lifestyle you don’t agree with, that doesn’t make them bad people. Everybody is just like you, in search of love and acceptance, which we need to provide. There is no need to condemn anyone for their past, because we all have a past. Let’s quit treating each other like dogs and rubbing our noses in each other’s mess. If we as Christians want to be more like Jesus, we need to be tearing down these superficial barriers instead of building  higher and higher walls.

 

 

Love Yourself Through It

I love dogs. In fact, I there have been very few times either growing up or being an adult that I don’t remember having a dog in the house. Dogs are some of the most social, self-less, and loving creatures on the planet. Dogs, though long domesticated, still to see themselves as pack animals, like wolves, and long to please the perceived “pack leader.” Depending on the dog’s personality, you’ll know when they messed up-chewing on the furniture or having an “accident” on the rug as he or she will hang their head in shame. It’s obvious the dog knows what he or she did, they just need to be loved and reassured that they are still an accepted member of the pack.

I also find dogs to be very intuitive animals, as they can discern people, situations, or even coming environmental changes, such as thunderstorms. Dogs have been used in medical studies to sniff out tumors in people. Though dogs show outward affection to their family members and other people, they are often hard on themselves when they make a mistake. Sound familiar?

When it comes to matters of faith, our greatest enemy is often not the devil, people, or even a specific group of people, but we are often our greatest enemy. When we approach God from a hyper-religious mindset, we will be weighed down with guilt and shame because we failed do to points A, B, and C properly. We begin to loathe ourselves and see ourselves as unworthy to be loved- whether by God or anyone else. This lack of self-love and self-acceptance often creates a void in our lives which can lead us into addiction, anxiety, depression, or feeling worthless. In essence, we approach God as that dog who chewed up a family member’s shoes; We know what we did, we’re waiting for the hammer to drop.

While the Bible teaches that we are sinners, our sins separate us from God, and the only way to find forgiveness is to accept Jesus’ sacrifice and repent of our sins, the Bible also teaches us the value of loving ourselves. We are commanded not only to love God, our spouses and family, our neighbors, and our enemies, but to love ourselves as well.

“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18, NKJV, emphasis mine).

The Hebrew word used for love, Ahab or Aheb (Strong’s #157), refers to love in a general  sense, like our English word.  Strong’s defines Ahab as “having strong emotional attachment to and desire either to possess or be in the presence of the object.”

In the New Testament, Jesus takes this concept one step further as He sums up following God’s word in two commandments:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NKJV, emphasis mine).

The Greek language had multiple terms for love, and the word used here is Agapao (Strong’s #25), which signifies an unconditional love, as God loves us unconditionally. (See also Mark 12:29-31, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:14, and James 2:8 for an introductory study).

From just this brief study of Scripture, it is a given that we are to love ourselves. Of course, we put God and others before us, but we must accept ourselves as we are. We should neither hate ourselves nor harm ourselves. We must stop spiritually, physically, and emotionally beating ourselves up over the past. You’ve made your mistakes, nothing can change that, go forward. God knows you made your mistakes and He still loves you.  Anyone in your life who truly loves you will love you through your struggles. You must love yourself through it.  If you have asked God to forgive you, your slate is wiped clean. You must make peace within yourself. As strange as it sounds, forgive yourself. If you haven’t sought God’s forgiveness, don’t wait until you “get your act together,” because God loves you as you are, for the Bible tells us that “While we were sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). Seek all of the resources that are before you. How can you truly give your heart and soul to God or open your heart to another if you refuse to accept yourself?  Life is a struggle, but you can make it. You will make it. The God of the universe believes in you, you can believe in Him and yourself. God bless you all.

 

 

 

 

Christ is for All

Could you imagine living a life without barriers? What would life be like without self-imposed and societal-placed barriers? I am not speaking of the abolishment of law and order or a misguided utopia, but what if we could remove the labels off of everyone? People, no matter where they come from, gender, skin color, body type, political or religious belief are simply people.

What if we could view our brother or sister as simply a fellow traveling companion who is on their own journey through life? What if we could stop expecting perfection from those around us? Where’s the grace for them? We certainly would want that grace in the event we make a mistake.

It seems today’s social dialogue is “I’m completely right, you’re completely wrong!” Friendly discussion has gone the way of the dinosaurs. I believe there comes a time when everyone must examine themselves and the direction of their life, so we may see the effect we have on others. For Christians, we have to do some deep soul searching. The questions becomes: “Is the world’s growing hostility toward the Church a direct result of the Church’s hostility toward the world? Are the barriers we put up towards others hindering the effective preaching of the Gospel? I believe so.

Jesus never turned away anyone who genuinely sought Him. Did people reject Jesus? Absolutely. Did the people who came to faith in Christ struggle with sin afterwards? I’m pretty sure they did. I believe that in order to experience growth as Christians and to show the love of God to others, we must accept people where they are at in life. We need to do away with this “us versus them” mentality, because Christ is for all.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is nether slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NKJV).

“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free-and all have been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, NKJV).

“Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” (Colossians 3:9-11, NKJV).

As we live our lives and interact with the people God has placed in our path, remember we are to be salt and light, not judge, jury, and executioner. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict the world of sin, not ours. We must not look to governments and institutions to solve our problems, we must look inward and pray upward for the strength to change ourselves. God bless you all.

Ephesians 1: God’s Role in our Identity

Who am I? This is one of the fundamental questions of human existence. The question, “Who am I?” has inspired countless theologians, philosophers, poets, thinkers, and everyday people since time immortal. “Who am I?” has launched countless discussions, religious pilgrimages, great works of literature, deep soul searching, and the occasional mid-life crisis.

It is inherent in our human nature to believe in something greater than ourselves, to believe in a world beyond our own where someday every wrong, slight, or injury, we perceive has been perpetrated on us will be corrected or explained. We often think, What’s the point of all this suffering? or Is this all there is to this life?

While living out our day-to-day lives, we are simultaneously attempting to forge our own identity, trying to answer the question of “Who am I?” We attach sociological labels to ourselves in an effort to forge an identity. We can identify ourselves by age, race, education, marital status, social standing, occupation, sexual orientation, nationality, or religion to name a handful. For those of us who believe in God and identify ourselves as being Christians, what role does God play in our identity?

I have over the years heard it preached that we need to know “Who we are in Christ,” meaning our identity in Christ. Paul in the Book of Ephesians, lays out a good foundation for God’s role in our identity. As you read through Ephesians, it is easy to focus on the blessings God has given us and not look as to how we have obtained our identity in Christ.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3, NIV).

Paul goes on to make it very clear that our new standing with God and our identity in Christ is based on the acts of God’s sovereign will.

“For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love, He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will- to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves.” (Ephesians 1:4-6, NIV, italics mine).

Paul makes several points concerning our identity in Christ and our responsibilities concerning our standing in Christ:

*We have been chosen by God.

*God chose us to live holy and blameless lives.

*We are only God’s adopted children through Christ, which aligns with God’s pleasure and will.

*We are to praise God for the gift of His grace through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The format of the following verses play out much the same as the introductory verses. For example:

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, He made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which He purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment- to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:7-10, NIV, italics mine).

Thus, we are forgiven of our sins solely because:

*The riches of God’s grace.

*God gave us the wisdom and understanding to know His will- to be saved and believe on Christ, thus God’s will is no longer mysterious.

*God is working in these last days to reconcile (bring together) the world and universe under the Lordship and rule of Jesus Christ.

Paul goes on further to elaborate on the purpose of God’s will and one of the benefits of living the Christian life:

In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will, in order that we who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of His glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in Him, with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession- to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:11-14, NIV, italics mine).

Once again, we learn of the plan of God:

*God is working out everything to conform to His will.

*God brings us to Christ that we may bring Him glory.

*God included us in His plan when we said, “yes,” to the gospel.

*God has empowered us with the Holy Spirit to live until we are called home to heaven.

Ephesians chapter one concludes with Paul’s prayer for the church, which also serves as a reminder that God does not simply save us and leave us to figure things out, but rather God seeks to keep us rooted deeper in Christ by:

*Giving us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation that we may know God better. (Ephesians 1:17).

*That we would understand fully the depths of our hope and inheritance as God’s people. (Ephesians 1:18-19a).

*To realize that the same power God use to raise Christ from the dead resides in us. (Ephesians 1:19b-20).

*God’s purposes have placed Christ head over all on heaven and earth. (Ephesians 1:20b-23).

May you seek to grow and understand your identity in Christ.

 

Be the Change You Want to See

Humanity has a heart condition and is in dire need of a transplant. The prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and it is extremely sick; Who can understand it fully and know its secret motives?” (Jeremiah 17:9, The Amplified Bible).

We need to look no further than our everyday lives and history to see the depths of sin and depravity as we try to make sense of the seemingly senseless world around us. Genocide. Racism. Human trafficking. Child abuse. Drug addiction. Discrimination in all of its forms. The complete disregard for the sanctity of human life. The greed, corruption, and indifference that has infected every level of society like a virus.

As we daily hear and see these stories, our spirits and minds can become overwhelmed and we will simply “tune out,” going through the motions of everyday life like a living zombie. These problems, of course, are not unique to our twenty-first century world. However, we do have the ability to affect change where we have been placed in the world, just like a parent who correctly models the behavior they want their child to follow. In order to change our world, we must do the inside work of examining and changing ourselves.

We must demonstrate love to all

No matter the color of our skin, gender, nationality, societal status, or any other external and superficial marker we use to color our world, we are all loved by God. God has loves us with an everlasting love. It is God’s desire for all to come to the saving knowledge of His grace through the Lord Jesus Christ. All of us need a heart transplant. Our Christian walks should be a living demonstration of love. In fact, there is a song lyric that goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Jesus even taught His disciples about the importance of love.

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another as I have loved you, that ye also love another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:34-35, KJV).

We must “point the finger” at ourselves

My parents taught me that “It’s not nice to point at other people.” Yet, Christians and people in general like to point at others and say, “His sin is worse than mine.” “She lives a wicked lifestyle.” “Well, at least I’m not like him.” It is our human nature to trivialize our sins while magnifying the sins of others. We may go through life with ungratefulness, or gossip, or anger, and say to ourselves, “I’ve never killed anybody.” We become the Pharisee in the parable of The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, who extolled his virtues to God and in the same breath put down the tax collector standing next to him. Meanwhile, the tax collector asked God to have mercy on him because he was a sinner. Jesus said the tax collector walked away blessed. Jesus applied this principle in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5, NIV).

We must mirror the change we want to see

Jesus said in Matthew 12:34 that “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” How we speak and act are mirror images of our inner character or “inner man” as The Bible states. If we want our outside world to change, we must live “outside in.” The Apostle Peter, speaking in the context of a wife being married to an unbelieving husband, states, “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (1 Peter 3:1-4, NIV). Before going further, let me state that Peter is not saying people cannot have fancy hairstyles, nice clothes, or jewelry. Peter is emphasizing the need to wear our Christian virtue and not attempting to win over people with superficial things. If you have spent any length of time in church, you know that Christians have tendency to use “churchy” terms that the world does not understand. We certainly can look the part, but if our belief has no real power in our lives, then we are simply actors playing a role. The world is looking for something authentic. The world wants to know that God is real. If there is no love behind sharing our faith, then we are basically giving people a list of “dos and don’ts” and pointing out every speck of sawdust on them, which would drives the lost further away from God. Deep theology may impress some people, but people primarily want to know that you love and care about them in the midst of their struggle. A spiritual mentor of mine once said, “Nobody cares about what you know until they know you care.”

When we wake up and as we go through our day, let us examine ourselves, as Paul says, to see if we are in the faith. Are our thoughts lining up with the Word? Have we showed love to someone? Have we cleansed our hearts and consciences? Are we judging ourselves before we go and try to fix the world? When the pressure is on, what is on the inside will come out. Make sure what is inside is what you want others to see. God bless you all.