Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Blessed Assurance!

1 Timothy 3:13
Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.

Hebrews 10:22
let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

Assurance is a quality that we take lightly at times. Maybe we lack the faith necessary to fully appreciate true assurance. Notice how in the passage above from Hebrews, the writer points out that our relationship to God is made stronger with "full assurance." I suppose it’s like a good marriage made rich with the assurance of trust and faithfulness. Without those elements, the relationship is greatly damaged. But assurance from the Father can take many forms, and come from many avenues to reach us. One Sunday morning a few years ago, assurance came to me in a most unexpected way.

We live less than five minutes from our church. On this particular Sunday morning we arrived at the church building only to discover we’d left the grocery contribution we were donating for the newly hired pastor and his family. I dropped my wife off at the front door and headed back for the sack of canned goods, still having plenty of time to get to our Sunday School class. I went in the house, retrieved the bag and headed back for the church.

As I neared a stop sign to turn right toward our church, I witnessed a car veering off the four lane road I was approaching. Given that the car was completely off the road and heading straight for a small grove of trees and brush, it was traveling extremely fast. The car slammed into the cluster of trees and came to an immediate halt. Several drivers and I immediately jumped from our vehicles and ran up to the wrecked car. Inside we saw a middle aged woman, and from her dilated, fixed eyes, she was, to the untrained eye, dead. There was the slightest moment of pause as we looked upon the poor woman, no doubt shock at what we’d witnessed, then someone said, "We have to get her out of there."

Her car doors being locked, we broke the back seat window behind her with a tire tool, reached in and unlocked her door. Several of us pulled her limp body from the wreckage onto the ground. Instinctively, we administered CPR and within minutes, paramedics arrived. Neither our efforts nor theirs could revive the woman. Police officers were quickly on the scene, taking statements from several of the witnesses.

I stood beside her car, feeling empty inside, wondering who this woman was. I thought about her loved ones, of the news they had awaiting them. I hurt for them as well as her. Then, out of the blue a police officer standing next to me looking inside her car, said to me, "Stupid airbags didn’t even deploy!" It was the kind of thing that he was probably trained to look for, but I really hadn’t noticed.

But his statement served a different purpose for me. When he said it, I naturally looked into the vehicle. On the front seat, alongside the woman was her Bible. I looked closer at it laying there and it was evident that it was a well worn Bible. I looked back at the woman and noticed for the first time a tiny gold cross hanging around her neck. It dawned on me then that like me, she was on her way to her own church, that this was a sister in Christ. A peaceful assurance came over me, with the knowledge that she was now in the loving arms of Jesus. That police officer’s comment was meant to bring me to that assurance.

I can’t tell you the make, model, or color of that woman’s car that morning. Nor could I identify any of the other witnesses, police officers, or paramedics. I couldn’t describe the weather that day, or tell you anything that was said, sung, or preached in church later that morning. But there is one memory I took away from that whole ordeal. I remember exactly what that well worn Bible looked like laying there in the front seat. I can describe it to a tee. But more importantly, I remember the Blessed Assurance it delivered.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Taking Any Calls?

Having escorted sin into a previously perfect world, Adam found himself in the ridiculous position of hiding from God. Yes, we see in Genesis 3:8 and 9, the Lord "walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze," calling out to Adam, "Where are you?" But are we to believe that the omnipresent Lord God Almighty doesn’t know Adam’s location amongst the trees and bushes? Had Adam discovered a some secretive place that God couldn’t reach? Of course not.

Jonah got on a boat, headed for Tarshish - the opposite direction of Nineveh, the place God had instructed him to go. On the boat, he went to down below to the very bowels of the ship, no doubt in an effort, like Adam, to hide himself from God.

How foolish we are to think that we can run or hide from God. Often we think only pastors or preachers have callings, but I think we all have a calling to pursue. It might be a temporary calling, like Jonah’s call to preach at Nineveh, or a life calling as Moses discovered in front of a burning bush. But we’re all subject to callings on our lives. God’s call on our lives is consistent. Notice in Jonah 1:2, God’s calling for Jonah is to: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." After fleeing on the boat, being thrown overboard, being swallowed by a great fish in which he spent three days inside its belly, and vomited up on shore, Jonah’s instructions from God in Jonah 3:2 are to: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you." Notice the change of game plan before the first and second message from God? Neither do I, because there is none. Like Jonah, we can’t outrun the consistency and the persistency of God’s calling on our lives.

Now, you might say I really don’t know God’s calling for me, and you’re probably right. One reason for this is a simple one: we fail to ask. Another reason is we cloud ourselves so much with the comings and goings of the world, we fail to develop the type of relationship necessary to know exactly what God has in mind for us. Walkie talkies are useful instruments, but if only one unit is turned on, they’re worthless. Or, if there’s so much noise going on around us that we can’t hear them, again they’re not of much use. Through prayer and God’s word, leave your receiver on and eliminate a lot of the needless noise of the world. God’s calling will be consistent and persistent.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Need Directions?

Gabby has become a significant part of our family. She assists my wife and me in getting around the metro area of Kansas City. She’s traveled with us from coast to coast. Like an American Express card, we never leave home without her. She rarely makes mistakes. She exudes confidence, always telling us exactly what we should do, and when we should do it. You probably have a Gabby of your own. Gabby is our pet name for our GPS. GPS devices are pretty standard equipment these days. I suppose if Gabby ever konks out on us, we’ll immediately replace her. I’m not sure we could do without her. 

Just like driving from place to place, we need guidance in our lives. Proverbs 3: 5-6 tells us to:
5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.

There’s been way too many times I’ve done exactly the opposite of this passage, too many times I’ve relied on my own understanding. I didn’t stop and ask God for directions. I didn’t pull out His road map for my life, the Bible. I didn’t stop and listen for the Holy Spirit to whisper directional counsel, like my GPS telling me "turn right" or "turn left." Instead, I made my own decisions, my way. I wonder how many times God had to reroute the plan He had for me because I’d plowed forward on my own, not acknowledging Him, thus allowing Him to make my paths straight.

Another thing Gabby does is display the route we’re on, but she only shows the portion of the trip we’re on at the time, not the entire route all at once. God is sort of like that, too. We often ask, "What’s God’s will for my life?" That might too big of a question. I hope to live another 30 years or so. I don’t think I can take all that in at once. Maybe we should narrow our question down to "What’s God’s will for me next month or next year?" Maybe we should change the question altogether. Instead of focusing on God’s will for us, a better question might be "What’s God’s will?" He’s already at work in the world around us. All we really need to do is get in the car and listen for His guidance. He’ll always take us exactly where He needs us to be.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Thoughts

We came together as a staff of federal employees that day following what we now commonly refer to as 9/11. We met in the chapel of the federal prison where Teri and I were working. I was asked by the Chaplain if I would select a passage from the Bible to read and reflect upon. Others sang hymns, and patriotic songs. Funny thing was, there we were, federal employees, on government time being allowed to pray to God for our country.  Earlier that same year, some of us had requested to have a prayer group before work and we were strictly instructed to make sure we ended any prayer sessions before our shift began, as the government could not accommodate any sort of religious activity on government time.

But this day was different. Our nation turned to God during that time period, much like we did after Pearl Harbor or John F. Kennedy’s assassination. We realized a need for His presence in our world that now seemed to be turning on end.

Several days later, I watched via television a service held at the National Cathedral in Washington. All the living ex-Presidents joined President Bush and other national leaders in praying for our nation after the tragedy of 9/11. I watched as religious leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist faiths took their turns at the podium, expressing their desire for unity, for healing as a nation.

Then, a frail Billy Graham was led up the steps to the pulpit where he did what he had done for the past sixty years or so - proclaim the Gospel of Christ. I was moved that he did not take a politically correct approach in light of the other religious representatives’ presence. He preached Jesus, saying:

"Here in this majestic National Cathedral we see all around us symbols of the cross. For the Christian -- I'm speaking for the Christian now -- the cross tells us that God understands our sin and our suffering. For He took upon himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, our sins and our suffering."

There’s no arguing the fact that we have changed as a nation due to the events of 9/11. Our vocabulary is filled with new terms like Homeland Security and threat levels. Our young men and women are being asked to serve in areas and against enemies that we’d never heard of prior to that day.

But, as we look back on that fateful time 10 years ago, may we be mindful that God’s presence is needed not only during the difficult times, but in all times, in all areas of our lives. And may we have the courage and conviction to always proclaim the Gospel of Christ to a world needing it just as much now as it did 9/11/01.

Friday, September 9, 2011

She Made Change - In Me

It was a pretty ordinary week of Vacation Bible School, but there was a moment that I won’t forget. Typically on the last night of VBS, parents are invited to come watch some of the programming, music, etc., their children have been involved in during the week. This particular week was no different. Parents, grandparents, and other relatives filed into the sanctuary, witnessing an upbeat program accompanied by uplifting testimony. Then, the moment happened...

Helping take up an offering,  I finished with the back row and headed up the middle aisle of the church, offering plate in hand. As I neared the front of the sanctuary, I heard a woman’s voice behind me. I turned and saw a small, frail looking woman pursuing me up the aisle, with money in her hand. Still nothing that unusual, I’m thinking. Somehow, we just missed her.

I didn’t recognize the woman; she wasn’t a regular in our church. She was middle-aged, maybe in her 50's, and wasn’t particular well dressed. Since we were standing at the front of the sanctuary, with nothing else going on, no doubt the majority of the audience witnessed what occurred next.

The woman approached me with her bill in hand and I held out the plate to accommodate her. I couldn’t help but notice her place a twenty dollar bill on top of the pile of bills already in the plate. I started to turn toward the altar, and she quietly, but firmly said, "Please wait." I looked at her as she proceeded to rifle through the bills in the plate, looking for change for the twenty she’d placed in the plate.

It was sort of a surreal moment, someone making change in the offering plate. I heard a few muffled whispers throughout the sanctuary. I awkwardly waited as she finished her transaction and turned quickly to return to her seat. I put the plate in its appointed place and walked away, still somewhat confounded by what I’d witnessed.

But, after the moment had passed further, this lasting thought came to my mind: the woman didn’t have to give anything at all. She had the appearance of one who didn’t have much to give, but she gave anyway. She could have stayed seated, saving herself the pointed attention of coming up the aisle. Maybe that twenty dollars represented a great amount to her and her giving a portion of it was really a big deal. It might have been a bigger sacrifice than any of us who initially scoffed at her actions realized.

In the Gospel of Mark 12: 41 - 44, we read:

41 Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. 42 Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. 43 So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; 44 for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.” (NKJV)

Every time I’ve read that passage, I’ve thought of that woman walking up the aisle with her offering. Her humility left a lasting impression on me. Honestly, I’m afraid I would have been too prideful to carry out her act. She’s just one of dozens of nameless people God has used to teach me something I needed.  I’m grateful for her lesson.

Monday, September 5, 2011

I Have a Hammer...

If you looked at the tools hanging in the corner of my garage where I have a little workshop set up, you’d never know the significance of a particular old hammer. I’d bought two of the same hammers before I made my first international mission trip, a construction trip to Honduras in the mid-1990's. One hammer I planned on keeping at home, and the other I figured I’d leave in Honduras, with the rest of the tools I’d brought, to be used by the locals. Our assignment that week was to work on a cement block church building that another previous mission team had begun. In the following weeks, several other teams followed us, and eventually the community had a simple, but functional church, where there previously had been none.

Many wonderful memories are etched in my mind from the trip. We toiled in temperatures in the 90's all week, and I returned home with a rare January farmer’s tan! By then end of the week, we’d begun to see the forming of the church we were erecting. Many in the community stopped by to watch and offer their gratitude for what God was doing through us. Most of us were unskilled laborers, doing whatever the experienced carpenters, some American, some Honduran, told us to do. We were paired with same carpenters all week, effectively becoming teams of builders. My assignment during the week was to assist a Honduran brick layer named Marco. Marco was about 30 years old and spoke no English, but could lay block like a master. I fetched water, mortar, blocks, and whatever Marco needed to build the walls of that church. We bonded not only as a team of laborers, but also like a pair of brothers. You see Marco was not only a master bricklayer, he also was a follower of the Master...

One night after a hard day’s work, we held a little worship service under a lean-to next to the work site. I was giving testimony and I jokingly said "Before I start, Marco and I are going to sing a duet..." Marco immediately jumped out of his seat and started to the front. I had to stop him before I was forced to reveal why no one has ever asked me to be in the church choir. Marco just wanted the opportunity to praise God.  It was the type of attitude Marco had throughout the week. He just quietly went about his business, always wanting to please the Lord.

It’s been 13 or 14 years since I spent that week with Marco, but not a week passes that I don’t think of him. Thoughts that inevitably lead me to fulfilling a promise that Marco and I made to each other. You see, at the end of that mission trip, I gave Marco the hammer I’d brought from home. I told him I had one exactly like it at my house. We made a pact that whenever he used that hammer, he’d pray for me and my family and I would pray for him and his family whenever I used the matching one at home. I have a lot of tools, most of which I’m not very proficient with, but that yellow and black hammer hanging in my shop never fails its job of reminding me to pray for Marco. I don’t suppose you could buy it from me for any amount of money. Proverbs 27:17 tells us: "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another," and I can attest that Marco sharpened me that week, a honing that continues to this day.