Friday, August 28, 2020

Heart

"If your heart is cold, my fire cannot warm it."
Do you have a heart of stone? You of course will say, by no means. Really? I have seen many with hearts of stone. I am not judging motivation but behavior.  God knew that we were evil starting in the garden. Our free will given by God caused us to be disobedient The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time”  (Genesis 6:5).  This is not the view that people have of themselves. Most say, “I am a pretty good person, at least I am not like Hitler or Stalin.” Really, God disagrees and Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).  God talks about the heart 725 times in Scripture. He is not talking about the physical but the spiritual heart or center of our lives. In Exodus God hardened the heart of Pharaoh towards the Israelites. Even in Leviticus God is speaking about uncircumcised hearts or ones not humbled for their sin. The Shemah or commandment for the Jews in Deuteronomy 6:5 said, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” He is telling them to fear the Lord and walk obediently with Him. God looks at the heart, not appearance as when He chose David to be King in 1 Samuel 13, “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”

The psalms speak of every emotion of the heart from pride to joy saying, “The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart(Psalm 19:8).  These hymns direct us to our hearts to “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord” (Psalm 31:8).  God wants to give you the desires of your heart and He wants those desires to be wholly given over to Him saying, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart(Psalm 37:4). God wants our hearts to be changes to want to be more like Him and to recognize that we cannot do this without Him in our lives. So He wants to replace our cold hearts of stone into warm hearts of living flesh like Him. Psalm 51 would call it a pure heart and a steadfast spirit.  He goes on in the wisdom literature of Proverbs to say, “For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (Proverbs 2:10). They go on to say, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it”(Proverbs 4:23). Life is a battle for our hearts and God’s wisdom gives life to our hearts. So plan to be wise and do what is God’s will for, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps” (Proverbs 16:9). You might have thought that your brain did the planning. It is in your heart and spirit that you plan.

“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). Here is one of the hard saying. Grief brings God near to comfort us. As C.S. Lewis said, “God shouts to us in our pain and whispers in our pleasures.”  We may not want grief, but it finds each of us. In it our hearts must seek after God.  Many people know Jeremiah 29:11 which tells us that God has plans to prosper and not harm us but, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:13). Then God promises that He will take us out of whatever problem we have been in and lead us and bring us back.

God is leading us back to Him. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). Heart transplants are done every day in the hospital where I work. This is miraculous. Yes, God has allowed us to know how to do this to extend a life. But only God can give us a new heart. “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and He relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:13).  We need to have contrite hearts.

So where is your heart? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”  (Matthew 6:21).  It is easy to have you heart given to worldly things that will rot or rust away. “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:18).

So what do we do? “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved”  (Romans 10:10).  Turn from the world and believe. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23). And “May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” (1 Thessalonians 3:13). And one more admonition, “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded”  (James 4:8).

May you hearts be full of the Holy Spirit to overflowing.



Friday, August 21, 2020

Joy of Forgiveness

Joy is the spiritual fruit I have chosen to pursue in 2017. There are many references to joy (272) in Scripture and there are many (150) for forgiveness.  In the Old Testament forgiveness is an act of sacrifice offered to God, often through a priest for atonement or forgiveness. Throughout Scripture it requires a blood sacrifice of a bull or dove or lamb. A faultless animal was required. But there just is not such a thing; we are all marred or imperfect in some way.  It is paying a debt for our transgressions against God and man. But we can’t pay it.

Then comes the Son of God, the Perfect One, who did pay the debt, ransomed for our sins. His life was given for our lives. He died for our transgressions that we might be forgiven by God. We were given what we do not deserve. Psalm 32 tells us, “Blessed is he whose sins are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” God bought, saved us from ourselves.

There are parables of the wicked or unforgiving servant’s debt. The Master forgave him, but he would not forgive and so he was thrown in prison for life. Should he or we have mercy on those who forgive us? Psalm 130 tells us that with you (God) we are forgiven. We need to humble ourselves and receive this unmerited gift of forgiveness.  “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). This is the key to forgiveness, which is humility and repentance. The first time I heard this read at a Sacred Assembly called by Promise Keepers in Washington, D.C. in 1997. This prayer meeting of nearly 1.3 million men on the national mall was for our country and our sin, repenting of our wrongs and asking for forgiveness. Our country continues to move further from our founding documents ever since and so have most hearts.

I have gone to brothers or sisters and found forgiveness, reconciliation and joy, even though it has sometimes taken years and been one way.

As I write this essay, I am at odds with my own brother in a very hurtful way. I have gone to prayer and counseling and sought the Lord’s forgiveness as I have repented of my own hardening heart. Jesus in the gospels said, “forgive as I have forgiven you, if you do not I will not forgive you.” I have forgiven and asked forgiveness of my brother face-to-face, yet continued very hurtful encounters have caused me to no longer move toward him. There are times that it is just not fruitful or safe to go to someone directly. The concept of reconciliation is not universally understood. As a chaplain I have tried to bring reconciliation within families at the bedside of dying family members. I have come to see that perhaps many years of friction and dysfunction are not things I can overcome. Sometimes it is better to leave them to God to resolve if folks are willing.


The sad commentary is that we all live in less than God honoring relationships of some kind. We need to repent and ask forgiveness and do what God commands. I have done so often and now comes a time of waiting and praying for reconciliation in my life. The Apostle Paul brought helpful wisdom by saying, “If it is at all possible, as much as it depends upon you, be at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). Sometimes it is not our call, it is just beyond us. I am not always joyful in this even though James said, “Consider it pure joy when you come into trials of diverse kinds, for the testing of you faith develops perseverance, and perseverance must finish its work so you may mature and complete lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4 paraphrase). He continues on to tell us that if we don’t know what to do, to ask God, and He will generously give us direction. I am asking without doubting and rejoicing that He is in it with me.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Song of Joy

The Psalms of Ascent are Psalms 120-134. They are the ones sung by the pilgrims climbing the hill to the temple in Jerusalem. They are repeated to point us toward heaven and God. They are songs “for the road.” They are to take away the fears and anxieties and bring us instead to the promises of God. These psalms are about “joy” for the journey. Is that a perspective through which you travel the rough roads of life? I thought so; it is just not a common view of trials and troubles. James said we are to, “Consider it pure joy when you come into trials of diverse kinds. Because the testing of your faith develops perseverance which must finish its work so that you may become mature and complete, lacking nothing”  (James 1:2-4). Yes, joy is the word from God. Most of us need to seek Him for that necessary wisdom to do that. The next verse says that if we do not doubt that He will give it to us generously all we need to do this. So I look to these special psalms for the rough road wisdom. Eugene Peterson, the author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, talks of this discipleship in an instant society. These psalms include a few themes, but I will choose joy today as described in Psalm 126.

When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing.
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.” 
The Lord has done great things for us,
And we are glad. 
Bring back our captivity, O Lord,
As the streams in the South. 
Those who sow in tears
Shall reap in joy.
He who continually goes forth weeping,
Bearing seed for sowing,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
Bringing his sheaves with him.

What a triumphant song of rejoicing. The pilgrims have been brought out of captivity in Babylon and they can hardly believe it. They have not been fully restored as yet, but they are “dreaming” of it. They are singing of it with laughter in their mouths. Why can they do this? Because ‘The Lord has done great things for them and us.” (v.3). They had been released back to Jerusalem by Cyrus the King. After years in captivity they were free. That is the gospel. Martin Luther said, “The gospel is nothing else but laughter and joy.”  Can you say that? Has Christ Jesus set you free indeed?  If not grasp these ancient words of harvest joy. It speaks of ‘streams in the South, Negev or desert.’  This is an allusion to the incredible transformation that God brings.  Peterson poetically writes, “With such suddenness are long, dry periods of waiting, interrupted by God’s invasion into our lives in Jesus Christ.”

Note that they were like men who dreamed. Dreams play an important part in Old Testament Scripture, particularly with Joseph and Daniel who interpreted dreams for kings while they waited in prison or captivity. Joseph was thrown in the pit by his brothers because of his sharing his dreams. Yet, later he was promoted from prison to Prime Minister for his interpretation to Pharaoh. I am not big on interpreting dreams as part of counseling. I do believe that God can use anything to get to us if we are listening. I also think nightmares and good dreams might reveal where your mind and spirit reside. Write down visions you see at night if you awake. In the morning these thoughts might be full of meaning for you. I have seen it through my wife who is a constant prayer. She has been warned with vivid dreams.

Isaiah the Prophet has a very vivid poem for the joy of the redeemed. The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them,
And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose;
It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice,
Even with joy and singing… Strengthen the weak hands,
And make firm the feeble knees. 
Say to those who are fearful-hearted,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Behold, your God will come with vengeance,
With the recompense of God;
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then the lame shall leap like a deer,
And the tongue of the dumb sing.
For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness,
And streams in the desert.
The parched ground shall become a pool,
And the thirsty land springs of water;
In the habitation of jackals, where each lay,
There shall be grass with reeds and rushes. 
A highway shall be there, and a road,
And it shall be called the Highway of Holiness.
The unclean shall not pass over it,
But it shall be for others.
Whoever walks the road, although a fool,
Shall not go astray.
No lion shall be there,
Nor shall any ravenous beast go up on it;
It shall not be found there.
But the redeemed shall walk there,
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come to Zion with singing,
With everlasting joy on their heads.
They shall obtain joy and gladness,
And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

“The Way of Holiness” or “The Most Excellent Way” as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:31, is about the way of the holy and redeemed of God. Isaiah and this psalm speak of the coming of God’s solution for life and joy for those who would walk in it. My book This is the Way, Walk in it, speaks in two volumes of how to walk in this way at Isaiah 30:21 tells us. It is by obeying God’s voice he tells us, through His Word.

“Joy is not a requirement of Christian discipleship, it is a consequence,” Peterson tells us. If we are with the Lord continually, expectantly, we will be glad and full of joy. This theme is also for those in mourning or grieving. God wants to “turn our wailing into dancing, and clothe me with joy” (Psalm 30:11 paraphrase).

I love the thought of being able to laugh about the trials of life. Proverbs Epilogue about the “Woman of Noble Character” tells us that she was clothed in strength and could laugh at the days to come with wisdom. It was because she feared, obeyed and praised the Lord. Can you do that? This laughter and joy come from living expectantly in the world of troubles and pain. We know that He will wipe away our tears and lead us to springs of living water as Revelation 7:17 tells us. What a promise in the end times. God has come and He is coming again. He is returning very soon to take His redeemed to be with Him in heaven. We can rejoice about that in the middle of our problems. That is A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

“Rejoice, I say again rejoice, let you gentleness be known to all for the Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4).


Friday, August 7, 2020

Dance


Do you know that Scripture speaks of dancing? David danced in front of the Lord, even with little clothing. He worshipped and praised as a life style while he danced. Now there were detractors, even his wife Michal. That will be the way, especially today for a Christian. “The joy of the Lord is our strength,” says Nehemiah 8:10. I find rejoicing in and praising the Lord a power producing and healing lifestyle. So it is no surprise that I find King David’s Psalm 30 one of great encouragement in trials.  I have written of God’s incredible healing in my life through His word in my book Great is God’s faithfulness.  Read and meditate on these words:
I will extol You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up,
And have not let my foes rejoice over me. 
O Lord my God, I cried out to You,
And You healed me. 
O Lord, You brought my soul up from the grave;
You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit. 
Sing praise to the Lord, you saints of His,
And give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name. 
For His anger is but for a moment,
His favor is for life;
Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning. 
Now in my prosperity I said,
“I shall never be moved.” 
Lord, by Your favor You have made my mountain stand strong;
You hid Your face, and I was troubled.
I cried out to You, O Lord;
And to the Lord I made supplication: 
“What profit is there in my blood,
When I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise You?
Will it declare Your truth? 
Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me;
Lord, be my helper!” 
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, 
To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.

This psalm was written to be sung at the dedication of the temple. But God forbid David from building it as he had put his trust in large armies and not God. He was the only “man after God’s own heart,” but he also shed blood with the sword more than was pleasing to God. He and Israel had many enemies, so I probably would have done the same thing. But God must be headed, for as Isaiah 55:9 says, “My ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”  We must seek Him and His word which will never return void or without accomplishing its purpose. I wrote of how God had healed me of my own sins as I was planning for a new hospital to be built after leading a financial and quality turnaround of the one that stood. But my own arrogance and fears of life had taken its toll. But God was faithful and brought me to my knees and into His grace and mercy just as King David. So David now rejoiced as God had lifted him from the pit or being killed. He praised God. “For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life; weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (v.5). He regains his strength in his despair even making him stand strong like a mountain. He cries out to God that had been silent to David for a time, perhaps when he was acting on his own direction. Just as David, I cried out in the wilderness and God transformed me, making me new in Him. David prayed for mercy and help and God now responded. “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever” (vvs. 11-12).

God has brought him, as he had me, out of the valley of the shadow of death to use another one of David’s psalms of life in psalm 23. David like us went through trials, troubles, losses and gains, highs, lows and exaltation. Yet always he sought the Lord and His strength. Therefore the Lord lifted him up in due time.

Are you going through deep valleys of pain, loss, illness or trials?  I suspect if you are not, you have just come out from one or you will be going into one again. That is just life, it is not a dark view of it, it is how it works. If you are not, perhaps you should look inside and see if you have confessed your sins, repented and sought the mercy and healing of the Lord in your life.  If you have not, you are at risk to be on your own to deal with your valley. You need a “Guide” through the valley. If you receive His love and forgiveness as your Savior and Lord, He will do it. He will guide and turn your grief into joy and dancing.

In our lives we will have times of grieving. This is normal and it is a definite and difficult process of moving through the valley of the shadow of death. Meditate on this thought. God will cause you to “walk through” and the “shadows” will not hurt you. Do not fear it, but go into it. Release your fears into the Lord and let Him move you through to accomplish what He wants you to learn in this valley. I once led a grief support group called Griefshare.” Its byline was “Turning mourning into joy.”  Some people attending just walked or stormed out screaming that it is ridiculous and uncaring to even think joy in mourning. No, it is God’s plan to do it with you. Chose joy today and chose Jesus Christ, who suffered for you, to be your “Valley Guide.”

Before we end this devotional go to You Tube and listen to Lee Ann Womack as she sings, I Hope You Dance.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RV-Z1YwaOiw

Prayer: God of the universe, You are the Healer. You did not leave me to perish, but You were faithful. I praise You and thank You for all You have done and will continue to do in my life. Help me to be joyful and dance.  AMEN