Come Down From Your Higher Ground

God has been tugging at me in a couple of ways lately and when a message comes to me in the form of a two pronged attack, it is hard to defend myself with an argument that has even a vague notion of legitimacy.  First, I read Jen Hatmaker’s book, 7.  I’m hoping to write more about how it affected me, but let me just say for now, it dislodged me from a pedestal upon which I have somehow come to live.  The funny thing is, I had only the faintest idea I was even perched there.  Then, our new church here in TX started a 6 week video-driven study called Promised Land, in which Ray Vander Laan takes a group of student tourists on a tour of the important places in the bible. In the very first lesson, they visit
Tel Gezer.  This town is literally at a crossroads of civilization.  Merchants from all over the known world had to pass through this one particular spot.  The people who lived there had the potential to influence cultures around the globe.  This is one of the places God told the Israelites to claim as part of the Promised Land, but instead of following His directions, they allowed the Canaanites to remain there and established their own city further up the hill from those crossroads, on higher ground.
 
Militarily, this was a wise decision.  Higher ground provides many advantages – it is more defensible and you can see the enemy approaching for miles, invading forces expend much energy climbing to your fortifications and arrive already exhausted before the battle begins, waste and refuse don’t pollute your population because they will flow downhill away from the city, and the safety provided by this superior location allows citizens, Soldiers and families to rest easy and be nourished in their safety. 
 
But that isn’t where God told them to settle.  He wanted them at the crossroads.  Where it was dirty and messy and bustling with the activity of people coming and going along the Via Maris which connected Egypt and Mesopotamia at the very place it intersected Jericho Road that ran east from Gezer into the mountains of Judea to Jerusalem and on toward Jericho where it met the Kings Highway.  Where people with gods other than the One True God the Israelites worshipped would pass through.  Where they would be exposed to all sorts of pagan cultures, idols and practices.  Where all those people would see His chosen Nation Israel resist those gods and temptations.  His strategic plan was for His chosen people to wield global influence down at the crossroads, so that those passing through could witness His power and might and see how His people acted and treated others and how they worshipped and obeyed their God and then they would carry His Holy name back to their homelands like the other commodities they traded.
 
So, what does the military strategy of the higher ground have to do with me and my pedestal?
 
I’m living on the higher ground.
 
And most of you reading this probably are, too.  I like living in my comfy house in the safe suburbs, away from the bustling businesses and chaos of places closer to the main highway.  I enjoy going to PWOC on Tuesdays and church on Sundays and fellowshipping in places I feel safe.  I am comfortable letting my children play outside unsupervised while I make dinner inside, at least as long as I can hear them.  I happily buy healthy food for my family with only a cursory care to the cost.  I’m confident in the safety of the vehicles we drive.
 
And we have worked very hard to get here, to stay here, to raise our children here.  Our culture lauds the higher ground, and many of our churches are built there, as well.  Why wouldn’t we want to be on the high ground?  Spiritual higher ground is the same way.  That is where we are safe, where we can spend time with other likeminded people who claim Christianity as their faith.  From this defensible position it is very easy to recognize the approach of the devil and his trickery can easily be distinguished from the Truth.  This is where we find rest and are nourished and fed spiritually.  
 
But what if God still wants His people down at the crossroads?
 
What if He wants us in the very places we’ve worked so hard to distance ourselves from?
 
Because those are the places that need His Glory to shine brightly.  The dark, scary, smelly, dangerous places where it’s nearly impossible to see the enemy approaching.  People who need Jesus live here.  And guess what?  One encounter with a true Christian who is unafraid to come down from their higher ground and serve their neighbor may be all that’s needed to start the spread of light in the dark trenches because they undoubtedly know other people who are searching for salvation.  
 
If you are like me, however, you may not even be able to find these needful places.  The people I call my neighbors look mostly like me.  They live in large brick houses with two car garages and in ground sprinkler systems and overfilled pantries and refrigerators.  In general, they don’t need my help, at least not in any obvious way.  But who does Jesus say the neighbors that we are to love as we love ourselves are?   In the story of the good Samaritan, Jesus leads the religious scholar to the answer – our neighbor is anyone upon whom we can show mercy or kindness (Luke 10:37), not just the families that live on our street. 
 
Throughout the bible God’s people are called to care for the poor, the widow, the oppressed and the orphan.  These are the ones who need an extra measure of mercy and kindness.  These are the very people who generally live where God’s light needs to shine most brightly to dispel the attacks of the enemy.  The ones who could carry the message of hope back to their families and friends, extending the reach of the gospel.  We may not be able to find them in the places we usually travel, however.   We may even go out of our way to avoid the unsightly places where they have been forced to reside, because our higher ground is so much more pleasant and comforting.   
 
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the higher ground.  God has made many great revelations to His people on mountaintops.  Abraham found God’s provision as he prepared to sacrifice Isaac up on a mountain.  Moses received the law from God there.  Isaiah hid in the cleft of the mountain and found God in quiet whisperings.  Jesus retreated to the mountains to pray and be encouraged by His Father.  This higher ground, the safe places where we are fed and nourished with the word, where our faith is strengthened, and our hope solidified are necessary for our own growth as followers of Christ, just as it was for our ancestors.
 
But they all came down.  They had to leave the mountain and descend to the people below to share with them what they learned up there.  
 
Higher ground itself isn’t really the problem, until from it we look down on those below us with such disdain that we can no longer recognize them as our neighbors in need of mercy, or we hoard the glory of God amongst ourselves failing to let it shine on all people as God intended, or we plant ourselves so firmly up there that we cannot fathom descending and braving those crossroads where we can wield our Christian influence as an offensive weapon in the fight for all people to enter the kingdom of heaven.  
 
For Christians, I believe our crossroads are the places where our faith, having been strengthened on the higher ground intersects with our actions.  I believe this is what James was talking about in his, still highly controversial, faith versus works argument in James 2:14-17.  If we preach about faith and the love of God for all people from these higher places, but fail to provide for our neighbor or demonstrate His love for those that have not yet developed a relationship with Jesus as their Savior, we are not spreading the glory of God from the crossroads as He intended for His people to do.  We may profess that we know God; but in our actions we deny Him by failing to do the good works He has prepared for us. (Titus 1:16)  
 
People aren’t likely to climb up the mountain until they know what they will find there.  People who are living in the trenches won’t necessarily ascend uninvited to the places we hide ourselves in search of His abundant grace and mercy.  We must take it to them.  Everything we learn up on the mountaintop needs to be proclaimed at the bottom of the hill.  Even though the spiritual high ground has been made available to every person through the sacrifice Christ made on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, it can still be a hard climb.  Although the ascent is an individual journey, it is far easier and more enjoyable when others go alongside instead of simply calling down encouragement from above. Once those below see what God has to offer, they will be much more to allow us to help them up the hill to learn more.  
 
In every one of the locations God has placed us with the Army, I’m cond there has been a crossroads, where He intended for me to shine His light.  Some have been more obvious than others.  Other times, I know I failed to find this place where my faith was intended to meet my works.  I am certain however, that just like the Israelites, He has meticulously planned and prepared good deeds for us to do in His name, in every state and town to which we have moved.  Ephesians 2:10 says, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”  And Jesus teaches us to “let [our] light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”  For the glory of God to spread throughout every nation and tribe, we must be where they travel, not safely ensconced upon our higher ground.
Today I urge you to find a way to come down off your higher ground and seek out the crossroads where God wants you to share His love.  Stop abdicating your influence and start showing the world how true followers of Christ behave.  My prayer is that none of us will allow the safety of the higher ground to keep us from the work He has prepared for us at the crossroads and that God would clearly guide us to and strengthen us for His works in all places.

Parched

I wish I could blame the lack of rain in Central Texas for the sad state I found my oregano in the other day. Unfortunately, I must confess, the blame for its neglect is mine alone, as the herb resides inside my house on the window sill above my kitchen sink.  Perhaps even more convicting is the fact that it is so conveniently located just 8 inches above an endless water supply with not one or two, but three gloriously convenient methods of delivery.  I have the usual faucet, a fancy sprayer, which would allow me to water my plant without even moving it, and a purified source with a gentle flow that would allow me to provide water without disrupting the soil around the tender shoots. Despite all the options available to me, I failed to give my tangy Italian seasoning the one thing it needs most to produce those tasty leaves I like to drop into tomato sauce. 
I suppose I just got busy and forgot to water it for a day or two, maybe three at the most, but when I finally took notice, it was crispy in places, the stems had all drooped down, no longer seeking the sun, in fact almost shamefully trying to hide from the heat radiating through the window, which would only serve to dry it out more.   The pot weighed nearly nothing when I lifted it.  Ever hopeful, I saturate the soil and returned it to the sunny spot by the window. 
How often do we neglect the watering of our own souls and find ourselves in a similar state?  Sad, brittle, crispy, drooping and shameful… 
Jesus said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” John 7:38.  From the very moment you accept Christ as your Lord and Savior, this spring of eternal water flows within in you more prolifically than that which flows in my kitchen.  We don’t have to haul the water up from the depths of a well and carry it long distances to drink our fill, it is an ever-flowing fountain within us that serves to satisfy our souls with the promise of salvation.  Even though we don’t have to work for it, we must still drink of it daily, or more often when we are walking through dry and barren places in our lives.  We can quench our thirst by reading and studying God’s promises in His Word, through prayer, praise and worship, and in fellowship with other believers.   
Just because you feel strong and healthy now doesn’t negate your constant need for a good watering.  Proper levels of spiritual hydration can protect us from the ever changing and often threatening conditions we face here on earth. You never know when scorching temperatures and dry desert-like winds may blow through causing a season of drought in your life.  Children challenge us, spouses may anger us, health concerns for ourselves and our loved ones weigh heavily, people we love die, addictions rear their ugly heads, jobs are eliminated, money is tight and bills are exorbitant, but maintaining adequate moisture levels daily can help prepare us to manage the effects these things have on our lives.  
When I passed back through my kitchen, just a few hours later, I noticed the oregano was once again thriving.  Its leaves were greener and soft again and its stems were reaching skyward in search of the sun.  It made a full recovery, just as each of us can when we return to the water of life. 
If I could, I would give my plants this water of life, so that they, too would never suffer when I forget to care for them, but God has reserved this precious commodity for only those He created in His image.  So drink up and then share the story of how you went from a dry and parched wasteland to a thriving oasis.  How your sad, hopeless, brittle leaves returned to a lush and vibrant state.  How your season of drought has ended and now you find that your well is full and your cup runs over.    How you were redeemed from the certain death of sin by the hope of eternal life in Christ Jesus. 
Don’t hoard this necessary element for yourself either, share it.  Once your thirst is quenched, you’ll realize that there is enough for everyone to drink up eternally.  Perhaps just a drop will be enough to lead others to the source where the Holy Spirit will encourage them to drink more deeply.  Just one drop – a smile, a kind word, a prayer, or a reminder that God loves them – may be enough to guide them to that for which their soul thirsts.

 

Knee Jerk

Every so often, I insist on brushing my boys’ teeth.  They generally do a pretty decent job, but let’s face it, they are 8 and 6 year old boys, so they have not yet learned how close cleanliness is to Godliness.  Two nights ago, as I was pushing the brush into my youngest son’s somewhat unwilling mouth, the perfectly portioned dollop of glittery blue gel slipped from the bristles and fell onto his chin.  Just as I was reaching the brush down to collect the paste, he freaked out.  Screamed and writhed like the earth was ending and in the process he banged his knee on the cabinet knob, which resulted in tears and a complete delay of oral hygiene.  In an attempt to comfort him and produce a different outcome in the future, I heard myself saying, “I had it all under control.  Why didn’t you trust me?”
How many times have I freaked out over something mildly discomforting, when things didn’t go exactly according to plan?  How many times have I completely overreacted and turned a mild inconvenience into a major catastrophe?  How many times has God whispered, “I’ve got this all under control.  Please trust me,” but I was too worked up to hear Him comforting me in my distress?
The answer is probably more times than I’m willing to admit.    
How many times have I made a situation worse because I failed to realize that God had everything under control, and that everything was going according to His plan? 
When I allow my emotions and reactions to spiral out of control, I am essentially telling God I don’t trust Him to show me how to handle the situation.  Just like my precious child did last night, I writhe and moan and lash out and lose my temper, and in an instant I can forget that God really is in charge.  I lose sight of the fact that the bible teaches me that whatever situation He allows to come my way has the intent of somehow bringing Him glory or drawing me closer to Him.  The reactions we have to the events that transpire in our lives are choices.  All too often they are involuntary responses that cause more harm than good.  Inevitably somebody is watching.  The unwarranted damage I do isn’t always limited to myself either, it could be in the way I shape society’s view of a woman who calls herself a Christian. 
Daily I ask for and receive forgiveness for the way I act, but the damage done to those who don’t know Jesus when they witness a reaction that fails the test of faith is unfathomable.  I once read a book called “Becoming a Woman of Influence,” but the whole time I was reading, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that we are already women of influence, whether we want to be or not.  Simply by our place in life we all wield influence in the lives of those around us.  The question we should ask ourselves is what influence are we exerting?  Is the example we set leading others toward or away from the cross and Jesus’ saving sacrifice there?
Sometimes our knee jerk reactions (both literal and figurative in my son’s case) are influenced by our sinful human nature, and that cannot be avoided.  But when those whose view of Jesus we hope to shape don’t see our remorse and repentance for our actions, we send the wrong message.  Let’s be big enough to admit our mistakes, even and perhaps especially to strangers.  Our failings can be teaching points that endear us, instead of distance us, from those who don’t know Christ as their savior.  The very fact that we recognize our failings and desperate need for a Savior may be enough to turn the tide of public opinion on Christianity.
It certainly takes vigilance, but I’m praying for more trust, more faith that God has everything under control.  When I don’t get the house I’m dreaming of, the trainee doesn’t know how to use the register, the drive through waiter gets my order wrong, the computer malfunctions, my children misbehave (in public or private), drivers cut me off, the movie I wanted to see is sold out, big box store lines are long and more checkout lanes are closed than open, my husband acts in a way I find insensitive, the dog chews my favorite leopard print heels, the swimming hole we planned to go to isn’t letting any more cars in the park, or heaven-forbid, toothpaste runs down my chin, I desire to react in a way that makes those around me want to know how I do it, so I can point them to the One I trust with my everlasting life.
James 1:19 says, “…Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”  Slow to react. Hear what God has to speak to you before you choose what you will say or do in response to a certain situation. What if my son had taken a breath and asked God how he should react to the toothpaste dripping down his chin before having his little temper tantrum?  I would have scooped it up and continued the brushing.  He would not have banged his knee and been in bed at least 5 minutes earlier. 
What if I chose to pause and pray for just a moment before reacting to a situation that seems to be out of my control?   I think at the very least He would comfort me by quietly reminding me that I’m not in charge at all, that He knows the best way to usher me into His kingdom.  What peace would I find if I could take just a second to be still and know that I am not God, but He is! 
I’m just now getting back in my comfortable routine that allows me the quiet time with God each morning, but what I learned while my schedule was in chaos is that I can pray anytime I want, in fact I should “pray without ceasing,” just as 1 Thessalonians 5: 17 tells me.  I have become more aware that His power and His council are available for me 24/7, not just between the hours of 5:15 and 6:00 am.   
And so today, my challenge is that for all those times when life seems to be spinning out of control, instead of allowing myself a knee jerk reaction, I hit my knees, even if only metaphorically, and ask God to teach me how to respond with peace, love, humility and hope!   Perhaps I will save myself and those around me from some unnecessary scrapes and bruises, but when I do harm others with my reactions, I will ask for forgiveness.

 

Sought After

 
Have you ever been, pursued, looked for, sought after?
 
I met my now husband in 2001 in Korea where we were both staff officers assigned to the same unit.  We didn’t date there, but when he left there a month before I did in April 2002, we knew we wanted to keep in touch.  We were fortunate enough to be slated for the same Army school starting in June and traded a few e-mails in the months in between.  I had just signed in to our unit at Fort Lee, Virginia and was leaving post when I spotted his truck coming through the gate.  I did a quick u-turn and went back on to post.  I tracked him down and followed him all over FT Lee, flashing my lights, waving and honking my horn.  If he saw me either he didn’t recognize me or he thought I was plum crazy.  We ended up in the parking lot of the school house before he slowed down enough for me to pull up beside him.  I was so excited to see him, I flung open my door, jumped out of the car, ran around to the driver’s side of his truck and was hoping for this great big hug.  But all he did is manually roll down the window about 2 ½ inches and say, “Hey,” rather tentatively, at that.  What a letdown.  I was filled with sadness, thinking perhaps I had misjudged his emotions.  He didn’t even ask for my phone number.
 
Clearly things turned out alright in the end, but I was still disappointed by our initial reunion.  I had chased this man all over FT Lee like a mad woman.  I had sought him out and he seemed so much less excited to see me than I was him. 
 
I wonder if maybe that’s a little like how God feels about seeking us?  The bible is full of stories that tell us how He has sought out His people through the ages and how we have rejected Him.  God sent Isaiah to prophecy to His people, to try to get their attention and tell them about what would happen if they didn’t change their sinful ways. Their city and their temple would be destroyed and they would be removed from the promised land.  Foreigners would mock them asking, “Where is your God now,” and “Why can’t your mighty God save you from this.”  It was going to appear as though God had completely forsaken the Israelites, but Isaiah also a message of hope.  Despite all this destruction and devastation, God would still be with them, a remnant would survive and return to Zion, that the temple would be rebuilt and His people would be redeemed in such a way that the gentiles would “call them The Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord” and they would “be called Sought After, A City Not Forsaken” Isaiah 62:12.
 
God doesn’t tolerate sin, but He loves us so much that He provides a way for us to be clothed in righteousness.  We now know that God never stops loving His disobedient people, and that His plan all along was for Jesus to be our redeemer.  That Jesus would be the reason His people are called “Sought After.”  God sought after each one of His people like a shepherd who lost a sheep or a woman who misplaced a coin (Luke 15:1-10).
 
He still seeks us today.  Imagine Jesus following you around town today, trying to get your attention, hoping for a joyous reunion with His child.  He may not be driving a forest green Saturn, flashing His lights and honking His horn, but He does give us signals that are intended to get our attention and draw us into His presence, closer to Him.  Don’t be oblivious, rather look for Him in every situation you encounter.  His desire is to spend some time with us, for us to get to know Him better, share Himself, His peace and His wisdom with us.  Won’t you let Him catch you today?  But first, think for a moment how He would like that encounter to talk place…  Will you react like my husband did, with skepticism and maybe a little embarrassment?  Or would you fling open your door and run into His open arms?

Paralleling Poop

As the mother of young boys, poop is the topic of far more conversations than I care to disclose, but this morning the idea was all mine.  I took advantage of my husband’s later than usual departure for work and walked the dog.  Quiet walks alone aren’t a staple around here these days since those two boisterous boys of mine are out of school for the summer.  While we were walking, my sweet old girl did what dogs do and as I was cleaning up behind her, I couldn’t help but think about three points where sin parallels poop:

  1. Be {over} prepared
  2. Pick it up NO MATTER WHAT
  3. Get rid of it ASAP

This morning Hannah hadn’t been out yet, so I knew she would be producing at least one pile of poop for me to clean up.  I took four bags, just in case.  I only needed two, but I was prepared, just in case.  You never know, a bag might have an unnoticed hole or one might break, or she could have been more prolific than ever before.  Satan will try to trick, tempt, tease and take us down the wrong path and his attempts are often at times or in places we least expect it.  The way to be prepared when dealing with his treacherous ways that lead us to sin is to be in the word, to read it, study it, know it word for word when possible.  Know what God says about you, how He expects you to live and the assurances He give us through His Son.  Just like those walmart bags I carried with me today, the word of God is free to each one of us.  Download it on your phone or pick up a copy at a local church.  You can even still find them in the nightstand drawer at some hotels.  You can never have too much bible knowledge.  You never know when you will need even the most obscure verse to protect you from the schemes of the devil.  “The word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12 So when we read it we are able to discern if our thoughts and actions are in accord with how we will be judged by Jesus and in so doing we can be protected from the wiles of the devil.  It is also the only offensive weapon mentioned in Ephesians when Paul encourages us to put on the whole armor of God.  By studying the Word, we are more likely to be prepared with the right word when we are in danger of falling prey to the devil’s dastardly deeds.

The second pile my precious companion deposited this morning was at the edge of the woods in some bushes around the bend in the road where nobody could see.  Believe me, for a split second, it crossed my mind to just leave it.  Nobody saw it.  Who would ever know?  But I knew it would haunt me.  I thought, “What if a child chased after a ball that got loose in just that exact spot and stepped in it?”  Just like a steaming pile of poop our sin lingers around stinking up our lives until we confess it.  It will eat at us us until we let it drive us to our knees.  And no matter how well we think it is hidden, God knows it before we even bring it to Him.  “For the eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good,” Proverbs 15:3 and He “will bring every work into judgement, including every secret thing.” Ecclesiastes 12:14.  So, no matter how big or small the sin and even if you think nobody else knows about it, confess it, no matter what.  You’ll be glad you did!

Whatever the written equivalent of “biting my tongue” is, that’s exactly what I’m doing in a valiant attempt to not perpetuate the overuse of that latest phrase made popular by a Disney movie.  So instead, I will say, “Get rid of it!”  Every dog owner who has carried a bag of fresh poop around for any length of time while searching for an appropriate receptacle knows it is not a pleasant task.  That is one bag you want to get rid of as quickly as possible.  It’s the same with our guilt and shame we carry around over our sins.  Once they are confessed, we need to ___ __ __, too.  The bible tells us that “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”  Psalm 103:12.  But we humans are prone to  toting them around with us even after they’ve been confessed, and that stinks even more than that bag of poop I carried for a quarter mile looking for a trash can this morning.  Keeping that guilt and shame doesn’t make us more holy or more forgiven, so get rid of it ASAP!  If you think otherwise, perhaps you need to re-read parallel number one, because it just may be Satan who is encouraging you to carry around that wretched guilt and shame in at attempt to draw you away from the peace found in the love and forgiveness of our Creator.

Clearly all this extra time I get to spend with my boys over the summer is influencing my mind, but these parallels were too perfect to pass up. Do you need to work more on being over prepared to thwart the attacks of the devil?  Is there some sin you need to pick up and pass off to our most merciful God?  Are you carrying around a bag of stinky guilt and shame you need to get rid of ASAP? How can you be more like a responsible dog owner today?

Pleading Guilty

Back in February I got a speeding ticket.  True story.  I know you are shocked!!  I was so appalled and embarrassed that I could hardly tell my husband and my kids still don’t know.  I had absolutely no idea I was even speeding but I got clocked doing 62 in a 45.  My excuse that I thought it was a 55 wasn’t even remotely valid, as I would still have been 7 over.  Apparently, I failed to see the posted speed limit sign traveling in that direction.

I carried the ticket around in the fold out portion of my wallet so that I wouldn’t lose it and would be reminded to call about paying it.  Each time I would pull out my wallet to pay for a purchase, I was shamed again, thinking that anybody who saw it right there in my hand would know I was guilty of speeding.  The thing is I was guilty no matter if anybody else knew it or not.

I finally brought myself to call the parish office and find out how much and how I could pay.  As I went through all the questions with the clerk on the other end of the line, I realized why I had been dragging my feet…  Paying the ticket meant I was entering a guilty plea with the court.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t really like to admit I’m guilty of anything.  Paying a speeding ticket was one thing, but admitting, out loud to another person that I was guilty of a violation was another thing altogether!

Here is the amazing part of this, once I agreed to that condition and processed the payment, I was free.  I didn’t have that silly thing hanging over my head.   I didn’t have to carry the ticket around with me anymore, like a “Scarlet A” blazoned on my shirt proclaiming my guilt to everybody. I didn’t even have to give the incident another thought.

That’s how it is with God’s grace.  Once you plead guilty to your sin, you are freed up to be forgiven.  No more guilt, no more shame, and we don’t even have to pay the fine.  But just like I had to swallow my pride and pick up the phone to admit that I was guilty of breaking the law, we must humble ourselves before the Most Holy God and admit that we are sinners.

His grace is there for us just as sure as the freedom I felt from fulfilling my obligation to Vernon Parish.  But we don’t have to pay the fine and those sins don’t stay on our record for 1-3 years.  Jesus paid the fine for us on the cross once and for all.  Psalm 103 assures us that God removes our sin far from us when we acknowledge it before Him.

“He has not dealt with us according to our sins,

nor punished us according to our iniquities.

For as the heavens are high above the earth,

so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;

as far as the East is from the west,

so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

                                                                        Psalm 103:10-12

The prophet Micah wrote that “He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy.  He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities,” and that “[He] will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”  Micah 7:18-19.

God has required payment for sins since He instituted the law with Moses, “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission,” Hebrews 9:22.  This is why it was necessary for Christ to suffer and die for our sins.  Jesus Himself used these words in celebrating Passover with His disciples saying, “Drink from it, all of you.  For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”

Paul teaches Timothy that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.”  Titus 2:11-14

God’s forgiveness through the shedding of Jesus’ blood is for all people and for all sins, but we must admit that we are daily, desperately in need of it.  It doesn’t matter if we don’t think we are sinning that badly, if we failed to see the signs or even if we actually got caught in our sins by anybody else.  The only way to overcome the guilt and shame that plague us is the call upon Jesus and His Salvation.  When we accept His sacrifice for us and believe in His Salvation, not only do we experience His freedom and forgiveness, but we are also made Children of God, heirs with Jesus of an inheritance in His heavenly kingdom.  So make the call and plead guilty.  You will be glad you did!

Cultivating Compassion

Ordinarily, I am not a very compassionate mother when it comes to missing school.  My boys know the rules are the same ones my Mom used to judge whether or not my sister and I would get on the bus….  At the risk of TMI, if they aren’t vomiting, don’t have a fever or diarrhea, off to school they go regardless of any unseen ailment they claim is plaguing them.

Last Monday and Tuesday I was struck down with probably the worst headache of my life.  You know the kind where it hurts just to blink….  I couldn’t stand for more than 10 minutes without fearing collapse.  I wanted all the lights off and curtains closed.  Thankfully that was before my husband left on his latest “business trip” and he was able to take care of me and the boys that evening.  The next day was marginally better, but of course in this crazy winter weather we are having this year, school was cancelled once again here in Louisiana, so I was home alone, feeling sick and still having to care for my two young children.  I’m sure just about all of you reading this have been there, and thankfully I am not ending my story on this pitiful note.

Friday morning when my otherwise perfectly healthy 8 year old complained of a headache, I relented my usually harsh rules on attendance.  Had I not suffered earlier in the week, I probably would have drug him out of bed, forced him to dress and eat and sent him on his way.  There would likely have been a lot of drama and perhaps even some screaming on both out parts.  Because of the pain I had endured, I was able to instead show him compassion.  I could have turned bitter and told him to suffer through it like I had, but instead, by the grace of God, I chose compassion.  Instead of damaging our relationship with harsh words and anger, I was able to strengthen our bond with love.

Our pain and suffering here on earth can lead is in two directions, compassion or bitterness.  By enduring our own hardships, we can either become more sympathetic toward the suffering of others and inclined to give them aid and support as we show them mercy, or we can harden our hearts and be inclined toward animosity with others because of it.  One is an act of love and the other a display of hostility.

In one of the most famous stories in the bible, we receive a lesson in compassion.  Samaritans of Jesus’s day were the people who lived in what had once been Israel’s Northern Kingdom.  They were essentially cousins of the Jews, but since they failed to keep Jewish law in its entirety, there was much hatred between the two.  Yet, it is the Samaritan Jesus chooses to highlight in the well-known story Luke relates in his gospel account.  In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is bantering with a lawyer who attempts to justify what I assume are his own failings at keeping the requirement to love your neighbor as yourself, when he asks Jesus for clarification on the point of just who qualifies as his neighbor.  Jesus’ parable tells of a Jewish man who is attacked on the road by robbers and left for dead.  Two men most Jews would expect to stop and give this poor man aid, a priest and a Levite, passed right by, as if they hadn’t even seen him. Perhaps these two men hadn’t suffered in their lives, or maybe they had never known what it was like to need help.  Either way their inaction was far less than loving and if another man hadn’t come along, would have led to the injured man’s demise.  Then, came a Samaritan man, whose people were so despised by the Jews that they wouldn’t even pass through their land.  A man who had likely been rejected and persecuted all of his life by the Jews, a man who had most certainly known need and rejection in his life.  This man is the one most Jews would have expected to spit on the bleeding victim and keep on walking.  Yet this is the man who bent down and cleaned the Jewish man’s wounds, placed him on his own donkey, took to an inn and then paid for his stay while he recuperated.  The Samaritan man had cultivated a heart of compassion.

I believe that whatever we endure in this life is used by God to enable you to be compassionate and loving toward others.  Perhaps not as directly or as instantaneously as in my experience this week, but you will likely find a connection.  This life certainly provides us with plenty of experiences that can make us more sympathetic toward others: unexpected death, illness, injury, pain, loss of a job, depression, divorce…   Being an Army wife inherently adds a whole host of additional opportunities to develop compassion:  deployments, frequent moves, separation from loved ones, injuries, PTSD… I could go on and I’m sure you could add your own to the list as well.  We don’t get to choose what our experiences are, but we definitely make the choice about how we use them to relate to others who face similar situations.

When is the last time you had compassion on your neighbor?    If we do not allow our harshest experiences to give way to compassion, the tears, suffering and pain will have been for nothing.  Not only do we steal glory from God when we refuse to let our sad circumstances lead us to love others, we also deny ourselves the blessing we are called to inherit in the Kingdom of God.  “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous, not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this that you may inherit a blessing.” 1 Peter 3:8-9

Take Flight

One carry-on bag packed for me alone.  Boarding pass displayed on my smart phone.  Moving at my own pace, not that of a 5 year old.  Choosing the healthy restaurant because my kids aren’t screaming for a burger and fries with a toy.  Reading a book or a magazine that doesn’t have pictures of toys or trucks or dinosaurs.  Resting my eyes with no worry of my children wandering off.  Thanks to the support of my husband, the generosity of my amazing neighbors and a couple of great babysitters, I was fortunate to  travel solo last weekend to celebrate the promotion of one of my closest friends and visit with family and friends who live in the DC area.

All those people from different backgrounds with one thing in common – everybody is going somewhere.  Some are in a hurry racing off to their connection before the doors close and others have nothing but time on their hands as they endure a delay or an insanely long lay-over.  Some are grumpy and others find ways to pleasantly pass the time.  Some are dressed impeccably well leaving you with the impression that they will step right into a board meeting when they deplane and others have undoubtedly opted for maximum comfort during their travel.  Some are headed to the same destination and others to more exotic places, but you don’t know who is traveling with you until the boarding announcements begin.  Some are friendly, yet others can’t be bothered to expend the energy required to curl the corners of their lips upward when they pass.  Businesswomen, Soldiers, junior pageant queens, grandparents, vacationers, geographical bachelors, honeymooners, those celebrating their golden anniversaries, families, college students, foreigners, and citizens, athletes, authors, politicians, writers….

And there are choices at every terminal.  Walk or take the train.  McDonald’s or Fresh.  Sit down meal or take it to go.  Pampering and a nap room rented by the hour or a crowded seat at the terminal to watch the news or a playoff game.  Shoe shine or smoke break.  A seat near the charging stations or one by the windows to watch planes come and go.

As I walked down the length of the terminal I heard boarding calls for all sorts of destinations, some places I’ve already been and others I would love to visit someday…. Brussels, Colorado Springs, Los Angeles, Moline, Mumbai, Rome, Zurich.  From Atlanta, you could get just about anywhere in the world.  You just have to buy the right ticket.  No matter what choices you made on your walk through the terminal, you must simply pass though the correct gate to have a successful trip.

All the travelers in the airport have one thing in common, like the chorus of one of my son’s favorite songs, “All I know is I’m not home yet.  This is not where I belong” (Where I Belong by Building 429).  Not one of us is where we will spend eternity, we are all going someplace.    The songwriter wasn’t referring to any earthly place when he sang about “home.”  He was talking about leaving this world and reaching the kingdom of God.  In order to get there, all we must do is believe in Jesus.  In John 10:9, Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”

Once you step on that plane, you put your very life in the hands of the pilot and most of us breathe a huge sigh of relief when we finally get to our seat.  It is quite pleasant to sit back and be able to relax for a little while.  There are things you can do when travelling by plane that you cannot do while driving a car to your destination.  In my row alone, there was a man playing video games, a woman doing word searches and another a crossword, someone reading a book and I was typing this piece.  Two of the three people in the row in front of us were sleeping and another was eating.

We should all feel a similar sense of overwhelming peace when we accept Christ as our Savior, knowing that He is in charge of our final destination.  We are certainly told to make our requests known to God, but not to worry about them, so that “the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7  We put our lives in the hands of the pilots who fly us around the world, but often struggle to let Jesus navigate our day to day living.  Allowing Him to have that control is the only way to live in freedom from sin, from the need to please man, from worry about the future, and from futile attempts to earn our own righteousness.

To be in the pilot’s seat means to be in control of your destination.  Our society likes control.  It is hard for us to relinquish the tiller because we are so sure we know what’s best for us.  Unfortunately, we can’t see around corners or into the future, so we are really not best suited to pilot our own lives.  Only God knows the plans He has for us, “plans to prosper [us] and not to harm [us], plans to give [us] hope and a future.”  Jeremiah 29:11.  We must train ourselves to let go and step on the plane with God in control.  When we do, he takes over all the worry of getting to our destination and frees us up to live, to love boldly, to rest in his saving grace, to worship Him.

I am always interested in the look of the people who fly first class.  As I trudge toward the back I try to figure out what sets them apart.  We are all going to end up at the same destination in the same amount of time.  They might get off the plane a little faster than I do, but we are all still landing in DC.  Still something about these people entitles them to better service, more leg room and complementary food and beverages. Because of what they have done or who they know or the job they do, they can afford to pay the higher fare for a better seat.  God doesn’t discriminate based on what you can pay.  In fact He knows that we cannot possibly pay our own fare.

Too often we long to pay for an upgrade in life, as well.  We make ourselves crazy trying to earn favor with God or man, attempting to control our own destiny, or make ourselves look like we deserve better treatment.  Jesus calls us to come to Him when we are weary and heavy burdened by the requirements falsely placed on us in the name of religion and find our rest in Him (Matthew 11:28-29).  The only way to ensure you arrive in the Kingdom of Heaven is to book a ticket for which the price was paid in Jesus’ blood and the only identity that matters is your title as a child of God.

There is no baggage to claim and our trip to our eternal home is done solo.  Are you prepared to enjoy the freedom of taking flight with Jesus?  Are you willing to say, “Take this world and give me Jesus”?  How are you passing the time with your fellow travelers?  What can you hand over control of to God today?  Are you working hard for an upgrade but failing to realize that once you are on the flight your destination is assured, that it’s the destination that ultimately matters, not where you ride in the plane?

 

 

Rotten to the Core

While I was visiting my husband’s family, my mother in law received a bag of tasty looking fruit.  One day at lunch time she was getting ready to cut some up for the kids, and we were discussing our favorite varieties of apples.  She is fond of the Gala and Jonathan, while my family is usually happiest with the Granny Smiths.   Neither of us particularly care for the red delicious as they are generally not very crisp, but we were certainly not prepared for what we found when she cut into that first apple….

It was completely rotten at the core.

Rotten Apple

Usually when fruit is beaten or bruised or broken on the outside, we steer clear of it.  But this apple looked nice and shiny and red with no soft spots or discoloration.   There were no outward signs of what lurked beneath.

People can be a lot like that, too.  We clean up pretty well, don’t we?  Put on some make up to accentuate our best facial features, dress in our most flattering outfit, style our hair just so and exhibit good behavior to make a good impression on others and appear desirable.  But what about our insides?  All too often we neglect what can’t be seen with the human eye.   Paul gave Peter some advice to pass on to the women of his church in 1 Peter 3:3-4 when he wrote, “Do not let your adornment be merely outward – arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel – rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.”  This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong about dressing nicely or being well groomed, but that what is most valuable to God is found beneath the surface.

Making assumptions about people based on their appearance is not a new situation.  Saul was the first king chosen by the Israelites because of his pleasing outward appearance. He was a strong, tall, handsome war hero and they thought he would make the perfect ruler.  Until that point, God had served as the King of the Jews, but the Israelites saw that the other nations around them had earthly rulers and they wanted one for themselves.  Unfortunately, Saul turned out to be disobedient to God, jealous, feeble and eventually went crazy.

Even before Saul’s demise, God sent the prophet Samuel on a mission to anoint his successor.  The search took Him to the town of Bethlehem, to a man named Jesse and his sons.   Samuel looked at the oldest son and thought he was the one, however God told Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him.”   1 Samuel 16:7.  In fact, God did not prompt Samuel to select any of the seven oldest sons.  Instead, he asked to see the youngest, David, who was called in from where he was tending the sheep.   “For the Lord does not see as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  1 Samuel 16:7.  God had chosen David as the one who would rule after Saul because He knew what was in his heart.  Luke relates God’s own endorsement of David in Acts 13:22, “He raised up for them David as a king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, “I have found David, the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all my will.’”  David was a wise ruler and faithfully sought the will of God in his life.

To say David was a man after God’s own heart does not mean that he was free from sin.  On the contrary, his failures are well documented.  David did, however, understand that God was the author of everything good in his life and that his sin must be dealt with.

He “said unto the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.’” Psalm 16:2 (NLT).  To acknowledge that anything virtuous, respectable, righteous, honorable, truthful or worthy in us comes from God is an act of humility.  Proverbs 3:34 says that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  I would rather acknowledge by own unworthiness and receive the grace and forgiveness of God than continue on in my sin under the impression that I know more than God or can be good apart from Him.  God is good and I am not.  He is holy and I am not.  But when I confess my transgressions and accept His grace, He sees the righteousness of His Son when He looks at me.

David also realized that trying to cover up his rottenness to make himself look good to others only led to more sin. David had an affair with the wife of one of his Soldiers who was away at war.  When Bathsheba became pregnant, David was desperate to cover up his transgression and devised a plot to have the Soldier stranded and left for dead during battle.  David’s first sin of lust and coveting another man’s wife led to adultery, lies and ultimately to murder.  That seems like a headline ripped from our news today!  Maybe times haven’t changed as much as we might like to think.  Chances are your sins haven’t led you quite so far down this slippery slope of depravity, but this should fill you with a sense of hope that no matter what the sin, every sinner can still be considered to be a person after God’s own heart. No matter what kind of rottenness lurks beneath your skin, God has the power to make you fresh and new.

Some of the most beautiful and passionate psalms contain the confessions of David and the joy he felt when his relationship with God was restored.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

And cleanse me from my sin.

For I acknowledge my transgression,

And my sin is always before me.

Against You, only You, have I sinned,

And done this evil in Your sight –

 

Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,

And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.

 

Hide Your face from my sins,

And blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

And renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from Your presence,

And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,

And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,

And sinners shall be converted to You.
Psalm 51-2-3, 6, 9-13

 

Perhaps this is a lesson David passed on to his son Solomon who included it in his own wise sayings, “He who covers his sin will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.”  Proverbs 28:13

There are plenty of ways we try to make ourselves look appealing from the outside, like a nice shiny apple but only one way to be desirable to God on the inside.  Jesus recognized this dilemma among the religious leaders when he told them, “So you outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  Matthew 23:28.  They tried very hard to appear righteous before men by adhering to their own interpretations of the law and condemning all those who failed, but it was the beaten, the bruised and the broken that the Son of God chose to spend His time with.  He called the Pharisees and scribes hypocrites, and called the dishonest tax collectors, the doubtful, the unloved, the outcasts, the sinners and even the one who would betray Him to be part of His inner circle, to be His disciples.  He chose to spend time in the company of people who knew they were rotten apples, because He knew that by having a relationship with Him, they could be saved, forgiven, made clean from the inside out.

Righteous Apple

The condition of our hearts is known to us and God alone.  It is fairly easy to convince others of our goodness.  Sometimes, we are even capable of deceiving ourselves, but never Him.  Eventually, the rottenness on the inside of that apple would have eaten away at all of the flesh and shown through the skin.  Left untended and unconfessed, the results of our sin will eventually manifest themselves outwardly, too.

My mother in law was forced to toss that rotten apple, because it wasn’t fit to eat.  Once our rottenness is exposed, we prove that we aren’t good for anything either.  There is nothing we can do about our core on our own though.  We are no more capable of purifying our own hearts than the apple is of changing its rot to crisp, healthy fruit.  The apple is a lost cause, but you and I are not.  Jesus alone can cure the decay and rottenness inherent in each of us, and we’ve all got some.  “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  1 John 1:9

Would you rather be surprised that an ugly-skinned apple has sweet, delicious, healthy fruit inside or be disappointed by a pretty looking fruit that is decayed inside?

Let’s not worry so much with our outward appearance, but rather place the focus on the inside.  Let’s give God the chance to restore and cleanse us so that we might be pleasing to Him.  Let’s learn to select friends, leaders, co-workers, or recipients of our goodwill based not on their outward appearance, but more for the condition and potential of their hearts.  Let’s share with others the love and grace of our heavenly Father who has the power to make us new from the inside out!

JOY

I have
these three letters J – O – Y that I have used to decorate my home at Christmas
time for the last few years.  They are
about 2 ½ feet high and more than a foot wide. 
I painted them a shiny burgundy color to match my decor.  The first year I had them we lived in
Colorado and I stood them up on my mantel above the fire place.  Last year when we started to decorate for
Christmas at our home in Louisiana, I realized I didn’t have a good place to
display them inside.  I was determined to
get them up, because they are an amazing reminder to me of the real meaning of
Christmas.  My sweet husband and father
rigged a billboard out of the side of a bookcase that was broken during our
move and hung it with twine on the side of the house near the front door.  Then, I gave the letters a fresh coat of
outdoor paint and velcroed them to the board. 
 Why Velcro you ask? Well, who
knows where we will be living this time next year or how I will be forced to
display them!  

 

I have
shared my JOY with friends, and even loaned it to one of them for her Christmas
display while her husband was home for R&R that year.  It is proudly positioned for people who drive
by to see and those who visit generally have questions about how it is hung,
what it’s made of and what kind of paint I used.  It is currently my cover photo on Facebook
and once I actually pinned a picture of it to Pinterest as a decorating
idea.  I was in a mild state of panic one
year when I couldn’t find my JOY.  It is
so apparent how much these letters mean to me that last year one of my
wonderful neighbors covered my JOY in plastic to protect it from a rainstorm. 

 

Keeping
with the theme, our Christmas card this year says, “Joy to the world the Lord
is come!”  I’m sure you’ve heard the song
before. First published in 1719, it is one of the most popular Christmas hymns
of all time.  But did you know that the
English hymn writer, Isaac Watts, originally intended the lyrics to glorify the
second coming of Christ, not His virgin birth we usually associate it with this
time of year?

Even
before Jesus came to earth, the bible spoke of the Joy of the Lord.  It is no surprise that this kind of joy
brought the people of the old testament strength or that the people of Judah
were reminded that they should celebrate His love and forgiveness.

After
having been in exile in Babylon for 70 years, in 538 BC the Jews began
returning to Judea to rebuild the temple. 
One of the great leaders of the bible, Nehemiah brought two groups of
Israelites from Babylon to return to Jerusalem with the mission of rebuilding
the wall of protection around the city. 
However, he was more concerned with the restoration of the people’s
spiritual protection than the symbolic physical protection the wall provided
them.  To this end, he collaborated with
Ezra to teach them the Law as it was originally written.  In 443 B.C., the month after construction on
the wall was completed, Ezra read the Law to the people and upon hearing it,
they wept because of the conviction they felt over their own sin.  But Nehemiah wanted them to take away another
message; one of God’s continual restoration, that God loved them no matter what
their sin and desired to have a meaningful relationship with them.  Ezra, Nehemiah and the priests whose
teachings caused the people to lament over their inability to keep the law
encouraged them saying, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send
portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our
Lord.  Do not sorrow, for the joy of the
Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10.  Despite
the sin that caused God to exact punishment upon them in the form of a
Babylonian conquering, God had allowed them to return to Jerusalem and blessed
them by making a way for the rebuilding of their great city.

 

We
have reason to celebrate because of God’s unfailing love for us, too.  No matter how we disobey His commands, we
always have the opportunity to repent, to turn away from that sin, and rebuild
our relationship with Him.  It is that
relationship that provides the eternal protection that no wall of stones can.

 

About 450 years after Nehemiah encouraged the people of
Jerusalem to embrace the Joy of the Lord, others found this joy in different
way.  Matthew 2:10 says, “When they saw
the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”   This star was the star that pointed the wise
men to the place of our Savior’s birth that very first Christmas.  They first looked for Jesus, the King of the
Jews, in Jerusalem, but were disheartened when they were unable to find Him
there.  They turned to Herod who gathered
all the priests and scribes to determine from the scriptures where the Christ
was to be born.  Herod, desiring to kill
this “King of the Jews” because he was threatened by the presence of a new
ruler in his domain, asked the wise men to search for Jesus in Bethlehem and
report back his location.  When the wise
men left Herod, they once again saw the star and followed it to the Christ
Child. 

These verses from Matthew 2:1-12 provide an interesting
parallel for us today.  Religious leaders
who had fallen away from God’s plan, were leading others astray and would
ultimately crucify the Savior, still found truth in the scriptures.  Political leaders who had no interest in
actually following Jesus claimed to be seeking to worship Him.  Wise men found joy and encouragement in a
star that led them into the presence of our Savior.  Are you being led astray by people who claim
to know God, but aren’t preaching His Truth? 
Are you prepared to accept Jesus as your King even if it means a loss of
self or position?  Are you seeking to
enter into His presence through true worship? 
No matter what others say or do, truth is The Word of God, worship is
the way to seek Him and true JOY is found in the presence of the Lord.

According
to Jewish Law, only the high priest was able to come into the presence of the
Lord in the Most Holy Place and then only once a year was he allowed behind the
curtain where the tabernacle of the Lord was kept.  This was the day of atonement and he
sprinkled the blood of a bull and a goat in order to symbolically cleanse the
people of their sins.  But they weren’t
truly clean as evidenced by the fact that only the High Priest could ever enter
into the Most Holy.  But now for us,
Jesus has cleansed us from our sin, every sin, those committed in the past,
those we commit daily, and even those we will commit in the future.  On the day of His death, “Jesus cried out
again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.  Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn
in two from top to bottom.” Matthew 27:50-51. 
By His death, each of us have gained access to the Most Holy place and been
granted permission to come into the presence of God.  David’s words point to the path of eternal
life and confirm where we will find true JOY, when he wrote, “You will show me
the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are
pleasures forevermore.”  Psalm 16:11.

With
the death and resurrection of Jesus we can enter into the presence of God at
any time we choose.  This is where we
find fullness of JOY, this is where He will show us the paths of life, the ways
we should walk, how we should act and what we should and shouldn’t do.  For our salvation, we must accept and believe
in Jesus as our Savior, but to enter into His presence we must repent of our
sins in our hearts and show a willingness to be molded by Him in order to
receive His fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore.

I recently read an article entitled Private
Worship: The Key to Joy
by Nancy Missler which concludes with the following
thought:

“Please bear in
mind, since we are not under the Law, we can, in fact, worship the Lord as
little or as much as we like.  It doesn’t
change our salvation.

What is affected
by our lack of daily encounters with the living God, is our personal
relationship with Him – the intimacy we might enjoy, the joy we might
experience as a result of His touch, the insights and revelations He might
extend, the godly strength we might receive enabling us to get through our
trials quicker and finally, the ability we might have in order to reflect His
image, His Love and not our own for the rest of the day.  Truly, worship is the most important thing a
Christian can learn to do!”

The author also says earlier in the article that “True
worship, then is contingent upon our offering ourselves as a living sacrifice
and God cleansing our flesh and spirit. 
In other words, our heart condition matters more in worship than our
voice, our good intentions or our actions. 
Without a cleansed heart, we simply cannot enter His presence or
worship.”  Psalm 24:3-5 says, “Who may
ascend into the hill of the Lord?  Or who
may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has
not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully.  He shall receive blessing from the Lord and
righteousness from the God of his salvation.” 
How is the condition of your heart? Are you prepared to enter into the
presence of the Lord and worship Him? Or are you harboring sin where He wishes
to place JOY?

Before he was betrayed, Jesus gives his disciples some
encouraging words in John 16:20 “Most assuredly, I say to you that you will
weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but
your sorrow will be turned into joy.”  He
goes on in John 16:22 to tell them, “Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will
see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from
you.”  So, while much of the world
rejoiced at the death of Jesus, His followers were sorrowful, but at His
resurrection, their weeping was turned to JOY. 
This is the Joy we will celebrate in a few short months at Easter.  The world, in an attempt to hold on to the
idea that they were right in killing Jesus, attempts to explain away His
resurrection, to diminish His deity and to denounce His teachings.  Much of the world seeks to find their joy in
the things of this world, but followers of Jesus can be certain of their
eternal JOY because of His death and resurrection.  We can claim that fullness of JOY in the
presence of the Lord when we approach Him with clean hands and a pure heart,
not deceiving ourselves but believing the truth of His Word. 

We may
find happiness in the world, but real JOY comes from a right relationship with
the Lord.  We can lose our happiness in
this world and still have the JOY of the Lord. 
JOY is independent of the harried hustle and bustle of the season.  JOY cannot be found in giving or receiving the
perfect gift.  JOY does not come from
running out for that one last thing you just can’t live without.  JOY is not encountered in a Pinterest-worthy
meal, the perfect outfit for pictures or a desert your family will rave about
for years to come.  JOY does not come by
hosting or attending Holiday parties every night of the week.  The JOY I seek is not only that which came to
us when Mary and Joseph welcomed the Son of God to this world, but also the JOY
that will come to those who believe in Him at His return.  The JOY of the Lord can exist within us
despite our circumstances here on earth. 
We may have sorrow here, but no one and nothing can take away our JOY.
 In order to experience this kind
of JOY we must be willing to separate ourselves from our sin, even if it is
pleasurable, or makes us feel secure or loved or important, even if others tell
us it’s alright.  Sin separates us from
God and it is only in His presence that we can find His JOY!

I have found this kind of JOY in private and corporate
worship, but only after careful evaluation of my life.  Unconfessed sin is a stumbling block that
keeps us from entering in true worship in the presence of our God.  We cannot experience His JOY without first
accepting His forgiveness, which requires us to admit we need it.  Assuming that we don’t need forgiveness
because we have blinded ourselves to our own sin or to the truth in His Word,
yet still thinking we will be allowed into His presence will only lead to
disappointment.  Proverbs 10:28 says,
“The hope of the righteous brings JOY, but the expectation of the wicked
will perish.”  
This
Christmas, I challenge you to prepare your whole heart for the coming of Christ
not just as a baby in a manger, but for His triumphant second coming as the
King of Kings by cleansing your hands, purifying your heart and living a life
worthy of the forgiveness won for us on the cross.

My JOY letters remind me of all this.  That true JOY is found in the presence of the
Lord.  That JOY is not changed by any
circumstance I am facing on this earth. 
That in order to experience this JOY, I must approach God with clean
hands and a pure heart, washed in the blood of the Lamb, living a life worthy
of that repentance (Matthew 3:8).  That
if my thoughts and actions are in line with God’s desires, I can have JOY no
matter what the world says.

This week, we celebrate our JOY in the coming of our Lord
to earth to show us His way.  At Easter
we celebrate our JOY in the death and resurrection of our Lord to make a way for
us to enter into the presence of God, clothed in His righteousness.  At Jesus’ triumphant return, we who have
lived for Him will see the eternal fullness of our JOY as he gathers us to
Him.  Each day in between we can
experience His JOY by not allowing sin and sorrow to take hold in our lives,
but instead receiving His blessings and living in His truth and grace,
preparing room in our hearts for Him.