Love without Obligation

I hate being told what to do.  And I hate when others do what they think they are obligated to do without meaning what they do.

In Philemon, Paul asks for the release of a slave, Onesimus.  But he does not order it.  He urges it out of love.

Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus.  I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to [both] you and me.  I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.  Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.  So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Philemon 1:8-18

This passage is powerful.  In it, Paul urges the slave’s master to forgive the slave who has run away (and perhaps committed another crime against the master).  To welcome him back with love.  To release him.  And in releasing him, releasing the master himself.

Paul refuses to order the master to accept him back and refuses to keep the slave away because doing either would prevent the master from having the opportunity to respond with love.  Paul recognizes that you cannot force love.  You cannot order love.  Love must be chosen willingly.  Forgiveness must be chosen willingly.  The good you do must not be forced but voluntary.   Paul is offering the master the opportunity to free the slave from any past debt or wrongdoing, and at the same time freeing the master to love and be loved.  Paul suggests that the “bad” that the slave did (running away) will bring about good: “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.”

We all have slaves in our lives.  People who we have imprisoned or condemned in our own minds.  People who have made us slaves to our own anger and ill will.  Paul urges us to release these slaves.  To welcome them with love.  Not because of some obligation but out of a voluntary choice to love.  Out of a choice to follow God’s greatest commandment.  We all meet people everyday who seem useless to us.  But Paul reminds us that each of them is an opportunity.  An opportunity to choose love.  An opportunity to share God’s love, so that they (and we) can be useful.  After all, Onesimus is just one of us.

Lord,

You call us to love, not just to do good out of obligation.  Help me to release those who I have imprisoned in my thoughts and words.  Open my heart to the true love that you call us to share.  Open my heart to forgiveness.  Help me to share your love every day with every one that I encounter.

Turn to God, Seek Help, Confess

Tonight the Gideon bible in my hotel room opened to Daniel.  I had to pull up the passage on the computer though because there were too many “thou’s” and “Ye’s” in the hotel version.

I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.  I prayed to the LORD, my God, and confessed, “Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, you who keep your covenant and show mercy toward those who love you and keep your commandments and your precepts!  We have sinned, been wicked and done evil; we have rebelled and turned from your commandments and your laws.

Daniel 9:3-5

I  could, and probably should, say these words everyday.  Ah Lord, great and awesome God, you who keep your covenant and show mercy toward those who love you and keep your commandments and your precepts,  I have sinned.  I have been wicked and done evil.  I have rebelled and turned from your commandments and your laws.  Have mercy on me.

In the Bible, God responds to Daniel’s prayers:

But then a hand touched me, raising me to my hands and knees.  “Daniel, beloved,” he said to me, “understand the words which I am speaking to you; stand up, for my mission now is to you.” When he said this to me, I stood up trembling.  “Do not fear, Daniel,” he continued; “from the first day you made up your mind to acquire understanding and humble yourself before God, your prayer was heard.

Daniel 10:10-12

Amidst the Thou’s and the Ye’s, the Bible provides simple instructions:

Turn to God

Seek help

Confess

Humble yourself before God

And the Bible provides hope and comfort:

Do not fear.

Your prayer was heard.

Ah Lord, great and awesome God, you who keep your covenant and show mercy toward those who love you and keep your commandments and your precepts,  I have sinned.  I have been wicked and done evil.  I have rebelled and turned from your commandments and your laws.  Have mercy on me.

 

The Just and the Wicked

The just and the wicked.  Where do I fall?  Most days I think I fall on the side of “the just.”  But honestly, most days I don’t really think about it.  I just go about life.  I obey most of the laws of man, other than perhaps a traffic violation here or there.  So I think I fall on the side of the just…  but what about God’s law?

Today the Bible opened to Malachi:

You have said, “It is useless to serve God; what do we gain by observing God’s requirements, And by going about as mourners before the LORD of hosts?  But we call the arrogant blessed; for evildoers not only prosper but even test God and escape.”

Then those who fear the LORD spoke with one another, and the LORD listened attentively; A record book was written before him of those who fear the LORD and esteem his name.  They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, my own special possession, on the day when I take action.  And I will have compassion on them, as a man has compassion on his son who serves him.

Then you will again distinguish between the just and the wicked,  Between the person who serves God, and the one who does not.

Malachi 3:14-18

The just and the wicked.  Those who serve God and those who do not.  Hmmm.  Not as confident anymore as to where I fall.  It is certainly easier to serve myself, or even to serve the human master, than to serve God.  God is more challenging.  Why?  Why is it more challenging to serve God?

I think, in part, it is because we don’t get the immediate gratification that we might get when we serve ourselves or follow the rules that man has set.  Like in Malachi, it may seem that we can prosper without ever serving God.  Serving God is harder because we don’t get a trophy or a sticker or a “good job” or any of the material or visible rewards that the world offers.  We may not even know for sure if we are doing the right thing.  Unlike all of the things on earth that may result in visible reward, serving God requires us to have faith.

I don’t think serving God is supposed to be about a reward or prospering.  If it is — then aren’t we just serving ourselves?  Isn’t love about being selfless?  God wants us to choose to love Him, to choose to serve Him — not because we gain some reward, but because we want to be with Him.  We choose Him.  We place Him first.  We know that we cannot earn our way into heaven, it is only through God’s grace and mercy that we can enter His kingdom.  Serving God, showing our love, is how we show we want to be there. God calls us to have faith.  He calls us to do more.  He challenges us to be the best we can be.

Lord,

I want to serve you.  Thank you for challenging me to be better.

 

May Blessings Last Longer Than The Leftover Turkey

Thanksgiving Day is over.  A day when many of us took time to give thanks.  To share blessings among our family and friends.  To speak in loving words.  Today is Black Friday.  Many of us have moved from giving blessings and thanks to pushing and shoving in long lines or fighting to get the last open parking spot.  How long do we stay in thankful mode?  The verbal blessings and thanks that we shower everyone with on Thanksgiving — do they continue past the leftover turkey?

This morning the Bible opened to James:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly, for we all fall short in many respects. If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also.  If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies.  It is the same with ships: even though they are so large and driven by fierce winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination wishes.  In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions.

Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze.  The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers.  Does a spring gush forth from the same opening both pure and brackish water?  Can a fig tree, my brothers, produce olives, or a grapevine figs? Neither can salt water yield fresh.

James 3: 1-12

Our tongue, our words, are so powerful.

Consider this.  Is Thanksgiving a wonderful holiday because of the Macy’s parade, the football games, the turkey and pumpkin pie?  Or is it wonderful because of the kind words that we share?  The blessings that we give? The grateful heart that we share?  The prayers that we offer up for each other?

So why do we save it for one day a year?  Our words can set the world afire.  Let’s extend Thanksgiving words all year long.  Let’s make this a Thanksgiving year.

Lord,

Forgive me for the times when I fall short, when my words fall short, when my words show evil instead of the love and mercy that you show to me.  Help me to use my words for good.  Help me to be kind, grateful and offer words of prayer and blessing all year long instead of just on Thanksgiving day.

Fruit of the Vine

Today I did not need to open up the bible to find the verse.  Instead, while I was driving to work this morning, out of nowhere these words came to me: “I am the vine, you are my branches.”  And the words took hold.  So tonight, I opened the Bible to John:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.  He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.  You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.  Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.   Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.  By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.  As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.

John 15:1-10

I have heard this verse it seems a million times, but today as I was driving to work it started to make more sense.  God has connected us to Him.  We are connected just like a branch is to a vine.  A branch by itself is meaningless.  It is dead with out its source of life (as are we without God).   But when we stay connected, we can grow.  Sometimes we may try to grow too far away from the vine, but as long as we keep our connection to God, he won’t let us go.  If we remain connected, we will bear fruit.  God’s love flows to us, just as the water and nutrients necessary for a branch to bear fruit flows to it.  And just as a gardener sometimes has to prune or cut back a branch in order to allow it to bear better fruit, so too, God sometimes needs to prune us — to cut us back.  He does that with His word, and we can help others by sharing that word — by bearing God’s fruit.  And sometimes, maybe, God has to prune us back a little more sharply.  And sometimes it feels like it cuts deep.  But out of those dark times, if we stay connected, we bloom forward even more beautiful than before and we strengthen our connection to God.

Dear God,

I want my connection to you to grow stronger.  I don’t want to be connected by just a little twig.  I want a wide base — fill me with your love and your word so that I can bear fruit pleasing to you.  I want to remain in you forever.

 

When In Doubt… LOVE

What are my gifts?  What does God call me to do?  Do you ever ask those questions?  It feels like I do more and more.  The Bible tells us that we all have gifts.  God has given us the tools that we need.  We just need to use them.  I think I have been spending too much time trying to figure out what I should be doing instead of just doing what I know I need to do.  Today I was directed by a study group to read Peter:

The end of all things is at hand. Therefore, be serious and sober for prayers.  Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.  Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.  Whoever preaches, let it be with the words of God; whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 4:7-11

As  I read this, my eyes fall on this line: “Above all let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sin.”  I may not know exactly what specific thing God is calling me to do — but maybe I am letting myself get lost in the weeds.  Love more.  Isn’t that what He is calling us to do?  And won’t everything else flow from that?  Love more.  Isn’t that the answer?

Love more.  Let your love be intense — for everyone — not just the easy ones, your spouse and kids, mom and dad  — but for everyone.  Love more.  Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  (Not always that easy.)  Love more.  Use your gifts to serve one another.  I may not know what gifts I have.  I may not know the exact plan for these gifts, but I know that God calls us to love.  He calls us to serve one another.   I could go crazy trying to figure out the plan for my life, or I could just love.  And serve.  Love covers a multitude of sins.

Lord,

You have blessed me with so many gifts.  Help me to use them in the way you intended.  Help me to use them to love and serve others.

Heal thyself

This morning I was told the common advice given to women — take care of yourself or you won’t be able to take care of others.  It is easy to get caught up in caring for others.  It is easy to put ourselves last.  Tonight, the Bible told me the same thing:

 Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win over those under the law.  To those outside the law I became like one outside the law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.  All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win.  Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.  Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing.  No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.

1 Corinthians 9:19-27

Run so as to win.  As a former athlete, this last paragraph hits home.  We all want to win.  In life, we strive to win all sorts of prizes, awards, human praise.  We fight for little league trophies, scholarships, promotions, accolades.  Our kids spend hours at practices for sports or dance or gymnastics.  We spend hours at work for the end of year bonus or the promotion that seems out of reach.  We practice or work day and night for that human achievement.  We run faster to beat the person beside us.

Run so as to win.  But what about the ultimate prize — the imperishable one.  Are we running for it?  Are we striving for it?  Are we fighting for it?  Are we training for it?  Do we spend as much time as we do searching for human crowns?  Do we spend even half as much time?

Run so as to win.  And if we do spend the time focusing on the imperishable crown — do we remember to take care of ourselves?  Do we remember to heal ourselves?  To run our own race too?  To make sure that we are not disqualified at the end?

Lord,

Help me to train for the ultimate race.  The race that more than one can win.  Help me to use the discipline of an athlete training for the Olympics.  Help me to not run aimlessly.  Help me to help others, but not forget about myself.

Pure Love Through Any Storm

What a beautiful  morning!  Storms are expected to be moving in, but…

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.  In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of [your] faith, the salvation of your souls.

1 Peter 1:3-9

Blessed is God!  He is preserving our inheritance in heaven  — our salvation.  It is imperishable, undefiled and unfading.  Bring on the storm — because what is waiting for us will not fade.  It will not fail.  We may suffer through various trials and be tested by fire, but we will rejoice!  Our faith allows us to rejoice.  All that we experience, all that we endure allows us to give all praise, all glory and all honor to Jesus Christ.  He suffered and died for us so that we would know.  So that we would believe.  So that we would have faith.  So that we would know God.  So that our faith — the genuineness  of our faith — would lead us back to God.

Peter goes on to say:

Now if you invoke as Father him who judges impartially according to each one’s works, conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.  He was known before the foundation of the world but revealed in the final time for you, who through him believe in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

1 Peter 1:17-21

Jesus, through his precious blood, ransomed us from our futile conduct — from our sin.  He suffered and died, just so we would know.  Just so we would have faith and hope in Him.  God’s love is so immense, so pure — it is greater than any love we can experience.  I want to love like Him.

Peter instructs us:

Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth for sincere mutual love, love one another intensely from a [pure] heart.  You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and abiding word of God, for:

“All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of the field; the grass withers, and the flower wilts; but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

1 Peter 1:22-25

Father,

Although I have not seen you, I believe.  I rejoice in you.  I have joy because of you.  I love you.   Help me to love like you.

 

 

Pray, Praise, Confess, Save

Pray, Praise, Confess, Save.  This is what the Bible tells me tonight.

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise.  Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.   Elijah was a human being like us; yet he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain upon the land.  Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the earth produced its fruit.

 My brothers, if anyone among you should stray from the truth and someone bring him back, he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

James 5:13-20

When we are suffering, we need to pray.  When others are suffering, we need to pray with and for them.  (Someone is always suffering — so we should always be praying.)  When things are good, we should praise.  There is so much to be thankful for (even during our suffering).  When we sin (which is daily) we need to confess — to each other and to God.  Confess to each other, so we can pray for each other.  And when someone strays, we need to help bring them back.  We can help save.

Pray, Praise, Confess, Save: four things we can do every day.

Lord,

You are truly almighty and know all things.  You know what we need and what our hearts truly desire.  You continue to amaze me.  Thank you for another beautiful day.  Thank you for my family and friends.  I am truly blessed.  Please take care of all those who are suffering tonight.  Bless them with the knowledge of your love.  Forgive me for my sins.  Forgive me for not being patient and kind.  Forgive me for not always following the straight path to you.  Help me to help others who stray from your path.  Help me to model your love.  Help me to share my faith with others.

 

Sisters in Christ

Tonight I took a well-needed break with some good friends — my sisters in Christ.  A little rejuvenation from an otherwise stressful week.  And when I got home, the Bible opened here:

I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now.   I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.  It is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.   For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.  And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:3-11

Paul took the words right out of my mouth.

I read these words and think of my friends.  I give thanks to God for them.  I need to do this more often.  I am blessed with wonderful sisters and wonderful friends.  I know that God works through them and I am confident that He has good plans in store for them.  I hold them in my heart and pray that they will continue to grow in God’s love because when they grow, so do I.  God knows that we need community.  We need people.  God reveals Himself and His love through others.  I see God in my sisters.  I feel God’s love through them.  Together our faith is stronger.  Together I feel closer to God.

Thank you God for the wonderful people you have placed in my life.  Lord, bless them as you have blessed me with them.  Help them to grow in your love.  Help them to grow in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value.  Help them follow the path to You.