Repent

Lent will be here in just a couple of weeks.  Today, the Bible opened to a short and simple statement from Jesus:

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Matthew 4:17

Repent.  I have heard that word since I was a child.  Particularly during Lent.  Repent.  For the first time, I looked up its definition.  Here is what my quick internet search revealed:

  • to feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.
  • to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life
  • to feel regret or contrition
  • to change one’s mind
  • to feel sorry, self-reproachful, or contrite for past conduct; regret or be conscience-stricken about a past action, attitude, etc.
  • to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better; be penitent.

To feel or express sincere regret or remorse.  So first, I need to feel and express regret and remorse.  The regret part comes pretty easy for me.  I have lots of regrets.  The part I can probably work on is the sincere remorse, which I think is a little more than just regret.  To be sincerely sorry for my sin.  To be sincere, I have to really think about it.  I generally don’t like to think back on the things I do wrong and instead I just lump them into general categories and try to move on.  I don’t want to think about the things I do wrong.  I don’t want to think about sin, and particularly not about my sin!  As a result when I do think about my sins (often just briefly) or prepare for confession, the same sins come back to mind.  Perhaps because I have not truly repented — have not thought about them enough to have true, sincere remorse — and as a result have not allowed myself to be freed from them.

The other definitions are even harder.  Repent: To turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life.  To feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better.  Its not enough to feel sorry  or to feel regret.  To repent, we really need to think about our sin — we cannot hide from it.  We need to think about what we have done wrong, so that we can have sincere remorse.  Without sincere remorse, how can I truly dedicate myself to amend my life, to change my life for the better.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  It is time to repent.  Time to change our lives for the better.

Lord,

I am sincerely sorry for my sins.  Help me to dedicate myself to do better.

I saw God today

Well, the New England Patriots have made it into the Super Bowl once again.  This will be Tom Brady’s eighth Super Bowl appearance.  He has already won 5.  Some believe Brady may be the best quarterback ever to have played.  And some revere him as a football god.

As I watch the Vikings and Eagles battle it out to see who will play against the Patriots, the Bible opened to Romans:

The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness.  For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them.  Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.  As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened.  While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.

Romans 1:18-23

How often do we exchange the glory of God for that of a mortal man?  It makes me wonder what the Nielsen ratings might be for attendance at church this morning as compared to the ratings of tonight’s playoff football games.  We idolize athletes, movie stars and whoever has the latest social media viral video.   We want to be like them.  We work hard for our own glory, our own reward.  We ignore the truth.

Since I was a child, I have wanted to be one of those who gets to see God.  And I am not talking about just seeing him when I die.   I want to see Him here on earth.  I have prayed for Him to reveal Himself to me.  What struck me in this passage is how foolish I have been.  We have the opportunity to see God everyday.  To witness His power and divinity.  To see the beauty in His creation.  To witness His design behind each of us.  God created Tom Brady, and George Clooney, and you, and me.  Each of us great in our own way, and each of us owing that greatness to our creator.  We see God everyday.  We just sometimes forget to recognize or acknowledge Him.  We become vain in our reasoning (see yesterday’s post on vanity).  We think it is all about us.

God,  Help me to recognize you in all of your creation, in the beauty of the sky as it meets the trees, the purity of the snow falling down, the majesty of the eagle, the amazing strengths and differences of the human creatures that you created in your likeness.  I am in awe when I watch some athletes, but I recognize that their gifts, just like my gifts, come from you alone.  I don’t need to be like them or be like anyone else.  I want to be like you.  I want to be like you made me to be.   You are amazing.  You are mighty and wonderful.  Thank you for your creation.  Thank you for making me.

Vanity: This Psalm is About You

Whenever I hear the word “vain,” I think of Carly Simon’s song “You’re so Vain” about a self obsessed person.  I rarely think about its other meaning: useless.  I am surprised at how often vain or vanity appear in the Bible.  Last week, I opened the Bible to Ecclesiastes where we are told all is vanity.  Today the Bible opened to Psalm 127:

Unless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build.

Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch.

It is vain for you to rise early and put off your rest at night, To eat bread earned by hard toil—all this God gives to his beloved in sleep.

Psalm 127:1-2

I have built a house (or actually paid to have it built).  It was one of the worst experiences of my life and also one of the best.  It caused significant stress on me and my family.  There was financial stress, marital stress, weather stress and overall building stress.  I did not know what I was doing.  And I did not know what I wanted.  I did not have God involved.  The stress became too much and I reached a breaking point in my life.  And in the darkness of the breaking point, I found God, and my life was saved.  My life was renewed.  I openly welcomed God into my house.  To this day, the only thing hung on the walls of the first floor are two crosses.  The house itself is not perfect, but the home inside is much better.

This Psalm reminds me of  the struggles we had building our home.  Whatever we try to build, whatever we try to create is useless unless the Lord is involved.  It is also useless to try to guard or protect whatever we have unless the Lord is involved.  I cannot help but think of the multi-million dollar homes in L.A. that were destroyed by fire and mudslides or our cities that are riddled with violence.  Everything we have, everything we accomplish is a tribute to God.  When we forget that  — when we become self obsessed, when we become vain, then our labor is in vain, and everything is useless.

Lord, Thank you for pulling me out of the darkness.  Help me to recognize the vanity in human treasures.  Help me to keep from becoming self-obsessed.  I want my focus on you.  I want to be God-obsessed.  I know that only through you will I find happiness and rest.

 

 

A Time for Ecclesiastes

Today the Bible opened to Ecclesiastes.  And I ended up reading the entire book.  The words kept teasing me along.  What was God telling me?  What did the words mean?  I could not quite understand it until the end:

“Therefore I detested life, since for me the work that is done under the sun is bad; for all is vanity and a chase after wind.”  Ecclesiastes 2:17.

“For what profit comes to mortals from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which they toil under the sun?” Ecclesiastes 2:22.

“The covetous are never satisfied with money, nor lovers of wealth with their gain.”  Ecclesiastes 5:9.

“All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is never satisfied.”  Ecclesiastes 6:7.

Much of this book talks about the frustration that I often feel in life.  Sometimes I feel like I am chasing my tail.  Lots of toil, lots of work.  Lots of anxiety.  And what do we gain for our work?  We are never satisfied.  It is never enough.  We can never rest.

“Everything is the same for everybody: the same lot for the just and the wicked, for the good, for the clean and the unclean, for the one who offers sacrifice and the one who does not. As it is for the good, so it is for the sinner; as it is for the one who takes an oath, so it is for the one who fears an oath.”  Ecclesiastes 9:2.

“Because the sentence against an evil deed is not promptly executed, the human heart is filled with the desire to commit evil— because the sinner does evil a hundred times and survives.”  Ecclesiastes 8:11-12.

“Again I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts; for a time of misfortune comes to all alike.”  Ecclesiastes 9:11.

I struggled with these passages for awhile.  At first I was dismayed.  Is it all for naught?    Despite all of our hard work on earth, all of our efforts to distinguish ourselves, we all end up the same.  We all end up dead.  What difference does it make if we work hard, do well, strive to do what is right?

Of course, I know the difference.  The difference is the relationship we build with God. (But it can be so hard on earth, where both good and evil have the same earthly fate, and sometimes the bad is rewarded.)

“God has made everything appropriate to its time, but has put the timeless into their hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done. ”  Ecclesiastes 3:11.

We are short-sighted and see only the time on earth.   And often only see what is surrounding us at that moment.  We cannot see beyond our own struggle, beyond today’s pressure.  But God has a plan and everything has its time.

“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance.”  Ecclesiastes 3:4.

We will have our time.  We will have time for joy.  But we will also all have time for sorrow, time to weep, time to mourn, time to struggle.  And here on earth these times stink.  And it is hard to see the good, when we are going through these times.

“Consider the work of God. Who can make straight what God has made crooked?  On a good day enjoy good things, and on an evil day consider: Both the one and the other God has made, so that no one may find the least fault with him.”  Ecclesiastes 7:13-14.

Although it is difficult to see this at the time, the time for mourning, the time for sorrow is important.

“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, For that is the end of every mortal, and the living should take it to heart.  Sorrow is better than laughter; when the face is sad, the heart grows wise.”  Ecclesiastes 7:2-3.

We learn from our struggles.  I don’t think we learn as much from our good times.  And importantly we learn with our heart.  Our heart grows, our relationship with each other grows, and our relationship with God grows.  This next passage tied it all up for me:

When the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth.  Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, wherever it falls, there shall it lie.

One who pays heed to the wind will never sow, and one who watches the clouds will never reap.

Just as you do not know how the life breath enters the human frame in the mother’s womb, So you do not know the work of God, who is working in everything.

In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hand be idle: For you do not know which of the two will be successful, or whether both alike will turn out well.

Ecclesiastes 11:3-6

We are given a limited time here on earth.  We could spend it constantly worried about how the wind will blow and when the rain will fall.  We could spend it constantly focused on the bad times and bemoaning our lot in life.  But we do not know the work of God.  We cannot understand the plans He has.  We do not know when the time will come.  So we keep working.  We keep trying.  We keep going.  We keep praying.  We keep thanking God for the days that we have, because each of them is a gift.

“Therefore I praised joy, because there is nothing better for mortals under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be joyful; this will accompany them in their toil through the limited days of life God gives them under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 8:15.

“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and provide themselves with good things from their toil. Even this, I saw, is from the hand of God.  For who can eat or drink apart from God?”  Ecclesiastes 2:24-25.

Lord,

Thank you for this day.  Thank you for the food and drink that you provide.  Help me to experience the joy and the sorrow fully.  Help my heart to grow through the “bad” times.  Help me to accept the “bad” times with an open heart so that it may be filled.  I know I cannot understand your ways.  But I know your plans are for good.  I trust you Lord.

 

A New Year Renewal

The New Year is coming.  A time to make resolutions.  To promise to do better.  What resolutions will you make? Eat better?  Eat less?  Exercise more? Quit smoking? Quit drugs? Go to church more?  Pray more? Be kinder to those around you?  It takes 60 seconds for the ball to drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  Most years, it takes about the same amount of time for me to drop my new year’s resolution.

Tonight the Bible opened to Ephesians:

So I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; darkened in understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance, because of their hardness of heart, they have become callous and have handed themselves over to licentiousness for the practice of every kind of impurity to excess.  That is not how you learned Christ, assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus, that you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.

Ephesians 4:17-24

Paul tells us the New Year’s resolution we need to make: you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.

We all go through periods where we drown in the futility of our own minds and our own desires.  Our understanding is darkened.  Perhaps we sink into a depression.  We are alienated from God and from light. And we give in to all of the vices (that we then seek to change with our new year resolutions).

The truth that we need is in Jesus. This New Year let’s renew ourselves in Jesus.  Let’s put away our old selves, our deceitful desires and all of the things that take us away from God — all of the things that we think make us happy, that never really seem to do the trick.  Let’s put away all of our sorrows, all of our sins, all of our mistakes and all of our regrets from the past year (or past years).  And allow God’s spirit to renew us.  And then let’s put on a new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.  Let’s empty ourselves so that God can fill us.

Dear God,

Renew my spirit.  Create in me a clean heart.  Make me steadfast in your way.  Help me to cast off my old ways and all of my deceitful desires and to cloak myself in you.

Discipline and Love

We discipline our children hoping that it will lead them in the right direction, but knowing that one day they will have to make choices on their own.  I don’t enjoy the disciplinarian role of being a parent.

I have often wondered about the Old Testament.  God often feels like a disciplinarian in it.  We hear about Him destroying cities, smiting and raining fire and brimstone.  He feels much different than the loving God revealed by Jesus.  Today the Bible opened to Galatians:

Before faith came, we were held in custody under law, confined for the faith that was to be revealed.  Consequently, the law was our disciplinarian for Christ, that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a disciplinarian.  For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.  For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:23-29

When we are immature, we need discipline, rules, order to try to keep us on the proper path.  The Old Testament is filled with stories of human immaturity.  We were not ready for faith alone.  As we individually grow, we also go through phases where we need discipline, rules, and order.   Sometimes we are not ready for faith alone.  We need to be confined by rules so that we are in place for faith to be revealed.  But ultimately, like a child, we must grow up and make our own choices.  Ultimately we must choose faith.  We must choose God.   Jesus opened us to faith.  He came into the world so that we might have faith.  So that we could see and believe.  He came into the world to show us love.  The love of our Father.  Despite all of the times that we deserve discipline, God loves us.

Lord,

Help me to be a good parent.  Help me to set rules and order but also to show love.  Help me to have the faith that you have made available.  Help me to grow from my immaturity.  Thank you Father!

Christmas Light

It is 4 days until Christmas.  Christmas trees are lit and decorated.  Houses are outlined in Christmas lights.  The shopping malls are bustling and promising to leave the lights on later than usual  (some stores are leaving the lights on for 24 hours a day until Christmas eve).  Do we know how to celebrate the Light of the World or what!?

Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me believes not only in me but also in the one who sent me, and whoever sees me sees the one who sent me.  I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness.  And if anyone hears my words and does not observe them, I do not condemn him, for I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world.  Whoever rejects me and does not accept my words has something to judge him: the word that I spoke, it will condemn him on the last day, because I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and speak.  And I know that his commandment is eternal life. So what I say, I say as the Father told me.”

John 12:44-50

More than 2000 years ago Jesus came into the world. He came as light.  Not an LED light that flashes and changes colors.  Not a spotlight that produces stars or snowflakes on an otherwise ordinary house wall.  But LIGHT, so that everyone who believes in Him might not remain in darkness.

There is a lot of darkness in the world.  Active shooters, drivers who plow through crowds, hate and fear.  And we all experience personal darkness.  Sometimes more often than we would like.   Hate, fear, depression and anxiety — darkness.  If you watch the news, it feels like the darkness in our world is increasing.  Perhaps there is a correlation between the increased darkness around us and the way that our society seems to push God out of the way.  Perhaps.

Jesus came to save the world.  To save us from our own darkness.  Whoever believes in Him, might not remain in darkness.  Is it really that easy?   I have noticed that when I read the Bible, when I spend time praying or talking to God, I feel lighter.  I feel like the shadows of the world disappear and become more manageable.  Maybe it is that easy.

This Christmas celebrate the light.  When you look at the lights on the trees or the houses, remember that the Light of the World came to the earth to take away our darkness.  Go toward the light.  Listen to His word.  Believe.

Jesus,

You are my light!  You remove darkness around me.  Thank you for coming into the world.  Thank you for loving me.  I love you!  Help me to understand your word and to follow you.

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.