Thursday, December 31, 2009

Resolve to Put God First

Diets, finance, self-improvement, spiritual growth, getting organized, and time management; all of these are at this moment making the lists of people’s New Year’s resolutions. But perhaps I can save some time, paper and frustration, and pare it down to this:

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33

Does that mean we don’t seek advice in books, or see a doctor or set up a meeting with a financial advisor? No. The point is, are we hiring and seeking and reading and listening to everyone except God? God can definitely speak, encourage and teach us through others. But God must be first in our lives, not the time management and diet books and health club memberships, and certainly not secular books on “success.” I mean, how do we know if the time management the book is recommending is the same time management God is recommending? We must bring everything back to the Bible and God to test whether it is True and Right for us, regardless of what the “experts” say, and even regardless of what other Christian advice-givers say.

That being said, I took a look at what’s currently on the New York Times Best Seller List to get an indication of where folks are putting their resolve. The first two books on the hardcover business best-seller list are “Superfreakonomics” in whicha scholar and a journalist apply economic thinking to everything” and “Outliers,” which supposedly explains “why some people succeed—it has to do with luck and opportunities as well as talent.”

I wonder, is it really beneficial to apply economic thinking to everything? And why would a rational, thinking human being believe in something like luck over something historically, experientially and Biblically proven: God? Are people really so quick to scoff at a belief in the Bible (of which there are more written historical copies than copies of Plato’s "Republic") yet take seriously the superstition of luck?

Of the bestselling advice books, I was amazed to find that five out of the top ten deal with food and cooking! It does tie in to the importance the Bible places on fellowship and breaking bread together, and which God-instilled in every one of us, whether we realize it or not.

A book taking an incredulous 4th place on the advice bestseller list is “The 4-Hour Workweek.” The Times said this is about “reconstructing your life so that it’s not all about work.” I haven’t read the book, but I did go to it’s website and found the following testimonial: “From mini-retirements to outsourcing your life, it’s all here.” The website shows pictures of what looks like a student of the eight-minute ab workout practicing Eastern arts, along with pictures of men skydiving, downhill skiing, night-clubbing, and a relaxed woman getting a massage. Some of the things we’ll learn, based on the book’s table of contents is: How to burn $1,000,000 a night, cultivate selective ignorance, the art of refusal, and a way to calculate our dream lifestyle. There are several sections under the heading of “Income Autopilot” wherein we’ll find and trust “the Muse.” As for the section on outsourcing one’s life through “geoarbitrage,” I honestly have no idea. But I have a hunch that the person we outsource our life to is anyone but God.

Another book on the list caught my eye. It’s “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max. The Times describes this book as “Life as a self-absorbed, drunken womanizer.” This title has been on the New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list for 116 weeks! At $15.95 a pop!

Then there are the books that many believers like to read, one after the other, as a replacement for reading their Bible. I know people who love to read things like “The Love Dare,” “The Five Love Languages,” “Eat, Pray and Love” and Joel Osteen books because they feel this is spiritual food. Yet these books, due to their seemingly religious nature, need to especially be tested against what Scripture says. “Eat, Pray, Love,” for instance, is about “A writer’s yearlong journey in search of self (which) takes her to Italy, India and Indonesia.” When I see any book that has the words “in search of self” I drop it and run, fast! I spent 38 years “in search of myself,” only to find that it wasn’t finding myself that was needed, it was losing myself! And that was done through Jesus Christ and Him alone.

That’s why I read my Bible and why it is the first and final authority in my life. Because without it, I enter into the slippery slope of finding myself again, in all it’s self-important self-focus. The journey and adventure of being born again is that self-searching finally ends. Isn’t that the liberation we’re all searching for--Freedom from Us?

That’s my prayer for anyone tempted to make yet another list of resolutions--that self, with all its independent self-striving, ends where a belief in and acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior begins. In Him is where our resolve needs to be. In Him alone is our Victory. He can be found, along with New Life, in His Word; not only the bestselling book of all time, but the book that actually delivers!

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 16-17

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 4:12-13

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:15-16

Saturday, December 26, 2009

God's Gift of Winter

Barb Harwood Photos

"As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands." Isaiah 55:10-12

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Sword of Jesus

Oswald Chambers, in "My Utmost for His Highest" said, “Thousands of people in this world profess to be happy without God. But if we could be truly happy and moral without Jesus, then why did He come? He came because that kind of happiness and peace is only superficial. Jesus Christ came to “bring…a sword” through every kind of peace that is not based on a personal relationship with Himself.”

This, I’ve found, is the True gift of Jesus Christ. He came into my life revealing the reason why I felt frustrated, sad, unmotivated, craving drink and so on and so on: I was trying to fill a void only Jesus could fill.

Every day I am so thankful for His conviction and correction without which I would never know His love, joy, contentment and peace. Jesus threw out my abject attempts at “happy” and replaced them with His supernatural joy. I say supernatural because it is a joy believers can have even amidst tears and disappointment. The joy is Christ Himself.

Finding Christ was finally knowing why, in the Apostle Paul’s words, I didn’t do what I wanted to do and instead did what I didn’t want to do. Finding Christ meant facing my sin and brokenness for the first time. In fact, it meant learning that I even had sin and brokenness to begin with! Christ was the Light out of the ever encroaching darkness I’d been blindly trying to claw myself out of day after day, only to go deeper into the abyss.

Christ’s gift of Himself to me was and continues to be this: liberation from my own self-centeredness. I have the Sword of Jesus that cuts through every deceit and lie: lies conjured up by Satan, myself and the world that try to fool me into thinking I am independently good and resourceful when I’m not. I never realized any of this until Jesus cut through the façade.

Jesus must upset our human delusion of peace and goodness with the real deal: His peace and goodness. When God was finally able to bring me to a place where I said to God, “Bring it on,” He did. It wasn’t pretty, you know, seeing my sin for the first time and realizing I wasn’t a good person after all. But Oh the freedom in that!

See, Jesus alone is goodness and He brings His goodness to me! Jesus alone is peace and He came to bring His peace in all circumstances to me! But in order for any of that to become Truth in my life, I had to first come to the Cross in the realization and repentance of my sin and in the acceptance of Jesus and His redemption. It is at the Cross where I died my first death and was born again.

Jesus came to earth and died so we, too, can die to our blind, frustrated selves and be reborn as babes. True peace on earth is only to be had through Jesus—even in the midst of war, tragedy, disease, and whatever life dishes out--because Jesus Himself is our peace (Ephesians 2:14).

“He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.” Micah 5:4-5

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, 'Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.' In reply Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.'” John 3:1-3

“But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” John 3:21

“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” Revelation 21:5

“He said to me, ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. “ Revelation 21:6

Monday, December 21, 2009

Exposing Planned Parenthood

This is the first video by undercover journalist Lila Rose and her Live Action team who are conducting a multi-state undercover audit of Planned Parenthood's abortion counseling.

The quotes below are from the website of Michelle Malkin:

"Planned Parenthood has come under fire recently after Live Action’s investigations found them willing to conceal sexual abuse and accept donations targeted to abort African-Americans only. Videos of abuse cover-up prompted state investigations of Planned Parenthood and diversion of the abortion giant’s public subsidies."

“Planned Parenthood is a billion-dollar organization with nearly $350 million of government funding, and stands to gain hundreds of millions more from national health care,” says Rose. “Do we really want to subsidize an organization that gives women in need atrocious misinformation and predatory abortion practices?”

"For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." Psalm 139:13-16

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Faith is Daily

I just completed six months of cleaning in two days. I washed the basement floor and steps--even the utility sink. I dusted the blinds and pictures in the living room and took swipes at the spiders loafing in their hammocky webs. Once I got going, I didn’t sit down for fear I’d never get up again. At one point, as I slid a yardstick under the basement couch and watched the un-popped popcorn kernels roll out, I got to thinking that my cleaning marathon is the way that many people, myself included, sometimes live their faith. We drive north for a weekend retreat in a pristine setting, Bible in tow, and spend every waking moment focused on hearing God. We read Psalms next to a crackling fire, or hike the trails with another strong Christian and talk deeply about our Christian life.

Or it’s Christmas and we get all caught up in the Christmas spirit, planning our personal Advent devotions complete with candle-lighting, and going out of our way to inconvenience ourselves for others. Then, as the New Year wanes and the “Renewing Your Faith” retreat is a distant memory, all those good intentions of keeping a personal devotion time lose traction and six weeks go by without our ever picking up our Bible. The on-going argument we’ve had with our spouse, children or in-laws is the same as it was before we left on our retreat and that one woman in church bugs us more than ever. Our boss is unbearable, our car still has 197,000 miles on it with a permanently lit “check engine” light, and we’re back to wasting time on the Internet.

Just as six months worth of cleaning in two days isn’t going to keep the house clean indefinitely, a weekend retreat or 25 days of Yuletide cheer in and of themselves won’t fuel our Christian walk for more than a few days. Just as the spiders will be back at work weaving dusty chandeliers in distant corners and crumbs of cheese and chips will collect under the table, the issues of life will quickly close in on us, testing us every day in our faith.

Oswald Chambers, who has much to say on the drudgery of daily life, said, “After every time of exaltation, we are brought down with a sudden rush into things as they really are, where it is neither beautiful, poetic, nor thrilling. The height of the mountaintop is measured by the dismal drudgery of the valley, but it is in the valley that we have to live for the glory of God. We see His glory on the mountain, but we never live for His glory there.”

Faith, like cleaning, is a daily thing.

My friend and I were lamenting the other day that even though we buy Windex and Lysol, our windows and bathrooms are still dirty. As if buying the products precludes our having to actually use them!

It’s just like the Bible. Having one in the house doesn’t make us mature in our faith, nor does merely attending a church service once a week. Chambers said that it requires “the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours of every day as a saint…It is ingrained in us that we have to do exceptional things for God—but we do not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people—and this is not learned in five minutes.”

Yet many folks don’t want faith to be daily or to put in the time required to make it so. That’s why we have church upon church ramping up the “experiential” worship service. They want pinnacles of passion and exotic worldly crises to intervene in all the time. They don’t want to go home and work on the marriage, take out the garbage, and spend yet another Monday night at the kitchen table with a child in tears over math homework.

Oswald Chambers said, “It is in the place of humiliation that we find our true worth to God—that is where our faithfulness is revealed. Most of us can do things if we are always at some heroic level of intensity, simply because of the natural selfishness of our own hearts. But God wants us to be at the drab everyday level, where we live in the valley according to our personal relationship with Him.”

I have struggled with slovenliness most of my life. It was only after becoming a Christian that God showed me that maintaining a clean home, when I did it for Him, was a Holy Act and High Calling. Although I can’t say that I enjoy cleaning (although once I stop procrastinating and get to it it’s actually kind of fun and always very gratifying), I can say with absolute confidence that it is pleasing to God and I find joy in that.

To quote Chambers one more time, he said, “I must realize that my obedience even in the smallest detail of life has all of the omnipotent power of the grace of God behind it. If I will do my duty, not for duty’s sake but because I believe God is engineering my circumstances, then at the very point of my obedience all of the magnificent grace of God is mine through the glorious atonement by the Cross of Christ."

That, to me, is a daily reminder of how drudgery can be turned into a privilege.

If our faith is to be real, it must be lived in reality. What is reality? It’s right where we’re at, at this and any given moment.

“See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” Hebrews 3: 12-14

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” 2 Peter 1:3

“But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.” Jude 20

Monday, December 7, 2009

Christian Book Recommendations

Barb Harwood, photo

Some books are truly a gift that keeps on giving, and this is especially true of books that rightly handle the Word of God. I’ve put together an informal list of books that impacted me in my walk with God and that I refer back to often, if not daily. Perhaps there is a book here that would make a nice gift for the Christian or lost soul in your life.

I must begin this list with the Bible. I can’t stress enough that the Bible must be read first and daily. Other books are great, but if they replace Bible reading, they come between God and us. Books on Christian living and theology must never take the place of Scripture, and everything in a book must always be tested against what the Bible says. The Bible is our authority, written by the Author of all Creation.

With that, here goes:

For Daily Devotions:

+My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. If I skip my time in this book for even one day, I regret it. There isn’t one book other than the Bible that has had as much of an impact on my spiritual maturity as this book. I know I’m not alone in saying this.

+Morning and Evening, the classic devotional by Charles Spurgeon, revised and updated by Alistair Begg. Another daily read of mine, Spurgeon is poetic, passionate, encouraging and convicting. He’s the only theologian I’ve read who can write a sentence like this: “Sweet is the cool twilight, when every star seems like the eye of heaven and the cool wind is as the breath of celestial love” and yet in the next breath reveal a truth such as this: “Satan can climb housetops and enter closets, and even if we could shut out that foul fiend, our own corruptions are enough to work our ruin unless grace prevents it.”

For the high school and college set:

+Stand Strong in College by Alex McFarland. I heard Mr. McFarland speak at the 2007 Southern Evangelical Seminary Apologetics conference. McFarland is a young, perhaps 40-ish-something who would be a great next-door neighbor. He’s funny and down to earth, but serious about his commitment to the Lord and about encouraging our young people to be equally committed to standing firm in their faith while in college. This is a really excellent book and I wish someone had given me a book like this when I was in high school.

+The Naked Truth by Lakita Garth. When I heard Garth speak at Judson University in February of 2008, I wanted to hug her for her abstinence message! She is the only—I repeat only—Christian woman that I know of who is an unashamedly confident advocate for the liberation of women from giving themselves away sexually. (I say women here because I’ve always said that true “women’s lib” is to say “no” to sex before marriage and all the physical and emotional baggage that comes with premarital sex). Every girl and guy on the planet needs to read this book and hear Garth speak. She is a committed and joyful Christian who walked the abstinence path herself before marriage and who is wonderfully exuberant about conveying that awesome freedom in Christ to young women and men.

For Christian Growth:

+The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith: I will have to write a complete blog post on this book. Suffice it to say that it was the first book I read (sheepishly, I might add) when God began tugging at my heart and mind to seek Him. Let’s just say I credit this book and the Bible for the beginning of my becoming a Christian.

+The All-Sufficient Christ, studies in Paul’s letter to the Colossians by William Barclay

+The Extraordinariness of the Christian Life by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

+The Letters of John Newton (author of Amazing Grace)

+Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

+Real Christianity by William Wilberforce (abolished the British slave trade in 1807)

+The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. This book should be on the syllabus of every college psychology course.

+The Apologetics of Jesus: A Caring Approach to Dealing with Doubters by Norman L. Geisler and Patrick Zukeran. Loaded with Scriptural references to support Jesus’ use of testimony, miracles, reason, parables, prophecy, etc.

+The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Series by John MacArthur. I love anything and everything by John MacArthur. Along with Oswald Chambers, the work of MacArthur has been indispensable in my, and many other folks, daily Christian life. I currently am reading his commentary on 2 Timothy.

+Faith Undone by Roger Oakland. This is a must-read for any church, pastor or congregant who is dabbling in the emergent church movement.

+Man in White by Johnny Cash. This is Cash’s first-person fictional account that brings to life the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Cash was a devout Christian, a man who knew what it was to be forgiven much. I once heard Larry King ask Cash, towards the end of his life, if Cash was mad at God (Cash had just lost his wife June and was now struggling with his own health issues.) I’ll never forget the look on Cash’s face as he answered the question, saying, “No, No, I’m not mad at God. Why would I be mad at God?” He went on to say how humbled and grateful he was for all that God had done in his life. It was a true and exceedingly rare reverence for God that I saw in Cash that day. That reverence comes through in Man in White. (Unfortunately this book may be out of print. Check online used bookstores).

I’m sure I’ve left off a book or two. And I have many waiting in the wings to be picked up and explored. I’ll have to write about those next time.

May God richly bless you with His Word this Christmas~

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Little Christmas Music

"Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel,
praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth
peace to men on whom his favor rests."
Luke 2:13-14