Why Thankfulness?

If you’re not familiar with west Louisiana, it is beautiful country of rolling hills, streams, rivers, and forests.  In earlier times it was part of the vast pine forests that covered the deep south region of North America from the Atlantic into what is now East Texas.  Much of that area still has remnants of that great forest, though much of it now has hardwood forests, and most of the pines are grown by and for the lumber industry. In early October, I attended a family gathering near Florien, LA.  There is a family “farm,” about 6 miles east of town.  No one farms the family farm any more.  It is a gathering place for the cousins from my Mom’s side of the family.  The heirs collectively own quite a bit of acreage there.  Most of it is forested, some still cleared from when some of our ancestors did farm it.  There among the trees and fields are an old house and a family cemetery.  The cemetery has graves dating back to before the Civil War.

Papa’s House

My great grandfather, John C. Sibley, Jr., lived in the old house.  My mom and her family lived there with him for several years during late 1920’s.  I mentioned him in an earlier post.  He would put my Aunt Jean on his shoulder and take her for walks.  She was blind, and he would describe to her the beauty of God’s creation.  So, when I was there in October, one of the things I really wanted to do, was go sit on the porch of that old house, get out my guitar and music, and just worship the Lord in that place that embodies a significant part of my family’s legacy.  That Saturday morning, at day break, I did just that.  It was all I hoped it would be and more.  The Father met me there on that porch with the lush green grass in the fields, the rich browns and deep greens of the surrounding woods, the peacefulness of the country road, a rich blue sky and a glorious sunrise of reds and golds streaking through the trees.  I felt His presence and His love, and I sang and loved Him back for over an hour.  And I knew this was where Papa Sibley had held his little, blind granddaughter and taught her about a loving God through the beauty of His creation.

Papa Sibley was only 5 when his dad died, and just 9 when his Mama passed away.  His Mama had kept the letters her husband wrote to her during the Civil War.  At the time, they had one daughter, Belle; John Jr was born after the war.  Here’s his advice to her on child-rearing:
“Lizzie dear, have you ever learned her yet that there is a God who rules over her destiny. I fear this is a subject that you avoid.  But dear, beware that you do so while she is yet young.  Show her the rising sun, the bright moon, the growing plant, the stately tree, the fragrant flower, the falling rain and such things, and teach her that they are made by a great and good God who loves her and who will save her in life and after death.  Teach her to love the name of God and worship him while she is young and she will not forget to do so when she is old.  Learn her to love everything that is good and beautiful.”And, Lizzie did.  And I think her mother, Matilda, carried it on after Lizzie died and she adopted Belle and John, Jr.  And Papa did, particularly for Aunt Jean, but I’m guessing for others, too.

Pretty cool, huh?  But, here’s the real deal.  In Romans 1:18-21, Paul says that none of us has an excuse for ungodly or unrighteous actions, or for suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, because God has made known His “invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature.”  He made these attributes “clearly seen,” evident to even those who seek to suppress the truth.  Where?  How?  In His creation.  In the things He made – the rising sun, the bright moon, the growing plant, stately tree, fragrant flower, and falling rain.

The problem is, according to Romans 1:21, “Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks….”  It was because they refused to honor Him, and could not find it in their hearts to be thankful to Him, that their hearts became dark and hard, and they turned to sin and then tried to alleviate their guilt by suppressing the truth.  And people still do that today.

They could not find it in their hearts to be thankful, and their hearts became dark and hard. Give thanks, and let Him soften your heart Click To Tweet

Just look around you.  If you have to drive a few miles out of town to see anything besides bricks, steel and glass, then do it.  But look at the world around you – that God made.  Be awed by it.  Recognize where it came from.  It really wasn’t by chance.  Honor God as God.  And be thankful.

Applying the Lord’s Prayer

Religious activities, like giving to the poor (Mt 6:2-4), prayer (vv. 5-8), and fasting (vv. 16-18), are not for public spectacle. That’s how they become “religious.” They are meant to be spiritual activities, between you and God. They are meant to honor and show love for the heavenly Father. “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name.” When we allow expressions of our spiritual relationship with the Father to become ritualistic, religious activities paraded before the eyes of men, we dishonor the name of our Father. There is nothing holy about giving, praying or fasting in this way, and it reflects poorly on the name of the Lord before the very audience we hope will be impressed by our efforts. We glorify ourselves, not the Father.

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” So, don’t store up treasures on earth…, but store up treasures in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (vv.19-21). What are you looking at? On what are you focused? If you are focused on earthly, temporal things that corrode and rust, that can be consumed by insects or stolen by thieves, then you are looking at the dark, dismal, temporal world and missing the light of life, and the light of heaven in your life. If your eye is focused on the dark, then your whole body will be affected by it. Instead focus on the eternal. As Paul put it, “set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth.”[1]  No man can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth, the eternal and the temporal.

And, on that note, “give us this day our daily bread.” Do not be worried about what to eat or drink (vv. 25-34).  Rather than seek earthly gain, or be concerned with earthly loss, seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. He’ll take care of your temporal needs so that you need not be concerned with them. Life is more than food and clothing. Life is not about temporal needs or acquisitions. Life is about a relationship with the Living God, and life is found in seeking Him, and trusting Him to reward your search, by giving you Himself, and everything else you need. He gave us His Son, “how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”[2] God provides food for the birds. He provides beautiful “clothing” of flowers for the fields. Your worrying about these things or anything else is not going to add anything to your life. People who don’t know God worry about temporal needs. Why would you, knowing God, settle for anything less than more of Him? Seek Him, and don’t worry about tomorrow. It will bring challenges, but God has grace for those challenges, too. You don’t know what they are, or when or even if they will come. So, worrying now isn’t going to help. When they do come, worrying won’t help then either. Trusting Him will. He has grace for every need, for every situation you will face. If you aren’t going to face it, you will never have the grace for it. But, then, if you aren’t going to face it, there is no reason to worry about it. If you are going to face it, He won’t give you the grace for it until you need it. So, there is no need to worry about it now. When you do have to face it, there is no need to worry then, because He will give you the grace you need to make it through. Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.[3]

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Right, because we surely have forgiven everyone who has ever owed us anything or offended us in any way. In the model prayer, Jesus follows up the request for daily bread with a request for forgiveness as we forgive. In the sermon, He follows up his admonition to trust God with the imperative, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” The standard you set for measuring and judging others, is the standard that will be used in measuring and judging you. Chances are really good that you don’t measure up any better than those you are criticizing. Do you not realize there is a 2×4 sticking out of your eye? If you try to get that piece of sawdust out of your brother’s eye, you will only succeed at smacking upside the head with your 2×4. You will only injure him with your hypocrisy, and neither of you will be better off or any closer to God as a result.

If you try to get that piece of sawdust out of your brother’s eye, you'll smack him upside the head with the 2x4 in your eye. You'll injure him with your hypocrisy, and neither of you will be better off or any closer to God. Click To Tweet

In Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus summarizes. It comes back to seeking God’s kingdom, and His provision. If someone wrongs you, do you see it as a threat to your “daily bread?” Are they somehow taking away what you need to survive in this temporal world? Is your focus on the temporal world, or God and His kingdom and His provision? Are you fully, truly trusting Him? Do you not love your children enough to take good care of them? If your son needs bread are you going to give him a rock? Your heavenly Father loves you more than you could ever, possibly love your children. How is that we doubt that the God who lavishes grace on us[4] will give good things to those who ask Him?

In verse 12, in what we call the “Golden Rule,” Jesus says, “In everything, therefore….” Therefore! Because of. On the basis of what’s been said. How can we forgive our debtors? How can we not judge those who have faults – specks of sawdust in their eyes that make us painfully aware of the 2×4 we are denying in our own eye? We need to know that our heavenly Father truly loves us far beyond what any earthly father ever will or even can. We need to know He truly does supply all our need, our daily bread, our food, clothing, and shelter. We need to know that by taking our eyes off the dark and dismal world of the corroding temporal, and focusing on the untarnished and incorruptible eternal kingdom, our temporal needs will be supplied and we will be filled with the light and life of the living God of heaven.

The next line of the model prayer can be a little confusing. Why would God lead us into temptation? Why, then, would we even need to request: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”? To me, it is so obvious that God would not lead me into temptation, that I never really thought of this phrase in that sense. I know that any time I am faced with temptation, test or trial, God is faithful and will with it make a way of escape.[5] I guess I have always thought of this phrase more in the sense of acknowledging that God leads us out of temptation and delivers us from evil. I just need the grace and spiritual strengthening to follow Him. Jesus gives the warning that the gate is small and the way is narrow. If we are thinking we’re following Him and we look just like everyone else that claims to be religious, then chances are we are on the broad path. Those who profess religion and whose religion is about religious rites and rituals and not about seeking Him and His righteousness will not produce good fruit. They will be horribly disappointed when they stand before the Lord thinking they have served him. They will be on the same sinking sand as those who refused to ever follow Him in the first place. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus described a new way of thinking that was different from that of those who promoted religious religion. He described a righteousness that exceeded that of those considered the most righteous. He promoted a heavenly kingdom to those who thought the Messiah would come to establish an earthly kingdom. He promoted a life centered on things above, not on things on the earth. And He ended it by declaring that the only solid foundation for life was acting on the things He said.

[1] Colossian 3:2

[2] Romans 8:32

[3] 1 Peter 5:7; see also Philippians 4:4-7

[4] Ephesians 1:7-8

[5] 1 Corinthians 10:13

A Clay House for God

You are the dwelling place of Christ – the One who is Himself the radiance, the out-shining, of God’s glory, the exact representation of His nature. That’s pretty amazing. It’s rather impressive! Yet, in perspective, you are an earthen vessel. So, all that amazing awesomeness is from God, not from you or me. We are clay houses for the ultimate treasure in the universe – the presence of God. Face to face, as it were, with Christ, we can know the glory of God as He shines His light, the very radiance of God, within our hearts.

Religion or relationship?

According to the dictionary, the word “religion” comes from religare (Latin) to restrain, hold back, tie up. Where we get the word relegate. It has to do with devotion, in the sense of commitment, fervency, adherence. In that sense, some of the most religious people I have ever met are atheists. They deny it, of course, and insist that the only valid definition for religion has to do with deity. That way they can control the dialogue, keep someone else from defining them, and keep Christianity defined in terms that fit their practiced dialectic. Although religion is commonly and usually used in reference to commitment to a deity, the root idea, the etymological concept has more to do with the actions, adherence, fervor and ritual. It is something that holds, ties – a set of rules.
Jesus said,  “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” He also said,  “I am the way, the truth, and the life….” Christianity is about knowing Him.
By the most common usage of the word, and the most common dictionary definition, yes, Christianity is a religion. However, “religion” is perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity.
Religion is a set of acts. Christianity is something you live. Religion is something you do. Christian is something you are. Religion is something you defend. Christianity is about simply knowing Him, trusting Him, and growing in your relationship with Him.
Now, if religious acts, liturgy, rituals help you do that, that’s fine. But remember, those religious acts, liturgies, and rituals are not what make you a Christian, and doing them because they are there to be done, because it’s a rule to follow or law to obey is in the long term an empty, dead work. You wind up centering your life on the religious act and not on the Lord to whom those acts are to lead.
There are some things that are important parts of the Christian life, not because they are mandated rules, but because of the nature of Christianity as a relationship with God, and because they help us know Him.
Relationships are about communication. Communication is vital to any relationship. So, reading the Bible, praying, and meditation are important. But if we do them because its part of our rules, like a Christian commandment, even these things will become dead, useless, lifeless works. Prayer is talking to God. However, since He’s God, what He has to say is more important than what you have to say. So reading the Bible, studying it, meditating on it, is a vital part of the Christian life. Meditation for the Christian is not like meditation in eastern religions. It isn’t an emptying of the mind. It is thinking about Him and His words. It’s shutting out the noise and voices of the world and considering Him and His thoughts, His message. It’s listening to Him, letting His Spirit speak to your spirit. Rather than emptying, it’s choosing what you are filled up with.
Christianity is not about “going to church.” The church is people, not a building. The church is Christians, all Christians, “the body of Christ.” When Christians get together, the church meets – on the street, in the catacombs, in a coffee shop, or in a church building – wherever.
Christianity involves “evangelism.” Evangelism can take a variety of forms. What expression it takes in your life, as a general rule, or at any specific day or time, should result from your constant relationship of walking with, talking with, and listening to God. You may be quiet and easy-going, and believe you should live your faith rather than be “preachy.” Then one day you feel strongly impressed that God is telling you to share boldly with a specific individual, or even stand on a street corner and preach. And, much to your surprise, it has a powerful effect.
You may be very much the extroverted, outspoken evangelistic type. Then, one day, God says, “not here, not today, trust Me.” As the day progresses you see that God wanted to use your actions, not your words to reach someone. Or, He wanted to use someone else, not you. Or, He was already speaking to someone’s heart, drawing them to Him; and because you obeyed and waited, He brought them to the place where they were ready to hear the good news of Jesus.
Get the idea?  Yes, He did say, “as you go, make disciples.” However, evangelism is about your relationship to Him, too. It isn’t about a method or a rule.
Christianity doesn’t need defending. If we as Christians would spend our time in the pursuit of Him, knowing Him, considering Him, it would so change us that our Christianity and the God we serve would be irrefutable. Trying to defend God is like trying to defend the universe. It’s really big, and it’s there. By comparison, you’re a pretty tiny speck, and anything you do to defend it is really somewhat humorously vain.
And, God created the universe.

Yet, this magnificent Creator chooses to make Himself available to us to be known by Him and to know Him. That is not religion. That’s relationship.

God invites us to know Him, and be known by Him. That's not religion. It's relationship Click To Tweet

The Christmas Mystery

How can rational, 21st century man embrace a religion founded some 2,000 years ago? I’m sorry, but how can he not? How can he not realize that although man is building and discovering and accomplishing amazing things, man has not changed. He is still brutal, manipulative, self-centered, and downright ugly at heart – capable of amazing anger, bitterness, cruelty, harshness and vitriol. Yes, much harm has been done in the name of Christ and the so-called “Christian religion.” But this is not the Christ or the Christianity of the Bible.

christmas_love

“The Christmas Mystery” evokes images of a fictional story taking place at Christmas time involving searching for something, or solving some crime, or reasoning out someone’s strange behavior. There are myriad of possibilities, many of which have been explored in books and movies and TV programs. But this mystery was proclaimed centuries, even millennia ago. It was revealed on that first Christmas night when a young man and woman, deeply in love with one another, found refuge in a barn and laid their newborn baby in a bed of hay in a trough used for feeding cattle – a manger.

What was so mysterious about this event? We’ve told the story countless times in countless ways. We have sung songs about it. We have made into the biggest event on our annual calendar.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote out a prayer. He prayed that God would grant, according to the riches of His glory, two things:

  1. You to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man
  2. Christ to indwell your heart through faith

There is a wealth of truth in those two phrases, but for now, let’s focus on the indwell part. The word used there means to be at home. Literally, it could be translated “to house down.” That’s kind of an odd way of saying it, but it means to settle in, to be not just in a place of dwelling, but to be comfortably at home.

The results of this prayer would be that you would comprehend the full dimensions of the love of Christ and know it in a way that would surpass all knowledge, and that you would “be filled up to all the fullness of God.”

Paul described himself as a steward of “the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from the ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the gory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:25-27)

The Christmas story is not just a baby in a manger, it is God indwelling His people. It is the gospel story of this child, God with us – Emmanuel – God among us – the creator wrapping Himself in the creation, confining Himself to this tiny little wrapper, growing as a child, becoming a man, living a sinless life, making knowing and fully depending on the heavenly Father His top priority – taking on the death of the cross – the One who did not deserve death dying for those of us who do, then conquering death through the resurrection.  So that He can abide eternally, not just in heaven, but in the each heart that follows Him by faith.

Colossians 1:21-27 – “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard… Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Not just God with us, but Christ in us. That is the mystery of Christmas. God became man and dwelt among us. In doing so, he only began enacting a series of events that would result in the creator of the universe coming to make His home in your heart. In the process, He would make you holy and blameless and beyond reproach. He would make you a house so beautiful that God Himself would be comfortable dwelling there.

 

My God and I

Jean Ellzey was born in October 1924. She was born blind. It was later discovered she also had a debilitating bone disease, severe curvature of the spine, and dwarfism. The doctors didn’t expect her to survive even a year. She passed away in 1993 at the age of 69.

My Aunt Jean had a great voice. She even taught piano and voice, and children’s choir, and sang in the adult choir at church. One of the songs I most remember her singing was “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” I know a lot of people associated her with that song because she sang it so beautifully. I guess I always kind of thought of it as her favorite song. A few weeks ago I was reading her autobiography (again), and noticed she said her favorite song was “My God and I.”

My God and I go in the field together,
We walk and talk, as good friends should and do.
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter,
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.

Pretty cool, huh? She was blind, crippled, never walked without holding on to something or someone. Because she could not walk or see with her eyes as a child, she spent a lot of time alone as the other children around her ran and played. She longed for a friend. She chose God for her best friend. She stuck with that choice her entire life. She couldn’t go for walks, but I know from personal observation that she spent a lot of time talking with her best Friend.

The second verse says:

He tells me of the years that went before me,
When heavenly plans were made for me to be,
When all was but a dream of dim conception,
To come to life, earth’s verdant glory see.

That’s an interesting verse for someone born blind. She “saw” only what she could touch with her hands. She never saw the glorious, green (verdant) grass and trees that surrounded her growing up in northwest Louisiana. Verdant can also mean “young, youthful.” The true glory of earth when it was very young was that God walked with man in the garden. This is how it was meant to be. This was Aunt Jean’s choice – to spiritually walk with God day by day as faithfully as she could. As a result, she saw more of the glory for which we are created than most of us ever will.

My God and I will go for aye together,
We’ll walk and talk and jest as good friends do;
This earth will pass and with it common trifles,
But God and I will go unendingly.

“Go for aye.” I always wondered what that meant, and why in the song it was pronounced with a long “a” sound rather than a long “i” (as in all in favor say, “aye”). I finally looked it up. The long “a” pronunciation is from Middle English according to the dictionary and is a poetic way of saying “ever, or always.” My God and I will always go together. Makes sense.

I tend to kind of stumble over the next line, too. I can visualize the walk and talk part, but the idea of jesting with God always has felt a little strange. I mean, I’m pretty sure God has a sense of humor. He created man and gave us a sense of humor and an ability to laugh. I have had a few occasions in prayer where talking with God I saw the humor in a situation. Still, “jesting with God” is not an easy concept to grasp. Before she died, Aunt Jean dreamed about dying and going to heaven. My mom asked her what she did when she got to heaven. Aunt Jean said, “I was running around seeing people.” I have to say, that still makes me chuckle. I love it that God gave blind, crippled Aunt Jean a dream where she was “running around, seeing people.” Mom even asked her about who she saw, and Aunt Jean gave a very accurate description of their grandfather, Papa Sibley. God does have a sense of humor.

I should maybe choose Him as my best friend, too. How about you? This earth will pass, and with it all the huge things we worry about from pimples to cancer, from gnats to presidential politics. When it does, wouldn’t it be great to spend eternity with your Best Friend?

Retweet this and send me your email address, and I’ll send you a digital copy of Jean Ellzey’s autobiography – “In Him There Is No Darkness.”

This earth will pass & with it everything we fret over from pimples to cancer, but God & I will go unendingly. Click To Tweet