Sing to the Lord!

For many years I sang in church choirs as an alto –in the lower female range. In one choir, I was seated with a soprano to my left, and a tenor and bass directly behind me on either side. Everyone was going in different vocal directions and I had the hardest time staying on my alto notes. Because the soprano was a strong singer, I was constantly being pulled in her direction. The choir director didn’t want to move me (he had us arranged aesthetically by height), but he did give me some advice. He told me to concentrate more on my note – and to lean just a little towards the alto to my right. He said that he could hear me singing the correct notes, but at the same time, he could tell that I was listening to all the other singers around me and losing confidence in myself. I will always remember what he told me, “You’re on the right notes, but you have to stay focused and not back off.”

I think about that often when the world is loud and I’m struggling to stay on the right way. Many different voices are saying many different things, and they are apt to draw me away from what I know is true. The culture wants me to embrace things that God’s Word has clearly forbidden. The scholar wants me to trade truth for worldly philosophies that have no regard for God. The unsaved world wants me to stop singing God’s praises altogether. My choir director’s advice rings loud and clear: stay focused. Concentrate on what you know is right and true; lean into godly wisdom and don’t back off. This world is becoming more evil and more vocal every day. If we are not intentionally listening to God, you and I will be pulled away from what is right and true. I love this word from Paul to his protégé Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of” (2 Timothy 3:14). Stay the course. Focus on the truth. Let God’s Word drown out the voices of the world. The way of righteousness has not changed just because the music around you has. Beloved, don’t let the world change your song.

Hebrews: The Faith of a Harlot

I have a list in my Bible taken from the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel of the most unlikely people God chose to use in Israel’s history. Abraham was a liar, twice putting his wife’s life in danger to save his own skin. Jacob, Abraham’s grandson followed in his footsteps as a liar, a thief, and a cheater. Judah cheated his daughter-in-law Tamar out of her rightful place in the family. Tamar tricked Judah into sleeping with her (which he willingly went along with) and impregnating her with twin sons, one of whom, Perez, is in the lineage of Jesus. There is Ruth, a despised Moabitess (a people of mixed heritage), David, an adulterer and murderer, and Solomon, the product of David’s affair, who was a womanizer and idolator.

And let’s not forget Rahab, whom the author of Hebrews identifies as “the prostitute [who] welcomed the spies” (Heb 11:31). Some have tried to clean up her reputation and claim she was “an innkeeper,” and she may have been, but it was a side gig to her regular job as a prostitute. Why, if we’re talking about the Son of God, would the Bible include such unsavory characters? Because liars and adulterers and thieves, and cheaters, and murderers, and womanizers, and idolators, and – yes, prostitutes need Jesus. Just as drug addicts, alcoholics, homosexuals, abortionists, abusers, war-mongers, and rapists do. So do housewives, company presidents, preachers, police officers, school principals, grandparents, farmers – well I think you get the picture. There’s not a soul alive that doesn’t need Him. And the beauty of it is he will never refuse anyone.  He said, Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). That’s good news for those of us with a “colorful” past – or present.

I think there is another reason for including these people. It’s in the introduction the writer used for every person in this chapter. “By faith  . . .” Rahab was everything God’s Law stood against, but Rahab had faith in God. And faith changes everything. Rahab the prostitute (and Gentile) became the heroine of the Jewish nation and the great-great-grandmother of King David. Faith turns the unlikeliest sinners into saints – even better – into the image-bearers of Christ (Rom 8:29). Rahab assures us that no one is too far gone for God. Not your spouse, neighbor, or hard-headed kid. Not even you, Beloved.  All it takes is faith.

So Help Me God

*Steel-toed boot warning.

Court scenes in movies, television, and books generally show witnesses and defendants swearing to tell the truth with their right hand on a Bible. The practice of swearing an oath goes back to antiquity. In twelfth-century England the practice of swearing on the Word and name of God to declare one’s truthfulness became law. The custom came over with the pilgrims but was never made law as it was one of the many reasons they left the oppressive religious rule of England.
In the day when the Bible was considered sacred text and God was revered, the practice of swearing an oath “on the Bible” was the norm. That is no longer the case and the courts have determined that a witness could simply “affirm” to be honest. But putting one’s hand on the Bible has never been a guarantee of truthfulness, has it? People swore on the Bible and still lied. Even claiming to be a Christian these days doesn’t mean a person will be godly. So what good is the Bible anyway? And who needs it if it can’t make you a better person?
Here’s the ugly truth: we often use the Bible to comment on the ungodliness in our culture and to point out sin in the world. But remember, the Bible was written to the people of God, not to the world. The Old Testament was written to the Israelites and the New Testament is written to the church. Who needs the Bible? I do. You do. The Pastor and the deacons and every member of the Church. Every person who claims the name of Jesus Christ. Because God is speaking to His people. God is calling the church back to Himself. He is telling His people to stop living in sin and repent. He is drawing those who claim the name of Christ into holy living. We can’t hold the unsaved world to biblical standards not following. We can’t rant about homosexual marriage when the divorce rate in the church is the same as outside the church. We can’t judge unwed mothers when pornography addiction is rampant in the church. We can’t demand righteousness we don’t have ourselves. Don’t read the Bible to convict the culture, read it to convict your own heart. “For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household . . .” (I Peter 4:17).

When You Feel Yourself Falling

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I lost my balance this morning. I felt myself tilting backward so I aimed for the wall behind me. When my back made contact, I immediately stopped stumbling. I let my body fall against the solid structure of the wall and it held me upright until I could regain my footing. If the wall had not been there, if it had not been a firm edifice, I would have hit the floor and probably caused some bodily damage at my age. I’m so grateful that wall was there for me to lean on.

I was talking to a friend recently about how the world had changed so much in just my lifetime. We’ve seen incredible advances in technology, education, health care, and pretty much every area of life. But we’ve also seen a drastic downturn in morality, responsibility, and integrity. It’s enough to make your head spin – and throw you off-balance. How do you and I regain firm footing in this chaotic environment? Two things come to mind.

Solomon – the great king of wisdom said, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight (Prov 3:5-6). To keep our balance you and I must trust in and lean on God. The idea is the same as me leaning into the wall to keep from falling. God is the only secure place to stand when everything around us is in a state of flux. How grateful I am that God does not change (Mal 3:6).

The psalmist declared, “When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ Your love, O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, Your consolation brought Joy to my soul” (Psalms 94:18-19). In all the confusion that surrounds us, there is one constant you and I can trust: God’s love. Just as I leaned against the wall for support, I lean against Him, the one sure and solid force that I can trust. I regain my balance in His goodness, kindness, grace, and never-ending, never-failing, ever-faithful love.

It really is a challenge to stay stable in this unstable world, but it’s not impossible when you lean on and trust in God and His love. Beloved, when the world around you is spinning, nothing and no one is more secure and sure.

What You See is What you Want

If you’re of my generation you know whom I’m talking about when I say, “What you see is what you get!”  Flip Wilson created his female character, Geraldine, who uttered that famous catchphrase as “she” danced to show off “her” full figure. Vision is a powerful tool to draw people in. Advertisers depend on it. Beautiful women sell men’s shaving cream.  A buff, handsome man in a flannel shirt sells paper towels. One of the most iconic images in advertising is the Gerber Baby whose face sold countless baby food products. That smile and expression grabbed mothers’ hearts, hoping to bring the same to their babies’ faces. They paraphrased Geraldine, “What you see is what you want.”

Satan counted on that too when he enticed Eve to take the forbidden fruit. And, of course, it worked. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it” (Gen 3:6).  What Eve saw became what she wanted and she fell – and took the entire human race down with her. (Adam’s role in this is a whole other post.)

The start of sin for all of us happens when “our hearts are led by our eyes” (Job 31:7, paraphrased). Sin happens in much the same way as advertising: “We see it, we want it, and we buy it.” That’s why advertisers – and satan – put it in such appealing packaging. But sin also happens because we are looking for it.  James pointed out that temptation and sin tap into the evil desires in our hearts.  (James 1:14). Perhaps that is why the Psalmist said that he would “set before my eyes no vile thing” (Psalm 101:3). Consider that verse in a world where “vile things” are available at the tap of a finger. If you want vile, you can get it any time of the day.

How do we break that sinful pattern? We “guard our heart” by “letting our eyes look straight ahead and fixing our gaze directly before us” (Prov. 23,25). At what? David knew. “I have set the Lord always before me” (Psalm 16:8). If your eyes are always on the Lord, He will be the desire of your heart. And what you see is what you want.

Silver Vases and Chamber Pots

When I was a very young girl, and we visited my grandmother we experienced true “country living.” We slept on real feather beds (John Denver anyone?), helped granny pick and snap beans for supper, slopped the hogs, and on cold mornings huddled around the coal-burning stove.  And during the day – when [ahem] the need arose – we visited the outhouse.  But at night, no one wanted to traipse out in the dark and cold, so granny had pans that sat under the bed for our nightly needs. 

Where am I going with this? To Paul’s second letter to Timothy. He said, “In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:20-21). 

Keep in mind that Paul is addressing Christians – not the world. He is talking to people God desires to use in Kingdom work on earth. He is saying that how God uses us largely depends on how we live.  We can be “an instrument of noble purposes” if we strive for holiness in our daily lives. Think of a silver vase that holds beautiful flowers in God’s throne room or the golden goblet from which He drinks each day. But if we pursue “ignoble purposes” – if we live for the world and our flesh we will be good for nothing more than an iron dustpan, or a tin mop bucket in the King’s great house. Or the pan under my granny’s bed.

So how do we endeavor to be vessels for noble purposes? Paul continued: “flee evil desires and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (v. 22). We run from things that lead us into sin. We cultivate desires for the things of God, and we align ourselves with believers who are on the same path. If you are in Christ the Father has cleansed you with Jesus’ blood, clothed you in robes of righteousness, anointed you with the Holy Spirit, and set you apart for a holy purpose.  Beloved, how will you be used in the house of God?

Just Obey

Joy has a fascination with our cat. Celina does not share the same feelings. She chases her, picks her up, and totes her around the house. All the while we are telling her to “Put that cat down!” It’s not that Joy doesn’t know she shouldn’t aggravate the cat. She has been told countless times to leave her alone. She has sat in her time-out chair multiple times and has taken a couple of swats to the behind over it. And she’s gotten a few scratches from said cat. She knows very well that she is not to harass the cat but she is determined to do it anyway. Joy has trouble obeying.

She is one small example of the human race. Paul said you and I know the reality of God. “What may be known about God is plain to them, because has made it plain to them” (Rom 1:19). And we know God’s law. It has been written on every person’s heart (Rom 2:15). We know what sin is; we are without excuse (Rom 1:20). We know that sin brings death (Rom 6:23). And yet we disobey. And we do so with pride. Why? Because like Joy, we want what we want and we will break every commandment on our way to get it. And we will pay the price for it.

There is a better way, you know. Just obey God’s Word. The Psalmist said, “I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands” (Psalm 119:60). When God handed down the law through Moses he didn’t say, “Here are ten suggestions for a happy life,” He said, “These are my commandments,” meaning they are not optional. Writer and speaker Priscilla Shirer said, “God doesn’t speak to be heard, He speaks to be obeyed.” Believe me, I am preaching to myself here. I know God’s law – I’ve studied it for many years, yet I still have trouble obeying at times. Like Paul, I know what is right, but I still do what is wrong (Rom 7:15-23). And if you’re honest, you will admit the same. There is great blessing in obedience. The Psalmist said, “I run in the path of your commands, for You have set my heart free” (Ps 119:32). Peace. Joy. Freedom. Beloved, let’s walk the path of obedience together.

Burning Ropes

In yesterday’s post, we talked about the refiner’s fire. Today is another hot devotional. Daniel’s three companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow and worship the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had erected in his image. They declared their allegiance to the God of Israel and said, “The God we serve is able to save us . . . but even if he does not we will not worship your golden image” (Dan 3:17-18, para). That infuriated the king, and he ordered the men to be bound and thrown into a fiery furnace that had been stoked to seven times its normal heat. It was so hot it instantly killed the soldiers who tossed them in.

But the king saw something unexpected in that fire. “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods” (3:25). When the men came out of the fire they were unharmed, “not a hair of their heads [was] singed, their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them” (3:27). How’s that for a miracle!

What stands out to me isn’t just that they survived but that the only thing that was destroyed by the fire were the ropes that were used to bind them. Just as we learned in Peter’s story, God often uses fire to free us from the very things that bind us and hinder our usefulness to the Kingdom. God’s enemy – Nebuchadnezzar – tied up the three Hebrew men. God’s enemy – satan – is still binding up the Lord’s people to destroy them and exalt himself as King over heaven and earth. But God uses the very flames that are intended to devastate us to instead free us.

I don’t know what ropes the enemy has used to try to tie you up (or down). It may be an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or pornography (or something “innocent” like eating, shopping, or gaming). It may be pride, habitual lying, shoplifting, or gossiping. It may be a hard, painful past or an overload of responsibilities that are crushing the life out of you. Whatever it is, it will take the fires of heaven to set you free. But don’t fear the furnace of affliction Beloved. Jesus will be in the fire with you and only the ropes will be burned. You will walk away without one hair singed and not even a trace of smoke.

Hebrews: The Trouble With Sin

Here we are again at another difficult passage. That is, it’s difficult for us, but to God, it’s perfectly plain. We complicate it by looking for loopholes or playing Twister to make it say something less abrasive. Somebody’s not going to like this, but keep in mind, I didn’t say it. God did.

The writer of Hebrews delivers a strongly-worded warning: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (10:26-27). If this sounds familiar, then you were paying attention at 6:4-6.

When Moses presented the Law that would govern the Israelites’ lives, he differentiated between “unintentional sin” and “intentional sin” (or “willful sin”). “Unintentional sin”  is used in the Scriptures eighteen times – all declaring that God offers atonement for unintentional sin. In Numbers 15:22-29 alone you will find it six times. But hear vs. 30-31: “But anyone who sins defiantly . . . blasphemes the Lord, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the Lord’s word and broke His commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him.”

The writer of Hebrews calls this “deliberate sin.” It’s not that we stumbled into it,– but we deliberately went looking for it. It’s what Exodus 21:14 describes as “scheming” for sin. We could never tell God, “I didn’t mean to!” because we did.  There is no excuse – or sacrifice – for willful, defiant, intentional sin in a Christian’s life because “we have received the knowledge of the truth.” We know better, and in the words of Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.” The writer echoes Moses’ words when he says there is “no sacrifice for [deliberate] sins.” All that is left is judgment and the fires of hell. That is a pretty clear indication that those who follow a pattern of deliberate sin are not saved. Redeemed people will not face judgment and destruction. But God’s enemies will.

As believers who have “had our hearts sprinkled [with the blood of Jesus] to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (v. 22), the Bible doesn’t say you cannot sin. It says you won’t – at least not deliberately. And if you do . . . well, I think you get the point.

Pointing Fingers

I’m studying Job in two groups right now – I am sure by God’s provident timing. In the first two chapters of Job, satan comes before the Lord twice to give an account of what he’s been up to. I have a note jotted beside satan’s second appearance before God: “last mention of satan.” This is the last time that ugly face is seen in this book. But it’s not the last time satan himself shows up. You can bet he is the impetus behind what comes next in Job’s story.

You know the story. God gives satan permission to take all that Job has – his wealth, his children, and his health – to prove that Job will never curse the Lord. Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to “sympathize with him and comfort him” (v. 11). When they see him sitting on the trash heap, covered in sores and misery, “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights” and “No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (v. 13). If only they had kept their mouths shut.

I said that satan’s last mention was in chapter two, but he shows up in Job’s “friends” every time they speak. They all condemn Job for what must be grievous sin in his life. Why else would God bring such harsh punishment on him? But they don’t know what God has said about Job: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (1:8; 2:3). Satan didn’t have to show his face, he just let E, B, and Z do his dirty work. If Job’s friends truly wanted to comfort him, they should have reminded him of God’s faithfulness and love. They should have sang songs of hope, not blasted him with condemnation. Rather than comforting their friend, they added to his suffering.

Here’s my takeaway: Never assume you know a person’s heart before God and God’s reason for their situation. We are called to a ministry of “encouraging, comforting, and urging [one another] to live lives worthy of God” (1 Thess 2:12). We are not called to “straighten one another out.” I don’t want to ever be satan’s tool of misery in someone’s life, no matter how “righteous” my reasoning. Beloved, make sure you are God’s messenger of grace, not satan’s sledgehammer.