Time to abide…

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John 15:Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Jesus uses the image of a grapevine, and its rhythm of bearing fruit and then pruning, to describe the life of a disciple. Just like much of the plant world, human beings are not designed to be fruitful year-around. We have seasons of productivity and then, hopefully, seasons of rest – or what Jesus calls here “abiding”. Without abiding time Christians cannot be fruitful.

I’m taking some abiding time this week and will be back on Monday, June 21st. Please pray for me and my family as we take time away for vacation. It’s been a very long and often difficult 15 months, yet through it all God has been faithful. And so I place my trust in the Lord to step away for a bit of renewal. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

See you on the 21st.

A thorn was given me in the flesh…

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2 Corinthians 12:1 (the apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth) “It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows… Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

On the one hand Paul boasts of the extraordinary revelations God has given him, while at the same time acknowledging a “thorn” in the flesh, a “messenger of Satan”. There is much speculation by scholars about what Paul is describing here as a “thorn”. Because he mentions a thorn “in the flesh” some believe he refers to a disease or ailment of some kind. Yet the context of this passage, and of the several chapters preceding it, is Paul’s response to being compared with so-called “super apostles” from chapter 11.

This “thorn in the flesh” sounds to me like a thorn on two feet – a person. Paul’s description of “a messenger of Satan” also seems to me to support the idea this thorn was another human being. It also brings to mind Paul’s words in the book of Ephesians chapter 6:12 “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood”. In other words, it may appear to our eyes we have a human problem, but the fight is actually with the spiritual forces working through the human in question.

In v.9-10 Paul describes the consequences of God’s refusal to remove the thorn in the flesh:

“So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Do you recall what keeps happening to Paul along his evangelistic travels? His teachings stir opposition in persons who report him to the local authorities who then have him arrested. As a result, his experiences named in v.10 occur. Sounds like bad news all the way around. How can you preach the gospel if you’re in jail? And yet – God does something remarkable as a result.

Paul is a Roman citizen, which means he cannot be punished or put to death without a trial in which he has the opportunity to defend himself. And so in having Paul arrested and brought to trial, God gives to Paul the opportunity to bear witness to Jesus before the most senior of local authorities!

Friends, there are people who will oppose you over and over. Some may be influenced by Satan. Yet God works in mysterious ways. How might the Lord be giving to you and to me the opportunity to bear witness to the love of Christ in the midst of our struggles? Lord open our eyes to these opportunities you give us to be your witnesses. Amen.

Joy in our labors…

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Ecclesiastes 5:13 There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. 15 As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. 16 This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? 17 Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment. 18 This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. 19 Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God. 20 For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts. 

This passage presents an interesting contrast that is very much a part of our world today as it was then. V.13-17 describe someone whose focus is the pursuit of riches. There’s a sense they are not satisfied with what they already have so they’re constantly after “more”. V.16 asks, “what gain do they have from toiling for the wind”? In other words, the enjoyment, fulfillment, happiness they seek from the acquisition of material things is like “toiling for the wind”. It cannot be grasped. It slips through the fingers and they end up with nothing since none of us takes it with us at the time of our death.

But God gifts others with enjoyment from their labors, no matter how much or little they might have. Makes no difference. This sense of contentment isn’t something one works for, but is a gift of God. This idea echoes in Paul’s words in Philippians 4:11-12:

11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.

I’m often guilty of “toiling for the wind”. It’s hard not to in a consumer culture like ours. Contentment is a gift from our Lord I am asking for this morning. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Out of gas…

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Psalm 73:26 (NRSV): 26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

I think a better word than “may” above would be “will”. Mortality says we don’t live forever. The older I get the more I realize my days are numbered.

But God’s days are not numbered, nor does God’s strength wane.

There are many days when I’m tired, especially on the inside. I feel out of gas. Some of you know what I’m talking about. And so I find myself depending on the Lord to get me through the day.

God is my strength and my portion forever. Without you Lord I have no hope. Come Lord Jesus. Come Holy Spirit. Come.

A change of perspective makes all the difference…

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Psalm 73: 12 Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. 13 All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. 14 For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning… 17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end. 

David is angry that the wicked appear to be prospering, yet the righteous are not, “All in vain I have kept my heart clean…”. But then there is verse 17, “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.” In a place of worship the Lord helped David to see the situation differently. The prosperity of the wicked is temporary. While they appear to enjoy a glorious “now” they ultimately come to an inglorious end.

In the New Testament we might refer to this reframing of a situation from human perspective to God’s perspective as “repentance” which means to “turn around”. We “turn around” in the mind and in the spirit to see the world differently. Lord Jesus, help us to see the world as you see it. We pray in your holy name. Amen.

It’s not appearance that matters in things of the Spirit…

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2 Corinthians 10:1 I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!— I ask that when I am present I need not show boldness by daring to oppose those who think we are acting according to human standards. Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

We tend to judge a book by its cover. Paul was not an impressive looking person, having endured great suffering over the years of his ministry. As he says in v.3 “we live as human beings”. His body degraded over time like everyone else’s despite his calling as an apostle of Jesus. However, there is the rest of the verse,

“we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have diving power…”

I’ve seen this over and over. The most powerful Christian leaders I’ve ever known have not tended to be impressive looking in person. Few would fit the profile of what a Hollywood casting director might look for to portray a person of great spiritual authority. That said, the power of the gospel shone in them – in their humility, their grace, and most importantly their boldness in prayer. It is true that the Lord does not look upon the flesh, but the heart and the spirit.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a woman asking her to assume a leadership position in the area of prayer and spiritual discernment in the church I lead as pastor. I’m grateful our church leadership has recognized the need to re-connect with our sense of mission and purpose in the midst of a significant cultural shift (pandemic). That said, as we’re making plans and clarifying strategies we can forget that our work is fundamentally of a spiritual nature. More than we need a great strategy or flawless execution, we need God’s hand to move among us. Only God can remake our church to bear witness in the midst of a world being remade in real-time.

This woman doesn’t see herself as a person of spiritual authority, but other people do. Which simply reinforces for me that we have asked the right person. The eyes can be deceiving, but the Spirit reveals the truth. Lord give us eyes to see and ears to hear when we encounter those in whom you are moving with power. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

An apprehensive giver?

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2 Corinthians 9:The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

Here the apostle Paul encourages the believers in Corinth to have a collection ready when he arrives. They are giving to support persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. I appreciate his description of a “cheerful giver”. When we trust that the Lord will always provide for our needs, we can enjoy blessing others with a financial gift.

That said, for most of us learning to grow in our giving, we don’t start out being cheerful givers. This is particularly true before the practice of tithing (returning to God 10% of our income) is built into our personal budget. When we’re getting started, we’re often giving money we don’t think we have. It’s normal to be scary or anxious at first. There’s no shame in that. It’s part of the growth process.

Yet as we begin to see the Lord fulfilling the promise of providing for our needs, even as we give away 10%+ of our income, apprehension turns to joy. It’s fun giving stuff away, isn’t it?

Lord you are so good to us. Give us grace to trust you with our entire lives, including our financial lives. And give strength to those just getting started in the practice of tithing. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

O God, do not be far from me…

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Psalm 71: 12 O God, do not be far from me; O my God, make haste to help me! 

This psalm is attributed to King David in the latter part of his life. David has been through a lot over the years. He’s seen God’s deliverance many times. He doesn’t express doubt that God will save him again, but he does wish that God would do it – NOW.

This morning I’m particularly drawn to the first part of this verse, “O God, do not be far from me…”. We got a new puppy recently, a dachshund named “Penny”. She’s a cutie as all puppies are. And while Penny is getting more comfortable in our home, she still gets anxious when Jana leaves the room. She whimpers and barks like a child crying out for her mama. Then when Jana reappears she immediately calms down. Nothing about her surroundings have changed, but she’s in the presence of one who loves her, cares for her, protects her, trains her. She has nothing to fear while Jana is around. And Penny knows it.

This morning there are several things in my life which remain unresolved. Questions which remain unanswered. And while my usual plea is “Fix this God!”, this morning I’m taking a cue from David. “O God, do not be far from me. Let me dwell in your presence that my spirit might be at rest. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

We are a “new creation” in Jesus…

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2 Corinthians 5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

When I first became a committed Christian in my early 20s this promise really appealed to me. I’d had some disappointments and struggles in my life to that point and I was afraid my past would define me. And left to myself that may very well have been how things turned out. But because of Jesus, and being made new in relationship to Jesus, my life took a radical turn for the better.

Your past doesn’t have to define your future.

Does this mean that as Christians we no longer have struggles or trials? No. Does my life completely transform in a day? No. Well, not usually. But in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit which we receive in our baptism, the seed of transformation is planted and – over time – we become a “new creation”. It’s true. If you want to give it a try, reach out to me (pastorernie@gmail.com).

Lord thank you that in Jesus we are made new. Amen.

Tomorrow I’ll enjoy life…

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Proverbs 21:17 Whoever loves pleasure will suffer want; whoever loves wine and oil will not be rich. 

This verse is a warning against the love of leisure, good meals, and the like – particularly at the expense of one’s productivity and responsibility. What I tend to see more often these days are people who work so much they don’t actually enjoy what they earn. It’s an imbalance opposite the one mentioned here.

As I’m getting older I becoming more aware how fleeting life can be. Everything can seem to be going just fine – until it’s not. Tragedy has a way of stealing from us time we assumed was ours in the future. Tomorrow I’ll enjoy life. Tomorrow I’ll visit those I love. Tomorrow I’ll see the sights I don’t have time for today.

And then… there are no more tomorrows.

Or I’m no longer able to do things I planned to do “one day”.

Perhaps the time to enjoy the life God has given to us as a gift… is now.