And be thankful…

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts since as members of one body, you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:16)

From time to time I’ve seen posts on Facebook entitled “30 Days of Gratitude” or something similar, and each day the person posts something they’re thankful for.

I was reminded of that as I remembered the verse above. “And be thankful,” the apostle Paul says. Why? Why should we be thankful? Why do people post on Facebook something they are grateful for each day?

In his devotional book, Hidden In Christ, James Bryan Smith gives a couple of reasons why we should and some reasons why some folks believe they should.

For instance, are you among those who believe that God is mad at you if you aren’t thankful? Smith gives the example of how we raise our children. When our children receive something, we say to them, “What do you say?” At times, we transfer that thinking to our God, believing that He is looking down at heaven screaming at us, “What do you say?!?” As Smith points out, God is complete in Himself. He doesn’t need anything. He loves us genuinely and with pureness of heart. He requires nothing in return. After all, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Secondly, Smith says, sometimes we mistakenly believe that thankfulness is the “secret ingredient” to prayer, which sways God to answer. We are told to “enter His gates with thanksgiving…” (Psalm 100:4) and “in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6) However, if we think we can manipulate God, we are missing the point.

No, as the folks who post on Facebook would probably tell you, when you count your blessings, when you find things to be thankful to God for, and when you look at life closely and discover little (and big) things to be grateful about, life begins to come alive, so to speak. Your attitude changes. You begin to savor every day, not taking anything for granted, as you and I sometimes do.

As we see every day through the news and elsewhere, we are not guaranteed tomorrow. Life can change in the blink of an eye. Our loved ones here today can be gone tomorrow.

Savor this day. And be thankful.

Conversations with God…

This morning I didn’t know what to read or where to start, so I prayed, “Lord, what’s on your mind today? What’s on your heart today? I want your thoughts to be my thoughts. Show me what you want this morning.”

I then prayed for my friends Donna and Amanda, brave women enduring a lot and glorifying God while doing it. I then opened a devotional book and the day’s devo talked about unity with God and His will, not becoming double-minded with hidden motives or agendas.

Then I looked at a pamphlet that one of my favorite authors wrote, entitled, “Reading With Your Ears – How to Hear the Voice of God in the Bible.” It’s basically a study guide teaching how to read the Bible conversationally. He begins by saying,

“Have you ever stopped to think how amazing it is that God wants to talk to you? The creator of the universe, God Almighty himself, wants to talk to you! He loves you. He is concerned about every aspect of your life. He has something to say to you every day. And he wants to hear from you every day, too. As followers of Christ, we can all have conversations with God. We just need to learn how to listen.”

He goes on to talk about how to read the Bible conversationally, and encourages to read “for depth, not distance.” Find a passage, either by using a devotional, the material from Sunday’s sermon, or one you’re fond of, and read it. It shouldn’t be overly lengthy, nor – if you’re just starting out – difficult passages. (Difficult to understand, difficult to pronounce, difficult to read)

Read it once all the way through. Then read it again, stopping at anything that catches your attention. Read it emphasizing certain words, then read it again, emphasizing different words. Reading it aloud helps here.

Then let it seep in. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” (Colossians 3:16) Be a hot cup of water and let the Word be a tea bag. Let it steep and allows its color, flavor and aroma to saturate you. Ponder the meaning of words. Let the Holy Spirit guide your thoughts. Let your mind wander but be mindful of what you’re thinking about. If thoughts about today’s work or activities pop up, have a pad of paper handy to write those thoughts down and then come back to the Word.

I did that this morning, and went back to the calling of Matthew, the tax collector, in Matthew 9. I wrote about his encounter with Jesus yesterday, but just felt the passage might hold more for me. As I read the end of the scene, Jesus says in verse 13,

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

In my Bible, there’s a footnote after the sentence, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” and it refers me to another verse, Hosea 6:6 in the Old Testament. Jesus just said, “Go and learn what this means,” so I turned to the passage.

Hosea is a prophetic book that talks about the “adulterous” people of Israel, who walked away from the God of their forefathers, pursued other gods, or were just going through the week-after-week motions of their religious lives. They may have gone through their daily or weekly rituals, going to the synagogue, singing their songs, praying their prayers, and making their sacrifices, but their hearts weren’t in it. Sound familiar?

And then God speaks through the prophet and says:

O Israel and Judah, what should I do with you? asks the Lord.
For your love vanishes like the morning mist and disappears like dew in the sunlight.
I sent my prophets to cut you to pieces – to slaughter you with my words,
with judgments as inescapable as light.
I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.
I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.
(Hosea 6:4-6, NLT)

The Message paraphrases verse 6:

I’m after love that lasts, not more religion.
I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings.

Today’s message to me: God wants me to know Him more. He wants to talk to me. He wants me to know His thoughts and His heart.

He wants to have a conversation. I need to (re)learn how to listen.

It Should Happen. It Really Ought To.

The apostle John has a unique writing style. You can see it in his Gospel, but really feel its beautiful rhythm in his epistles. It has a repetitive, circular pattern to it that helps drive his point home. Look at this passage in 1 John:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. (1 John 4:7-12 NLT)

The point is simple: We ought to be like God.

No, we shouldn’t be little gods, but our characteristics ought to be the same characteristics that God possesses. For instance, we ought to love the seemingly unloveable. We ought to forgive the seemingly unforgivable. We ought to be willing to reach out and touch the seemingly untouchable, and more.

I write “seemingly” because we were seemingly that way once, too. As Christ-followers, we ought to exhibit the same traits and characteristics as our God and His Son, Jesus. After all, Ephesians 5:1 says, “Be imitators of God…”.

But look at the passage from 1 John again. He says a five-letter word that I also repeat five times after John’s passage. It’s the word, “ought.”

If you look up the word “ought” in the dictionary, here’s what you find as the first definition:

1 – used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when viewing one’s actions or behavior.

It would be easy to use “ought” in this manner in John’s passage. After all, God loved us before we even knew Him. Jesus died for us while we were sinners. It is now our duty to repay Him with our love and devotion, right? Well… hang on. Let’s look at the next definition:

2 – indicating what is probable, desirable, or to be expected.

This, I believe, is what John is getting at. If we have been truly impacted by God’s love… by His sacrifice at The Cross for us… by Him loving us before we had any clue… then our lives OUGHT to exhibit His love to a world which so desperately needs it. If my heart has been changed by His love, then love coming from me is “probable, desirable, or to be expected.”

It is not out of duty or obligation that you or I express love – for God Himself or for others. It is a natural out-flowing of our inward condition and transformation.

It was John who said in his Gospel:

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you SHOULD love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”(John 13:34-35, NLT, my emphasis)

(If you look up the word “should”, it has the same definition as “ought.”)

It SHOULD just happen. It really ought to.

Need a Spark?

I’ve talked to a few people recently who feel they are struggling spiritually. They feel they are just going through the motions. They are believers; that is, they believe that Jesus, the Son of God, died for their sins, and they’ve accepted the gift of salvation. However, their spiritual life has no real life to it. It’s blase and lacks any vibrancy at all.

They read their Bible, but not consistently, and their infrequent devotion time with God is dry and barren. Their prayer-life is virtually non-existent, and any prayers seemingly hit a glass ceiling. Lastly, going to church is a chore. It’s something they do because they know they should, but they would rather be virtually anywhere else on a Sunday morning. And for the most part, they ARE anywhere else; they haven’t been back to church in quite a few weeks.

This isn’t what they want. They desire more. They want a spiritual life that is alive, and where God speaks and answers prayer, and where they experience God’s power – spiritual power – in their lives to live victoriously.

Does any of this sound familiar? It does to me. I’ve been there. Many times. I think we all have. So, how do we “snap” out of it? How do we turn our spiritual life around so it comes alive again?

I don’t know much, but I’ve come to realize that although we call it a “spiritual life”, it is not a “thing”; it is a relationship. It is a relationship with God. It is a relationship with Jesus. It is a relationship with the Holy Spirit. Not three relationships, but just one… with God. And like any relationship, if we choose to ignore it or neglect it or betray it, it will slowly (or not so slowly, with betrayal) wain or die out.

However, God is passionate in His pursuit of you. You are just what He’s looking for. You are just who he wants. And He will go to no end to have a relationship with you. And unlike human relationships, He will forgive you no matter what you’ve done and no matter how many times you’ve done it. He accepts you just as you are and loves you just as you are. He loves you just as much as He loves Mother Teresa or Billy Graham.

All you need to do is come back to Him.

It takes humility to come back. It requires saying that you’re sorry and that you want to do it differently this time. You have to tell Him this. You have to tell Him that you need His help. This is where it starts. God’s Word says,

For this is what the high and exalted One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite”(Isaiah 57:15)

This is where the spark is ignited.

Secondly, because it is a relationship, you have to nurture it. You need to start doing the things that bring you closer together, and stop doing the things that push you apart. Going back to church, where there is worship, where others are drawing close to God, where you will hear the Word of God spoken, the Good News proclaimed, and where like-minded folks are pursuing the same relationship will help you. As Rick Warren says, “You were formed for fellowship.” You need other believers in your life, for encouragement, for friendship, and for accountability.

You need to begin rekindling your prayer-life and Bible-reading. This is so crucial. This is where the relationship blossoms. Start small and slowly grow it into a time you can’t live without. But you must start. Even if it seems dry and lifeless, continue doing it – by faith. Tell God that it seems dry. Tell Him that you’re going to continue to ask, seek, and knock, because He promises to answer… He promises that you will find Him… and He promises that the door will be opened. Be persistent. Be relentless in your pursuit of the relationship.

Lastly, treasure this time with God. Guard it. It is the most important time of every day, whether it’s done in the morning or evening. You will find that it’s not just the morning or evening that He will be with you, but throughout every moment of every day.

For me, it was hard to realize that this time devoted to God is not just another thing on my To-Do List. It’s not another thing that I need to get done to make me feel better about myself (or think that God will feel better about me). It was a way to nurture the relationship, to get to know God better. It’s a way for me to yield more and more of my life to Him, and have His life lived through me more and more.

But as God says through the prophet Isaiah in the Scripture above, it begins with a humble and contrite heart. That is the starting point for revival.