Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth

“The greatest problems of our time are not technological, for these we handle fairly well. They are not even political or economic, because the difficulties in these areas, glaring as they may be, are largely derivative. The greatest problems are moral and spiritual, and unless we can make some progress in these realms, we may not even survive.”

So writes D. Elton Trueblood in his foreword to Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. This blessed book, written by Richard J. Foster, has been used since its initial printing in 1978, to deepen the interior lives of countless individuals, nurturing them toward more abundant living.

“Superficiality is the curse of our age,” Foster asserts. “The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is…for deep people.”

The classic Disciplines, or central spiritual practices, of the Christian faith allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us. Dividing the Disciplines into three movements of the Spirit, Foster shows how each of these areas contributes to a balanced spiritual life. The inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study offer avenues of personal examination and change. The outward Disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service help prepare us to make the world a better place. The corporate Disciplines of confession, worship, guidance and celebration bring us nearer to one another and to God.

Foster asks us to “picture a long, narrow ridge with a sheer drop-off on either side. The chasm to the right is the way of moral bankruptcy through human strivings for righteousness. Historically this has been called the heresy of moralism. The chasm to the left is moral bankruptcy through the absence of human strivings. This has been called the heresy of antinomianism. On the ridge there is a path, the Disciplines of the spiritual life…[T]he path does not produce the change; it only places us where the change can occur. This is the path of disciplined grace…[and] our world is hungry for genuinely changed people. Leo Tolstoy observes, ‘Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.’ Let us be among those who believe that the inner transformation of our lives is a goal worthy of our best effort.”

If you are feeling spiritually dry, if you have tired of superficiality, if you are hungering for a more abundant life, I recommend you carve out some time to spend with Celebration of Discipline. I have used this book in many classes on spiritual growth and have seen astonishing transformations in those who have devoted themselves to the principles set forth within.

Sunday’s Palms Are Wednesday’s Ashes

Sunday’s palms are Wednesday’s ashes as another Lent begins;
Thus we kneel before the Maker in contrition for our sins.
We have marred baptismal pledges, in rebellion gone astray;
Now returning, seek forgiveness; grant us pardon, God, this day!

We have failed to love our neighbors, their offenses to forgive,
Have not listened to their troubles, nor have cared just how they live.
We are jealous, proud, impatient, loving over-much our things;
May the yielding of our failings be our Lenten offerings.

We are hasty to judge others, blind to proof of human need;
And our lack of understanding demonstrates our inner greed;
We have wasted earth’s resources; want and suffering we’ve ignored;
Come and cleanse us, then restore us; make new hearts within us Lord.

-Rae B. Whitney (1991)

I had intended to post this on Ash Wednesday, but just located the lyrics today. Though a tad late, the words remain good ones for reflection, prayer and action during this period of Lent and beyond.

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Converts to Christ Who Are Not Disciples of Christ

Richard Foster writes: “Perhaps the greatest malady in the Church today is converts to Christ who are not disciples of Christ–a clear contradiction in terms. This malady affects everything in church life and in large measure accounts for the low level of spiritual nutrients in our local congregations. To counter this sad state of affairs, we must determine that, regardless of what others do, our intention is to come under the tutelage of Jesus Christ, our ever-living Savior, Teacher, Lord, and Friend.”
Dallas Willard reminds us that: “Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated through by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus same He came to bring (John 10:10).”
In Devotional Classics, in which both of these quotes are found, it is noted that Jesus instructed His followers to obey everything that He had commanded (Matt. 28:16-20). A good exercise, in this period of Lent, would be to go through the gospel of Matthew to list all the things Jesus commanded us to do. The results would make up a mosaic of what the basic Christian life should look like according to Jesus.

Forcing Conformity While Calling It Tolerance

I am a staunch advocate for free speech and the free exercise of religion and am appalled at the steady erosion of these long-in-place and long-cherished rights in the United States.  

Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty, recently responded to a question about sin, paraphrasing–what he believes to be–the Word of God. He has been threatened with the loss of his job on the A&E network because he did so.

Companies like Hobby Lobby are being threatened with millions of dollars in crippling fines and, thus, ultimate expulsion from the marketplace because they are refusing to provide government-mandated employee health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs and related counseling. To go against their deeply-held pro-life beliefs would violate their Christian principles. This case is going all the way to the Supreme Court.

The marginalization of Christians in this country is a frightening trend and one that should alarm every American.

In the article below to which I link, is found this:

“Speaking on the issue of tolerance, mega-church pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren observed: ‘Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.’ Tolerance is not the same thing as acceptance, and acceptance is not the same thing as an endorsement. The message A&E’s decision sends is that the network will not tolerate someone who conscientiously objects to homosexuality on religious grounds. The implication of that message is that 45 percent of Americans [who are striving to live by biblical standards] should, in principle, be prepared either to sacrifice their jobs or recant their beliefs and endorse a lifestyle to which they are opposed, conscience be damned. To the extent that we embrace that implication, in television and in other American industries, we’re also embracing an identity as a nation that forces conformity while calling it tolerance.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/12/the-genuine-conflict-being-ignored-in-the-i-duck-dynasty-i-debate/282587/#!

Provocative and Evocative Words

James 1:26; 3:1-12

In the early 1970s, comedian George Carlin made headlines across the world with his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”

He began the routine by saying, “There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is: 399,993 to seven! They must really be bad.”

And then he – famously – proceeded to say them.

On July 21, 1972, he was arrested after performing the routine at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. The charge: violating obscenity laws. The case, which prompted Carlin to refer to the words for a time as “The Milwaukee Seven,” was dismissed in December of that year. The judge declared that the words were indecent but Carlin had the freedom to say them as long as he caused no disturbance. He was arrested several more times after that for performing the routine, but he refused to drop the bit from his act.

In 1978, the “seven dirty words” riff eventually ended up as the focal point of a Supreme Court ruling: New York radio station WBAI had played a recording of Carlin’s routine – without bleeps – and caught the ire of the Federal Communications Commission. A 5-4 decision reaffirmed the government’s right to regulate speech that the FCC deems offensive.

Carlin, now deceased, once said, “I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I think is important. Words are my work, they’re my play. They’re my passion. Words are all we have really. We have thoughts, but thoughts are fluid. And, then we assign a word to a thought and we’re stuck with that word for that thought. So be careful with words. The same words that hurt can heal.”

Some years ago, in the midst of a sermon series on words, I used a word from the pulpit that probably came as a great surprise to some. It was a four-letter word starting with the letter f but it wasn’t the great big f-word. It was the one about passing gas.

One person emailed me after the service – absolutely furious – telling me that she had been hurt because I had used that word. She said she had been so enjoying the service – everything was so lovely, all was well — and then I shared a story that had that word in it.

The story was about a couple of employees in a pizza shop in North Carolina who did some nasty things to pies before delivering them to customers. They dropped pizza toppings on the floor, mashed them around, scraped them up, and daintily arranged them on the pie. They stuck cheese strands up their noses, extracted them, and giddily sprinkled them over the sauce. They spit the condiments over the top of the pizza and did to the pie the word I used. Then, they uploaded a video of their creative efforts onto the Internet for all to see.

The woman who was offended by the offensive f-word didn’t care to hear my reasons for sharing this story. She couldn’t get past the word. Words can hurt.

On the other end of the spectrum, another person gave me a great big hug after worship and said, with great delight, how much she had absolutely loved the sermon! She insisted it was exactly what she had needed to hear that morning. It seems Carlin was right: words that hurt can also heal.

Words. Words can provoke: incite to anger or resentment OR stir to action or feeling. Words can evoke: summon or call forth emotions, bring back memories or create something new by means of the imagination.

Was the word I used unsuitable for a formal occasion, especially a worship service, because of its vulgar nature? Perhaps. But it was precisely because of its power to offend that I used it. I wanted my listeners to hear a graphic description of a provocative action and I wanted them to feel disgust and anger over it. What these employees did was a clear example of the betrayal of trust. The execs of the national pizza chain who employed these two fools had to do major damage control. It took the company a good bit of time to recoup.

I used the incident in setting the stage for a message on how we trust, who we trust, what we trust…trust as a journey. From this tale of betrayal and the stories of clay-footed others, I moved on to explore how the first disciples came to trust Jesus; why we can trust Jesus; and why, since we can trust Jesus; we also have the freedom to obey Jesus.

I was stunned to be asked by the angry woman if I was amused by the pizza story. I was not at all amused; I was appalled and I wanted the congregation to be appalled. I wanted them to feel what I felt when I read that story: repulsion, betrayal, dismay. I wanted them to feel those emotions so we could explore together the power of shattered trust and the contrasting power of secured trust. As I reflect, I wonder if the angry woman wasn’t so offended because I’d shattered her trust in me by using a word from the pulpit that she never, in a million years, would have believed I would ever have used.

Now, for certain, certain words offend some people and not others.

The same pizza story reached a man at a breakfast the church offered each Saturday for the homeless and at risk in our community. Because of the startling pizza images, one man especially paid attention to the message and was moved closer in relationship with the Lord. He made a point of coming to me to let me know the impact for healing that my words had made on him.

Now there are stories and images and ideas and words in scripture that anger, incite, excoriate, amuse, edify and transform. The Bible is filled with stories about lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. The Bible is also filled with stories about chastity, abstinence, generosity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. There are passages that deal with rape, adultery, promiscuity, prostitution, pre-marital sex, and homosexuality. There are passages that speak to friendship, courtship, love, marriage, sexual relations within marriage, and fidelity. There are stories of war, abandonment, thievery, idolatry, accidents, injuries, tragedies, murder, treachery, mayhem, torture, and assassinations. There are also stories of peacemaking, faithfulness, healing, joys, and miraculous rescues. There are images that horrify, frighten and offend, images that edify, calm, and restore.

There are passages that focus on a woman’s monthly cycle, a man’s bodily discharge, childbirth, sores, burns, infections, leprosy, insect infestations and mold. The Word speaks to us about fashion, cooking, construction, the arts, agriculture, parties, mountain climbing, the materially rich, the materially poor, the spiritually rich, and the spiritually poor.

And there is a reference in the Bible that many commentators assert is speaking about the f-word I employed. It’s in the book of Isaiah and is used in comparing the suffering of judgment and war with the pain and physical eruptions that frequently accompany childbirth. I’ll help you out here in finding it: the euphemism that’s used is “giving birth to the wind.”

The Bible is filled with words that speak to our everyday lives in our totality as human beings. It is filled with real-time, relevant to all-time stories that teach us how to live. In these stories, we see ourselves and our world; the Bible is an absolutely timeless and always contemporary book. Often employed therein are provocative words written to evoke a response.

All these stories, images and words find touch points and echoes in our world today. I listen to the threats emanating from North Korea and recall the same kinds of taunts and saber-rattling from the Philistines or the Ammonites or the Edomites in the Old Testament.

I read a story about a woman in Oregon who killed another woman and cut out her baby and I am reminded of the passage in 1st Kings, chapter 3, of the two women who came to Solomon both claiming they were the mother of one child. Both had delivered children but one had smothered her son by lying on top of him. When she saw he was dead, she stole the other woman’s child while she slept.

The two stood before King Solomon asking him to make a judgment. He ordered a sword be brought and then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”

The woman whose son was alive was filled with love and compassion for her child and begged Solomon to give the baby to the other woman. But the other said, “Neither you nor I shall have him. Cut him in two.”

Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”

What a horrifying, sickening, outrageous story but also — what a lesson about wisdom and discernment! Throughout scripture, we find similarly provocative stories that are written to evoke an understanding of truth and to work in us an appropriate response for application to our daily lives.

I read articles today about corruption in government and think of the parade of rulers we find in books like 2nd Chronicles where we see a just ruler like Jehoshaphat contrasted with his son, the corrupt Jehoram, and how one, for the most part, did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and received honor and how the other did not do what was right and, as a result, suffered great agony.

I drive by a police station and see a sign lifted in memory of a fallen officer, killed in the line of duty, and I am reminded of the scriptures that call upon us to respect those who are in authority over us. In a newspaper article about the death, I come across a photograph of the officer’s grieving wife and read how a comrade , in recalling the state trooper’s actions said that, on that day, “there would be no compromise of duty. Evil was met with bold courage and an unrelenting will to do what must be done.”

I’m led to wonder if the man who shot the police officer believed he was doing the right thing when he kidnapped his own son, led police on a 40-mile chase and opened fire on troopers as they rushed his car. Then I’m led to Proverbs 14, verse 12: “There is a way that seems right to a man but, in the end, it leads to death.”

All of the foregoing are matters about which we need to be concerned, matters we need to address as the church, matters against which we must not insulate ourselves, matters about which we should have an opinion, matters that call us to action.

I’ve been struck in scripture by the chastisements of preachers and congregations who moved, as if by rote, through the motions of worship. What is worship, the scriptures ask?

Worship is not just ritual activity but the involvement of the heart, mind and will. The test of true worship is not just what we do during an hour of worship each Sunday; it’s about what we do 24-7.

Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Did I use a polluted word that Sunday? Perhaps. A pastor’s responsibility is to preach the Word, to reprove, rebuke and exhort, with great patience and instruction. A pastor must seek to discern each week how to make the connections between the written Word and the contemporary world.

Now it may not be acceptable  in some social circles to talk about a bodily function such as the one I mentioned that day but that bodily function is natural to us all, a common connector, and of enough interest to be the subject of at least two dozen books for children and of enough interest to warrant 49,800,000 references on Google.

Some years ago, I had a very heated conversation – in the presence of my doctoral students — with a pastor in New York City who is known most especially for his powerful, life-changing ministry with men on the street. He uses the most foul language imaginable from the pulpit – the seven words you can’t use on TV and more. He communicates in the language of the streets.

In our very animated debate that day, I chastised him for his language via Ephesians 4, verse 29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

I followed up with Ephesians 5:3-4 (which I paraphrase here): Among us there is to be not even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any other kind of impurity or greed nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking. But my man in NYC still insisted he needed to use the seven words you can’t use on TV in order to reach those who are often otherwise unreachable.

Not easy this word stuff. The same word that can hurt one may heal another.

The bottom line is this: may it be impressed upon us again the power that is found in words. We speak casually; we speak seriously. We joke with others and we bring challenges. Yet, in all that we say, there is a need to think seriously about what we say before we say it.

We must follow the lead of Jesus and use words in ways that instruct, praise, forgive, and when necessary, challenge and admonish. Let us do our best to really listen to what others are saying and try to hear the intent behind what they are saying. Let us seek to live in biblical ways, looking to the Word to inform our daily lives and our speech. Let us tame our tongues. Let us be patient with one another but also encourage one another to use our words wisely. May we each rededicate ourselves to being used of God to build up others in the walk of faith. Let us invite the Holy Spirit to guide us and to inform and form our words.

Oscillating Mascaras and Fish-Finding Watches

Matthew 25:14-30

I used to be a mall rat. Not anymore. Now — only when absolutely necessary – do I drag myself to one of the mega shopping complexes. Then I run in, get what I need and run out. However . . .

Some time ago – as I was running out — something caught my eye that stopped me in my tracks. It was a display for a new product: oscillating mascara. Oscillating mascara? Yep. Lancome and some other cosmetic lines are now marketing battery-powered mascara. Jean-Louis Gueret, creator of mascara brushes for Lancome, said he came up with the idea for oscillation after watching makeup artists at work. While applying mascara, their hands move in a zigzag pattern. So to best emulate the movement, Gueret explained, he came up with a flexible, polymer-based mascara brush that vibrates along its longitude at 7,000 micro-oscillations a second. To launch the battery-powered movement, one presses lightly on an area of the mascara’s outer tube that turns on a three-centimeter motor.

Gueret said that, as the mascara brush vibrates against eyelashes, they become “organized” and evenly coated with a mascara formula that also extends, curls, shapes and makes lashes seem thicker.

Well, I just stood there in the aisle . . . riveted and then I burst into great gales of laughter. But now I feel like crying. There, in front of me, was a perfect example of being acted upon vs. acting. Now, you can take a stick, put it up to your eye and voila!  Perfectly organized eyelashes.

Segue. I have some pretty distinct memories of fishing with my Dad. And whether it was dropping a line from a pier or from a rowboat in the middle of the lake, it’s my recollection that a good bit of the enjoyment of fishing was in using our human senses to find the fish. The big question, the big mystery: where were the fish biting?

Today, all of the guesswork and sense work has been taken out of the equation because now recreational fisherman can purchase a fish finder akin to those used by the huge commercial operations. The device is worn on your wrist and doubles as a working wristwatch. The instrument’s sonar sensor reads to a depth of 120 feet and operates in a wide 75-foot remote radius, transmitting real-time views of fish to the 1 1/4″ LCD display. Come on! Talk about shooting fish in a barrel! Where’s the fairness in that? Where’s the fun in that?

The more I look around today, the more I see a good bit of our culture heading toward Wall-E-ism. A key plot point in this animated movie (released in 2008) centered on the creator’s vision of what would become of humankind after 700 years of having everything done for them. The picture wasn’t pretty: human beings as useless baby blobs being acted upon, not acting. Wall-E warns us of the dangers of rampant consumerism and presages what can happen to the Earth when human beings abandon their responsibility for stewardship.

Now, working off of this intro, I’d like to ask you some questions: Will you settle for being acted upon or will you act? Are you using, will you use, your God-given talents or will you bury them? Will you be a good steward of what the Lord has given to you or will you abandon that responsibility?

To get a grasp on how important the stewardship of our talents might be, let’s look to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25. There we read:

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

I’ve researched the contemporary equivalent of the biblical talent and have come up with a range of estimates. In one place, I read that one talent was a worker’s average income for anywhere from three to 38 years worth of work. So, if we come somewhere in between and say 15 years, five talents would be the income for 75 years of labor, two talents the income for thirty years of labor. In another place, the author calculated today’s value by drawing from the talent as used in military pay. During the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece, a talent was the amount of silver needed to pay the crew of a trireme (a warship powered by 170 plus oarsmen) for one month. Hellenistic mercenaries were commonly paid one drachma for every day of service; 6,000 drachma made a talent. Based on this fact, assuming a crew of roughly 200 rowers paid at the basic pay rate of a junior enlisted member of the US armed forces, a talent would be worth nearly $300,000.

Bottom line here: the talent was an enormous sum of money.

But, for our purposes today, let us think of the talent as not just a measure of finances but a measure of the amount of gifts, resources and abilities that God has given to each one of us. In our story, all three individuals were given good gifts. All three were given good talents and resources. Not one of these servants earned the resources or talents that they were given. We need to understand that all of the talents were pure gifts from the giver of gifts: God. Not one talent was earned nor deserved.

The one who had received the five talents put them to use, went off at once and traded with them and made five more talents. This individual was industrious with what had been entrusted to him and he doubled what he had. In the same way, the one who had the two talents put those talents to use and he doubled what he had.

Notice that the “five talent” person and the “two talent” person did not get into psychological games about who had the most talents. They didn’t get into verbal jousting with one saying, “I am superior because God gave me five talents,” or the other bemoaning, “I am half as good because God gave me two talents.” There were no “comparison games” being played here.

Both individuals realized that the one who had given them resources expected them to use those resources for His glory. That was simple and clear. They had to turn in an account of how they had used the gifts that the giver of gifts — God — had entrusted to them.

Now, in our story, the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried the talent he’d been given. Remember this talent wasn’t anything to scoff at; this was an enormous waste!

We, too, have been given resources, gifts and abilities and we are to use them to please our God – we’re not to bury our talents.

Every single one of us has received clusters of gifts, clusters of resources. Each and every unique one of us. But, we can bury those treasures – as did the third person in this parable – we can bury those treasures.

But, like the three in our parable, we will also face the moment of settling accounts. We, too, will need to face the giver of gifts to explain how we used what He gave us. You see the joy here of those who put their talents to good use. They were happy and God was happy with them.

How precious it must be to hear the words from our Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We want those words said about us on judgment day.

This is not a “works righteousness” kind of thing. We know that salvation is a pure gift and that we cannot earn our way into heaven by our works. Rather, the sign that our salvation is freely given is that we do the works that God wants us to do out of thanksgiving and not to earn anything from God. Salvation is always a free gift, undeserved, unearned.

Knowing that we are saved by God’s grace, however, we “do” the works that God wants us to do, not to earn salvation but because God has filled our hearts with love and our actions with compassion.

Now the one who buried his talents actually blamed God for his own inaction. We may respond in the same way. If we don’t use the gifts/resources/talents that God has given to us, rather than blame ourselves, we may end up blaming God or evil or evil circumstances for the fact that we did not use our God-given gifts.

But note the way the giver of gifts responded to the one who had buried his talents, “You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.” This individual tried to blame God but it didn’t work. God saw through his game and so the talent was taken from him and given to the one with the ten talents, the one who would put the talent to good use.

Each one of us has been given gifts. Your gifts are the sum total of all the resources that God has given to you.  Your gifts or talents are not just your genetic abilities and natural aptitudes, although these are part of your gifts.  Many of your most precious gifts are qualities and resources that have been developed in you over time.

And one thing we know is that God wants us to use these gifts, these God-given gifts for His service and, as you use those gifts, the Lord showers you with blessings.

In her book, Gifts of Grace, Mary Schramm suggests that there are five steps in ascertaining and using your gifts, and I would like to walk through those steps with you.

The first step is to discover your gifts, and you always discover your gifts in relationship. You rarely or never discover your gifts in isolation. You discover your gifts through your parents, teachers, coaches, instructors, friends, fellow Christians and others. Other people help you to discover your gifts.

The second step is to accept the gifts that God has given to you. This is the art of maturity, learning to accept the gifts that God has given to you and not given to you. A key thermometer is how jealous and envious you are of other people and their gifts. If you are jealous and envious of other people’s giftedness or feel inferior, chances are you have not really accepted your own blend of gifts that God has given to you. One of the primary keys of life is to accept and use the gifts that God has uniquely given to you, your unique blend of talents, aptitudes, abilities, life experiences, the sum total of all your resources.

The third step is to enjoy your God-given gifts, to take pleasure in them, to appreciate what God can do through your life.

The fourth step is to mature or develop those gifts. Like all gifts, they need to be put to work, to be exercised, developed. Nothing in this world becomes stronger without hard work and investment of time, self and energy. Just to rely on native talent and avoid the hard work of developing a gift will lead you nowhere, but will cheapen your gift and you as a person.

And the fifth step involves all of the steps, and this is to surrender all of your gifts to God.  If you don’t, you’ll either bury your gifts or you will use your gifts for your own benefit…to glorify yourself or to satisfy yourself. Either you give your gifts to the service of Christ and His mission in this world, or you don’t. And, if you don’t, you will always fall short of happiness.

Many people ask, “What is God’s will for my life?”  Very simply, you do God’s will in your life when you discover, surrender, and use your gifts to honor Him and bless the world around you.  It’s not that difficult.  That’s stewardship, the management of the life that God has given to you. You have been blessed to be a blessing.

Will you settle for being acted upon or will you act? Are you using, will you use, your God-given talents or will you bury them? Are you being a good steward of what the Lord has given to you or have you abandoned your responsibility? If you have buried what you’ve been given, ask yourself: is it because you’ve become stuck in a pattern of blaming others for your circumstances? Well, it’s high time you dug down deep to draw up that talent. Claim the abundant life the Lord has for you. If you keep doing things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll keep getting the same results. Make today different. Resolve TODAY to be a more faithful steward of all that the Lord has placed within upon you.

And:

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him; may the eyes of your heart be enlightened, that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in His holy people, and the immeasurable greatness of His power in us who believe, according to the working of His great might which He accomplished in Christ when He raised Him from the dead. (Ephesians 1:17-19)

Photos by Donna Hailson.

Christ is Risen!

John 3:16; Matthew 28:1-6; Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 6:4

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Christ is alive! And, at the appointed time – in the fullness of time — trumpets will sound, choirs will sing their alleluias, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed – the mortal will be clothed with immortality, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye! Death swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

God gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Romans 6:4 proclaims that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. And paraphrasing Ephesians, chapter 2: those who are dead in their sins are given new life as they come to Jesus in faith.

That is the Gospel. That is the gospel truth of Easter, Resurrection Day.

Edward Markquart, pondering the meaning of Easter, muses over what might have been printed if there were newspapers in the first century like those we have today. If there were, an obituary for Jesus might have appeared in the Saturday edition noting His time and place of birth and His lineage. There we might have read about the publicity He’d received because of unusual occurrences associated with Him such as the blind being given sight, the deaf hearing, and the lame walking. The obituary might have noted the rumors about how He radically changed people’s lives and how one day He entered Jerusalem to the loud acclamations of Passover crowds who hailed Him as king.

The piece would likely have gone on to say that those crowds had turned against Him and called for His death and how, succumbing to those crowds, Governor Pontius Pilate, representing the Roman Empire in Jerusalem, sentenced Him to death. And, in that article, we would have learned how Jesus died on a cross at three o’clock in the afternoon on Golgotha, the hill of the crucifixion, outside the walls of Jerusalem. His burial was in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

If that obituary had been printed in the Jerusalem Post or the Nazareth News, everyone would have thought that the Jesus movement had ended. Its leader was dead. His disciples had gone into hiding. This little episode would have become one minor footnote in history. His reputation, His teachings would have faded…if not for the third day. On the third day, the grave was empty. Jesus had risen from the dead.

The news spread, from the angel to Mary to Peter to the disciples to the 500. And they became a new people. They became a new brand of men and women who were filled with a new power, with resurrection power. They were no longer afraid of living because they were no longer afraid of dying. They had a new passion for life because they had resurrection power within them!

On Easter – all these centuries later – the Church, gathered from every race, every culture, every nation…the Church gathered by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions – the Church…gathered to hear the Resurrection message – to sing the songs and hear the good news, to celebrate new life — Christ has been raised from the dead by the victorious power of God. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

This day is not only concerned with God’s victory over physical death; this day is also concerned with God’s victory over spiritual death. God raises up both dead bodies and dead spirits. God raises spiritually dead people to life all the time, and I’ve seen it again and again. I have seen and heard and experienced real life stories of people who were spiritually dead and God put new life back into them. That’s what Easter is all about.

I’m quite certain there is someone reading this today who is spiritually dead OR who is so close to being spiritually dead, you would never be able to tell the person was alive. Spiritually comatose. Too busy for God.  Too busy running in circles and God is not part of that circle.

The apostle Paul, writing in his epistle to the Ephesians, tells us that we need to put off our old selves and put on the new. We are made new experientially when we yield to the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

For someone, your spiritual life is as dehydrated as the dry bones described in the book of Ezekiel. Your life is relatively unaffected by spiritual things. On Good Friday, you didn’t stop for even a moment to recall Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  The study of Scripture and the practice of daily prayer are not on your itinerary. Oh, you may pray when you’re in a jam, like just about everybody else. Oh, you may believe in the “Man Upstairs,” but that daily authentic walk with God is just not part of your life.

Tell me, can a person who is deaf hear the thunder? No. Can a person who is blind see the piercing flash of lightning? No. Neither can a person who is spiritually deaf truly hear the Word of God speaking to them every day, nor can the spiritually blind see the piercing light of God shining on their lives. The spiritually deaf can’t really hear the voice of God and the spiritually blind will not be overjoyed at seeing the beauties of God in Christ. Some are living like the dead dead, rattling around with dry bones like the skeletons described in the book of Ezekiel. … No thunder of God do you hear! No light of God do you see! No delicacies of God do you really taste or eat!

But the Easter message is that the awesome power of God, who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, can miraculously take your dead life and mine and make it alive. God can take a person who are spiritually dead and fill that person with resurrection power, vibrant power so that life is lived with a passion for the ways of God. And it’s time. It’s time to wake up, come out from the spiritual coma, be raised up from spiritual lethargy by the power of God.

If you’re reading this today, I believe it is because God wants you to read this so that you might hear afresh or for the first time the Easter promise that God raises up both dead bodies and dead spirits. Victory over death was won by Jesus Christ.

Let’s recount what God did in Christ so that we might live.

Jesus had a Last Supper with his disciples and spent an excruciating time waiting in Gethsemane when those disciples couldn’t manage to remain awake with Him as He agonized over His approach to the cross. In a garden, He was betrayed with the Judas kiss and then He was brought before His accusers in a sham of a trial. He suffered the emotional pain of acknowledging the betrayal of yet another beloved disciple.

Then He suffered the physical pain of the scourging – Jesus was struck over and over and over again with a whip constructed of long leather straps studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead and glass. With each lash, the whip wrapped around His body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body was barely recognizable.

Then a crown of thorns was jammed on His head and He was beaten on the head repeatedly with a staff. They led Him away to be crucified. Jesus – battered and exhausted from a sleepless night — carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, the soldiers took a man from the crowd and had him carry the cross for the remaining steps to the place of crucifixion.

On the skull-shaped hill, Golgotha, Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross through His wrists and feet. And He remained on that cross for six hours until He said the words: “It is finished” and “Father, into You hands, I commit my spirit.” Then He took His last breath.

The following events at the site of the crucifixion help verify that Jesus was dead:

  • The Roman soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs, because they “saw that He was already dead” (John 19:33).
  • The soldiers plunged a spear into Jesus’ side, and from it came both water and blood (John 19:34). Medical experts say that if He were not already dead, this in itself would have killed Him. Others have concluded that the pouring out of water and blood from His side was proof that Jesus was no longer alive.
  • When Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Christ so he and Nicodemus could bury Him, Pontius Pilate ordered a centurion to verify that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:43-45). The Roman governor would not release the body to Joseph until the centurion was certain that all signs of life were gone. You can be sure that an officer in the Roman army would not make a mistake about an important matter like this in his report to such a high official as Pilate.
  • Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body for burial according to Jewish custom. This included wrapping it “in a clean linen cloth” (Matthew 27:59), anointing the body with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (John 19:39), and placing it “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). Any sign of life would have been detected by these bereaved friends. Surely they would not have buried a breathing Jesus.
  • The Pharisees and chief priests met with Pilate to discuss what had occurred and the scriptures make clear they were certain He was dead (Matthew 27:63). Soldiers were ordered to secure the grave with a seal. In addition, guards were placed on duty to prevent the disciples from coming to “steal Him away” (v.64). The Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities knew beyond doubt that Jesus was dead.

After His body was wrapped, it was placed in a rock cave before which a huge stone was rolled. Geologists from Georgia Tech went to Jerusalem some years ago to study just how large this stone had to have been to cover the four and a half to five foot doorway that would have been standard at the time.

The stone, they estimated, would have weighed 1½ to 2 tons. This stone would have been sealed with clay and stamped with the Roman signet. To tamper with a Roman seal was punishable by death, by crucifixion. The tomb was heavily guarded by soldiers of the Roman Empire, the most well-trained fighting machine that has ever walked the earth. Because of the stature of Jesus, the controversy surrounding Him, we can surmise there would have been a pretty substantial detail assigned to Him. Again, well-armed, well-trained. And they themselves would have been beaten, set afire, or executed if they failed in their duty.

Could the disciples have eluded the guards – the well-trained fighting machine who would have faced death for this? Could the guards have slept through or allowed the disciples to remove the two-ton stone, unwrap and fold neatly the hundred pounds of grave clothes, lift the body and carry it away? Really!

And then there is the witness of the disciples. They had dedicated the better part of three years to following Jesus. In the hours after Jesus’ death, they were probably asking themselves if they all hadn’t made just a huge mistake. Even though Jesus had told them He would die, they’d just never gotten it. They hadn’t understood; they hadn’t bargained on the cross. And so they were in hiding, fearing for their lives.

But then something happened to change them overnight into bold, fearless proclaimers of the name Jesus. So bold, so fearless, so determined to spread the word, that we’re here today to talk about what they did, what they saw 2,000 years ago. So bold, so fearless, so changed – that they were willing to give their own lives so that we might know their Jesus.

They had been so afraid they had been cowering behind doors but then – on the third day after the crucifixion – the scriptures tell us the women who had followed Jesus made their way to the tomb. Mary Magdalene had left behind her life of sin for a new life as a disciple of Jesus. She believed Him. She loved Him. And then He died on the cross.

Mary witnessed His death and she was there when His lifeless body was taken down and placed in the tomb. And so she returned to the tomb early in the morning on the third day and found — to her amazement and fear — that the stone had been rolled away and an angel said: “Do not be afraid, for I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen. Just as He said.” He is risen!! Alleluia!

So this day calls us to the tomb to confront the reality of death and to make a decision about what kind of relationship we want to have with death. We are asked to decide whether we will allow spiritual death, eternal death to have a grip on us or whether we will, instead, embrace the new life that is offered to us only by the resurrected Jesus Christ. Jesus loves us. He gave His life for us. When we believe this and follow Him, we follow Him to resurrection. We live.

We who have welcomed Jesus as Savior can leave the tomb, knowing that death will not hold us in its grip. We are free to claim the abundant life that Jesus has won for us. Jesus Christ is alive and new life is available to everyone who calls on His name. Why live like the dead when you can live as the living?

If you are reading this and you have never welcomed Jesus into your life and if you feel a prodding in this moment to do so, I invite you to pray the prayer that follows. If you already know Jesus and want to rededicate yourself to Him, you can use this prayer to do that as well.

Dear Jesus, I admit that I am a sinner. I am sorry for any sin I have knowingly or unknowingly committed against you. I want to turn my life around and live for you. I believe that you died on the cross for me. I – with all sincerity and with all gratitude – accept your sacrifice in my place and invite you to come into my heart and my life to be my Lord and Savior. I place my hope in you and thank you for the gift of you, the gift precious beyond all gifts. Amen

If you genuinely – from the depths of your heart and mind and spirit – prayed to welcome Jesus as Savior today, know that the Word of God promises that you will have eternal life and you are a new person in Christ from this day forward. This is good news to share and I hope you will share that good news with me and with any other Christians you may know. You can take your first steps as a Christian reading the gospel of John which you can access via the Bible Gateway link on this website. A next step would be connecting with a Bible-believing, Christ-honoring congregation in your community. You will never be alone again as Jesus will walk with you and His Word (the Bible) will transform you as you read.

Folks who have known Jesus for awhile: I would love to hear how you were introduced to Him and what that relationship has meant in your life.

I wish you well on your journey of faith and pray it may be as transformative and exciting as has been my own!

Photos by Donna Hailson.