Thursday, September 16, 2021

Offering God Purple Mink Coats

Suggested Reading: Malachi 1:6-14

I was flipping through the channels recently and discovered an old favorite, Sister Act. In the movie Whoopi Goldberg stars as Delores, a Reno lounge singer who is having an affair with the underworld kingpin running the casino in which she sings. After making her angry, her married boyfriend sends her a gift which almost wins her back, a purple mink coat. The gift works until she finds his wife's name embroidered inside and realizes that not only has he given her his wife's coat but it was probably one she wouldn't miss, making Delores sloppy seconds in a couple different ways.

Unfortunately, at times, we treat God the same way Delores's married boyfriend treated her, giving God the leftovers that we won't miss. In Malachi chapter 1, the Old Testament prophet saw his people making sub-par offerings to God, bringing God the things they wouldn't use anyway, the things they wouldn't miss. God spoke through the prophet, saying, “When you present a blind animal for sacrifice, is it not wrong? And when you present a lame or sick animal, is it not wrong? Bring it to your governor! Would he be pleased with you or show you favor?” asks the Lord of Hosts (Malachi 1:8, HCSB). The people brought their offerings to God, but they only brought the things they weren't going to use, the leftovers, the sloppy seconds.  

How often do we offer God our own sloppy seconds? How often do we give God our leftovers or the things we're not going to use? Do we give our financial offerings after all our other bills have been paid and we know what we have leftover? Do we wait to commit our time until we have scheduled in all of our work obligations and sports games and leisure time, giving God whatever time is left? Do we set aside time to spend with God in prayer and Bible study or do we just try to fit it in around everything else we actually plan for? Do we want to work for God but tire ourselves out so that God only gets whatever energy we haven't yet used?

Our Heavenly Father, who offered us the best he had to give, His only Son, deserves our first and our best. Don't offer God your leftovers. God can tell when we give him only what we're not going to miss.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Burning Down the Neighborhood With Your Flaming Tongue

Suggested Reading: James 3:1-12

When I lived in Snook, just outside of College Station, most of the time people just burned their own garbage because garbage pick-up was either too expensive or unavailable. And while there was a dump less than ten miles away, many people waited and only took the things that couldn’t be burned to the dump. Now, if you’ve ever burned your trash in a metal can like most of the people around there, you’re used to seeing little sparks shoot off, especially when you first get the fire going. Normally, those sparks aren’t a big deal; they usually burn out before they hit the ground and the ones that don’t can be stepped on and easily put out. Well, this one time, a neighbor who lived just a few doors down was burning his trash like he always does. On this particular day, however, a spark shot off unnoticed by the neighbor and the grass was extremely dry. Within seconds, the field was aflame. Fortunately, we have a volunteer fire department based just a couple blocks away and the fire was put out before any houses were damaged. But after that all of the neighbors watched those sparks very carefully, worried that the smallest spark could set the whole neighborhood on fire.

In James chapter 3, Jesus’ brother described a different kind of spark. He wrote, “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6, NIV). In the verses immediately before, James also compared the tongue to the rudder of a ship or the bit in a horse’s mouth, both of which are small things which are able to dramatically influence the direction being traveled. The tongue and the words it produces may seem insignificant at times but they can have a dramatic effect. 

Proverbs 18:21 tells us that the tongue itself holds the power of life and death. And yet we use our tongues constantly, rarely thinking about the dramatic influence a few words can have. We recount a dramatic conversation and shift a few minor things to make us look a little better without considering that we have moved into deceit. We allow ourselves to speak in anger, knowing that the words we use will be words we regret in a few hours. We make a joke at someone else’s expense, all in good fun, of course, without considering the effect the joke will have on the person we’re discussing. Or we simply let a few words slip in the wrong company and a key fact given without the proper context destroys someone’s reputation.

Words are tiny things, but they are more powerful than most weapons of war. Words have the power to alter the course of history, to bring death and pain, or to heal and give life. Don’t let your words fly lightly. The tiniest spark can start uncontrollable fires. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Racing Through Life Like a Phantom Menace

Suggested Reading: 1 Peter 5:5-11

Before the current slate of Star Wars sequels LucasFilms released the Star Wars prequels, beginning with The Phantom Menace. Depending on whom you ask, one of the most loved or hated scenes in the movie is when Anakin Skywalker, a very young boy competes in and wins a hi-tech car race. Throughout the course of the race the various contestants do their best to knock out the competition through various methods of cheating and sabotaging other vehicles. On top of that, there are sand men poised with guns to try to shoot the racers out of the sky as they zoom past. Anyone in the race has to deal with all of these elements and they aren't only trying to get to the finish line first, they are trying to survive all of the attacks being thrown at them.

Sometimes, the Christian life is a lot like that race. We are racing along, trying to get to the finish line, and then -- whack! -- someone hits us with an attack! Someone sideswipes us with an untrue accusation. We get smacked upside the head with a problem we didn't see coming. Someone cuts our feet out from under us by jumping to conclusions before they have all the facts. We are doing our best, not trying to hurt anyone else, just trying to make it to the finish line in one piece and, every time we turn around, someone hits us from another angle, some unexpected problem pops up and threatens all of our efforts. We begin to feel like, at any moment, the wheels could fall off and we will end up stranded in the middle of nowhere, all alone. And we are scared that if that happens then we aren't going to have the strength to keep going, that we'll just give up and quit.

The bad news? You're not imagining things. 1 Peter 5:8 warns us, "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (NIV). We do have an enemy whose goal is to derail us. The enemy's goal is to get us to quit trying, to give up and walk away. And the enemy is going to use everything in his arsenal against us, trying to make us stumble, to get us frustrated so we decide that this life is simply not worth the effort, to give up and let him win.

The good news? The next two verses add, "Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast" (1 Peter 5:9-10, NIV).

Did you catch that? Not only is it possible to endure, but you are not alone in your struggles. No matter how much it feels like you are the only one going through all of these things, you're not. "Your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings." The enemy wants you to think you are alone. He wants you to think that you are all by yourself and there is no one to help and that is a lie. Not only that, but God promises that even if you stumble, that is not the end of the story. "Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast."

God did not get your attention and call you to His side so that he could let you fail. God did not send His Son to earth to die in your place so that you could live a defeated life as the enemy laughs in triumph. Resist the enemy, and God promises that the enemy will flee from us (James 4:7) because God has not given us "a spirit of fear, but of power, of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7. KJV).

With the Spirit of God living in you, you are stronger than you think you are. You can not only survive the enemy's attacks, but you can make him flee. Never give up. Never surrender. You are not alone.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Hollywood Week at the Red Sea

Suggested Reading: Exodus 14:5-18

At one point in time, just like many American families, our family loved the singing competition American Idol. During Hollywood Week, when the contestants got to move on based only on the word of the judges, I was very surprised at the number of people who came out on stage crying because they were going through stressful situations or were having issues with the pressure. Instead of taking practical action, some of these people just stood there crying. These contestants faced a life or death situation (career-wise) and they just stood there paralyzed, crying.  It was enough to make me want to reach through the television and slap some sense into them, yelling, "Pull yourself together, man!" Maybe that demonstrates a lack of compassion on my part but I'm sure the judges were sometimes tempted with the same thing.

That dynamic is echoed in Exodus 14, when the Israelites are escaping from Egypt. They had camped at the edge of the Red Sea when Pharaoh and his army caught up with them. The people panicked and cried out to the Lord but they just stood there crying and taking no practical action whatsoever. So The Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Israelites to break camp. As for you, lift up your staff, stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground (Exodus 14:15-16, HCSB).  Did God lack compassion, demanding to know why they were standing there crying out to him instead of doing something? No. They were facing a life or death situation and God was grabbing them by the shoulders and shaking them while yelling, "Pull yourself together!" God could part the sea for them, but it would do no good if they were paralyzed by their fear and refused to move forward.  

Each of our lives will be threatened with tragedy and disaster. Each of us will face times and events that attempt to overwhelm us, to glue us to our spots crying out to God but paralyzed and helpless to do more. When those times come, God will provide help for us, but we must be able to take a deep breath and then move forward. Cry out to God but don't panic. Don't allow yourself to become paralyzed by fear. Watch for God's escape route or accept the strength God provides and be ready to keep moving.

When disaster threatens you, don't just stand there crying. Trust God enough to take a breath and then to take the next step. God will provide a way for you to survive. Be ready to take it.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Cardboard Houses and Pregame Prayers

Suggested Reading: 1 Peter 5:6-11

My wife and I have never been rich. We've struggled with bills from time to time and had to worry about which things to pay off first. We've even gone without some things we would have really enjoyed. But several years ago we got the chance to go on a mission trip to a city on the Mexican border and we got to see what real poverty looks like. We saw people whose homes were made of cardboard and whose only source of heat was a small propane cook fire, people whose diets consisted of the same food every day because beans or corn were all they could afford. My wife got a much closer look at the conditions of poverty than I did and when we came back she told me, "I'll never complain about being poor again." Because we're not. Not really.

The comparison between our "poverty" and the poverty we saw on that trip was brought to mind when I read a verse from 1 Peter recently. Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your Christian brothers and sisters all over the world are going through the same kind of suffering you are (1 Peter 5:8-9, NLT). Now, Peter was writing to people who really did suffer for their faith, people who lived with the daily threat of arrest, torture, execution, being fed to tigers in the great arenas, and crucifixion. Some of them had been tortured and arrested for their faith and Peter tried to encourage them by reminding them that they were not alone, that other believers all across the world were also experiencing those same threats and tortures.

But I wonder what Peter would say to us in the United States today. We live in a land where we can live out our faith without fear of government reprisals, without fear for our lives or the lives of our children. And even if some of our freedoms might be threatened from time to time, we have a legal system with built-in protection measures were we can fight those threats to our liberty. Actual incidents of Christian persecution are, relatively speaking, mild and legally punishable. But we have brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe who still live with the same threats Peter's readers did, brothers and sisters who face imprisonment, death, and dismemberment because of their faith in Christ, brothers and sisters whose families disown them and cut them of for choosing to follow Jesus. What are our puny trials compared to that? Peter might encourage us by telling us not to feel sorry for ourselves because we don't really have it very bad. He might encourage us by telling us to pray and fight for those who really are suffering for their faith. And he might be very short with us if we complained about not being able to pray publicly before a football game when people he knew had been arrested for praying in their homes.

Those of us who try to follow Christ in America will have trials and persecutions. But we must keep them in perspective, remembering that our own burden is not very heavy compared to our fellow believers around the globe. We must remember them and the suffering they go through, being encouraged and inspired by their example, and joining in their struggle to build the Kingdom of God in spite of it. After all, relatively speaking, our persecution is pretty minor.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Casting Out a Demonic Half-Shaft

Suggested Reading: Mark 4:19-29

A couple years ago the half-shaft went out on my Pontiac Aztec (a car I thankfully no longer own). To replace it, I had to take off the tire, the wheel assembly and then remove the shaft from a specialized joint. I wrestled with that shaft for hours but it wouldn't budge. I googled the problem only to discover that removing the shaft required a special tool I did not own. After googling the tool and discovering that it cost more than I made in a week, I went out and wrestled with the shaft some more. Finally I gave up, reassembled the tire assembly, put the tire back on, and very carefully drove the vehicle to a repair shop, defeated. Normally, I can make due without the specialized tools recommended for repair jobs, but in this particular case there was simply no substitute for the right tool.

Jesus's disciples discovered something very similar when they tried to cast a demon out of a young man whose father had approached them in Jesus's absence. Though they tried, the disciples were simply incapable of casting out the demon that plagued the boy. Jesus, of course, had no problem with the demon when he tried (even though the disciples' failed attempts had threatened to undermine the father's faith), and the disciples questioned why they couldn't cast out the demon themselves. Jesus replied, “This kind can be cast out only by prayer” (Mark 9:29, NLT). In spite of the disciples' years of training at the hands of Jesus and their awareness of how he operated, they had forgotten the most vital tool at their disposal: prayer.  

Sometimes, we forget the power and the necessity of prayer. We begin to think that our Bible studies and our training courses and our evangelism seminars are enough. But for many of the tasks we face, the essential, indispensable tool that we need is prayer. Prayer is essential to connect us to the power of God, and no matter how skilled we may be in other areas, no matter how knowledgeable or educated, we will inevitably face many things that simply cannot be overcome except through prayer, inviting God into the situation with the power only God has at his disposal. Without prayer, we will find ourselves pounding our heads against the walls in frustration and failure rather than rejoicing in magnificent displays of God's power.

Whatever your problems and whatever your skills, don't forget the indispensable power of prayer. Prayer is always the right tool for the job.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

I Didn't Marry You For Your Looks

Suggested Reading: 1 Peter 3:1-9

Not long ago as I was getting ready to leave the house, I was putting gel in my hair and remembered a time when I never put any product in my hair but shampoo. I commented on that to my wife and she replied that I  looked so much better with gel in my hair (I started using it because she wanted me to do so). And I responded that I attracted her before I started using gel, so I couldn't have been that bad looking. My wife was tired this particular morning and a little off her game because she didn't respond with the expected "Well, honey, I obviously didn't marry you for your looks." Fortunately for me, my wife saw something deeper in me than my constantly crazy hair and scraggly beard. She was attracted to me but not simply because of the way I dressed myself up.

In First Peter, the apostle had some advice for women that could work well for men, too. He wrote, Your beauty should not consist of outward things like elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold ornaments or fine clothes. Instead, it should consist of what is inside the heart with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very valuable in God’s eyes (1 Peter 3:3-4, HCSB). Now I would be surprised if Peter had a problem with people looking their best. But we can easily fall into a trap of using only our appearance to make ourselves attractive to other people when we could be using so much more. Making ourselves attractive with hairstyles and clothes and decoration causes people to be curious about our hairstylist or the store where we shop. But making ourselves attractive by living a life of love and service makes them curious about who we are and why we live that way, it draws people to us rather than simply making them want to look at us.

Maybe it is time to tone down our outward decorations for a while so that we are forced to focus on cultivating an inner beauty that draws people to us, even when we don't look like models and celebrities.  Maybe we should put off that fancy hairstyle or those pieces of jewelry or that expensive suit until we look so good on the inside that our inner beauty can't be overwhelmed by our outer beauty.

Offering God Purple Mink Coats

Suggested Reading: Malachi 1:6-14 I was flipping through the channels recently and discovered an old favorite, Sister Act . In the movie ...