Saturday, August 30, 2014

Consider the Lilies

My Neighbor's Lilies
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses anxiety.  He tells people to simplify their lives and trust God in order to have a more contented, and less troubled spirit.  Using examples like birds that do not store away in barns and yet are fed by God, Jesus encourages believers to quietly trust that God will take care of them.  In Matthew 6:28 (ESV), Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.”  Today, I’d like to take a few minutes to do just that.
My next door neighbor has a bed of beautiful lilies on the border between her property and mine.  They are so attractive that people have stopped by my house, hoping to get some tips on flower-growing.  I do not, however, possess my neighbor’s gardening mojo.  Instead of a green thumb, I have a black thumb.  Everything I have ever tried to grow has died.  So if you want real tips, talk with my neighbor.  Still, there are some basics to growing lilies that anyone can understand.
The Gardener’s Supply Company website[i] says: “Though lilies look like they'd be fussy plants, they are actually very easy to grow. They're not particular about soil type or pH and they grow well in full sun, part sun, dappled shade and even light shade.”  If we “consider the lilies, how they grow,” then we can learn something about the adaptability of the lily.  In the larger context of Jesus’ sermon about contentment and trust, the easy-growing quality of the lily reminds Christians not to be so fussy about life’s imperfect situations or changing conditions.  Knowing that the Master Gardener has planted us just where He wants us, we can grow with faith and without fuss.
On her website “The Lily Garden,”[ii] Judith Freeman gives the following suggestions for planting lilies:

Lilies will bring beauty, color and fragrance to your garden for many years; they only require you to plant them in the right place and provide for their simple needs.  Choose a well-drained location with at least half a day of sunshine.  If it’s too shady, the stems will stretch and lean towards the sun; trumpet lilies are the most shade sensitive.  Lilies love full sun, as long as the bulbs are deep enough to keep cool when temperatures soar.  They also enjoy a mulch.

Lilies may be adaptable, but they thrive best when planted properly.  They prefer partial shade to full sun, but if they’re planted in too much shade, they’ll reach toward the sun in order to get what they need.  In the same way, God created us with the ability to reach toward Him.  Ultimately, God wants ideal situations for our lives, but when real life does not offer the ideal, the Lord has given us the remarkable ability to reach toward Him and receive the energy of His love.
Lilies like to be planted deep in the ground, so that cool soil can protect them in summer’s heat.  Mulch also offers a security blanket for these growing flowers.  For the Christian, growing like a lily means making sure that we’re planted deep.  Reaching upward toward God—soaring to spiritual heights through worship and prayer—these are essential to the growth of the soul.  But God’s people need to be deeply in love with Him and deeply connected with the community of faith.  They need to reach deep inside themselves in order to discover who they are in Christ and who God wants them to become.  Spiritual depth insulates them from the world’s harshness.  It gives them good soil in which to grow.
Growing like a lily means trusting God’s provision.  In Matthew 6:28-30 (ESV), Jesus says that lilies neither toil nor spin.  “Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”  It’s easy to get sidetracked with all the things we think we need, but people of faith who practice simple reliance on God know that their Father cares enough to give them what they need.
“Consider the lilies,” Jesus said.  Consider how they grow.  Romans 1:20 (ESV) says that God’s  invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”  The world around us gives spiritual lessons if we will listen to nature’s voice.  I pray that you’ll consider the lilies—that you’ll pay attention as God reveals His nature to you through what has been made.  I pray that you’ll trust the Creator to take as good care of you as He does the flowers of the field.    

[i] “The Basics: Lilies.”  August 28, 2014.
[ii] Freeman, Judith.  The Lily Garden.  “Growing Lilies.”  2013.  August 30, 2014.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Faith Over Fear

From the time we are children to the time we’re adults, the things we fear change.  As children, we’re afraid of monsters in the closet or thunder or the clowns at our birthday parties.  As adults, we fear bankruptcy, disease, or disaster that may overtake our children.  Jesus was clear that fear and faith were two completely opposite ends of the spectrum, inconsistent with one another and contending for control of the soul.  In Matthew 8.23-27 (NIV), we read how Jesus’ disciples react out of fear rather than responding with faith:

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him.  Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.   The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

Jesus says that fear is caused by lack of faith.  Had the disciples believed, they would have realized that as long as their Lord was with them, no evil would befall them.  Had they looked to Jesus’ example, they would have found their Master so at peace in the storm that he could sleep in the bottom of the boat.  Instead, we watch as they focus on the wind and waves, and let their fear control them instead of looking through the eyes of faith.

In Meditations of a Hermit, Charles de Foucauld wrote:
“One thing we owe to Our Lord is never to be afraid.  To be afraid is doubly an injury to him.  Firstly, it means that we forget him; we forget he is with us and is all powerful; secondly, it means that we are not conformed to his will; for since all that happens is willed or permitted by him, we ought to rejoice in all that happens to us and feel neither anxiety nor fear.  Let us then have the faith that banishes fear.  Our Lord is at our side, with us, upholding us.”

The story of Jesus calming the storm comes just after verses 19-22, where on two different occasions Jesus confronts the fears of would-be disciples, calling them to step beyond the concerns that would control them:

Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

The narrator never tells us whether these two aspiring apostles follow Jesus’ commands or not.  We’d like to hope that the indoorsy scribe, who no doubt prefers his comfort and his books to sleeping under the stars, would respond with an exuberant willingness to camp out with Jesus anywhere.  We’d like to picture the son, whose dad may yet be only aging, leaving it all like James and John who left their father and his boats.  Yet the Gospel writer never tells us the outcomes of these two conversations.  Do they leave it all and follow Jesus?  Do they allow their fears to keep them from obedience?  The story is left open, because it’s up to us to finish it.  What will we do with our fears?

Jesus knows exactly the words to use in order to confront these two men’s specific fears—because He understands the hearts of all.  Jesus also knows the things that threaten your trust in Him.  He’s aware that you’ve gotten your mind set on the wind and waves, and have forgotten that He’s right in the boat with you.  Jesus remembers that you’re afraid of exchanging the comfort of home for the uncertainty of the mission field.  He feels the control that your family obligations exert over your heart, and knows that loyalty to them might just prevent you from serving Him fully.  Jesus made your heart and soul, and isn’t surprised by any fear you may have.  But He’s there to speak peace to you, to calm the storms of your heart.  He wants you to take courage, because fear and faith are incompatible. 

Dr. E. Stanley Jones wrote:

“I am inwardly fashioned for faith, not for fear. Fear is not my native land; faith is. I am so made that worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life; faith is the oil. I live better by faith and confidence than by fear, doubt and anxiety. In anxiety and worry, my being is gasping for breath--these are not my native air. But in faith and confidence, I breathe freely--these are my native air. A John Hopkins University doctor says, ‘We do not know why it is that worriers die sooner than the non-worriers, but that is a fact.’ But I, who am simple of mind, think I know; We are inwardly constructed in nerve and tissue, brain cell and soul, for faith and not for fear. God made us that way. To live by worry is to live against reality.”

“Follow me,” Jesus said to so many of His disciples.  “Peace, be still,” He said to the wind and the waves.  For us, these two commands go hand in hand.  If we are to follow Him, we need His peace to face our fears.  This peace can only come when we trust that as long as we’re in the same boat with Jesus, He will see us through.  What are your fears?  Probably not monsters or thunder anymore.  Whatever they are, Jesus has both them and you in His powerful hand.  You can trust that He’ll shelter you in His love and keep you in His care.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Return to Routine

Though summer doesn’t officially end until the end of September, the activities of summer are drawing to a close.  My eldest son Aaron has moved to Richmond, where he will live with my in-laws while he attends VCU in the fall.  Schools are back in session, and many families (including mine) are slipping back into regular routines.  Summer vacations have come to an end.  Work, babysitting, after-school events, and visits with the grandkids will become more routine.  This is the season when we all settle back into predictable schedules.  It’s also a time when we re-evaluate the kinds of activities that worked for us last year, and the kinds of things we might like to try this year.
It’s much the same at church as it is in the rest of your life.  Summer activities like VBS and youth camp are behind us, and life is settling into a regular pattern.  In many churches, recently elected Sunday school teachers, officers, and deacons will be looking forward to a new church year.  I’ll be re-evaluating what’ been working, and what needs some revising in my own schedule, just as I’m sure you will too. 
As things get back to normal, I hope that you will settle back into a regular routine at church.  Hebrews 10:25 (NLT) says, “…Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”  It’s good to get away for vacation, but it’s even better to return to God’s house, to worship together, to support each other, and to live God’s way.  When Acts 2:42 (NLT) tells the hallmarks of healthy Christians, it says, “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord's Supper), and to prayer.” 
This past Sunday at my church, we had a high attendance and many visitors.  After over twenty years of ministry, I can predict the high and low attendance Sundays.  Pastors know that Christmas and Easter will be high, and the Sundays on either side of those holidays will be low.  Mother’s Day will be high, and ironically, Father’s Day will be low.  Predictably, last Sunday’s boost in church participation was due to it being the first Sunday after public schools started in our county.  This is because people are traveling less, and looking more toward regaining routine in their lives.  They’re coming back to church.  I pray that the same pattern will hold true for you—that as your schedule normalizes after summer, you’ll make church a priority for your family.  I pray that you’ll devote yourself to spiritual teaching, to fellowship, to the activities of your church, and to prayer.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


            My brother from Connecticut and his family visited us this weekend.  I’m so glad we got to see them, because it’s not often that we get to spend time together.  I’m blessed to have a brother who is also my friend.  Of course, real brothers can honestly say that it hasn’t always been that way.  When we were kids, we played together, got in trouble together, had great fun together, and, of course, fought together.  Two boys can’t grow up twenty-two months apart without being sometimes the best of friends and the worst of enemies.  But more than anything else, we were friends.
            Though Paul and I are friends, we don’t always see everything eye to eye.  He defected to the frozen land of ice and snow, and I’m a southern boy.  He’s the city mouse, and I’m the country mouse.  He has a small family and I have a large one.  But despite our differences, our relationship can be characterized by Psalm 133:1, which says, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” 
            Of course, we’re not the only brothers who ever had differences.  The history of our country is filled with brothers who fussed, feuded, and fought over what they believed in.  In the American Civil War, brother fought with brother on the battlefield.  In the history of God’s people, the northern kingdom of Israel separated from the southern kingdom of Judah.  Though they were brothers, they warred against one another.  I’ve seen churches torn apart when Christians forgot that they were brothers and sisters, and squabbled over things that in the end turned out to be trivialities.  When we create a culture of conflict between ourselves and those we love, we grieve the heart of God and destroy the work He is trying to do among His people.  Instead, our lives need to model Psalm 133:1, where God’s people live together in unity.
            Unity requires that we create a culture of commitment to the truth.  It doesn’t always mean that we’ll have full agreement among ourselves.  People who love each other are going to differ in their ideas.  They’ll have varying viewpoints and perspectives.  But rather than opposing opinions that differ from our own, Christians should recognize and celebrate diversity in the church.  We need to understand that diversity is a strength, not a weakness.  Unity gives freedom to express differences, because unity wants truth, not conformity. 
            Psalm 133:2 says that unity “is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.”  To the people of the Bible, oil was a symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Aaron was the first high priest of Almighty God, who was anointed upon his ordination to that office.  His job was to be committed to the truth, and to communicate that truth to the people.  So a commitment to truth empowers us to act on God’s behalf.  We must be prepared though—because just as this oil runs down on Aaron’s beard and the collar of his robes, truth can be a very messy thing.  It challenges our thinking and calls us to act in new ways.  When God speaks the truth into our lives and calls us to speak it to others, messy things happen.  But what an exciting thing the truth is—because it sets people free!
            Ephesians 4:15 says that Christians need to “speak the truth in love.”  While we must be committed to the truth, it has to be communicated in kindness.  In America, Northerners are often quick to speak the truth in a blunt way that Southerners perceive as unkind.  On the other hand, Southerners are often so genteel and polite that sometimes Northerners see them as less than truthful.  What we need is a balance of both—to “speak the truth in love.”
            We must recognize that a culture of kindness does not mean avoidance of issues.  Some truths need to be spoken, even if they’re hard to say.  Kindness calls us to speak the truth because of our love and concern for the other person—but to say it in a way that will make the person feel cared for and loved.  Unity promises not to judge other people for their differences, but to honor the person even if they disagree—and even if after we’ve shared our perspectives they still don’t change their minds.
            Psalm 133:3a says that unity is “as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.”  These two mountains were located a hundred miles apart from each other, with Hermon in the north and Zion in the south.  Yet unity is as if Hermon and Zion were so close to one another that they could share in the very same morning mist.  What a beautiful image: two mountains or two people who are as different as north and south, drinking the same morning dew.
            If God’s people are going to live together in unity, then we’ll have to create a culture of commitment to the truth, a culture of kindness, and a culture of courage that combines the two.  Psalm 133:3b says, “For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”  In both examples given in this psalm, there’s a trickle-down effect.  In either case you have running oil or dripping dew.  It goes from top to bottom, from higher to lower.  When you’re in a relationship where there’s conflict, it takes courage to maintain the high ground and let blessing trickle down from you to the other person.  It takes courage to let the Holy Spirit spill from you like oil that runs all over.  It takes courage to water someone else’s dry field with your own precious supply.  But unity requires courage.  And the fruits of unity are blessing and life.

            The psalmist writes, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”  And we know it’s true.  When you find yourself in conflict—as different from the other person as north is from south—that’s the time to create a new culture.  Commitment to the truth, kindness, and courage will create an environment in which blessing and life abound.  By this, the world will know that we are Jesus’ disciples: if we have love for one another (Jn 13.35)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Unless the Lord...

Psalm 127:1-2 ESV

1 Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
2 It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.

            When I was a child, my family moved from Richmond to Hanover County, where my dad was building a house.  I say that we moved to the place where he was building the house rather than the place where he built the house because we moved in while it was still under construction.  We had a roof over our heads and exterior walls and wiring and water, and some of the rooms had sheetrock—but not all.  It was definitely a work in progress.  Then my dad broke his neck in a car accident.  While of course we praised God that he was alive, and prayed for his healing, we also had other concerns.  We were new to the area and didn’t know anybody, so human help was scarce.  The reason he built the house himself was because money was tight, so hiring help was out of the question.  When he got out of the hospital, he wore a metal neck brace—clearly not suitable for doing construction work.  We seriously wondered how the house was going to be finished. 
            Then one night there was a knock at the door.  Outside, a group of deacons from the local church stood with hammers in their hands and tool belts around their waists.  Through the grapevine they had heard about the new family and their recent troubles, and they had come to help.  We stepped aside as they swarmed our home.  With ringing hammers they put up sheetrock, and worked long into the night.  The help didn’t stop when the night was over.  That church thought that they were taking our house on as a project.  When they knocked on the door that evening, they had no idea that what they were taking our family on as a project as well.  The house was just the beginning.  By the time they were done, they had not only helped build a house, but they built a deacon, a Sunday school teacher, and two ministers.  Yes, God knows what He’s doing when He builds a house.  And even, when He breaks a neck.
            When King Solomon wrote Psalm 127, he was in the middle of a building project.  His father David had provided all the materials and money necessary for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was Solomon’s job to complete the task and see the work done.  Solomon had to realize that even though he employed the very best workers, it was really the Lord who built the house.
Not only was the king occupied with the building of the Temple, but he had to ensure the security of his borders as he invested his time in the construction.  David had secured some measure of peace during Solomon’s childhood, so there were not quite so many enemies to fight—but still, the peace had to be kept.  As he thought about the watchmen on the walls, he recalled with confidence that while human eyes kept watch, it was really God who protected the people.
The king must have been greatly encouraged when he remembered that God was ultimately responsible for the outcome of every project he undertook.  This helped him to rest easy. This helped him to sleep at night. This helps them to feel secure.  He knew that he had to put in hard work, but he didn’t have to let stress wear him to a frazzle—because God gives sleep to His beloved.  God does the work and God gives rest.  Our projects are important to God because we’re important to God.  God will take care of His own.
Each of us is building a house.  Yours may be different from mine.  Some of them are constructed out of brick and stone and wood.  Others are made of bandaged knees, kisses on the head, and lullabies.  Still others are built in board rooms, baseball fields, classrooms, factories, and churches.  God has put every project of our lives under our care.  He has placed the lives and the well-being of God's people under our supervision. That would be an overwhelming thought if we believed that everything had to be accomplished by our own power.
However, it is the Lord who builds the house. It is the Lord who guards our lives. Our job is to make every effort to cooperate with what God is doing. Our job is to do our best with what God has given us.  Admiral D. G. Farragut said, "God alone decides the contest, but we must put our shoulders to the wheel."  If God has called us to do the work, He will provide us the strength to do it.  And if we find that we don’t have the strength, God will provide the help to get it done.  When, as Solomon, God gives you a task to complete you need to do your best to be faithful to his call. But then you must trust Him and remember that ultimately it is God who builds the house.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Follow Your Heart?

I remember playing with lawn darts when I was a kid in the 1980s.  Larger than regular darts and weighted at the tip, these projectile of death were the source of 6,100 emergency room visits and several deaths over the course of just a few years.[i]  Playing with them was a lot of fun—when they hit their target.  But when they hit people, they could do a lot of damage.  Sin is like lawn darts.  It looks like a lot of fun—until it hurts someone.
            Preaching on sin is a lot like lawn darts, too.  When a pastor preaches on sin, he can hit his target— in which case, people feel convicted and convinced to change their ways.  If he misses his target, people just go home saying, “I have no idea what the sermon was about today.”  But sometimes the preacher misses the target completely and hits someone by accident.  Those kinds of sermons can do a lot of damage.  Ministers must remember that when they preach on sin, the target is sin, not the sinner.  In our faithfulness to God’s word and zeal to condemn sinful activity, we must be careful to condemn no one.  We have to live by Jesus’ words, “Judge not, that you be not judged (Matthew 7.1[ii]).”
            It’s tough to preach on sin these days.  Fifty years ago, when the preacher spoke about sin, people felt convicted.  Today when the preacher talks about sin, they just get offended.  D.L. Moody said:

John Wesley used to ask two questions of the young men whom he sent out to preach. The first was, "Has anyone been converted?"  The second question was, "Did anyone get angry?"If the answer was, "No," he told them he did not think the Lord had called them to preach the Gospel, and he sent them back to their business. When the Holy Ghost convicts of sin, people are either converted or--they don't like it and get mad.”[iii]

But still, we must preach on sin.  To be faithful witnesses of the Good News, we must first declare the bad news: that sin is real, and there’s a price to pay for our perversity.  In Jeremiah 17:1-10, the prophet warned the people of Judah of the problem of sin.  He told them that their sins were written both on the altars of God, and on their own hearts.  In their idolatry they had gone to the pagan high places in their search for truth.  Today we also go to our high places.  We idolize people like doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, authors, scientists, and celebrities who we think have the truth.  When we listen to what the world tells us rather than what God’s Word says, we find ourselves to be like the people of Judah—and God’s warnings for them apply to us as well.
Jeremiah warned of the penalty for sin.  He said that if the people persisted in their way, they would lose their wealth, their heritage, their freedom, and their blessing.  He cautioned them not to follow their own hearts as their source of truth—but to seek God for life’s answers.  Today, the world tells us that if you want truth you should “follow your heart.”  Our culture no longer believes in absolute truth, insisting that truth is relative rather than fixed.  “Your truth might be different from my truth,” says the world.  Since there’s no reliable source of absolute truth, society tells us to look to our own hearts for guidance.  But God’s Word says differently.  Jeremiah 17.9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”  Our hearts will mislead us.  They will deceive us.  But God’s Word shows us unfailing truth for every day of our lives.
Jeremiah 17.7-8 promises that there is a source of real truth. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.  He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”  This echoes Psalm 1:2, which adds the dimension of meditation on God’s Word.  Trusting in God and learning His Word are the ways to gain truth in this world.  Your heart will mislead you, but God and His Word will not.
Instead of looking to our culture’s “high places” for false truth that justifies sin and renames it as disease or lifestyle or compulsion, take a look at what God’s Word calls it.  Instead of trusting the word of society about the Bible, try trusting the Bible’s word about the world.  Then, instead of getting offended when you hear about sin, you’ll be convicted of your need for a Savior.  We can never be saved from sin unless we get honest with ourselves about sin’s reality in our lives.  But when we do admit our faults to God and ask forgiveness, receiving the pardon of Jesus as God’s free gift, then we will know the truth—and the truth will set us free (John 8.32).

[i] Soniak, Matt.  "How One Dad Got Lawn Darts Banned."  2012.  August 3, 2014.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the ESV.
[iii]  D.L. Moody, in Resource, July/August, 1990.