Monday, January 30, 2017

"Five Steps to Overcoming Fear and Anxiety"

Source: Aggressive bear charges spectators in Finland by SamiHaaranen on Rumble

I came across this video yesterday, and it made me giggle, then laugh when I thought about it for a bit. Have you ever been chased by a snarling dog? That can be a scary thing, if the dog is a Yorkie or Chihuahua because sharp teeth are still sharp teeth, even on a small dog. But when a German Shepherd chases you, it's terrifying! This bear must have been really frightened by the dog that barked and growled and chased it through the woods.Then, in a moment of clarity, the bear stopped and said to itself, "Hey wait...I'm a bear!" And that reminder made all the difference. With that, he turned around and began to chase the dog, which turned tail and fled.

When you're afraid, it's important to remember who you are.

The devil tries to convince you that you're weak, that you're small, that you're helpless, and that you probably deserve the trouble you're having anyway. But Jesus says of the devil, "...He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44 NLT)." The first step to combating fear is to know that most of the things that you're afraid of are lies, anyway. Your own self-talk convinces you that your troubles are a giant like Goliath, to keep you on the run from something that's smaller than you are, anyway. Overcoming fear means you realize that it's a lie, and that there is a way of salvation.

What is that way of salvation? 1 John 4:18 (NLT) says, "love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear." God is love, and in God's perfect love, there is peace.  Like a light bulb drives the darkness out of a room, so the perfect love, drawn down through faith, drives fear out of the anxious heart.  On a practical level, what can you do to welcome this love into your dark moments?  The second step is to turn to God in prayer and worship.  You do this by "singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts (Ephesians 5:19 NLT)."  This is effective because Psalm 22:3 says that God literally inhabits the praises of God's people.  When you worship God, you become aware of the divine loving presence that drives out fear.  Try to stay in an attitude of prayer and praise throughout the day, because Isaiah 26;3 says that God will keep you in perfect peace when your thoughts are focused on God, rather than your problem.

The third step is to trust that God has it under control. Psalm 56:3 (NLT) says, "But when I am afraid, I will put my trust in you." So trust can come as a response to fear. But even better than that is when you get used to trusting so much that it acts as a fear-preventative. Isaiah 12:2 (NLT) says, "See, God has come to save me. I will trust in him and not be afraid. The LORD God is my strength and my song; he has given me victory."  Thoughts become patterns that govern the way we live.  When you live in a state of fear, oppression, and anxiety, that becomes your pattern.  Those become your go-to emotions when you feel threatened.  But Romans 12:2 (NLT) promises that it's possible to reprogram those old patterns.  "Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world," says the apostle Paul, "but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think."  You do this by replacing your attitude of anxiety with affirmations of faith and trust.  These may be favorite scriptures (like the ones in this article) that you memorize and repeat as your own personal mantra, or spiritual music that becomes your new theme song.  A friend of mine has her own song that she sings to the tune of Allelujah by Bill & Gloria Gaither, with four verses of God-given new lyrics: "I'm protected," "I am covered," "I am sealed," and "I am healed."  This song of faith dispels the darkness and invites the light.

The fourth step is calling on the strength that is within you through Christ. In Matthew 28:18 (NLT), Jesus says, "I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth." In Luke 10:19 (NLT), Jesus also says, "Look, I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy, and you can walk among snakes and scorpions and crush them. Nothing will injure you." This is where our video comes in. It reminds us of this one great truth: Don't flee from the hounds of hell; Instead, be the bear!  If you find yourself running, then just stop.  Remember who you are, turn around, and chase your attacker instead.  "So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7 NLT)."  Not only do you have victory over the devil, but over those who are manipulated by demonic power.  "But you belong to God, my dear children. You have already won a victory over those people, because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world (1 John 4:4 NLT)."  Remember, your enemy is not another person, no matter how fearsome they are.  For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly place (Ephesians 6:12 NLT)."  It's your job to believe the truth, turn to God in prayer and worship, trust that God has it under control, and call on the strength and authority that Jesus gives.  Then let God deal with the rest.

The final step is to find a partner in faith who has your back.  Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NLT) says, "A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken."  In Matthew 18:19, Jesus says, "I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you."  When you have a friend who has your back, then when you are weak, they can be strong for you and when they're weak, you can strengthen them.  And of course, when you're both weak, then certainly God is the third strand in the cord that holds you together.  Trust in each other, and trust in God to protect you.

Today I wonder, is there something that's been frightening you?  Is it a problematic person, a financial fear, a horrifying health problem, or something else?  Some fears may be God-given responses to danger that help you prepare for the worst.  But other fears become crippling to your soul and spirit.  Those kinds of fears are not from God, but from the Enemy of your soul.  2 Timothy 1:7 (AKJV) says, "For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."  I pray that you'll know God's power, that you'll feel God's love, that God's truth will create new patterns of thinking and a sound mind for you today.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Believing is Seeing"

My first ministry position was when I was in college, finishing up my undergraduate degree in religious studies. As a first-time minister it was strange for me to leave the church where I grew up and had attended for so many years, to go to a church where I knew nobody in order to serve. I felt that the time I was there were very good years of ministry, and of my own personal growth. During the time that I was there, my first child was born. Because my family’s financial needs increased, and the church was not able to pay more, and because I graduated and was heading to a local seminary, I felt that I needed to begin looking for a different ministry location. About the same time, my home church’s youth ministry position came available. I thought it’d be a perfect match. After all, I knew all the families, all the names, all the personalities and quirks. So I sent them my resume. Do you know—they didn’t even want to have a conversation about it? Not even a phone call. Why? Because those were the same people who changed my diapers. They saw the mistakes and shenanigans growing up. Honestly, it’s hard to respect someone you knew as a little kid.

This is why Jesus could do few miracles in his hometown—because the people didn’t believe in him. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked (Luke 4:22). In other words—they changed his diapers. They knew he never studied (John 7:17). How could they respect him? This is why it says in John 4:44, “He himself had said that a prophet is not honored in his own hometown.” They did not believe because they had seen too much. They had changed his diapers and watched him grow, and so they couldn’t believe. So he went to Galilee, where they didn’t know him as well.

Verses 45-46a say, “Yet the Galileans welcomed him, for they had been in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration and had seen everything he did there. As he traveled through Galilee, he came to Cana, where he had turned the water into wine.” In contrast to the Nazarenes who didn’t believe because they’d seen too much, the Galileans believed because they did see. But instead of seeing Jesus’ immature years, they had seen the fruits of his ministry. They’d watched him turn water to wine, and so believed him because of his miraculous signs.

Different kinds of people need different proofs if they are going to believe. 1 Corinthians 1:22 says that the gospel “…is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom.” In either case, some require miraculous proof and some need ironclad logic. Yet matters of faith aren’t a matter of proof, but of trust. This is why many consider it to be foolishness. After the resurrection, Thomas disbelieved because he hadn’t witnessed it for himself. Once he saw the risen Lord and believed, Jesus told him, “…You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me (John 20:29)." It is just this kind of faith-without-proof that we see next. Some say, “I can’t believe because I’ve seen too much.” Others say, “Seeing is believing.” But the government official with the dying son learned, “Believing is seeing.”

When his son fell ill and he heard that Jesus was near, the first thing the official did was beat the bushes looking for Jesus. This isn’t the same thing as faith. But it was hope that if he could just find the Master, everything would be okay. So he searched high and low for the Lord’s help. How far would you go, to find the help that you need today? Jesus said, “Keep on seeking, and you will find (Matthew 7:7).” So the man searched, and I hope you will too.

Next, the man fell on his face and “begged Jesus to come to Capernaum to heal his son, who was about to die (John 4:47b).” In Matthew 7:7 Jesus also says, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for.” In the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:7-8), Jesus says, “…Don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly!” God wants us to continue in prayer, untiringly and trustingly asking for the things we need. Yet even his begging is not true faith, but hope inspired from need.

John 4:50 says, “Then Jesus told him, ‘Go back home. Your son will live!’ And the man believed what Jesus said and started home.” It was only after Jesus declared the boy’s healing that the official trusted that Jesus was going to help him. We could chide him with the words Jesus spoke to Thomas, but remember this official hadn’t traveled and ministered with the Master for three years. He was just taking his first steps of faith. The miracle is that once he believed, he saw the fruit of faith. Verses 51-53 say:
While the man was on his way, some of his servants met him with the news that his son was alive and well. He asked them when the boy had begun to get better, and they replied, “Yesterday afternoon at one o’clock his fever suddenly disappeared!” Then the father realized that that was the very time Jesus had told him, “Your son will live.” And he and his entire household believed in Jesus.

While it’s not within the scope of this article to answer the question why Jesus didn’t heal every dying child in Galilee and why God doesn’t work miracles for every prayer lifted to the heavens, it is important to point one thing out: “Name it and claim it” Christians believe that if you only believe enough, God will do a miracle for you. Notice here that this man did not believe until after Jesus declared the healing. His faith helped him to see the fruit of the healing. The healing helped others to believe. But Jesus didn’t heal the boy because he just believed hard enough. In the end, faith is trust—trust that God will do the good that God does, and trust that a loving God is holding you in loving hands. “Believing is seeing” doesn’t mean that your faith forces God to do anything. It means that without faith, you cannot see the miracles that God is already doing, because without faith you can’t see the hand of God at work in the world. Whatever stage at which you find yourself—“I can’t believe because I’ve seen too much,” or “Seeing is believing,” or “Believing is seeing”—I pray that you’ll find God as the official did, “while the man was on his way… (John 4:51)”. I pray that somewhere along the way you’ll see the God who loves you and cares for you and works on your behalf. I pray you’ll trust God with every care you have, and that, believing, you’ll see the miracles God is already doing in your life. I pray you’ll hear the Lord say to you as He said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing (John 20:29)."

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Limping or Leaping"

The New Year is a time when many people reevaluate their lives to determine what’s working and what’s not working. Now that we’re a week into 2017, now that you’ve made and broken your resolutions, it’s time to really and realistically assess the changes that need to be made. Maybe you’re determined (like me) to lose a bit of weight, because you’ve found that the holiday pounds are just too much. Or perhaps you’ve decided that your spirituality needs the kind of boost that a daily quiet time can provide. It could be that your church attendance needs to improve or that you’ve realized you need to do something different with your employment to make ends meet. Maybe you determined that instead of waiting for your kids to call you, you’re going to pick up the phone and connect with them. The New Year is a time for figuring out where you’re limping and where you’re leaping in life.

In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul does some self-evaluation for the church. He sees that, in many ways, the church has been limping. In verses 14-21, he paints a picture of a human body that lacks unity among its members. Jewish and Gentile believers refused to help each other. Women and men lacked unity and cooperation. Employers and employees who attended the same church jockeyed for position. About this disunity, Paul writes:
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many.15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

With the disunity and disorganization of the church, Christ’s body which should be leaping in the resurrection seems to be limping. Instead of a figure of love and perfection, the body of Christ seems more of a Frankenstein’s monster or Picasso painting with arms in place of legs and eyes popping out where ears should be. It’s been a tough year for many in the church. Many churches, like mine, have experienced too many tragedies, struggles, and too much decline. But instead of limping in ministry, Jesus wants His body to leap into the New Year with hope and vision, agility and strength. Just as people hit the gym and fix their broken diets in January, so churches need to do some reassessment, streamline their ministries, and reset some dislocated body parts. In verses 27-31, Paul tells how to do this:
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.

The way of leaping instead of limping begins with understanding that every believer is called to ministry of some kind. Not all possess the same gifts, but when we work together and exercise the gifts we have, the whole body can function as God intends. Just as a human body has four main limbs, so the church has four limbs that support and do the work of ministry. Each of these four limbs is represented by ministries Paul mentions above:
1. Outreach – This important arm of the church is overseen by people with apostolic gifts. Paul also gives the example of people who can speak in other languages, reaching people groups outside the norm for the established church. Every healthy church needs committees and ministries that are dedicated to outreach. Examples are benevolence committees, groups that take mission trips, teams that work with church prospects, etc.
2. Inreach – Run by people with the gift of healing and helps, this essential arm of the church takes care of the needs of members. Examples are fellowship committees, homebound and hospital visitation of members, and nursery workers.
3. Spiritual Formation – Led by teachers and those with the gift of prophecy, this foundational leg of the church builds people’s spirituality through music, teaching, discipling, preaching, and leading in worship.
4. Structure – This strong leg of the church is headed by people with gifts of leadership and administration. Helping the church to run smoothly seems like a miracle in itself! Examples of this may be a church secretary, building and grounds committee, transportation committee, or those who handle the church finances.

Just as an individual often assesses where they are limping and where they’re limping in the New Year, adjusting so their lives and bodies function optimally, so churches need to go through times of introspection, restructuring, and streamlining. Maybe your church has been doing this type of thing lately. Perhaps God is calling you to step into a place of leadership within your church. You might have an interest in outreach, inreach, spiritual formation, or structure. You might have the gifts necessary for one or more of these ministries. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:31 that we should “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” He then follows up by saying, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” These higher gifts are represented by this more excellent way, the way of love (1 Corinthians 13). It is love that binds the body together like ligaments, covers it beautifies it like skin, and helps the church to leap into her purposes in Christ. I pray that in this New Year, you’ll follow the way of love, that invest yourself in your own health, and that you’ll find your ministry and strengthen the body of Christ.

Monday, January 2, 2017

"It's a Wonderful Life!"

Perhaps one of my favorite Christmas movies is the 1946 classic by Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life. The IMDB website describes the story of George Bailey, who:
has spent his entire life giving of himself to the people of Bedford Falls. He has always longed to travel but never had the opportunity in order to prevent rich skinflint Mr. Potter from taking over the entire town. All that prevents him from doing so is George's modest building and loan company, which was founded by his generous father. But on Christmas Eve, George's Uncle Billy loses the business's $8,000 while intending to deposit it in the bank. Potter finds the misplaced money and hides it from Billy. When the bank examiner discovers the shortage later that night, George realizes that he will be held responsible and sent to jail and the company will collapse, finally allowing Potter to take over the town. Thinking of his wife, their young children, and others he loves will be better off with him dead, he contemplates suicide. But the prayers of his loved ones result in a gentle angel named Clarence coming to earth to help George, with the promise of earning his wings. He shows George what things would have been like if he had never been born. In a nightmarish vision in which the Potter-controlled town is sunk in sex and sin, those George loves are either dead, ruined, or miserable. He realizes that he has touched many people in a positive way and that his life has truly been a wonderful one.[i]

Maybe you’ve had moments like George Bailey, who wished he’d never been born. Maybe, like George, you feel so overwhelmed by the cumulative circumstances of life that all you can see is pain. The irony of Frank Capra’s movie is that this pivotal point of George’s life takes place at Christmas. While everybody else is celebrating, George’s life is falling apart. While everyone else seems so full of Christmas cheer, George is thinking of jumping off a bridge. Perhaps this holiday season you’re having a George Bailey moment, and you just wish that things had turned out differently. But I wonder—what about some of the most significant moments of history—what if they had turned out differently? Where might we be today?

Take, for example, the D-Day invasion of Normandy. So much devastation—so much pain! Nobody would say that they are glad that such a day happened, yet look at the result of that day. The tide was turned on Normandy beach, and that day marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe, resulting in the saving of far more lives than were lost. But, you know, the Allied forces never would have won at Normandy if the US. hadn’t been part of that invasion. And the US. wouldn’t have been in Normandy if it hadn’t been for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the US declaring war on Japan and then the Axis powers declaring war on the US. So sometimes the most difficult things that we go through as individuals, or even as nations, end up resulting in something good. That doesn’t mean that those things are good, in and of themselves. Obviously, suffering is painful by definition. And personally, I don’t believe that God causes suffering in our lives just to bring about good things. But often we can see, like George Bailey, that despite the suffering, it really is a wonderful life. And maybe if the painful things hadn’t happened, some of the good things couldn’t happen, either.

In the Christmas story that we find in Matthew 1:18-24, we might ask, what if Mary had not become pregnant by the Holy Spirit before she was married? What if Joseph had refused to marry her? In Luke 2:1-7, we might wonder what might have happened on a larger scale—if, for example, Augustus had not been Caesar or if Quirinius had not been governor of Syria. What if there had been no edict from Caesar that a census should be taken of the whole Roman world? Then Joseph wouldn’t have traveled to his ancestral home of Bethlehem, and the birth of Jesus wouldn’t have been in that place. These events caused hardship for the Holy Family, but also for the entire population of the Roman empire. Yet hardship brought so many blessings. And without these difficulties, so many godsends might not have come about. The events leading up to Jesus’ birth fulfilled prophecy, substantiating the Christian claim that Jesus is the Christ. The sufferings that we go through in life are, by definition, painful. Yet when we find ourselves wishing that things were different it’s because we can’t see the either the big picture of how many of our past tragedies shape our current blessings, or how our current suffering may produce something good later on.

Romans 8:28 ESV says that “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” George Bailey didn’t understand that. He didn’t understand that the painful things of life produce good in the lives of others. He lost hearing in one ear in icy water, saving his brother Harry. But if George had never been born, Harry would have died—along with every man on the transport ship that Harry would later save in the war. If he hadn’t been there to save Harry, Harry wouldn’t have been there to save them. Joseph probably had plenty of George Bailey moments along the way as he lived out the Christmas story. Perhaps it would have been good if he’d had a guardian angel like Clarence who could say, “Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?” Perhaps you need to hear the same thing—that your life touches the lives of everyone around you, and that without you, there’d be an awful hole. This is why Jesus came—to save you and give your life meaning—to let you know that it really is a wonderful life (John 10:10). Merry Christmas!