Out of Shape?

This year, there is a great deal of emphasis being placed upon the importance of the Reformation of the Church 500 years ago. Being repeated so many times, I wonder if the word “Reformation” starts to lose some of its meaning for us when we hear it. To “Re-form” something means, of course, “to form again.” Luther set about his work because he saw that the Church had become misshapen, off kilter, or “out of shape” from what it was when formed originally by the apostles’ teaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified. It needed to be formed once again into what Christ through His apostles had built it.

This gradual falling “out of shape” is not “natural” in a perfect world. At the Creation, God gave us a world where there was no decay, nothing misshapen or off kilter, and things held together the way they were intended. However, with the world cursed by sin, such falling out of shape is an inevitable consequence. We see it in many places besides the Church of the 16th century. Our bodies slow down, our senses deteriorate, our parts settle into unusual positions, and the older we get the more we recognize a general sense of being “out of shape.” Our societies forget or ignore the moral law that God has written upon our hearts, they reject the teachings and traditions of history and our forefathers, and there is a general sense that things are falling apart in our world. Even the family unit can become misshapen and distorted as individual families drift apart through conflict or apathy, parents and children forget their fourth commandment duties to one another, and our world even goes so far as to redefine what “family” is. Let’s face it: everything falls apart in this sinful world.

Thankfully, by the power of the Holy Spirit our faith and hope are in the mercy and grace of the Great Reformer; and no, I don’t mean Martin Luther. Jesus Christ came into this misshapen, off kilter, out-of-shape world to mend what had been broken and lost. He took this world in His mighty, gentle hands and molded it back the way it was meant to be. In His life, we see flashes of Creation restored: the hungry are fed, storms are calmed, the sick are healed, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dead rise again. But even greater that all these, we see Him bringing forth the forgiveness of sins through His death and resurrection. We are made alive again in Him, our relationship with God the Father is restored by Jesus’ mediation, and we will live eternally with our Triune God.

The same Potter Who formed the universe by His Word and formed man out of the dust has reformed, restored, and renewed His living Church. In Christ alone is our hope, only by His grace, only by faith, through the power of His Word. To God be the glory! Amen.

By His grace,

Andrew Boll

In His Presence

Sir Robert Stopford commanded a ship in the Royal British Navy at the end of the 18th century. He himself was under the command of Vice Admiral Lord Horation Nelson. Nelson’s fleet was in pretty bad shape; their ships were battered and low on munitions, the food was nearly gone, and the fleet they were pursuing was almost twice the size of their own. Despite these difficulties, morale was unusually high.

When asked about this phenomenon, Stopford replied, “We are half-starved and otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port, but our reward is that we are with Nelson.”

The men fighting under Nelson knew the danger they were heading into. They knew that no amount of money could tempt them forward nor recompense what they were about to face. There was only one thing that made it all worth while: They were with Nelson.

Friends and fellow warriors, we know that constant difficulties and hardships will beset us as God’s children. The world does not want to hear the message of Christ crucified for our sins. In some places, Christ’s disciples are mocked and ridiculed. In other parts of the world, they are treated with no less hostility that He himself was when He walked on earth. The path of discipleship is not an easy road to walk. Tragedies and heartache abound in this life; our struggle often leaves us feeling weary, battered, and on the verge of despair.

We can certainly find comfort in the words, “Great is your reward in heaven.” And yet, we have comfort even in the trials of today as we go forward into the uncertain future with the resolve to stand by our Commander and Chief, bearing the full armor of God and wielding the Sword of the Spirit.

We are with Him.

Whatever difficulties we will face are nothing compared to the reward of being in Christ’s presence throughout our fight. He comes to us in His Word, as we hear it preached by faithful servants and as we read it in our homes. He comes to us in Sacrament, as we receive His very body and blood in His supper and as we remember the marks put upon us in our baptism. He comes to us through those who fight alongside us in this spiritual battle, promising that even in those who seem to be least in the body of all believers, indeed, there He is.

Of all the hardships we face, morale should never have to be among them. We have our reward, and it is not a distant, far-off future promise. We hold it in our hand and clutch it to our breast as we recall his words, “Behold, I am with you always.”

Our reward is that we are with Him, and that He is with us.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant us the peace that comes through knowing that Your Son has defeated our enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  Be with us in our struggle against the world and our own sinful nature.  Let our joy be ever in You, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.

Showers of Blessings

“Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
let the earth cause them both to sprout;
I the Lord have created it.”  ~Isaiah 45:8

 

“April showers bring May flowers.”

I think these words give us hope as we stare out the windows at the early springtime weather. It’s wet, gray, sloppy, and at times simply depressing out there. So we have to remind ourselves that the current dreariness will soon produce the beautiful and abundant fruits of the earth. God’s blessings for tomorrow often come in the form of cold and bitter rainstorms.

In our personal lives, it is often the same. I know there have been times in my life where I was very angry with God over some temporary pain, loss, or disappointment – only to feel the sting of shame later when I realized how God was bringing about incredible blessings in my life through that same event. Scripture tells us that affliction leads to perseverance and eventually hope. Strangely enough, none of us jump up and down and get excited when affliction comes our way.

Heavy rain certainly reduces visibility. We tend to be so self-centered and short-sighted that we immediately become blind to the many, many other present blessings that God continues to shower down on us, even as we shake our fists at Him for our current discomfort. Our heads are hunkered down against the stinging cold of adversity, forgetting that it is the same rain that will bring forth fruitfulness, life, and abundance in the near future – but also pushing away all thoughts of other comforts and joys that are ours through God’s grace.

Perhaps this is our present state as we feel a certain amount of disgust toward our culture and society. We get frustrated and depressed over the Godlessness and immorality in our country, and forget the fact that God has graciously preserved our ability not only to worship Him openly, but to speak freely and challenge the empty philosophies of secularism. As we despise the humanistic notions that are running rampant around us, we lose sight of the many joys, comforts, conveniences, and luxuries that we so richly enjoy in our country. And who knows, but that this current shift in culture is not the rain that will moisten the earth and provide the perfect setting for the seed of the Gospel to sprout and flourish in the hearts of millions?

Occasionally, there will be rain showers; financial difficulties, health problems, frustrations and dilemmas in future planning. But we know that in all these things, God is faithful to the work which He has begun. We stay mindful of the hope we have of the growth occurring just below the surface, which will soon spring forth in splendor as God’s Word blossoms in our community and country. And we do not lose sight of the many, many blessings that He continually bestows upon us; the faithful members of our congregations and families, the devoted friends and neighbors, the beautiful children of God who have been entrusted to our care – and most of all, the life and forgiveness we have through Jesus Christ our Savior.

What a blessing it is to be allowed to tend this patch of earth!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  ~Isaiah 55:10-11

Prayer: Heavenly Father, bless Your Word as it goes forth in our communities, our nation, and throughout our world.  Grant that the seed which is sown will fall upon fertile soil, that the harvest be one of hope in the righteousness won for us by Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  In His name we pray.  Amen.

The “Why” and “How” of Teaching Obedience to God

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6)

We all know and believe that obedience to God is important. We see that God’s law is not only for our earthly good, but that our obedience serves as a light and a witness to those apart from God. God does not make His blessings and salvation to the Israelites contingent upon their obedience. God has given them the Promised Land. Now they in response are to show obedience to Him, thereby glorifying His name to those apart from the covenant community and drawing them unto Him.

Of course the Israelites would not follow God in perfect obedience. If they had, what need would there have been for the promise of Jesus, the Savior? But the obedience that they did have – where did it come from? I think verse 7 holds the answer: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray?”

You see, God did not draw close to the Israelites because of their perfect obedience. You don’t have to read much of their history to understand how true this is. Rather, the obedience that they showed to God was a response to His having drawn near to them, loving them, and redeeming them from oppression and slavery.

We are not redeemed because of our obedience. Obedience follows redemption. This was, is, and always will be the proper order. “Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:134-135). God does not love the writer of this psalm because of his obedience. Rather, the psalm writer obeys God and gladly learns His decrees because he loves God. Why does he love God? Because God has first loved him saved him.

Teaching obedience is important. We want our children to have peaceful, happy, orderly lives. We want them to be lights and witnesses to the Lord our God. We want to equip them with the full armor of God, so that they may be able to take their stand against the devil’s schemes (Eph. 6). We want them to be able to quell the wickedness that comes from their own human hearts (Mark 7:20-23).

So where do we start? We start by helping them to realize that they don’t always obey God’s law. Sometimes their lives will not be peaceful and orderly, and they will not be content. Sometimes they will fall victim to the traps and snares that Satan sets for them. Sometimes the wickedness of their own hearts will rise up and spill forth in their thoughts, words, and actions.

But then comes the best part: showing them that Jesus Christ came to earth for them, lived the life of perfect obedience that we could never achieve, and finally died and rose again so that we might also enter the Promised Land by His grace. Redemption.

We do not begin teaching our children obedience to God by telling them to obey. We begin by teaching them love for God through the story of our redemption in Holy Scripture. As they grow to understand and appreciate just how much God has done for them, we see the beautiful and natural response in their lives: obedience. And when this obedience inevitably fails, they will know it. Then it is our joy once again to point them back to God’s Word, to the cross, to the waters of their baptism, to their redemption through God’s love and grace.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to teach others love for You through sharing the Gospel of what you have done for them.  Guard my heart from doubt and disbelief when I fail to obey Your Law.  Send Your Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament to bolster my faith, through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

The Parable of the Foolish Branch

Text: John 15:1-17

Once upon a time there was a great Vine with a very foolish branch.  One day this foolish branch was thinking about how strong and thick he was, how green and shiny its leaves were, and how plump and juicy fruit always grew on its stems.  Seeing all this, he decided that he didn’t need the Vine anymore.  So he cut himself off from the Vine and set off on his own.

The foolish branch experienced all kinds of wild, exciting things in the days to come, and he knew that he had made a very wise decision.  After all, these were experiences he had never had before, in places he had only dreamed of visiting.  He felt sorry for all the other branches back in the vineyard, stuck firmly in place, rooted to the Vine.  Oh, if only they knew what they were missing!  A wave of superiority flooded over him as he compared his newly enlightened lifestyle with the boring, mundane life of his old friends.

However, these new experiences were taking their toll on the foolish branch, which he soon began to discover.  His delicate leaves weren’t used the abuse of gallivanting all over the countryside, and he noticed after some time that his foliage wasn’t quite as thick as it had been when he was attached to the Vine.  Many of his fine, shimmering leaves had fallen or been knocked off during his adventures outside the vineyard.  He wisely concluded that he would just have to be more careful – but this was no crisis too terrible for one such as him.

At first, the foolish branch didn’t even notice the parching thirst that came over him – he was so distracted with all the fun he was having away from the Vine.  He was not accustomed to this lack of water.  All his life it had constantly been supplied to him through a constant and invisible mystery; but that was when he had been attached to the Vine, and its distended veins allowed the sweet, life-giving liquid to flow steadily into him.  But now, his few remaining leaves lost their sheen, growing dry and brown around the edges.  The foolish branch knew that he must find a water source on his own if he was to survive, but without the strong, deep roots of the Vine, this was proving very difficult indeed.  When he finally did manage to locate a filthy little mud puddle, he was shocked to learn that the healthy veins that had connected him to the Vine were steadily closing up, as though an invisible firebrand had cauterized the place that had once secured him to life and health.  The foolish branch became worried.

As the branch trudged along, no longer reveling in the liberty and excitement of his enlightened lifestyle, he stopped to rest against the fence behind the barn.  Peering across the field, he saw something strange; the vineyard workers carried sad, dilapidated bundles of something brown and twisted.  Squinting, the foolish branch recoiled in horror as he realized what it was; it was the branches that year after year produced no fruit and had been cut off from the Vine.  When he had seen them last, they looked healthy enough; true, they had no fruit on their stems, but their leaves had been green and lustrous as his own…

He looked down at himself and almost withered on the spot.  He was no longer bearing even the slightest bit of fruit.  His leaves were wilted and dried up.  Everything about him bore a striking exactitude to the branches now being carried by the vineyard workers, to…where were they taking them?  The branch’s eyes were drawn toward a thick billowing cloud of inky black smoke on top of the hill.  His eyes continued to follow the workers as they approached the burning heap, stopped, and promptly cast the great burden into the waiting flames!  The horror, the shock of seeing it sent the foolish branch reeling.  What was he doing here?  Why did he leave the Vine in the first place?  Who did he think he was?  He was a branch, grown to produce fruit – not amble about the countryside idly enjoying the sights!  There was only one thing to do; he must produce fruit, and now!

The foolish branch thought that perhaps he could produce fruit on his own, without the Vine.  Yes!  That’s it!  The branch hunkered down where he lie and squeezed with all his might.  He pushed and grunted and heaved, but it was no good.  He suddenly came upon the terrible realization that he had no idea how to produce to a single grape.  Sure, he had produced thousands before, while still attached to the Vine, but back then it had just sort of…happened.  Now, now that he must perform this feat for himself or be destroyed, it was simply impossible.  The same life-giving waters that the Vine had poured into him had been the very source of the nutrition that produced each and every grape on his stems.  He realized now that – by himself – he had never been able to produce any fruit to begin with.

Parched, wilted, and despairing, the branch crawled its way back to the Vine.  He could see, well up the Vine, the very place where he had cut himself off from life.  The spot was healed over now.  Even if he could reach it – which he knew was impossible – there would be no way to be grafted back onto the Vine at this point.  He was as good as dead.  He lay down on the ground and waited for the inevitable – when the vineyard workers came and made their rounds, picking up the dead branches to be cast into the fire.

Toward evening, he heard steps approaching.  The footsteps stopped just next to where he lay.  He felt himself being slowly lifted from the ground, saw the bundle of brown, twisted, fruitless branches a few yards away, and waited to be tossed atop the pile.  But something happened then that he wasn’t expecting.  As gentle hands turned him over, he found himself looking at no mere worker; it was the face of the very Gardener Himself.  The Gardener just looked at him; looked at him for a long while with a very sad, compassionate look on his face.  He then nodded to himself, took a knife out of his pocket, and trimmed away the crusted surface where the branch had once held onto the Vine.  What was he doing?  The foolish branch looked on apprehensively as the Gardener reached out to his own Vine, the Vine he had loved and cared for all these years, and sliced into the surface of that Vine directly where the branch had cut itself away.  The branch could have cried out for pity’s sake – don’t hurt the Vine!  It’s my fault!  I was the fool!  I deserve the fire!

The branch didn’t understand what was happening, but watched with shame and sorrow as the sap poured out of the Vine which had been wounded because of him.  The Gardener continued to work, pressing the now clean surface of the branch to the freshly-wounded Vine, grafting the branch back in its very own place.  He bound the foolish branch there with strong and gentle cloth, working with care and diligence.  The foolish branch felt life flowing back into it once more through the wound of the Vine.  In time, his leaves began to green once more and luscious fruits ripened and filled on his stems.  And the once-foolish branch never again forgot that this miracle was only possible because of the ever-sustaining Vine and the love and sacrifice of the Vine and the Gardener.


 

My friends, it is a very dangerous thing to cut ourselves off from Jesus, the true Vine.  We know that in Him, and in Him alone, is found life and salvation.  Yet we neglect His Word, always finding something “better” to do with our time than read the life-giving Scriptures.  We fail to pray, to call upon him in praise and thanksgiving, to put our every sorrow and need into His loving hands, opting instead to face the impossible in our own feeble power.  We stray from our worship habits, relishing Sunday mornings as “our own time,” and not even noticing the slow withering of our leaves and the decay of our fruits as we distance ourselves from the Church that would feed and nourish us with His Word and Sacraments, cleansing our sinful wounds through the confession and absolution of sins.

We, like the branch, are all fools.  We go our own way, looking for excitement and adventure even at the very cost of our own destruction.  We cannot produce any good work that is pleasing to God apart from Jesus, for Jesus is ultimately all that matters in this world.  We cannot even take credit for the growth of our faith, just a branch does not decide to grow itself, but starts as nothing and grows up out of the Vine, by its power and discretion.  And when we fall away, it is only through the caring, gentle hands of the Father that we are brought back to life and salvation through the True Vine, Jesus Christ, who poured out His own blood on the cross that we might live in Him and through Him.

May Jesus sustain and nourish you always through His Word, and may you always rest in the loving hands of God the Father.  Amen.

Drunkenness, Orgies, and the Like – Indulging Sinful Sensuality

“Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” (2 Timothy 2:22)

Our sinful nature constantly wages war upon us.  Our selfish will defies God’s good decrees and vainly seeks temporal pleasures instead.  The corrupt flesh holds such power over us that we willingly forfeit true peace and lasting happiness for fleeting physical gratification.

One the one hand, as redeemed children of God, we deeply and sincerely desire to serve and glorify Him for the great gift of salvation He has given us through His only Son, Jesus Christ.  But on the other hand, our wicked impulses drive us to flout the commands of our great God and Father, bringing shame and trouble upon ourselves and rendering our ministry flimsy and hypocritical at best.

We know that our own good works have no power to save us – that victory is complete and final, by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and triumphant resurrection.  And yet, as God’s chosen warriors in a world filled with darkness and despair, we earnestly yearn to please Him through thankful service that extends the fruits of His love to those around us.  Paul tells Timothy that “cleansing” is necessary if the Christian soldier is to be set to serve: “If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).

Paul doesn’t say, “Do this in order to be saved” – he says, “Do this in order to serve.”  What child in a loving family doesn’t wish to please his or her parents?  What student wouldn’t want to please and honor his wise, kindly teacher?  What noble soldier wouldn’t willingly go above and beyond the call of duty for a faithful and caring commander who has saved the lives of his men time and again?

Perhaps you, like many others, long to do what is pleasing in the eyes of God, but find that your sinful flesh often gets the best of you.  Some may even be at a point where they find very little desire to do what God wills, and are wondering what that means for their spiritual state.  In either case, the answer can be found in the same place: the Word of God.  The Law convicts us of wrongdoing, guiding and directing us in the way we should go.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us that God has taken our sins and placed them upon the cross of our Redeemer, making us free from the terrible eternal consequences of our sin and releasing us from the power it holds over us here and now.

If you desire to be prepared to serve God as a loving child, a faithful student and a noble soldier, turn to God’s Word for the weapons of faith.  In an amazing, miraculous way, the Holy Spirit equips us with all of the spiritual armaments we need to fight evil wherever it may lie; in our world, in our nation, in our community, in our household, and in our own hearts.  Through weapons like the love, peace, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control which the Spirit imparts through the Word, God adds to the joy of our salvation by showing us true meaning for our lives in service to Him.  And when faced with the most deadly attack that can be directed at our souls – the ugly accusations of Satan himself over our failures – our defense is in much more capable hands; it rests securely upon the breastplate of Christ’s own righteousness and the helmet of His salvation.

“The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:8)

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:11-14)

Prayer: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me – help me to know the fullness of Your love and mercy, that I may ever serve You joyfully; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Dissentions and Factions – By Schisms Rent Asunder

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)

The army of saints is most effective in spiritual warfare when we move as a single unit under one Lord and General.  Part of our training process is learning to fight side by side with other Christians in humble submission to God’s Word, rather than each faction, congregation, or individual insisting on “having things my way.”

But aren’t doctrinal issues serious enough to warrant thorough study of the Scriptures and – if need be – diligent discussion and debate among God’s people?  Of course.  Can Christian brothers and sisters pursue the teaching of God’s Word in truth and purity without becoming weakened and divided?  Absolutely.

Even the apostles disagreed upon certain issues.  The disciples didn’t always “get it” when Jesus would reveal to them a certain facet of heavenly truth.  Does this mean that they weren’t united?  For all of the frustration that Jesus must have had to deal with in teaching His twelve students, He yet confessed that He was united with them – even at the end of His earthly ministry, while they still did not understand the basic mission that He had come to accomplish: “For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.  They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me…I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world” (John 17:8,14).

Faced with His hour of suffering and ultimate victory, Jesus knew that the unity of the Church today would be a vital part of carrying the message of that victory into the world.  He even spent his last precious moments before being arrested and taken to die praying for us – the Christians of today – that we would be united in Him:

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

Even as we engage in debate and discussion concerning the Scriptures, Christians of all synods and denominations can find unity in the love of God through Christ Jesus.  The Holy Spirit further equips us against the dangers of factions and dissensions by giving us powerful weapons; the joy of salvation through Christ alone; patience, kindness, and gentleness as we lovingly respond to our Christian brothers and sisters; the inexpressible comfort and peace that comes from knowing that God has loved all of us enough to send His Son to suffer and die for our sins.

Onward, Christian soldiers.  Be one in spirit and purpose, united in our assault against the prince of this dark world.  Let our love of God show in the love that we direct to those around us, humbly walking hand in hand – even when we don’t see eye to eye.

“I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.” (1 Timothy 2:8)

“Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace.  And the God of love and peace will be with you…May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:11,14)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, send Your Spirit in power and unity upon Your Church.  Bless us through diligent study of Your Word, that we may come to know You ever more deeply.  Grant that all of Your children may work steadfastly for Your kingdom, united by Your love and the peace that we have in the forgiveness of sins; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Fits of Rage – Dangerously out of Control

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

Warriors must be disciplined.  In the midst of battle and turmoil, a warrior must have the strength and clarity of mind to put personal fear and self-preservation instincts aside and boldly push forward with their mission.  If they become overwhelmed by the stress, the danger, and the confusion all around them, they are likely to abandon their orders and fail in their duty – to the ruin of all that they have worked for.

In our spiritual warfare, conditions can sometimes be fierce enough to drive a warrior nearly out of his mind.  The darkness, unbelief, and antagonism toward the Word of Life that we share can take its toll on even the hardiest soldiers.  Fears and doubts over the problems of this world can shake even a veteran’s faithful discipline and strict obedience.  In the midst of all the spiritual carnage with which we are daily confronted, it can be easy to lose control.

It doesn’t matter who is the target of our “fits of rage” – such displays never promote God’s kingdom or His righteousness.  If it is directed at an unbeliever, chances are that we are driving a wedge even further between this lost soul and the God who would redeem them.  If it is directed at a brother or sister in the faith, we disrupt the unity and fellowship that serves as a vital part of our witness and ministry to the world.  And if it is directed at God…well, it’s easy to see how the tide of battle is quickly turning against us in our own faith walk.

Any fit of rage is a rebellion against God.  Our fear, anger, doubt, or despair drive us to desperation.  We know what God’s orders are, but we abandon our duty in the belief that our odds are better if we follow our own instincts.  The problem is, our instincts are sinful and corrupt from the start.  I give in to my rage because it feels good, because I want to gratify my desire for vengeance, power, or control.  Ironically, it is at these moments when we are least in control – as we demonstrate that we cannot even control ourselves.

God’s weapon of self-control through the Holy Spirit can help us in our struggle against ourselves.  By the peace and joy that comes through His love in Jesus Christ, God fortifies us against our own sinful instincts.  The patience and faithfulness that He grows in our hearts through the Word give us the discipline we need to put God and neighbors before self.  By exercising daily through prayer, praise, and meditation upon the Word, we allow God to shape us into warriors who are stout of heart, boldly and humbly advancing into battle and steadfastly following God’s orders.  He is our loving Commander, and though we are often plagued by fear and doubt, we can come to know that His orders are the way of Life and peace for us, now and forever.

“Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32)

“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, give me the grace to control myself in the midst of fear, doubt, and anger.  Help me to always put service to You and witness to others first, that I may be blessed to grow in Godly discipline and prove fruitful to Your kingdom; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Discord – Reaping what you Sow

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)

“Men’s hearts ought not to be set against one another, but set with one another, and all against evil only.” (Thomas Carlyle)

What sets one man’s heart against another man?  What causes him to go out of his way to sow discord, anger, and malice between others or incite hatred against another individual?  James pretty much nails it when he says to the Christians of his day, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1).

Once again, we find that old culprit “Self” at blame for the discord and strife in our world.  One man turns against another or sows discord, spreading lies and stirring up evil against his brother, because his self comes first in his heart.  Perhaps it is an issue of wounded pride.  Maybe he simply wants something a certain way and won’t let anyone get in the way of his own comfort or ideal.  And quite often, we feel perfectly justified in our malice and discord directed at one another because we honestly believe that what we are doing is “for the best.”  If someone is liable to get hurt in the process, well, they probably brought it upon themselves by opposing us in our “rightness.”  Besides, doesn’t the end justify the means?

Sowing and practicing discord is a form of idolatry – a blatant raising of the Self above God and His clear commands for us.  My pride, my desire, my way of doing things comes first.  God’s command to love one another gets shoved aside to make way for our selfish motives and hurtful means.  Rather than serving our neighbor in love, we do a great disservice to everyone involved by convincing ourselves that what he really needs right now is to be “put in his place.”  The animosity between us grows, the unity is shattered, and our witness to the world is greatly diminished as others look on in horror at the way these “Christians” treat each other.

So what weapons does God give us to combat this great evil in our midst – indeed, even within our own hearts?  One weapon is singled out as particularly effective against discord, and the Savior Himself hands it to us today; “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27).  Paul encourages us to fight with all our strength against discord and to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).  And James reminds us that the sowing of discord must be countered by God’s warriors with the sowing of peace; “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (James 4:18).

As God grants us peace with Him through His Word by the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ, He can also calm the raging tempest of wicked desires that battle within our hearts.  He shows us the way and gives us the means to have peace with our neighbors; by using the weapons of love, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.  Finally, we can also have peace within ourselves as we find true meaning in living a life as a redeemed child of God and serving Him by loving our neighbor.

God’s love empowers and compels us to sow the seed of the Gospel in peace, watching joyfully while the Holy Spirit raises up a harvest of true righteousness as those who hear it receive the very righteousness that comes through Christ’s own blood.  The world and our sinful nature call us to the sowing of discord and the worship of selfish desires, but God calls us to glorify Him by sowing His Word, that His peace may be harvested in abundance throughout the world.

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:17-18)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for giving me the peace that comes from knowing You have reconciled me to Yourself through the death and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ.  Help me to share this peace with all those around me by boldly sharing the Gospel and by serving them in love.  Amen.

Witchcraft – Who’s in Control?

“Keep on, then, with your magic spells and with your many sorceries, which you have labored at since childhood.  Perhaps you will succeed, perhaps you will cause terror…That is all they can do for you – these you have labored with and trafficked with since childhood.  Each of them goes on in his error; there is not one that can save you.” (Isaiah 47:12;15)

Witchcraft?  Really?  “Surely, not I Lord!”

Like idolatry, it’s easy for us “upstanding Christians” to feel rather untouched by the Bible’s warnings and condemnations of sorcery and witchcraft.  The only “casting” I do is with a fishing rod, my “spelling” doesn’t involve wands or incantations, and although I might “brew” up some trouble occasionally, it’s never in the form of magical potions.

In fact, sometimes we might even sit back and shake our heads sadly at those poor, deluded pagans and their ridiculous rituals.  What’s the point of it all?  Just a sad attempt to maintain the illusion of control in their spiritual and earthly lives.  But now, we would never stoop so low…

The rebellion behind witchcraft lies in trying to grasp our own salvation – both now and eternally – rather than letting God take the reins and keep them.  In the temporal sense, our lack of complete trust in God sometimes leads us to seek ways in which we can “shape our own destiny” rather than letting the Holy Spirit guide us in life through whatever trials and troubles God may allow.  God would discipline and prepare us for greater faith and service, but we would prefer the easy road.  God would bless us by growing spiritual gifts in our hearts and bringing us closer to Himself, but we rebel and cling to our earthly pelf and prominence, preferring to remain “knit to this world” as C.S. Lewis would say.  Perhaps we don’t look to demonic powers to surmise the future and avoid God’s plans, but we don’t have to; we simply look to ourselves to “know” what’s best for our lives instead of humbly following God’s Word and will – and worship of self is idolatry just as worship of demonic powers is.

Witchcraft belies a lack of trust in God and His control over our lives.  We do not believe He is loving, faithful, and gentle, so we are afraid to give ourselves over to His will.  Our trust in God for this life goes only so far.  When it really comes down to it – when my job, my house, or my money is on the line – trusting God just doesn’t always make sense.  Sorry God, I know what your Word tells me here, but I think I know what I’m doing better than you do.

Our lack of trust in God translates from temporal, earthly matters even to our eternal salvation.  We don’t like being completely at the mercy of the Holy Spirit.  We want some ownership of what’s happening to our souls.  Again, we try to maintain the illusion of control by believing that our works, our worship attendance, and our lengthy prayers are building up “brownie points” with God.  We turn our faith into a ritual, where if we say just the right magical words and make all the proper motions, we will end up in heaven.  But as Isaiah says, all of our works and words and powers have the ability to bring only terror as we examine our hearts and see how utterly short we have fallen of God’s perfect law; “there is not one that can save you.”

We need to let go.  Let God take the steering wheel, and He will bring you through fields of blessing and rich abundance the likes of which you would never have known this life to contain; maybe not money, fame, or earthly prosperity, but all the treasures of a heart and mind that finds everything needful in Him.  Let go of everything you have been holding on to – sin, doubt, and shame – for Christ has taken it all upon Himself on the cross and left it buried in the tomb, that we might rise triumphantly along with Him.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to trust You more deeply, that I might commend my life and soul to Your loving hands alone; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

From the pages of “The Hero and the Dragon: Building Christian Character through Fantasy Fiction” regarding witchcraft:

Common Christian Pitfalls

“For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel.” ~Martin Luther

Christians, even those who have never touched a fantasy fiction book in their lives, aren’t immune to the subtle influences of witchcraft in the way they think and act. Christianity can be twisted and perverted by pagan practices that have invisibly worked their way into the fabric of our faith. Without even realizing it, people sometimes fall into habits that reflect ideas that are not at all inspired by God’s Word, but rather by secular, pagan, or even occult messages and philosophies.

We sometimes fall into the ways of “animism,” thinking that I need to “work my way up the spiritual ladder” and earn my way into God’s good graces, forgetting that I’m saved by grace alone in Christ crucified. Other times, like “shamanists,” we place our faith in objects, rituals, or other people instead of God alone, forgetting that “there is one God and one mediator between God and man,” Jesus Christ. Sometimes, we even act like members of the “occult,” reveling in our “secret knowledge” and forgetting that Jesus Christ died for all, and we have been sent to share the Gospel with everyone we meet.

The most prominent of these distortions today is what is commonly termed “prosperity theology.” The basic premise is that people can “manipulate” God into giving them whatever they desire by saying the proper prayers, doing the right actions, or achieving the right frame of mind. This doctrine has enjoyed some popularity for the last hundred years or so, but has become increasingly popular since World War II and especially in the last thirty or forty years.

It doesn’t require a real thorough inspection to see how this idea contradicts God’s Word and reflects the pagan influences of ritualistic witchcraft. When God tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well,” it isn’t a recipe for fiscal success. God’s will for our life is good and loving, and He desires that we be happy, healthy, and successful. Obeying His commandments and precepts naturally leads to prosperity, but not necessarily as the world sees it. In this sinful, fallen world, many Christians have to sacrifice worldly success for the sake of adhering closely to the Father’s will. They are scorned and ridiculed for their faith, and some even lose their reputations, property, or lives because of it. Jesus warns that persecution will be a natural result of discipleship, not financial and physical well-being.

When we try to make God into a pagan deity who can be controlled and manipulated through silly incantations, empty rituals, and hollow servitude, we miss out on the most tremendous blessings He has in store for us. Our Heavenly Father wants so much for us in our lives, and not just sports cars, delicious foods, and fancy jewelry. He wants to craft us, to mold us, to make us more like Him, so that we can understand just how wonderful life can be when we walk together in unity – despite whatever suffering or difficult circumstances we may be going through at the time.

The prayer of Jabez in the Bible has been misused by thousands of men and women hoping for a “genie-in-a-bottle” phenomenon. That’s fine. Ask God to bless you, by all means. But you should also realize that sometimes God blesses us through pain, loss, and sorrow. Sometimes He gives us the best things in life in a way that will make you want to curse His name during the process. Sometimes cancer will be the blessing you ask for, or unemployment, or loneliness, or any number of fears, doubts, temptations, heartaches, and tragedies. Because the greatest blessing we could ever have, and the thing God desires most for us, is to be closer to Him. Bless me, Lord. Thy will be done, not mine. Give me a stronger faith. Take away all trivial distractions and help me to walk with you. Amen.

My Apologies for the late post today – I had some “technical difficulties” last night (although technically, the difficulties were with my brain and not the computer).  Thanks for your patience!