Like a Vapor in the Wind

“For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”

James 4:14b NKJV

Wednesday’s headline read, “Stabbing Spree in Southern California Leaves 4 Dead and 2 Hurt.” This according to TIME Magazine online, in addition to and less than a week after the carnage in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, which had already taken 31 lives. These horrific occurrences remind us of something we don’t like to think about, namely the brevity and fragility of life. In a day when investment firms are convincing us to sock away funds in our working years sufficient to support us into our late 70s, 80s, and even 90s, these savage events serve to jar us into a reality embraced by our forbears.

In 18th century New England, people rarely lived through their forties. So, it was deemed essential that young people be reminded of the brevity of life and the importance of living the years God gave them for His honor and glory. The Puritans used to configure the benches in their meetinghouses so that they faced the windows across the length of the buildings, which looked out on their cemeteries. We live in denial of death, even today, but for tragic events like those of this past week. We don’t want to think about our mortality. Isn’t it time we got a grip, and faced reality. Even a lifespan of 60, 70, 80, or 90 years is but a vapor. The wicked in the world escape nothing, nor the righteous. Death is 100% certain for everyone. The only treasure that really lasts and earns interest in life is what we invest for God’s kingdom. Where is your focus? Where is mine?

I am minded of words by C.T. Studd, the great missionary pioneer and statesman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life,’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

C.T. Studd

Geometry and the Calling of God

It is no small accomplishment to have graduated at the very top of the bottom third of my high school class (1966). With all of 16 credits I did not merit a New York State Regent’s diploma. The truth is, I wouldn’t have graduated at all but for a largely unappreciated “over the hill” math teacher, Roland Reade. Somehow, the “light turned on” in the middle of my junior year and with God’s help and Mr. Reade, I became a learner.

Mr. Reade taught me not so much about plane geometry as he did about motivating students to reach their highest potential. He was more concerned about his students as persons than he was about their ability to perform academically. He cared about the low achiever as much as he did the high achiever. For a student who had not been considered “college material” that was all I needed to become a learner.
Then in the Spring of the same year, I began the discipline of reading one chapter of Proverbs each day. And, on the fourth of April, these words leapt off the page:

“Take fast hold of instruction; let her not go: keep her; for she is thy life.” Proverbs 4:13 KJV

Suddenly, I knew my mission in life was to be both a learner and a teacher of the Scriptures. The convergence of events that junior year with what I sensed was God’s calling, transformed my life. And it was reinforced most unexpectedly on the day I graduated from Philadelphia College of Bible, now Cairn University.

On Saturday May 8th, 1971, dressed in cap and gown, I walked over to the Sheraton Hotel in Center City Philadelphia. As I was about to step on the elevator which would take me up to the Ballroom for college commencement ceremonies, who do you suppose was stepping off that very elevator? Mr. and Mrs. Roland Reade! It gives me chills to this day!
We greeted one another and it took him a minute to remember who I was. I hadn’t seen him for six years.

But, to this day, I don’t know for whom God meant this timely encounter. Was it for me, or was it for him? Methinks, it was surely an affirmation of the investment he made in the lives of students like me, one which was very much under-appreciated in Mineola. But it also spoke to me of God’s ways with those who trust in Him. To fulfill His calling for my life, God knew I needed a Roland Reade and at just the right time. Soli Deo Gloria!

The Prayer for Divine Guidance

I’ve heard a good many sermons by well-intentioned preachers and theologians on why praying for divine guidance demonstrates a lack of faith or even that it smacks of pagan divination. Of course, I think that asking God for signs at first resort is generally symptomatic of weak faith, and might even betray a faulty view of God, who has for the most part revealed His will for us in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But, there are times and circumstances that defy doing anything else but appealing to our Father in heaven for specific direction, and we can at such times pray confidently for wisdom and guidance in faith (James 1:5).

Now, I could share an anecdote or two, but anecdotes are sometimes glibly dismissed with a “show me in Scripture where we might see that.” So, we’ll skip the personal anecdotes and go to a biblical illustration. “O.K., but don’t show me Gideon’s fleece,” one might say. “After all, Gideon had to throw the dice (oops!) fleece twice (Judges 6:36-40).” So, how about another example, the servant of Abraham (Genesis 24)?

Scripture does not give him a name, but tradition assigns him the name, Eliezer, meaning “God is my helper.” Whatever his name actually was, Eliezer surely fits him. His assignment is to find a wife, one who will meet Abraham’s specifications for his 40 year old son, Isaac. Clear instructions are given and divine help will subsequently be promised for the task, but “Eliezer” (let’s just call him that) is still left with a problem.

“What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?” Genesis 24:5 NIV

And, so the chapter records the prayer of “Eliezer” to the “LORD, God of my master Abraham” not just for “a wife” but for “the one YOU (Yahweh) have chosen for your servant Isaac.” “Eliezer” wants God’s best, the right woman for the right man, a woman who is not only willing to marry Isaac, but a woman willing to return with him to Canaan, a country not her own, not one she is familiar with, to a wed a man she has never met and does not know! Wow!

For this mission and task, “Eliezer” needs something more than a “chapter and verse.” But it is to the “chapter and verse” God (yes, the truths of God known in Abraham’s day, were passed down most accurately by oral tradition and then subsequently recorded by Moses), that “Eliezer” knows he can appeal for help! His knowledge of God shapes his confident approach to God! And, the narrative in chapter 24 discloses how “Eliezer’s” faith was rewarded!

You can read Genesis chapter 24 for yourself, but I have made some observations that might help us when we encounter those rare, “I really need special direction” moments.

The Characteristics of the “Eliezer” Prayer for Guidance: Informal, personal, intimate, reflects the heart of man devoted to Abraham and His God. Heart in prayer trumps form!

Three Main Elements: 1) Petition for success grounded in a mission appointed by God. 2) Appeal to God’s Covenant Love and Promises to Abraham. 3) Request for a specific supernatural sign.

Three Noteworthy Features: 1) His prayer is repeated underscoring its significance for us (Genesis 24:12-14; 42-45; cf. Romans 15:4). 2) His prayer testifies to God’s faithfulness, loyal love and promises (Genesis 24:12, 27 & 42). 3) It appears that His prayer was supported by that of at least one other (Genesis 24:62-64).

Sooner or later, all of us will face something that defies human wisdom, and even our understanding of Scripture. But the God who is revealed in Scripture, who has given us a New Covenant binding His Bride to Himself forever, will not fail the believer who appeals to Him in faith in the time of crisis! To that I can humbly testify.

The Three People We Need to Grow in Christ

There is no higher calling in this world than to be a follower of Jesus Christ, that is to say, a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is not the same thing as a call to vocational ministry. It is the call to everyone who has embraced Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Disciples of Jesus Christ fulfill their calling as they live and work for Him in this world as parents, grandparents, students, teachers, artists, musicians, plumbers, electricians, roofers, nurses, engineers, physicians, lawyers, stay at home moms and working moms, shoppers, neighbors, yes, and pastors too.

We are called to let the Christ who indwells our lives, speak to and touch the lives of all those living around us. Someone well said, “The only Christ many will ever see is the Christ that is living in me.” But to follow Jesus we must have more than just a “how to” manual. The Bible teaches us that we need people, three kinds of other people in order to grow and continue growing in our walk with Christ. But it is your responsibility and mine to be sure we have them! We must take the initiative and not just simply sit on our hands and wait for them to find us.

The call to “make disciples” is not simply an informational evangelical gospel message, nor is it just about baptizing converts or sterile unapplied Bible teaching, but it necessarily requires the involvement of other people in our lives, who live out the gospel and apply the teaching of Christ and the Scriptures to their lives. Perhaps that is why the Great Commission cannot be reduced to evangelism alone, but to the comprehensive process of “[Proclaiming] Him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ [Colossians 1:28].”

Teaching as he often did from the book of Acts, not only in the seminary classroom, but speaking in some of the nation’s largest stadiums jammed with thousands of people like you and me, Howard Hendricks used to say, “Everyone needs three people in their lives: a Paul to mentor them, a Barnabas to encourage them, and a Timothy, someone into whom you can pour your life.”

I would like to challenge us to think about the three people, the three kinds of people each of us needs in our life in order to grow and walk in Christ, regardless of where we are on the journey, whether just starting out in Christ, or along the way, or perhaps even near the end. All of us need a Paul, to mentor us; a Barnabas, to encourage us; and a Timothy, someone into whom we can pour our lives.

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This Is No Country Club: Wake Up You Sleepy Church!

Some years ago, a friend suggested that I apply for a clergy courtesy pass at a private golf club. For years the club had a clergy friendly policy that permitted ministers to play their course at no charge. So, I applied but my application was rejected, because it was noted that I resided in the wrong zip code. The community in which I lived was not far from the club, but courtesy for clergy according to their bylaws was limited to those living in a specifically defined locality. Though disappointed, I respected that decision. And, the reality is that I rarely played more than a few rounds of golf a year, anyway. Oh yeah, and when we moved to Florida from Connecticut, my wife sold my golf clubs for a single dollar in a tag sale!  

Unfortunately, we live in a day when churches of every stripe are in decline across America: mainline Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical churches are in significant decline. While there are notable exceptions to the trend, more and more churches are in decline because those who belong to them have forgotten that the church, the present manifestation of God’s Kingdom in the world today is not a private club for members only. The church founded by Christ and birthed by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost exists to extend the grace of God to men, women, and children of every race, tongue, tribe and nation.

Maybe as we think about the resurrection hope we have in Jesus Christ this Easter Sunday, it is time to think about a resurrection of another kind, one which awakens sleepy churches out their slumber to the mission our risen Lord has called them.

19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.

21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. John 20:19-21 KJV

Is It Really Possible to Hear the Voice of God?

Lynn and I were on vacation at Indian Lake in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. We were nestled comfortably in a little mountain cottage right on the lake, and had turned in for the night. Shortly after midnight I awakened to discover our cabin filled with light from the moon and its reflection on the surface of the lake. It so moved me that I recorded a note in my journal,

“12:07 AM July 1st, 2004. I wakened … to the vision of reflected glory! Sky as clear as glass and water like a rippling mirror. A full moon reflecting a greater light off of the water. The beauty of reflected light creates an awe and a hunger for the greater glory behind it all. That is what revival is all about! May the world behold a reflected light of the glory of God in His church in bold crystal clarity!”

The following night was rather stormy at least until we went to bed. Lots of lightning and thunder! Even so, in the cool mountain air, Lynn and I again found ourselves in a deep sleep. Then at 1:30 AM, I was suddenly awakened by something loudly striking the cabin. Lynn heard nothing and remained asleep, but there it was again, a huge bright full moon shining on the lake as it did the night before. As clouds moved rapidly across the face of the moon, I feasted on the ways it changed the appearance of the lake. Sometimes fully illuminated, other times almost dark, and then one part would brightly shimmer, than another, and then seemingly the whole lake would fill with light. God spoke to my heart about revival that evening again, and I entered a full page more in my journal.

Oswald Chambers who knew something about the voice of God and how He speaks, once said,

“Nature to a saint is sacramental. If we are children of God, we have a tremendous treasure in Nature. In every wind that blows, in every night and day of the year, in every sign of the sky, in every blossoming and in every withering of the earth, there is a real coming of God to us if we will simply use our starved imagination to realize it.” My Utmost, Feb. 10th.

If I were to ask you if you have heard the voice of God, you might say, “Yes, I have at times experienced something of Him when I was hiking in the Grand Canyon” or perhaps “It was while gazing at the stars far from the city lights.”

The Scriptures teach us that God speaks to us in many ways. Sometimes He speaks through creation or nature as many of us have experienced, sometimes He speaks to us through phenomena or “out of the ordinary experiences” which might include miracles, angelic visitors, visions or dreams, audible voices, or perhaps even those unusual coincidences that are not by chance and full of meaning. Sometimes He speaks in a “still small voice” or the witness of the Spirit, which we may not even distinguish as a voice as such, but may more closely be perceived as a prompting, a burden, a leading, a clear compelling thought or impression. And then always, God speaks through His Holy Word, the Bible. Often, we’ll find that God does not speak in just one way or another at any given time but will be speaking in more than one way.

We can be sure of this, whenever God speaks, He speaks infallibly. Unfortunately, because we’re human and too often prone to sin, we do not hear or obey infallibly. But at least we know that the God who declares “I the LORD do not change” [Mal. 3:6 NIV], the God about whom James declares, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows [James :17],” such a God will always speak in a manner that is consistent with His own character and His written Word. His character and the written Word become the only true standards by which to test what we subjectively believe to be the voice of God speaking to us through creation or nature, phenomena or even the “still small voice.”

But the bottom line is this, God speaks today. And He does so, loudly enough for anyone who is willing, to hear His voice. Are you listening?

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. Psalm 19:1-4a NIV

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. Romans 1:20 NIV

Sleeping in Momma’s Lap or Trembling in a Shower Stall?

Lynn and I have a little dog named Dollie. We adopted her six years ago from a shelter in Worcester, Massachusetts. But for several months last year, we also had custody of my eldest daughter’s little dog, named Ginger. They were both happy dogs, easy to manage, and a real delight to have in our home. But, during Florida’s rainy season, whenever the sky thickened with dark clouds, and we heard the crack of lightning and the rumble of thunder, Dollie would curl up on the sofa in “Momma’s” lap and go to sleep. But Ginger would suddenly disappear, and “Daddy” would find her trembling, hiding alone in the bathroom, behind the curtain in the shower stall.

The difference between Dollie and Ginger was that Dollie experienced peace in the midst of the storms, because she knew to whom she belonged, but Ginger did not. That reminds me of something King David of Israel once said.

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for YOU are with me,… (Psalm 23:4a NIV).”

If God is our Shepherd, we need not fear the trials of life, because He is present with us to keep us from harm. The apostle Paul put it another way,

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

‘For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39 NIV

I would not wish the troubles I’ve faced in life on anyone, and I’d like to think no one would wish their troubles on me. Still, I am glad for what I have been troubled, for it has been in the darkest valleys I have experienced the almost palpable presence of my Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who gave His life to make me His own. And there is nothing I’ve experienced in life that could possibly rival that. In times of trouble and danger, we can be content because the Shepherd in whom we trust, draws close to us and we are secure, protected, safe in Him. Is the LORD your Shepherd?

Do We Have a Need to be in Need?

I don’t know if you’ve thought about it, but have you ever considered that our basic needs are often the very things God uses to bring people to Jesus? The need for water brought the woman of Samaria to the Jacob’s Well, where she met Jesus one hot afternoon (John 4:4-7). The need for food brought the same crowd Jesus had fed by multiplying the five loaves and two fishes, to the other side of the Lake of Galilee the very next day to find Jesus (John 6:22-26). The need for health and healing brought huge crowds to Jesus from many places (Matthew 4:24-25).

There are those who might look to encounters like these in the Gospels and say, “See, God promises health, wealth and prosperity to those who come to Him.” But, that is far from what following Jesus is truly about. But that isn’t to say, that God doesn’t care about our basic needs. Indeed, He has promised to supply our needs, if we are generous with whatever resources He entrusts to us. It is to the generous but poor church of Philippi that Paul says, “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19 NIV].” And that, I submit sometimes includes by the way, your need and mine to be in need. For if you never had a need, how would you know God could and would meet it, if you trusted Him to provide for it? I suspect that this is why the apostle Paul declared,

“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11-13 NIV

Perhaps Jesus might have had the same idea when He began the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3 NIV).”

Our needs, rightly seen, are simply the opportunities God grants us to trust Him for what He has promised to grant us.

Is There a Well of Contentment?

Having devoted over a decade of my life to working with the elderly, I have seen far too many who nearing life’s end, feel their life had no meaning, no purpose or satisfaction. But the lack of contentment in life does not belong the elderly alone.

At just 27 years of age, Tara Condell, a well-traveled, educated young woman, highly regarded by her peers, ended her life suddenly by hanging herself in her West 10th Street apartment in New York City. But just before her death, she posted a suicide note on her personal website. I was struck by her words which I’ve heard in one form or another over the years.

“I have written this note several times in my head for over a decade, and this one finally feels right. No edits, no overthinking. I have accepted hope is nothing more than delayed disappointment, and I am just plain old-fashioned tired of feeling tired…”  [New York Post online, January 31, 2019]

It is easy for us to write off people who make the choice to end their lives because they are depressed and find no contentment in life, but if we’re honest about it, we live in a world filled with people who live their lives pretending that they are content when the reality is that they are simply going through the motions of life, existing with no hope for the future?

Yes, I have seen many sincere Christians struggle to find meaning , purpose and satisfaction in their lives as well. I do not judge them. I know my own frailties too well. Overdriven people and those who become socially isolated are vulnerable to depression. But, is there an antidote that can lift the heart and encourage us even as darkness knocks at the door? Is there a well of contentment from which we can drink?

David, the shepherd-king of Israel overcame the stresses and anxiety of warfare,  rejection, betrayal, and bereavement by drinking from the well of contentment, constantly remembering that in possessing God he had everything he really ever needed.The contentment David found in the turmoil of life is summed up in the first line of the most famous Psalm in the Bible, the 23rd Psalm. “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” 

The late James M. Boice, the famous scholar-pastor of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church wrote:

“…If ever a psalm could stand almost on a single line, it is this one, and the line it can stand on is the first. In fact, it can stand on only part of a line, the part which says, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’” Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary. pp. 206 ff

That single line reminds me of a poster which gave me a ray of hope during one dark period in my life. It said, “If you have money but you don’t have Christ, you have nothing, but if you have Christ and have no money, you have everything.” To a young pastor with a young family to support and little income, more years back than I care to admit, realizing that God had my back, not only gave me hope, but encouraged my faith to believe God would provide, and He did! The boast of David, is much more comprehensive and greater than that. To belong to the Lord and to be the object of His care is to have everything! Blessed are those who possessing Him by faith, know He possesses them!

The Call to Follow Jesus: Extraordinary or Ordinary?

He was the son of a wealthy Italian merchant. To describe him as a spoiled unmanageable rich kid is an understatement. He lived the wasteful wanton lifestyle of a rock star in his day, and like a rock star, he had his own posse,  a large band of equally spoiled adolescents who traveled and partied hard with him night after night.

But to the greater dismay of his father and his companions, he had a miraculous encounter with Jesus Christ, and his life was forever changed. He read in the Gospels that Jesus told His followers:

Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. Matthew 19:24

Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece.  Luke 9:3

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Matthew 16:24

And so, taking these commandments of Christ as his “rule of life,” Francis abandoned his wealth, giving all but the clothes on his back away, and even that was taken from him by a thief, leaving him cold and naked and running into the forest for his life. Finally, he cut off the ties to his father, forsaking his inheritance, and set out to follow Jesus.

The radical call of Francis to take Christ’s command to give everything away and minister to the poor in order to serve Christ attracted many followers. They came from all over Europe joining him in what eventually became known as the Franciscan order. His radical commitment to Christ and doing the works of Christ marked his life from the day of his conversion until his death at 43 years of age. It is said that on his deathbed, he asked that all of his clothing be removed so that he could die naked in the same shameful way Jesus died.

There is something attractive about that, is there not, in a call to live heroically and to do something radical for God? I am of the opinion that it is actually easier to recruit people for something that is big, something that captures the imagination, than it is for something that is deemed ordinary in the Kingdom of God. And yet, I believe that while God may occasionally call on someone to do a great thing, it is not the first thing to which He calls anyone. In fact it is not to the extra-ordinarily great thing but to the ordinary business of living a holy life, a life devoted to God 24/7, that we as followers of Jesus have been called. Oswald Chambers put it this way,

“The sense of sacrifice appeals readily to a young Christian. Humanly speaking, the one thing that attracts to Jesus Christ is our sense of the heroic,…”                          […but then he says…]

“…the scrutiny of our Lord’s words suddenly brings this tide of enthusiasm to the test, ‘First be reconciled to thy brother’” [Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, “The ‘Go’ of Preparation,” September 24th].

How ordinary is that? In other words the primary call of God is not to do some great thing or to make some great sacrifice, but to live in right relationship with Him and with others. Then again, that sounds quite extraordinary does it not?