Month: March 2017

Before the Cross – Easter Devotional 13

“I waited patiently for the Lord,” the Psalmist said. Pregnant words… filled with unspoken backstory and unfulfilled desires. Painful words, because we don’t want to wait… don’t like to wait. I’m embarrassed to say if I could take an elevator that had a passing lane I would. We don’t like to wait.

“I waited patiently for the Lord,” and I think of prayers offered for children not yet born to a young family. Of the petitions of a lonely single hoping for a chance to wear a wedding dress. Or of the unemployed father trying for the chance at an interview for a job to care for his family.

“I waited patiently for the Lord….” And I think of our Lord’s hours of silence on Calvary’s tree when the heavens were locked against Him. Waiting is far from a passive activity. It is not a stance of weakness or a sign of faith lost. We wait with anticipation that something is coming… rescue… salvation… something that will take us out of the “slimy pit” (Psalm 40:2)

When I stand waiting before an elevator door after pushing the button… the light is on… the direction is requested… and then, there is silence. Waiting. The door hasn’t opened yet, but I stand waiting… knowing that it will.

Prayer is just that simple… and that profound. We wait… request made… petition cried out… helplessness confessed. And then, the door opens! We knew it would.

And so we pray… and we “wait patiently for the Lord” with the certainty of the Psalmist who first wrote these words:

“And He heard my cry…” and He delivered me.

FOR MEDITATION: I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. Psalm 40:1-2

FOR REFLECTION: Is your waiting expectant… believing God will “incline His ear and hear you when you pray”? He’s waiting for YOU to allow Him to “lift you out” of your impossible situation!

Before the Cross – Easter Devotional 12

A couple of decades ago, I attended a conference led by Dr William Jones, a great, African-American professor of theology. During the conference he gave some pointers on preaching and he said, “The key to a great sermon is having an engaging introduction, a compelling conclusion, and keeping the two as close together as possible.” He also said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

His words were simple… and incredibly profound. They etched their way into my thinking as few words have in my lifetime. And I soon realized how hard they were to follow!

Paul reminded the early, Corinthian Christians of their mandate to “keep the main thing the main thing” in their thinking and their teaching. We have received “the main thing” or, as the Bible phrases it, “that which is of first importance.” (1 Cor 15:3)

The atoning death, the burial and the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the three-fold message that must first be received and then clearly communicated. The church is missing its purpose when we forget to do this. The believer is missing his or her callling when we fail in this task: Communicate the Simple. Gospel.

We are called to “go into the world” with this message and to “make disciples of all nations (people groups)” through its proclamation and power. All we have to remember is:

Keep the main thing the main thing.

FOR MEDITATION: For I delivered unto you that which was of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, and he rose again the third day. 1 Corinthians 15:3

FOR REFLECTION: Who in your walk today needs to hear this message most?

Before the Cross – Easter Devotional 11

Last week two Princeton University researchers released a report to the Brookings Institute, tracking the startling mortality rates of middle-class, white Americans. Among both men and women, deaths by suicide, alcohol or drug use have risen alarmingly.

These “deaths of despair,” the researchers named it, claim thousands of lives each year. And the number is rising at a staggering rate.

Let’s translate the language and the terminology. First, this report is studying our mission field… where we live… right in the middle of white, middle-class suburbia and affecting the second-largest, age demographic in our community. In other words folks, THIS IS US.

Secondly, no economic strata are immune. These are people WITH JOBS, WITH INCOME, WITH HOMES IN SUBURBIA we’re talking about. And they are, according to this report, dying “deaths of despair.”

In the last couple of weeks, we have been startled by headline stories of an airline pilot and his wife… living comfortable lives in a suburban home with two, teenaged children… found lying cold and dead on the floor of that home, victims of a drug overdose.

A death of despair.

That’s the name of the disease. People are living in despair. We are the people with the cure if you know and love the Savior. We have HOPE. The answer they need. The answer they are desperate for.

How can we keep this cure to ourselves? How can we be silent and watch our neighbors die deaths of despair… deaths by hopelessness? We have the greatest message… the needed cure… the HOPE that can inoculate them from despair.

As you think about your neighborhood, your community… ask God to help you see behind the walls. There’s hopelessness there.

And we must do something about it.

FOR MEDITATION: And we have a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 1 Peter 1:3

FOR REFLECTION: Ask God to give you His eyes to see and His heart to care for the people living next door to you… perhaps in despair.

Before the Cross – Easter Devotional 10

A few months ago, some boxwoods we had planted died. We realized they were dead just before an event at our home where a bunch of folks were coming and would walk by the area where the deceased plants were sitting.

Pam, ever the consummate gardener, looked at the plants and agreed with my astute observations that the brown leaves probably indicated death. (!) I thought it would mean a trip to the hardware store to select and replant. But she said, “It’s getting ready to get colder… they might not make it long in the cold weather. Get me some green spray paint.”

Spray paint? On plants?? But I did the math and estimated that spray paint was cheaper than new plants, so off I went and came back with a lovely shade of Garden Green (guess we’re not the first). And I painted them… and to my surprise, they looked good!

And we got through our party (sorry… I meant fellowship) with no one noticing the difference. Frankly, I got excited thinking I may never have to replant again. Just grab the spray paint.

Well that ain’t happening. This was an emergency that required desperate measures.
Three months and some weeks later, the plants still look good. Real good, in my unschooled opinion. Good enough, in fact, that when I was outside last weekend, I WATERED THEM! They fooled me, even though I was the artist who painted them.

And as I reflected on my glistening, phony paint job and the dead plants masquerading as living ones, I was reminded that the same happens sometimes in the Christian walk. We see those who look like, talk like, dress like and seem like the real thing. But underneath they are lifeless, dead branches bearing external signs of life.

Jesus talked about religious Pharisees and described them as “whitewashed tombs, full of dead men’s bones.” They were hypocrites, posing as righteous. But God knew they were only painted.

“Examine yourselves,” Paul said. “Test yourself. Make sure that your faith is real.” Only two people can know the difference as the outside is evaluated and painted and posing as the real thing: God…

… and you.

PRAYER: “God, my heart is laid bare before the cross and before You. Help my life not to be simply window dressing and externalized religion. Help my heart to be given and fully surrendered to You.”

Before the Cross – Easter Devotional 09

Gethsemane sits just outside and in view of the walled city of Jerusalem, equal distance between the present Islamic Quarter and the Old City. Though far from in the woods, the gnarled trees of the private garden which served also as an olive press seems isolated and alone… set apart from the business of the Passover season.

It was a preferred place of privacy for Jesus to retreat and pray. His habit was to do this. It would not be hard to find Him if He and His followers were near the Holy City. And this week, they were.

After the Passover meal was shared in the Upper Room, Jesus and the men (though the traitor had left) wandered into the night and along the winding path to that holy place for Jesus. The olive press… “Gethsemane” in Hebrew.

Three of the remaining eleven disciples were invited to come with Jesus deeper into the thicket of trees. But Jesus went further still. Deeper not just in the garden, but into His Father’s purpose.

There He fell on His face before His Father and prayed and groaned and wept and sweat “great drops of blood.” His prayers were not perfunctory. They were pleading… for strength… for understanding… for an answer. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me….” The answer was no.

Sometimes the yes we long to hear doesn’t come. Jesus was certainly not walking in disobedience or in any way outside of the will of God. But sometimes we just hear a no for our answer.

Jesus did. His reply? “Nevertheless, not My will but Yours be done.”

And even when we don’t hear the answer to pray we desire, that should be our response as well.

FOR MEDITATION: “Father, if it is possible take this cup from Me, yet not my will but yours be done.” Luke 22:42

FOR REFLECTION: No is an answer to prayer… though not always the one we wanted.

Before the Cross – Easter Devotional 08

Before the cross comes surrender. Jesus did not go to the cross a helpless, hapless victim of a Roman, military regime or even of a conniving, religious system. He was not crucified as the result of a failed coup or of a failed, Messianic experiment.

He surrendered. He yielded His will. He died in the garden before He died at Golgotha. His will let go before His Spirit was surrendered to the Father.

It is the will with which we must contend. If we are going to follow in the steps of Jesus in life, we are going to have to nail our will, our flesh to the cross first. It may not be the end result of a bloody death as Jesus experienced. It may be expressed in a willingness to stay in a difficult marriage, or in a tough job, or to face the rigors of cancer surgery or chemotherapy. It may be to say YES to a mission appointment, or to allow our children to go to the mission field and spend their lives there for the Gospel.

Or it may be simply to say, “Father, if it is Your will that I die, then I die in you.”
How we surrender will be customized to us. There are elements of our will that still stand in defiance of God. We must… kill it. Surrender it. Yield it. Give it up.

And when we do, we will begin to understand how to live… BEFORE THE CROSS.

FOR REFLECTION: I have been crucified with Christ…. Galatians 2:20

FOR MEDITATION: Can you today, sing “All to Jesus, I surrender; all to Him I freely give?” That must be our theme. That is where we will truly find life.

Before the Cross – Easter Devotional 07

Most of us know that there is more than one word for “love” used in New Testament Greek. These “Four Loves,” as C.S. Lewis famously named them, each carry a specific dimension of love in their definition. Friendship, passion, brotherly love and God’s love all have unique words used to describe them.

Author Michael Harper wrote, “Eros (friendship or passionate) love is love for the beautiful. Agape love (God’s self-giving) love is love for the ugly as well as the beautiful. Eros is love for the good. Agape loves the bad and evil also. Eros is love for the friendly. Agape is love also for one’s enemies. Eros arises from within man himself, distorted by original sin and so can be self-deceiving. Agape arises within the heart of God and has its source only in Him, and so is pure and uncontaminated by the pride of man.”

When a Christian man or woman comes to me and says, “I don’t love my spouse anymore,” I give them the bad news: You have to. The Bible commands you to love you spouse. “But she doesn’t love me back.” Is he a believer? Then you have to love him because he’s your brother or sister. “But he doesn’t act kindly like a brother or sister.” Then you have to love him because he’s your neighbor. “But he hates me. He does things to aggravate me and doesn’t consider my feelings. HE acts like my enemy. Then you have to love him because Jesus said, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who despise you.” Folks, it takes supernatural, God-initiated, agape love to pull that off! Naturally, we withdraw our love when we are not getting what we need. Supernaturally, we keep loving (agape) anyway.

And as we do that, we live… and love… as overcomers.

FOR MEDITATION: He who does not love does not know God for God is love.    1 John 4:8

FOR REFLECTION: Is your expression of love something that helps others see that you know God?

Together For His Kingdom

Dorothy Crace was, by most everyone’s definition, a saint. Now I don’t believe you have to die to be made a saint. The Bible says we are “saints” when we become Christians. Unfortunately, we don’t all act like one.

But Dorothy did. From the earliest memories I have of her, she was a model of the faith; faithful wife, faithful church member, faithful choir member, faithful supporter of all things Southern Baptist. She “threw” our bridal shower, was a model in so many ways for Pam and many, many, other young girls.

Her husband, Carl, was a man’s man even though he was a hairdresser by profession. He was also a woodworker and a Sunday School teacher for middle school boys. The Crace’s “graced” our church in so many ways and were friends to my family.

Last week, Dorothy went home to meet her Savior face-to-face and to see her husband who had died several years ago. She deserved the reward she received. She was, after all, a saint.

But as much as she loved the ministry of the local church she loved the Gospel going forward to the nations. She led our church in missions and, while I can’t prove it, I am certain she and her husband topped the list of givers to Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong each year.

Dorothy served as a trustee for the International Mission Board for many years and would tell stories of the work of Southern Baptist missionary causes around the world. She embodied and taught missions for many young people in our church.

Mrs. Dorothy died due to mesothelioma, and spent the last months of her life in a care facility in my hometown of Ashland, Ky. During her time there, someone brought a little jar for candy that she kept after the candy was gone. And she turned that jar into a donation site for a Lottie Moon offering.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m confident that many heard the amazing story of the little missionary who lived, loved and died for the unreached in China and of the Savior she loved. And she collected change for the Lottie Moon Offering from all who entered her room.

A few days before her death, her pastor stopped by to visit and she asked him to count the change. There was forty-five dollars in the jar. “Oh,” she lamented. “I had set my goal for $50.”

Dorothy, to her dying day, lived to help others hear the Good News.

Because that’s what saints do.

Before the Cross – Easter Devotional 06

One of the most complete pictures that the Bible gives us of God’s love is the picture of the cross. “In this is love, not that we loved God but He loved us and sent His Son….”

Love is not a natural response. We must be taught to love. We must be reminded to love. If love was just a natural, human posture we would need neither of these. But God goes a drastic step further; He models love by showing it most perfectly at the cross.

We naturally love/like those who are like us or who love us. To love people who don’t reciprocate is not natural. It is not normal. It is, in fact, supernatural.

Our love for God did not come about because we loved Him. It came about because He loved us. We can only love truly when we love as God loves. Anything else is a pale reflection of the kind of love God demonstrated.

How we love people who do not treat us with love is the truest demonstration that God’s love is working in us. By nature, we want to ignore those who are indifferent to us and hate those who hate us. We do not need to have anyone teach us that. It is natural. It is normal. It is the human condition.

But to love when we are rejected, hated or even persecuted, then the love of God is working in us and people can see God in that kind of love. “God is love….” The Bible tells us that God loved us first… supremely… even when we were still at odds with Him.

We were indifferent to Him… we hated and rejected Him. That’s what sin is.

God loved us through that. In spite of that. “While we were yet sinners… rebels… God-rejectors… Christ died for us.” In that is love.

The purest love of all.

FOR MEDITATION: But God demonstrated His love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.   Romans 5:8

FOR REFLECTION: Have you ever memorized that verse? Every Christian should.

Before the Cross – Easter Devotional 05

“Truly, truly I say unto you, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). There’s a lot of truth in that little “kernel” that Jesus shared with the disciples and us. On the most important level He was talking about His impending death and, don’t forget this… burial. He saw His death as a seed being planted before the harvest. Unless the seed is planted, it remains alone. Since it was planted, a harvest came with Jesus the first fruits.

Even the most elementary gardener among us gets that. Planting comes before harvest. Seed in ground = plants and more seed coming out of the ground. But somehow the spiritual impact of that escapes us. It is literally saying, “unless you die you will live alone. If you die you will bear much fruit.” This is not about prearranging our funeral. This is about living an abundant life.

We are all seed, you see. God’s desire is to “fling” us (sorry: Kentucky term) onto the soil and allow us to be “planted.” As we die to ourselves, we will bring forth spiritual fruit. If we refuse to die, we will live alone.

This is a hard but necessary truth. We don’t want to receive it because it means that life is not about keeping ourselves, but losing ourselves. It is about laying our life down for the Kingdom. It is about following Jesus in self-denial.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred, German pastor who died during World War 2, put it this way in his classic The Cost of Discipleship, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

And that we must.

FOR MEDITATION: And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.     John 12:23-26

FOR REFLECTION: How can we begin to die… today?

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