The Appeal of Joy

November 15 marks the opening day of firearms deer season in Michigan.  I used to celebrate this day by sitting for endless hours on a 5-gallon bucket while my toes froze or rain dripped from the brim of my hat.  I don’t have the chance to participate in this Michigan tradition any longer.  I miss the venison being in the freezer from my own natural inclinations, and I miss the black-capped chickadees.
 
Chickadees have the God-given ability to turn the most frigid, lifeless morning into a time of praise and worship.  They also have the ability to turn the end of a luckless day into a bright expectation for tomorrow.  The chickadee isn’t colorful.  In fact, its plumage is downright plain.  But what the bird lacks in visual pizazz, it makes up for in its joyful social interaction and song.  Many is the time a chickadee has perched on my knee or hat and looked into my face as if to say, “Isn’t this day great!”  The “chickadee-dee-dee” song of this bird inspires life in a leafless, still, woods.  As I would watch this bird and listen to its joyful notes, I remembered that those whose life of service is filled with joy often have their life’s appeals listened to and answered to their highest-good.  (Pause for Thought:  “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”—Philippians 4:4-7.  How joyful has been your service to the Lord lately?  How joyful has your attitude been in the parenting of your children?  How joyful is the attitude of your children while they are serving the Lord?  Is it time for an attitude check in your family?)
 
While I don’t have chickadees, anymore, to remind me of my heart condition and attitude, God has given me a family to be a reflection of my very soul, and, at times, inspire and point my soul’s outlook to something much higher than our current circumstances.  (Pause for Thought:  “Children, obey your parents IN THE LORD, for this is right, ‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise—‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’.  Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction OF THE LORD.”—Ephesians 6:1-4.  Who do you rely on to be a “reflection” of your attitude?  How often do your children approach you with a joyful spirit?  How often do they approach you with a complaining spirit?  Have you instructed them in and about God’s goodness and grace and their responsibilities in loving Him?)
 
If the black-capped chickadee is the opening day cheerleader, the red squirrel is the harbinger of gloom and doom.  I would always try and beat the awakenings of the red squirrels in getting to my deer blind in the morning.  Once I was set and still, the red squirrel’s complaining bark and guttural hiss would indicate the approach of anything moving near me.  It never seemed joyful in regards to another’s presence or its current circumstances.  The last deer I shot on opening day was due to the bitter oversight of a red squirrel in the tree under which I was sitting (sleeping).  If that squirrel were to have been gracious, like a chickadee, I wouldn’t have awoken, and the buck sneaking around me wouldn’t have died.  (Pause for Thought:  “Do not be misled:  ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’  Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.”—I Corinthians 15:33-34.  How does the relationship you have with others influence your joy?  What relationships are affecting the attitude of your children today?)
 

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First Things First

First Things First

The cowbird does something unique to the avian world.  In order to shirk its duties as a parent, the female cowbird will remove an egg from the nest of another bird species, destroy the egg, and return the following day to lay her egg with the other eggs in the nest.  The cowbird then leaves the egg to retain and maintain her previous lifestyle while leaving the builder of the nest the responsibility of rearing the cowbird chick.
 
Our Father in Heaven knew, because of our sinful nature, we would be tempted to leave the “first things” to others while looking to our own self-interests.  (Pause for Thought:  “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  I Timothy 5:8.  Knowing we are made up of spirit, soul, and body, and knowing we relate to our Heavenly Father in spirit—“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”  John 4:23-24—what must we make a priority in our lives to be fully complete and approved by God?  Who has God chosen to be our children’s primary spiritual care-giver?)
 
A wise and judicious institution or government will always see the family as the cornerstone of community, and it will not place anything above the family’s spiritual, soulful, or physical welfare.  Godly parents/children will not sacrifice their family’s welfare for personal gain.  (Pause for Thought:  “The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate any armed force of any nationality or province that might attack them and their women and children; and to plunder the property of their enemies.”  Esther 8:11.  “A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live.”  Proverbs 15:27.  In what ways has the family been under attack by Satan?  In what ways has Satan “bribed” you to be fearful about making your family’s spiritual welfare a priority?  Has he bribed you with financial security?  Ministry?  Self-peace=lack of internal/external conflict? Time?)
 

The tragic story of the cowbird doesn’t end with the destruction of just one egg.  Most nest builders will accept the cowbird egg and try to raise the chick as their own.  However, the cowbird grows fast and large to the point it will out compete the other chicks for food until they die.  A few birds, like the robin, will recognize the intruding cowbird egg, and its parent’s selfish intent.  The egg will either be destroyed or covered up with the rest of the eggs in hopes a second nest will not be invaded.  (Pause for Thought:  “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect.  If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?”  I Timothy 3:4-5.  How will you make the spiritual welfare of your family a priority this week?  Is there something you have to give up to make this so?  How will you do it?) 


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No Mere Mortals

In the beginning the earth was without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep. In these dark and ancient times there were no selfies. Yes, once upon a long ago, camera technology had not advanced enough to be able to turn a phone around to take of picture of oneself. Thankfully, we live now in an enlightened age.

 

What are we really doing when we take a selfie? What are we trying to capture? A moment in time? Our essence as an individual? An image we’d like to represent us? For better or worse, our selfies do capture some part of us.

 

Once upon a time when there truly was nothing, the immortal, invisible, and incalculable God of the universe chose to create mankind in His own image; to capture a sliver of His nature in frail, fallible, flesh. In the midst of creating hedgehogs and eagles and platypi (or is it platypuses?) God set about to create a creature that represented some essential elements of His character. In doing so, He made something different, something unique from all the other forms of life.

 

The Hebrew word used to describe humankind being created in the image of God is tselem and is used elsewhere to talk about stone and wooden idols made to represent false gods. While Jesus represents the nature of God fully, in some mysterious and completely undeserved way, we also represent the character of the Lord. Understanding this, author C.S. Lewis wrote: “There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.” 

 

This unique status has a litany of implications but perhaps the primary is that we are not mere accidents of biology or simply the most intelligent of animals but rather purposefully designed creations mysteriously molded after the fashion of our Creator. This fact alone should give weight and purpose to our being and a great deal of responsibility as well. In the same passage in which God describes His intention to create humans in His image, He also decrees that they would have dominion over the earth.

 

While we most often think of the word ‘dominion’ in the context of abuse (think domineering) or as an excuse to mishandle the resources given to us, a fuller understanding is one of authority AND responsibility. A king presides over a kingdom but he is also responsible for what goes on within. The Lord has dominion over every aspect of the universe. Similarly, we are to have dominion over the earth. 

 

Our dominion is not limited only to earth’s physical resources (for which we are both entrusted and accountable) but also in creation, innovation, and progress. All humans are the product of an infinitely creative God. We express this imbued creativity when we create are (which author J.R.R. Tolkien called ‘imaginative sub-creation’), express skills, and develop technology which seeks the betterment of the human race.

 

Our status as image-bearers gives our life a divinely defined purpose and authority. We exist not by chance but by design and are entrusted to rule with wisdom over the resources, both physical and spiritual, not for ourselves with selfish intent but for the betterment of all. In doing so, we reflect the creative nature of our most excellent and boundless Creator.


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People of Purpose

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10)

 

While the first portion of this verse from Philippians focuses on state of our identity, the second instead speaks to implications of that identity, namely, that we are created for good works. The God who shapes us and knits us together in our mother’s womb has preveniently assembled deeds for us to participate in.

 

Throughout the early Church as chronicled in the book of Acts, there is one actor who features prominently— the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is consistently described as the motivator for action, evangelism, and conversion. The text assumes the Spirit’s role so strongly in fact that there are times in which it almost de-emphasizes the actual actions of people, such as when it states that, “the Lord added to their number daily those that were being saved.” The Spirit was seen as the impetus for action.

 

One encounter illustrates this trend particularly well. Philip, chosen by the apostles to continue the ministry, was making his way from Jerusalem to Gaza at the instruction of an angel. As he walked along the road through a desert area, unbeknownst to him, an Ethiopian official was also passing through reading the scroll of Isaiah.

 

Philip is again prompted by the Spirit to run and join the official. He complies and finds that this official just happened to be reading a passage specifically about the Christ and proceeds to tell the man about Jesus, salvation, and the man responds by getting baptized before the Spirit speaks again and Philip is led away to preach the gospel elsewhere.

 

What we see vividly in this story is the Holy Spirit orchestrating events and leading Philip into positions to exercise his obedience; a divine conspiracy into which Philip is invited to participate.

 

The inescapable conclusion drawn from the history of the early Church is that the Holy Spirit leads believers into ministry. The book of Acts assumes this involvement. If we are truly God’s workmanship and our identity rests in being created in the image of God, then we must also come to fully accept the second half of Ephesians 2:10. We believe that the God who draws us to salvation also prepares good works for us to complete. We must learn to believe this and live in constant expectation of the Spirit’s leading. I think this is part of why the early Christians experienced so vividly the movement of the Spirit: they were expecting it. We can never realize the potential that God has prepared for us if we don’t understand that we have been given a directive. While our specific directives will vary circumstantially, our overarching purpose is the same one given by Christ to His disciples before His ascension: to be His witnesses. Intentionality is key however for without it the Christian life becomes mere passive assent. That is not the example lived out in the lives of the early Christians who lived and often died by the prompting of the Spirit. 

 

If we are to realize and accomplish the good works the Lord assures He has for us we must train ourselves to live in expectation. Have you ever bought a new car, driven it off the lot, and only then realized how many other people are driving the same model? This is what our lives can become once we make ourselves alert for the Spirit’s prompting. If we watch and listen for it, we will hear it. When we take the additional step and act on it, we will truly be living out our identity as God’s workmanship.


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People of Peace

I hate ticks. I mean nobody really loves those creepy arachnids (maybe there’s some overenthusiastic entomologist out there who gets a kick out of such things). The second I see one clinging to my pants or I even enter an area I think might be home to them, my heart begins to race and my breathing quickens. On a recent backpacking trip to Tahquamenon Falls, I was just settling into my tent for the evening when I discovered one crawling on my leg. This revelation started me down a full blown panic attack that lasted nearly three hours and only ended when I eventually fell asleep out of exhaustion around 2 am.

 

Considering the state of the world and the infinitesimally limited arena of things we have control over, there are endless things to be anxious about. When we rightly reckon our size in the scope of the cosmos we might very well be filled with anxiety.

 

But this is not the way the Lord desires us to live.

 

Paul writes in his letter to the Philippian church that believers should, “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

 

Paul presents here the method for combating anxiety. First, he sets the terms of his antidote: “do not be anxious about anything”. Not just small things. Not just big things. Nothing.

 

Secondly, Paul’s prescription for anxiety is to go to the Lord in prayer and plainly lay out our request. We should also do so thanking the Lord for who He is and what He has done already for us.

 

The next step is … well, there isn’t a next step, at least not one we accomplish. The next step isn’t something that we do but rather something that happens to us. The peace of God enters us and will guard our hearts (the seat of emotions) and our minds (the seat of cognitive will).

 

What I find most interesting is what is lacking from Paul’s formula. Nowhere does he state that the circumstances causing our anxiety will change. This distinction is remarkable since elsewhere in Scripture we hear about the efficacy of prayer. Here, however, Paul is dealing with our reaction to trials, not the trials themselves. Our attitude, Paul seems to maintain, should be one of peace regardless of what trouble circumstances bring. I imagine this is why Paul could claim that, “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

 

Trouble will come. Jesus affirms this. Even the most stalwart of us knows the tug of fear on our heart. Though trials (both big and small) are guaranteed, we need not give in to our anxiety. With the comfort from our promised helper — the Holy Spirit, we can have victory over even the greatest worry and claim our true identities as people of peace.


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