During my first year of studies at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, I had the privilege of playing my violin in the orchestra pit for North Raleigh Christian Academy's production of Singin' in the Rain. The production was a lot of fun, and even now, there are times when this song and others from the musical will get stuck in my head (like right now). If we choose to sing in the rain, doing so can make us "happy again."
But what about pain? Maybe you lose a loved one. Maybe you lose your source of income. Maybe you lose your health. Maybe someone important walks out of your life. Maybe you are a victim of emotional or other abuse. Whatever the source of your pain, your first reaction is seldom if ever - to sing. But it is possible.
In Acts Chapter 16, Paul and Silas are beaten and imprisoned for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A first century Philippian prison would not be the most conducive place for singing. Despite their pain and their circumstances, Acts 16:25 tells us, "But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them." How many of the Psalms (songs) in our Bible were composed out of painful circumstances! The Bible teaches that God not only gives us a song in the night (Psalm 42:8, "In the night, His song shall be with me.") but that He Himself is our song (Exodus 15:2, "The LORD is my strength and song; and He has become my salvation."
No matter how painful your circumstances may be at this moment, ask God to give you the ability to sing in the pain.
Photo Credit: torbakhopper Used by permission under Creative Commons License
Whether you've finalized your 2020 resolutions, don't have plans to make any, or are somewhere in between, the best place to start thinking about change in the New Year is with the Word of God. Before you start figuring out how to get out of debt or shed those holiday pounds (and those are wonderful goals!), start with the Bible, and with prayer, ask God to guide your priorities. Even within the 66 books of the Bible, you may wonder where to begin, so here are some suggestions.
To many people, teachings of a virgin birth, a star, angels appearing unto shepherds, and a Savior being born may sound odd. It would be like cracking open a book for the first time and starting to read in the middle. You don't know any of the characters, the setting, the purpose, the conflict; you just pick up in the middle of the story. This year, in my preaching and personal study, I've been setting the Christmas story in its larger Gospel narrative story. The Gospel narrative follows these major checkpoints: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.
With Creation, we find the roots of Christmas. We find God's original plan - the Edenic perfection that God will one day restore. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Gen. 1:1) The Bible declares this. "All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made." (John 1:3) This is a fact that we must accept by faith. Adopting a biblical worldview with God as Creator places Him in charge. He sets the rules. We are the created. We receive our existence from Him. The purpose of our existence is inseparably wrapped up in His will. "It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves." (Psalm 100:3) Our departure from this realization created the need for Christmas.
I find it interesting that, as intelligent people, we ordinarily have no trouble inferring creative activity over against a hodgepodge of disorganized messes. For example, if I show you a fully wrapped gift that is placed under my Christmas tree, you naturally infer that someone wrapped the gift. If I place a tape dispenser, a pair of scissors, a roll of wrapping paper, and the gift on a table, how long would I need to wait for the gift to be wrapped? Years? Centuries? Millions of Years? Will it ever happen? Apart from the origins of the universe, we never apply the same assumptions about origins. And yet the universe is (obviously) far more complex than any of these other things that require agency to come together. Not to mention - wouldn't someone have to create the first matter from which all else evolved?
The story of Christmas - of God sending His Son to be the Savior of fallen mankind - can never make complete sense to people who reject the idea of creation. God created the world. He created you and me. He loves us and desires fellowship with us. The events of Christmas occurred to move us along this overall trajectory - of bringing us full circle back to the perfection God had created.
If you do not plan ahead, you could unintentionally allow this year's Black Friday to give your church a black eye. You love your church, and you believe in the work that the church is doing. You sincerely want to see it thrive, and you believe God is blessing. Even if you are someone who is not easily lured into impulsive bargain snatching, despite your best intentions, if you do not set aside funds now for your year-end donations, those donations will likely be weaker if they happen at all.
A little less than a third of all tax filers itemize deductions, but we give to God's work for reasons beyond the Internal Revenue Code. For Southern Baptists, December is the month we emphasize international missions through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. There are many opportunities for charitable giving, and I love what one speaker from the NC Baptist Foundation set forth awhile back. Christians should give to Christian causes; who else is going to do so?
Pray about an amount God would like for you to give, and go ahead and give those funds or set them aside if you can discipline yourself not to spend them later. By taking care of what is most important first, you avoid the possibility of accidentally omitting your church from the cash outflows of the season. Remember, whatever you do, don't give out of compulsion or obligation. Give out of a cheerful heart, because you want to - not because you felt guilty after reading this blog post.
Picture a home builder that needs to support about 100,000 pounds of house. If he has just one support beam under that load, that one beam has to support it all - all 100,000 pounds. Say he configures the plan to call for ten support beams - each one only has to support 10,000 pounds. But increase the number of beams to 20, and now these beams can enjoy a 5,000 pound walk in the park. I know you can do this simple math, and so what was the point of this elementary math lesson?
If we were to quantify the ministry that is to be done in the local church in terms of man hours, or the funds that it will take to help God’s work in the local church flourish, and place all of that responsibility on the shoulders of one person - wow! The person is going to crumble. Even if someone could sustain the load for 3 seconds, they are toast afterward.
I recently shared this devotional with the men of Grace Baptist Church in Fayetteville, NC where I serve as pastor.
Probably all of us know of several examples where guys grew up working so hard to gain their father's approval. But no matter how hard they tried, they can never remember a time when Dad said, "I'm proud of you, son," or "Good job." As far as they can tell, they never gained their dad's approval. That may even be your own story. We understand that this reality can have a devastating impact on a young man with ripple effects that last years.
The Bible makes clear that we have a heavenly Father. Gaining His approval is all that truly matters. If we have His approval, it does not matter who else may approve of us. He is #1. And He makes very clear how we can meet with His approval.
Jesus told the story of a man who left town for awhile. Before he left, he gave three of his workers some measure of responsibility. Two of the three multiplied the value of their responsibility while he was away. When he returned, he said to each of those two, "Well done, good and faithful servant." As Christians, we strive to live our lives in such a way that, when we go home to heaven, we hear those words of affirmation from our heavenly Father - "Well done, good and faithful servant."
Here's the thing, though. Jesus taught us that there is none good but God. No one is faithful like God either. So, how can we get to a point where the one who alone is good labels us "good and faithful?"
This is the life of grace. In 2 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul tells of a thorn in the flesh that was given to him lest he should become boastful. Three times he asked God to remove this thorn from him, and three times God said no. Instead of removing the thorn, God said to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." We understand that the word "perfect" here is interchangeable with the idea of being "made complete." If I am trying to live the Christian life in my own strength, I am not experiencing the fullness of God's grace and strength that is available to me. He must increase; I must decrease.
My strength to be good will quickly dissipate. My strength to be faithful will run out just as quickly. For me to hear my heavenly Father say "Well done, good and faithful servant," one day, I must give up operating in my own strength and surrender control to Him. Then He works out His own goodness through me, His own faithfulness through me, and works toward making me holy, good, and faithful as He is holy, good, and faithful. The sooner I come to the end of my self, the sooner I will see the strength of God made perfect in my own weakness. And when that happens, I will hear my Father say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
Even the least adventurous among us enjoy the occasional exploration. For those who have been most sheltered, the curiosity of just how much greener the other side’s grass truly is can overcome our best efforts to be good. We do find, though, that once that first step is taken, the second step is much easier - and the third, and fourth. Eventually, our starting point is just a silhouette in the background shrinking out of sight, out of mind. This is the new normal. This is who we are now. There’s no going back. Even if we wanted to, could we?
But if you are God’s child, there are times that, no matter how much you tried to suppress it, you heard that still small voice asking you to return. You know this isn’t right. You know you shouldn’t be here right now. You know. But this is what you want. Isn’t it? You’re torn. You’re conflicted. There is a war going on inside. Your friends have no idea. In fact, nobody does - except God. That’s His Holy Spirit drawing you back, convicting you of your sin, letting you know that there’s always a place set for you at His table. So here’s the facts:
In 2 Timothy 2:2, the Apostle Paul instructs his protégé Timothy: "And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also." These words set forth an effective plan for spreading the Gospel and investing meaningfully in the lives of others. For this devotional, our focus is on the word "commit to." It means "to entrust, to commit to one's charge." A helpful picture of this action is the relay race where the one currently carrying the baton commits that baton to someone else who is reliable, who will, in turn, be able to hand it on to someone else.
As I was studying this text afresh recently, I came across a resource that explained reasons that professionals have identified for what they call "baton drops." What goes wrong that causes a costly baton drop. I was amazed to find principles that can carry over in our discipleship efforts to pass our faith on to those around us and future generations. Here they are: