Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The First Place

The Garden of Eden.

Have you ever spent any time trying to imagine what it was like?  What image comes into your mind?  Is it lush greenery, heavy-laden fruit trees, wild flowers and a peaceful river?

I think that's what most of us try to imagine - a perfect environment.  The smells, the sounds, the quietness, the sun shining through the glistening leaves of the enormous trees, the tastes, the colors - I think we call it Utopia, right?

More often than I can testify to, God takes the elements of my life and converges them to a single point of concentration.  Let me explain.  I am teaching Genesis with the middle schoolers at church and we are just getting ready for Genesis 3, which means we've been hanging out in the Garden of Eden for a few weeks.

In addition to that, we are studying the Sermon on the Mount in ladies study and in the Beatitudes we've been mulling over the characteristics of citizens of the Kingdom.  Though for now, we citizens live in a fallen world, a day is coming when that kingdom will be restored and the stewardship that I experience now will be drastically changed.

And finally, this weekend is our women's fall conference. The theme is The First Place, taken from Colossians 1, where in a lengthy description of Jesus, it ends with the phrase - "and He will come to have first place in everything."  We desire to see Jesus at the forefront of every aspect of our lives today, but a day is coming when His rightful position will be returned and we won't wrestle with our flesh to have Him there.

So here's the point of the convergence - the garden of Eden, while peaceful and beautiful beyond my imagination, had the presence of Jesus Christ in the center of it, completely unhindered by sin.

Pure and perfect fellowship.

The Kingdom is all about restoring God's creation to its original intent.

Pure and perfect fellowship.

Jesus having first place in all things is the restoration of that kingdom.

Pure and perfect fellowship.

That's the end game, friends.  That's where our focus needs to be.  Do you long for pure, unhindered and perfect fellowship with Jesus?  Does your heart ache to see His face and hear His voice? Are you weary of the daily battle with the enemy?  Does your heart feel the pull of eternity?

When you think of Eden, don't worry about trying to imagine the garden.  We'll get to see it someday, because the Lord will create a new heavens and a new earth. He'll restore the earth to its original beauty and we'll have the opportunity and privilege to steward His creation unhindered by sin once again. So don't worry - you'll get to see it.

But when you think of Eden, let your heart long for that pure and perfect fellowship that Adam and Eve had before sin. Imagine meeting with Jesus and walking through the garden. What does He want to talk with you about?  What does His voice sound like?  What will you ask Him?

There will be no fear - fear of His judgment or fear of disappointing Him.  There will be no sin - no self-centered requests or need for repentance.  Though we have restored fellowship and a restored kingdom today, it's still going to be different then. Sin will be destroyed. Done. Gone. Over. We will all be changed.

Spend some time imagining that today and let your heart soar with joy and wonder, as you set your mind on the things above...Jesus' unhindered presence, Jesus restoring His kingdom, Jesus in the first place...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Remember Your Right Standing

It is a true statement that all believers are blessed.  It's what brings us into the kingdom.  Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we now have a right standing before the Father, which brings a deep joy despite our earthly circumstances. That's what it means to be blessed.

So why aren't kingdom citizens more joyful?  It's because they have separated their spiritual life from their physical life.  They live vertically in their spiritual life and horizontally in their physical life.  Here's what that looks like:

  • They wake to an alarm that feels all too early and their first thought is what lies ahead - problems at work that need to be ironed out, battles with children who won't listen, coldness with a spouse because of an unresolved argument, that inevitable phone call from an overbearing relative that you know is coming today, what to make for dinner, when to get the laundry done, questioning if you can put off organizing that closet just one more day...they hit the snooze and long to fall back into that deep sleep where reality is much gentler and interesting
  • Up, dressed, coffee in hand, praise music in the car on the way to work or while taking children to school and they get a glimpse of hope - this day might not be so bad.  The music is uplifting and for a brief moment they raise their eyes towards heaven and thank the Lord that He is with them
  • The day moves on and the weight of the world returns - back stabbing at work, impatient and selfish co-workers, clients that won't return calls, children calling from school - they forgot their lunch, toddlers that need to be fed and changed, bathroom tub is draining slow again, can't get the stain out of the carpet from the spilled coke, laundry never ends - just like the call from that relative, grocery bill pushed their budget into the red, $60 to fill your gas tank, no call from their spouse which will make dinner even more awkward, homework, AYSO practices, quick dinners, baths and bedtime for children - they glance over at their small group devotional and think that maybe tomorrow they'll have time to get to it
  • Slipping into bed, the quietness of the darkness wraps around them and sleep is at the door.  Once again, their thoughts lift to the heavens, where they pray for their children and ask forgiveness for their sins and drift off to sleep, only to start it all over again tomorrow
Ugh.  I know I have exaggerated it a bit, but I think there is a lot of reality to this description.  Life is busy. Life is hard. And it's very horizontal - we look ahead to the finish line of the day, we check over our shoulder to make sure we're ahead of the game and when we occasionally look up at the Lord, it's a fleeting, emotional thought and then back to real life.

Friends, let me encourage you to connect your spiritual life with your physical life - your spiritual life is actually what drives your physical life.  Let me give you a few suggestions of what this looks like;
  • Start each day at the foot of the cross - before your feet ever touch the ground, lift your heart towards heaven and greet your heavenly Father, ask Him to guide you and thank Him for His wonderful gifts He has given you - the life of His Son and the presence of His Spirit
  • Sing praise to your Creator in the shower - it sounds so good in there and it will lift your spirits, even if you have a hard day ahead
  • Work on memorizing a bible verse while you brush your teeth or put on make up - choose one that will encourage you and strengthen you in times of need - pick one that focuses on the love of God, or a description of Jesus
  • Pray over your children's day and your spouse's day at breakfast - grab your Bible and read a verse to your children while they eat breakfast - ask them what they think it means...
  • At work, or the grocery store, or in the laundry room, or while cleaning the house, ask the Lord for patience - ask Him how you can be His hands and His voice today to someone who is hurting - because God has opened up the gates to His throne room through the death of His Son, you are able to enter any time and talk to your Father
  • While driving in the car, make that call to your spouse and ask forgiveness for being selfish and work out your issue - do it before you get back together at the end of the day - humble yourself and reach out for restoration - don't let the coldness turn into ice...
  • Find time over lunch to do your small group homework - soak in the word, think through the questions, meditate on the Word - and watch your time!  If you really get into it, the minutes will get away from you!
  • Sing in your head all day, remember your memory verses, talk to the Father, ask for wisdom when you make your grocery list and know what you can cut out so that you don't overshoot your budget allowance
  • Have a grateful heart for all things - remember, no matter what you face today, it is far less difficult than hell and heaven is going to be far greater - keep your eyes on Christ and remember that because He loves you, you have right standing before the Father - because after all, you are blessed!
Let me encourage you to start your day with Jesus and end it with Him - this is not a one-week fix, but a lifetime of growing, stretching and learning complete dependence on the only One that truly matters in life.  As citizens of the Kingdom, we cannot go through life forgetting the King we serve.  Remember your right standing - remember just how blessed you are!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Kingdom of Heaven

(Painting by E. Thor Carlson)

Kingdom of Heaven - have you been pondering on this statement this week?  On Tuesday, we began our fall study of Matthew 5-7, which is known as the Sermon on the Mount. I spent a significant amount of time trying to define what the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God is and when we were done we had a definition:  the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over all creation.

We discussed whether this was a future event or a current event and concluded that Jesus Christ rules and reigns in the hearts of believers today, so the Kingdom of Heaven is alive and well today, in the lives of the children of God.  Yes, there is a future fulfillment, but the Sermon on the Mount is not a description of the future, but a reality today.

I wanted to give you one more reason that the Sermon on the Mount is for today - if you read through the Beatitudes, it becomes crystal clear - Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the gentle, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted - in those descriptors we find things that will not be in the future Kingdom of Heaven:
  • There are no tears or mourning
  • I doubt there will be a lot of persecution, right?
  • Who would we have to show mercy to?
  • What would we be mourning?
  • Who would we be making peace between?
  • Yes, pure in heart and gentle are definitely righteous character traits that will be seen in heaven, but they can also be for today
Do you get my point?  The teaching does not say, "Blessed are those who were poor in spirit when they were on earth, because now they will live in the Kingdom of Heaven."  No, it is taught in a present tense - "Blessed are the poor in spirit (right now), for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."  Can you see the difference?

Yes, the Kingdom is right now.  Did you wake this morning and remember that you are a stranger in a foreign land?  Do you stick out like an American in a different country?  Are you fired up to gather with the citizens on Sunday morning and worship your heart out to the King of our Kingdom?

Keep it in the forefront of your mind - you are not of this world. Don't be conformed to it. Don't buy into Satan's lies.  Rejoice at the opportunity to gather with citizens of the Kingdom, for you are a new creation - the old has passed away and behold, you are a child of the King!  (Doesn't that make your heart soar???)

And plan on coming Tuesday to learn what it means to be poor in spirit...

(Pretty cool painting, don't you think?  Have you figured it out?)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Campaign Season - A Study from the Garden

There are less than sixty days to the election and I can hardly take it anymore. And I know I'm not alone. I think we're all tired of the campaign trail being blazed through the center of our living rooms day in and day out.

It's not that we don't want to be informed. I want to understand the candidate's positions just as much as the next guy.  What I'm tired of is the blame game and the finger pointing.  The candidates spend more time pointing the finger and complaining about their foe, than telling us what they will do if elected or re-elected President.  Whose fault is the economy today?  Bush's? The Republicans?  The Democrats?  Obama's?  I really don't know - I can hardly keep up with who I am supposed to blame today.

The candidates also don't have time to go into the specifics because they are too busy pointing out that the President miscounted how many words were in his sentence when he said, "Three proud words:  Made in the USA,"  or the fact that Paul Ryan ran a four-hour marathon, rather than a three-hour marathon when he was twenty.  Do either of these facts have anything to do with the future of America?

I heard today that both candidates were relieved that the final debate is a few weeks before the actual election - that way, if they have any gaffes, there is time for the hoopla to die down and they can still regroup.  Why is our system set up to nitpick the ridiculous to the point that it could cost an election?

Granted, we want honest politicians, if at all possible. So I am all about fact-checking.  But when a politician misspeaks, is it really front page news?  I wish that just one candidate would make the choice to rise above the name calling and the finger pointing, and just stick with his solutions to the issues that are plaguing our nation.

However, there is always a silver lining, per se.  You see, all this finger-pointing, all this blaming - it is a wonderful opportunity for believers to share the gospel.  We know where this blaming comes from - it's not surprising to us that during the very first act of rebellion toward God, blaming and finger-pointing made an appearance.

I can see it now - Adam, fidgeting in his itchy fig leaf, being called out by God (since he was the man and the God-appointed leader of his family).  God asked him what he had done and immediately one hand flew in the direction of Eve and the other was raised above his head, fingers pointing at the two nearest objects - "The woman, who You gave me, gave me the fruit and I ate it!"  It's not Adam's fault - it's Eve's and God's - can you see it?

If you don't believe that finger pointing and blaming is second nature to fallen humanity, test yourself. The next time someone criticizes you, what is your first response?  I'll bet it's to shift the blame - someone or something had an affect on you that caused this outcome...test yourself.

So when you're chatting with the check out gal at the grocery store, or talking over your lunch with a co-worker, and they tell you that they are sick and tired of all the blaming and finger pointing, just say to them, "Now you know how God must feel."  Then they'll ask you what you mean, and you can proceed into the origins of blaming and finger pointing.  Start in the garden and end up at the cross - it will be time well spent and who knows, maybe politics will produce something good after all...

Rant done for the day...