Slaving Away

Apparently in ancient Rome up to half the population were slaves.  At the risk of sounding like I’m advocating slavery, we need to understand that slavery in ancient Rome was somewhat different than the slavery we in North America are familiar with. Though often slaves were taken from conquered nations slavery itself was not racially or ethnically based.  In fact it was not unusual for it to be economically based.  What I mean by that is if a person was on the verge of bankruptcy he could offer himself to his biggest creditor and become that person’s slave.  In doing so he gave up all rights of self-determination and put himself totally and completely under the authority of his master.

I tell you this because that’s the image Paul is summoning in Romans 6 when he says whatever you give yourself to you become a slave of.  But he only gives us two options: sin or God.  Now some of you may object that there must be other alternatives somewhere in between the two extremes and you’re welcome to argue the point.  But you’ll have to argue it with God not me because I’m just telling you what God has said in the Bible.

So, he continues, quit sinning.  Don’t offer yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, instead offer yourself to God as an instrument of righteousness.  There’s far more to be said on this than there is room for in this little article, but here’s what I want to get at.  Let’s assume that you don’t want to be a slave of sin, how do you stop?  If you’re like me you’ve determined, and promised, and tried harder but still you sin.

The first and maybe obvious thing is to offer yourself as a slave to God giving up all your rights to self-determination.  But many of you have done that and still struggle.  Want help?  Stop trying to not sin.  Uh, what? Here’s an illustration that may help.

Picture in your mind a moose.  Visualize his great antlers, the hump on his shoulders, the long legs and big nose.  Got it? Ok, now stop thinking about moose.  Come on, stop it.  Can’t do it can you?

Now imagine a kitten; a cute little ball of fluff, playing with a ball of yarn.  Jumping and rolling. . . I bet you stopped thinking about the moose, at least ‘till I mentioned it again.

When you focus your attentions and affections on Jesus your “moose” begins to fade away.


Building Character

Did anybody ever say to you after some minor calamity befell you, “Aw, that’s ok, it builds character?”  When as a child you fell and scraped your knee, or as an adolescent you ran into a tree with your bike, or as a teen being turned down at the school dance, or any number of normal, part-of-life incidents you’ve had to suffer through.  “It builds character.”  Not very comforting was it?  But did you know it’s actually biblical?  Romans 5:3-4 says that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.

Don’t worry, there’s a lot more to it than the shallow platitude we heard growing up, but it helps to understand a couple of words a little better, the first of which is “suffering.”  We’d like to think it’s talking about big important stuff like unjust imprisonment or some such thing.  But nope, this encompasses even the little every day, ordinary aches and pains of life.  Aching joints, disappointments, even the annoying dog that won’t quit barking.  All the big and little things in life we suffer through.

And these produce endurance, or patience.  It’s a word that doesn’t have an adequate English equivalent, but it’s something like “determined, passionate patience.”  It says, “I can take this because I know what’s coming.”  And what is coming? Character!

But that means more than you think.  This word carries a military sense with it; that you have faced the enemy and been found faithful and trustworthy.  What character is really referring to is that when it matters most Jesus has been seen in you; that you have depended on him and his faithful and trustworthy character has shone through.

And that produces hope.  Hope, or confidence, that one day you will live fully in the same intimate, dependent relationship with Jesus that Jesus does with the Father.  But for all this to happen we need to go back to verse 1 and 2.  Do you have “peace with God?”  Are you “standing in that grace?”  It all begins there by faith through Jesus.

Once begun this process of building character is intended to take over every moment of your life.  Think of how much more significant each day would be if you approached all types of discomfort and disappointment as an opportunity to know and experience the glory of God?  This goes way beyond just the power of positive thinking.  It is literally encountering the power and glory of God himself.  Maybe Paul wasn’t irrational to say “we rejoice in sufferings.”


When Faith Isn’t Faith

“Without faith it’s impossible to please God.”  So says the oft’ quoted Hebrews 11:6.  What do you understand that to mean?  I am convinced that some of us understand faith, at least to a degree, to be something I need to achieve or accomplish.  “I’ve got to have more faith”; “if only I had enough faith.”  And we take the same understanding to Ephesians 2:8 “it is by grace you have been saved through faith.”  We tend to look at faith as if it were something we manufacture, and by which we make God approve of us.  Let me give two illustrations to help grasp what faith really is.

The Bible compares the covenant relationship of marriage to our relationship with Jesus for good reason.  When a couple gives their vows they act on the basis of what they have been convinced of, a belief.  What belief?  Simply this: “I believe you.  I believe that you will love me and be faithful to me for the rest of my life.  I believe that you will care for me, provide for my needs, cherish and honor me.  I believe you.  And on the basis of that belief I give you the rest of my life.”

Salvation is simply declaring what I have become convinced of: “Jesus I believe you.  I believe you are the Son of God.  I believe that you loved me and gave yourself for me.  I believe that in doing so you forgave my sin.  I believe that you will care for me and be faithful to me for all eternity.  And on the basis of that belief I give you my life.”

The belief, or faith, isn’t what earns me God’s grace, it’s simply, well, believing God has provided it.  But even after we believe, something inside of many of us keeps telling us that we still need to achieve or keep doing something to continue to hold God’s approval.  That’s a lie.

Look at it like this.  When a baby is learning to walk and takes her first faltering steps, we cheer.  But then when inevitably she falls we don’t disapprove of her, we help her up and celebrate the next steps.  Her value doesn’t increase or diminish because of her achievements or lack thereof.  She is valued for who she is; our child.  The parallel is obvious.

One more thing, celebrating achievements is important, but if that’s the primary means we express the value of others to us we’re subtly sending the wrong message.  Today make sure others, especially your children, hear from you that they are treasured for who they are, not their achievements.


Not My Legacy But Thine Be Done

What do you want to be remembered for?  We are all leaving a legacy, but few of us consider what that legacy will be while we are busy building it.  Here are a couple of tombstones with epitaphs for folks who maybe should have given this some thought.

Arrabelle Young lived from 1794-1863:

Beneath this silent stone is laid

A noisy, antiquated maid,

Who from her cradle talked to death,

And never before was out of breath.

Here lies, returned to clay Miss Arabella Young,

Who on the eleventh day of May

Began to hold her tongue.

Or here’s what was said of Beza Wood:

In Memory of Beza Wood, Departed this life Nov. 2, 1837 – Age 45 yrs.

Here lies one Wood enclosed in wood

One Wood within another.

The outer wood is very good:

We cannot praise the other.

So what do you want to be remembered for?  Hebrews 11 is a sort of memorial to many great “heroes” of faith and a casual reading of it may lead one to believe that it is their accomplishments that are being lauded.  But the beginning of chapter 12 “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” affirms something different.

The writer is not saying those listed are now witnesses of us, he is saying that they are witnesses to the faithfulness of God; witnesses of what God has done and continues to do; witnesses to the truth of who Jesus is and what he accomplished on our behalf.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and completer of our faith”

I admire the desire of George Whitfield, whose popularity during the Great Awakening of the 18th century was of Rock Star proportions.  He spoke to crowds in the tens of thousands, and it was said his voice could be heard for a mile.  But this was his desire: Let the name of Whitefield perish, but Christ be glorified” . . . Let my name die everywhere, let even my friends forget me, if by that means the cause of the blessed Jesus may be promoted . . . after I am dead I desire no other epitaph than this, ‘Here lies G.W. What sort of man he was the great day will discover”


Ain’t No Shame In That!

Jesus is pretty unambiguous when he says in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge.”  He doesn’t really give us any wiggle room, but boy-oh-boy do we ever try to wiggle around on this one.  I mean how can I not judge?  Am I supposed to ignore what I clearly see?  What if it’s hurting someone else?  How can I not judge that?  And if someone tells me I’m being judgemental by telling me aren’t they themselves being judgemental?  Coming to terms with this very direct and straightforward command is anything but.

Jesus himself declared that he didn’t come to judge the world, but to save it, yet he had a way of cutting straight heart of things that by no means ignored people’s sin.  Take for example the Samaritan woman he met a well outside of town while waiting for his disciples to bring supper.

In the course of the discussion he told her to go and get her husband, to which she responded that she had no husband.  Jesus laid things bare and said, “you’re right – you’ve had five husbands and you’re not even married to the man you’re with now.”  How many of us have shaken our heads at Hollywood stars that can’t stay married for, it seems like, more than a week.

But Jesus wasn’t making a value statement here; simply stating what was true, and from her response it’s clear she didn’t feel attacked or put down.  In fact she went back and told the whole village they’ve got to come out to meet this man.  Her life and many others were transformed that day.

How do we do what Jesus did?  I have discovered a simple and just about foolproof means of assessing whether or not I’m judging someone else.  If my observation about someone else gives me a sense of superiority I have judged them – I have sinned.

Maybe some of you have been fearful of meeting Jesus because you’re afraid he’s really going to shame you.  Jesus doesn’t use shame.  Oh he’ll be honest and straightforward; there’s no hiding anything from him.  But in that honesty you will find acceptance.  By his grace I pray that’s also what you’ll find when you meet one of us, his followers.


The Idolatrly Of Happiness

One of my personal pet peeves is when an advertisement tells me I deserve something that their product can supposedly provide for me.  How do they know I deserve it?  For all they know I’m some puppy punching, kitten kicking psycho who derives a perverse pleasure in making the lives of everyone around me miserable.

Actually what really riles me about playing the “you deserve…” angle is that it reinforces a lie that virtually all of us have bought into to one way or another; the lie that I deserve to be happy.  I’ve also heard it expressed as a right, as in “don’t I have a right to be happy?”  The pursuit of happiness and/or things or circumstances that contribute to happiness is possibly the most prevalent form of idolatry in our society.  And believing this lie has created a lot of miserable people.

I believe a personal illustration is in order.

One of my greatest happinesses in life is the affectionate touches I get from Wendy.  I love it when she rubs my bald head, or glides her hand up my arm as she walks past me or any number of loving things she does.  But every now and again the demands and stresses of life become exhausting and she just doesn’t have the energy to even think to do those things.

It hasn’t happened very often in our 25 years of marriage, but when it does my first response is to be patient and caring.  This sounds good, but in all honesty at times my motivation is that I hope it will cause her to be attentive and affectionate towards me.  If it doesn’t work frustration and the “I deserve’s” begin to creep in.  And if the demands of children, and work, and ministry continue to drain my sweet lady that frustration can bloom and consume me, robbing me of sleep and contentment and joy and peace.

I remember one sleepless night in desperation I finally prayed “God, I don’t want to feel this way anymore I need help.”  His answer?  Develop your longing for Christ till it’s greater than your longing for happiness and the things that make you happy.

Undoubtedly this idolatry of happiness is one of the “things that hinder and sin that so easily entangle” God warns us to cast off in Hebrews 12.  And in the next verse directs us to “fix our eyes on Jesus.”  When I did that I began to serve Wendy with pure motives, and the joy and peace of Christ ruled my heart again.


Being Still When I Know What’s Coming

For one year I worked at Rafter Six Guest Ranch as barn manager, running their trail ride operation.  I was responsible for managing the wrangler staff to lead the trail rides and care for the horse herd.  We were required to dress in full “cowboy” attire from hat to chaps to spurs, so that atmosphere would be “authentic”.  In addition to the guests staying at the lodge, we also had tourist from all over the world come in on bus tours for trail rides and a meal.

One of the little perks the wrangler staff used to do for some of the bus tours was a hold up.  As the bus was pulling onto the property, the ranch has about a half mile of curving driveway, we would ride out from behind the bushes, slickers flying, bandanas pulled up, and firing our imitation colt 45’s, forcing the bus to stop.  One of us would climb aboard and make some speech about looking for a bandit, and after ensuring he hadn’t stolen away on the bus we welcomed them to the ranch and then rode off at a gallop firing our pistols in the air.  It sounds a little corny telling it, but it was actually a lot of fun to do and the tourist loved it.

The only one who didn’t particularly care for it was my horse, Nina.  She hated the retort of the pistols.  I couldn’t even aim away from her to reduce the noise.  To be legal to shoot blanks the barrel had to be plugged so instead of all the sound being directed out the end of the barrel it escaped sideways as it exited the cylinder.  It hurt my ears so I understand why she didn’t like it, and she always knew when it was coming.  She would be her normal calm self all the way out to where we’d meet the bus, and the whole time we sat in wait.  But as soon as she heard the bus coming and we hid ourselves behind the bushes she’d start tensing up and getting all jumpy. When I’d let her go she’d fire out from behind the bush like she was coming out of a bucking chute.

One time she made it half way across the road in one jump and I had to turn her hard, which if you’ve ever rode with metal shoes on pavement you know is not a good idea.  Down she went and fortunately I was able to pull my leg out before she landed on it.  But I had kept my other foot in the stirrup, so when she scrambled back to her feet I was able to come right up with her.  When I boarded the bus the tourists were all in awe, assuming it was all planned and part of the show. Of course I never let on.

I find we can sometimes get like that with God.  We anticipate some painful or uncomfortable process to go through and do everything in our power to resist what God has actually designed to strengthen us or grow us and reveal to us more of his power and grace.  How much better off we’d be if we would heed the Psalmist; “Be still and know that I am God.”

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Entrance to Rafter Six Guest Ranch

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The driveway to the lodge.


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