Devotions from Romans

I have so enjoyed sharing Christmas devotions here. I hope that you have had a chance to catch a few of my musings on the nativity story. Tomorrow I will begin the New Year by sharing devotional thoughts from the book of Romans. The epistle is the longest of ones written by Paul. It was written to a church composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Paul dictated it to his friend Tertius around AD 56 when he was in Corinth. British theologian NT Wright says that it is "neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul's lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece." I invite you to travel with me in a journey to unwrap this beautiful masterpiece.

He will be called a Nazarene.

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Get up!” the angel said. “Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee. So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: “He will be called a Nazarene.” -Matthew 2:19-23 NLT

This is the third and fourth time that we read of an angel speaking to Joseph in a dream. Each time the adopted father of Jesus acted on what he dreamed. Small wonder that such a man was entrusted with the human life of the Son of God. Has God ever spoken to you in a dream? I can only remember one time that I had a somewhat heavenly dream. It was so vivid and spoke to me about helping those less fortunate. I wonder how many are still led by God in dreams?

The nativity story has now come full circle. Mary is back to where it all started - back to where the angel first appeared to her. With her husband by her side things seem to be back to "normal". Jesus would grow up in Nazareth surrounded by grandparents and extended family. I so love that aspect of the story. It reminds me of how much we all need to be surrounded by a spiritual community of faith, family and friends that will lovingly support and encourage us.

Call us back to Nazareth Lord. Back to where we first heard you speak to our heart.

A cry was heard in Ramah ...

Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A cry was heard in Ramah — weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.”
-Matthew 2:16-18 NLT

I so wish that this was not a part of the Christmas story. Would that insane people like Herod never existed. Would that power-crazy leaders like him never ruled a nation. It begs the question of how such things could ever happen. Many blame and question God when people do horrible things like this. I am not one of those people. I see this sort of vile and evil action coming from within creation and not from without. Sick people like Herod have always done bad things.

So how are we to respond when we read and hear of such unspeakable acts? I believe that we are called to weep and mourn with the families of those who are hurting so much. We are to be the hearts, hands, feet and voices of Christ. Our actions should be ones that bring peace, not more turmoil, in the midst of the storm. And somehow we are called to forgive and love even deranged enemies like Herod. We must not allow hatred for such people to consume us.

Empower us today Lord to be your hearts, hands, feet and voices in the earth. Help us to be consumed with your love.

Flee to Egypt with the child ...

When it was time to leave, the Magi returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.” -Matthew 2:12-15 NLT

Just as things were getting "normal" an angel shows up in a dream and tells them that there is a bounty on the baby's head. Something tells me that this was not the life that Mary and Joseph had imagined when the angel first told them that the baby that Mary would carry was the Messiah. The joy that they had briefly experienced with the Magi has been turned inside out. Would that the Magi had stayed home. Perhaps then Herod would not have known about Jesus?

Have you ever had your plans turned inside out? Have your dreams ever come crashing down all around you? Many times our lives are filled with segues to Egypt. And life is not the one we wanted. In times like these it is good to remember Mary, Joseph and Jesus separated from family and living in Egypt. Sometimes the dream of a future resurrection has to percolate in Egypt. As we answer God's call we are often led into uncomfortable foreign places.

Dear Lord Jesus, teach us to trust you in places that are foreign, lonely and uncomfortable.

Magi from the east ...

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. -Matthew 2:1-2,10-11 NLT

Unlike the images that are seen on many Christmas cards the Magi, or wise men, were not present in the stable with the shepherds after Jesus was born. Some time has passed. Mary and Joseph have consecrated the baby Jesus in Jerusalem forty days after his birth. It has been a while since these men saw the star in their home land. When the wise men arrive they do not find a baby in a stable but a child in a house. Even so, they acknowledge him as a king.

Up until this time only Jews have been involved in the nativity story. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna were all Jews. So interesting how men from another country (perhaps Persia) were alerted by some sort of astronomical happening in the sky. It reminds me that this message is not one that is limited to an ethnicity or race. The Messiah came not just for Israel but for everyone. And we, with the Magi, are overjoyed that he has come into the world.

I amazed Lord at how much you confirmed your word to Mary and Joseph. Confirm your word in our hearts today.

Simeon took him in his arms ...

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” -Luke 2:28-35 NLT

Another actor in this divine story now appears as Mary and Joseph takes Jesus to Jerusalem to be consecrated in the temple some forty days after he was born. Simeon is overwhelmed as he embraces the baby Jesus and understands that he is holding the Messiah. His prophetic words speak to the mission of this baby king to save us and radiate the glory of God. Interesting how yet another person has given confirmation and courage to the young parents.

I wonder what was going on in Mary's heart and mind as Simeon prophesies about the impact that her son will have on her fellow Israelis? Did she consider them as her son matured, confronted religious authorities and healed so many hurting people? And what did she make of "a sword will pierce your own soul"? I wonder if she looked back on those words as she watched her son carry his cross? It reminds me of how Jesus still reveals the thoughts of our hearts.

Open our eyes Lord that we might see your salvation. Please shine that light of revelation on our hearts today.

The heavenly host appeared ...

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. -Luke 2:13-18 NLT

This passage seems to indicate that the veil between heaven and earth was pulled back as divine beings could no longer restrain their voices. The entrance of the baby Messiah to planet earth seemed to overwhelm these as they spoke of God being glorified in heaven and peace coming to earth. Glory and peace seem to be fitting words for the occasion. From that day forward everyone who embraced him would see the glory of God and experience his peace.

Can you see the shepherds running towards that stable? The look on their faces must have been one of amazement as they saw the baby Jesus laying in a feeding trough surrounded by his young parents. And how did their appearance impact Joseph and Mary? Can you feel the joy welling up in their hearts as the shepherds told them of the angels and the heavenly host? These who have struggled for nine months had divine confirmation of what God had told them.

Open our eyes dear Lord Jesus that we might see your glory. Open our heart to experience your peace.

And there were shepherds ...

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” -Luke 2:8-12 NLT

I wonder what the glory of the Lord looked like as it encompassed the shepherds? I can understand why they would have been terrified. Yet the message that the angels spoke to them had to be even more amazing than that. How could it be possible that "the Messiah, the Lord" would come as a baby? And how strange it was to hear that such a birth would happen in a stable? I can almost hear the questions running through the minds of the shepherds.

It is interesting how angels first announced the birth of the Messiah to nameless people working the night shift on a hillside in Israel. The heavenly beings could have come to more prominent and more religious people but they chose keepers of sheep to visit. I think that it teaches us that, from the very beginning, God had chosen to reveal himself to humble men and women. It seems that people like these shepherds are often ones who respond best to the Lord.

Help us to hear that message again dear Lord. Help us to embrace the good news of the birth of the baby Jesus.

She placed him in a manger ...

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. -Luke 2:4-7 NLT

Caesar Augustus took a census that affected the place where Jesus would be born. Do you find it interesting how one like him would be a part of the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy? As the birth of Jesus approaches I can sense a divine mosaic being painted. The angelic visits and the prophetic words are woven together into something quite amazing and beautiful. Something that transcends heaven and earth is beginning as Joseph and Mary leave Nazareth.

Growing up I did not know that a manger was a word that described a feeding trough that animals ate from. How is it that one so divine would lay his head in such a place? Why was there no other place for the King of Glory to be born? And what was it like for Joseph to play midwife and deliver the Son of God? The events of the first Christmas humble me and teach me that God is not all that concerned about where we live as much as how we live.

Bring us back to the humble manger today dear Lord and help us embrace the glory of the One born that day.

A prophet of the Most High ...

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. -Luke 1:76-79 NLT

The Christmas story is not only about the birth of the Messiah but it is also about the amazing birth of His forerunner. These words are ones spoken over that forerunner by his father Zechariah as he was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied these words. It is so interesting that from the very beginning both Jesus and John the Baptist had words that described their mission. From infancy their parents were able to speak to them of their mission and destiny.

I love how Zechariah's prophecy tells us that the message of his son, John the Baptist, will be one of forgiveness, mercy and peace. I wonder if he could one day envision his boy standing in the waters of Jordan preaching this message? The phrase "the rising sun will come to us from heaven" tells me that this prophet, with his wife Elizabeth, believed that Mary was carrying God's son. In the years to come Mary would need to be reminded of these prophetic words.

Remind us today of our mission Lord. Help us to tell the story of one who came to guide our feet into the path of peace.

Joseph son of David

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” -Matthew 1:18-21 NLT

It is hard to consider how God called Mary to carry his son and not remember that he also called Joseph on the journey with her. Little is know about Joseph. He probably died never seeing the boy that he raised heal the sick and say the most amazing things. Jesus learned carpentry from Joseph and probably learned many other things from him as well. This passage indicates that he was a spiritual man who followed the Lord. I suspect that he was a good father.

I wonder how many of us would accept the word of an angel in a dream? Yet with just one solitary dream Joseph was convinced that Mary had told him the truth - the words of the angel were the same ones that Mary had told him. I so admire Joseph's response and want to be a man who will, in like manner, support my wife in whatever journey she is on. God knew that Mary needed help. Like her, we are not called to travel life alone. God sends us Josephs to walk with us.

Thank you Lord for the Josephs that you have placed in our lives. Help us to be a Joseph to someone today.

I am the Lord’s servant ...

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” -Luke 1:29-31,34-35,38

There is a magnificent purity in Mary's response to the angel Gabriel. My heart is moved and my eyes tear up when I hear her say that she is a servant of God and wants God's word to be fulfilled in her. How is it that one so young possesses such a rich faith in God? Consider what her cousin Elizabeth says when Mary visits her:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! ...
 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Mary believed. Mary was blessed. There is a connection between these two words. Even so, blessings often come with a cost. Mary had to deal with the cynics who did not believe what the angel spoke to her. This young teen had to grow up very quickly - her life would not resemble the one that she had dreamed about. And even more, the crown of thorns that her son would one day wear would break her heart.  Yet she will always be remembered as the Lord’s servant.

Teach us to embrace the simplicity of faith Lord. Help us to have Mary's response when you speak to us today.

The virgin’s name was Mary.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” -Luke 1:26-33 NLT

This story is amazing and miraculous. Small wonder that so many are skeptical of it. It seems as unbelievable today as it did back then. I wonder what the angel looked like? His comforting words to Mary indicates that there may have been something awe inspiring about Gabriel. His words to this young girl speak to me of Mary's faith. She was favored. The Lord was with her. In the following verses her faith begins to shine and we begin to understand why she was chosen.

I wonder what it was like for Mary to hear the words that her son will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High? I wonder if she thought, like many of that day, that the Messiah would restore Israel? I cannot imagine what was going through her mind as she heard that her son's rule would be forever. Suffice to say that these words were spoken in such a way that she vividly remembered them. She would need the comfort of these words many years later.

Our hearts are full with awe Lord. Help us to embrace the magnificent wonder of this story once again.

Though you are small among the clans ...

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. -Micah 5:2-4 NLT

There was more than one Bethlehem in Israel - the one mentioned here belonged to the clan of Judah. And centuries before Jesus was born a prophet named Micah specified it as the birthplace of the Messiah. Bethlehem speaks to me of how something great can arise out of something small. It reminds me that God uses nobodies from nowhere to accomplish his will. Unless Micah predicted it who would have thought that a great ruler would have been born there?

When I read these words, and other messianic prophesies, I understand why people could not embrace Jesus as the Messiah - no one could imagine that the ruler over Israel would be a spiritual king and not a fleshly one. Who could have envisioned how an ancient one could come into the world by a virgin in labor? The story is too wonderful for human brains to comprehend! It is why that birth in Bethlehem is a matter to be discerned with the heart not the head.

Bring us back to Bethlehem Lord. Help us to embrace the wonder and the simplicity of the One born King of kings.

The government will be on his shoulders ...

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. -Isaiah 9:6-7 NLT

This is the prophecy that I think about when I consider Christmas. It is one of the most majestic in all of scripture. Handel used it when he penned The Messiah - I think that it inspired him as much as it does me. Written centuries before Jesus was born it speaks to us of the true nature of the Messiah. Isaiah describes the Messiah with these words:
    •  Son - not angelic but a temporal and a mortal human child like us;
    •  Mighty God - who could have imagined Almighty God coming in the flesh?
    •  Everlasting Father - he who had no beginning took on a human beginning coming as a baby;
    •  Wonderful Counselor - has there ever been a wiser teacher to walk the earth than Jesus?
    •  Prince of Peace - not a conquering warrior but royal, humble and loving servant.
Isaiah proclaims that such a Messiah will reign over an ever expanding eternal government that will influence humanity and establish peace, justice and righteousness. He tells us that this new King will be greater than any that has ever lived. He ends by declaring that this Messiah will be the explicit personification of the Zeal of God.

Who cannot bow at your name Lord Jesus? In unison we declare that you are Messiah and King - now and forever.

Prayer for the Families of Newtown

Lord, we come to You as a nation in shock and mourning for those who were killed yesterday in Newtown, Connecticut. Words escape us and we have no context to understand the pain of the families that are suffering and in need of comfort. Please visit them with gentleness and compassion as they mourn this great loss.

Give these strength and courage to live life vigorously again and to not be afraid of stranger or friend. Turn their despair into hope, hate into love and anger into joy.

Lord we pray for Your mercy and compassion on our nation. We live in troubled times, and the answers to our problems are not simple or easy. Send Your Spirit upon us to strengthen our resolve to root out the violence, hate, and fear in our country. Create in us hearts of courage, grace us with the ability to stand against the violence of our day: violence in ourselves, our homes, streets and communities.

In your name we pray. Amen

Your concern for me ... a fragrant offering ...

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.
-Philippians 4:10,14, 17-19 NLT

I love the way that Paul connects concern with offerings. In many churches the phrase "love offering" seems to be way overused. Yet real and actual love for God, his servants and others should always be the banner that we fly as we support people like Paul. Even so, I think that it is very difficult to gain this mindset because of the professional, and sometimes sterile, way that missionaries and others are supported - many of us have never met the ones we support.

In thanking the Philippians for their help Paul makes outrageous claims. He indicates that when they give to him they are actually giving to God. This had to be so different for people with a history where gifts to God were presented on an altar. Paul uses the altar imagery to remind them of the fragrance of the Jewish altar of incense. And lastly he encourages them by saying that, because they have met his needs, God in return will meet their needs.

Help us Lord, in this season of giving, to remember that our gifts should be motivated by a loving concern for others.

Content ... through him who gives me strength ...

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. -Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

The phrase "I have learned to be content" reminds me that contentment is a lifelong learning process. When Ann first got her motorized wheelchair I did not think that I would ever come to accept it. I believed that she would soon walk again. Did not know that I was grieving our loss and in a bit of denial. Eventually I learned to be content. Hearing Paul speaking of this learning process from jail encourages me so much - he was learning contentment while in chains.

What do you think Paul means when he speaks of doing all this through him who gives me strength? Is he speaking of some sort of mystical revelation or could he be speaking of the sort of prayer that he wrote of a few verses back? My view is that contentment comes as we cast our hopes, our dreams, our sorrows, our anxieties, and everything else that brings discontentment on the Lord in prayer. As we do this our heart is strengthened and we learn to be content.

Help us today Lord to be open to the lessons of contentment. Teach us to pray though our discontentment.

Think about such things ...

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. -Philippians 4:8-9

Thought that I would begin today by meditating on these words that Paul recommends to us:
  • true :: reminds me that God wants me to live a life that is true to who I am in Him;
  • noble :: speaks to me of the honor that we have to live as children of the most High;
  • right :: to know the right thing to do and to do it is an act of righteousness;
  • pure :: teaches me that I should always keep my conscience clear and my motives pure;
  • lovely :: encourages me to personify grace with lovely acts of graciousness and compassion;
  • admirable :: helps me to remember that I want to be a man who acts with dignity and integrity;
  • excellent :: reminds me that God brings beauty from ashes when we seek Him with all of our hearts;
  • praiseworthy :: causes me to live in such a way that I may one day hear: "well done faithful servant".
Help us Lord to remember these words and sow them into our lives today by putting them into practice.

Do not be anxious about anything ...

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 every situation, 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 your minds in Christ Jesus.
-Philippians 4:4-7 NLT

I once heard that fear is the opposite of faith. Along those same thought lines, I wonder if worry is the opposite of trust? Worry feels a bit different than fear for some but I suspect it has the same roots. An old friend once told me that it was her right to worry - I think some feel that worry is a sign that they care. I can relate - even my prayers are sometimes an expression of worry. Yet this is not the sort of prayer that Paul speaks to here.

In these verses we read of a type of prayer that rejoices, releases and gives thanks. It is the sort of intercession that, as James says it, casts our worries on the Lord and leaves them there. Such prayers are answered with a peace which transcends all understanding because such a peace can only be experienced when we pray trusting God with all of our heart. In contrast, when we pray with our heads we often are simply expressing our worries and not our trust.

Lord, knowing you are near we rejoice and give thanks. We cast our cares on you knowing how much you care for us.

They will be like his glorious body ...

Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! -Philippians 3:20-4:1,4 NLT

For months the pain levels in my wrists and shoulders have elevated. Doctors are telling me that my wrists will need to be surgically fused to alleviate the pain. Next week I am headed to physical therapy to deal with my shoulder pains. So I am much encouraged when I think about my body being transformed at death to a glorious and resurrected one. Knowing that a new pain-free heavenly body awaits those who believe in Jesus inspires so much hope.

Small wonder, in light of this future bodily transformation, that Paul from prison encourages each of us to rejoice in the Lord always. Sitting in chains the apostle sets a wonderful example for us of a person who found a way to transcend his pain and his disappointment. Knowing that he found a way to rejoice in such a dark place encourages me today to find a way to rejoice even though my body is hurting. It is such a compelling message of resurrection life.

Help us Lord to transcend our pain, discouragement and disappointment. Teach us to rejoice in you always.

Their mind is set on earthly things.

Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.
-Philippians 3:16-20 NLT

This is the second time in this letter that Paul speaks of the responsibilities of heavenly citizenship. He contrasts such a life with people who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Describing such people he says their god is their stomach, their glory is in their shame and their mind is set on earthly things. It speaks to me of what citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is not. In the book of Romans Paul says that citizenship in the kingdom of God:
"is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit"
The difference between citizens of heaven and those of earth is what is focused on. Earthly citizens focus on physical things while citizens of heaven pay attention to the invisible aspects of life. One group fixates on rules about what should be done while others are concerned more with how they are done. One groups emphasizes religious rules and the other spiritual ones. One is concerned with law and the other with love. It is a contrast between head and heart.

Lord help us to know, with every fiber of our being, that our real citizenship is eternally in heaven.

I press on toward the goal ...

I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 3:10-14 NLT

This passage reminds me of the story of Derek Redmond running the 400 meters semi-final race at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Derek was favored to win yet halfway into the race he tore his hamstring. Refusing to stay down he fought through the pain and, with help from his father, managed to complete a full lap of the track as the crowd gave him a standing ovation. I can imagine heaven on its feet and cheering us on as we get up from a painful fall and press on.

Paul tells us that the key to knowing Christ and experiencing resurrection power is simply: "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead". The imagery is compelling and helps me to understand that knowing Christ is never about the past but about the present. We cannot press on today if our eyes are not fixed ahead - we cannot walk a straight path when we look back. Perseverance is the means by which we answer His heavenly call.

Help us Lord to heed these words. We need your grace to persevere. Open our heart to your call on our lives.

To know the power of his resurrection ...

I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 3:10-14 NLT

This passage is so full that I thought that I would take two days to share about it. The first thing that I see in it is the partnership between power and suffering. In these verses Paul indicates that there is no opportunity for resurrection power apart from the type of suffering that Christ experienced on the cross. It makes you wonder why any of us would desire "to know the power of his resurrection". Knowing that, how many if us would sign up for that power?

Even more interesting is that Paul considers that he has not laid hold of this resurrection power. The one who sits imprisoned for proclaiming Christ feels that he is lacking. The one who has been beaten countless times for his faith feels that he must still press on for a power that he does not possess. Does this not humble every part of you? Knowing this, can you ever feel good about your spiritual progress? I cannot but I can, with Paul, press on toward the goal.

Help us to become like you Lord. Help us to know your resurrection power in our sufferings.

I consider them garbage ...

As for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. -Philippians 3:6-9 NLT

Can you feel the remorse in Paul's words as he speaks of considering his Pharisaical leadership as loss? As he looks back he remembers how his zeal for the Mosaic Law caused him to persecute those who believed in Jesus Christ. Perhaps, as he sat in chains, he saw images of those that he put in chains flash before his mind as he looked back? Interesting how the things that we treasure most can become garbage as we compare them with knowing Jesus.

Interesting how he compares two means of righteousness. On one hand he remembers the days when he believed that righteousness was based on obeying the law of Moses. Many today still believe that being right with God is all about following the rules. Paul calls that idea "garbage" as he proceeds to speak of "the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith." This idea makes no sense to our heads. How could it? Righteousness is an issue of the heart.

Transform our thinking Lord. Help us to reject the self-righteousness that comes from following the rules.

Put no confidence in the flesh ...

Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh — though I myself have reasons for such confidence. -Philippians 3:2-4 NLT

When Paul says that we are people who "put no confidence in the flesh" he is speaking directly to the false notion that the Jews were part of God's elect simply because of their ethnicity. In just a few words he dispels the idea that his fleshly relatives had some sort of a privileged position with God simply because they were circumcised when they were young. These days some might substitute having confidence in their infant baptism for confidence in circumcision.

The myth of salvation through ethnicity was fully dispelled when God revealed to Peter in Acts 10 that non-Jews are not unclean. Peter responded to this revelation by saying "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right." Paul and Peter both understood that salvation is an issue of faith and not ethnicity or tradition. We who serve God by his Spirit boast in Christ Jesus alone.

Help us to be aware Lord. Teach us to put no confidence in ourselves or the religious things that we do.

Work hard ... God is working in you ...

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people. -Philippians 2:12-15 NLT

There is a divine cooperation at work in those who are believers in Christ. Paul says it plainly here: work hard, for God is working in you. Sometimes I do not like the idea that kingdom living is a partnership where God leads and we follow. I sometimes wish that the choice was sometimes not so hard. For example, who has not struggled doing everything without complaining and arguing or living innocent lives? This kind of living requires the Holy Spirit's work in our heart.

Yet it is needful to say that we work out our salvation but we do not work for it. Saying yes to Jesus has never been about working for salvation. Receiving a gift has never been considered work for the recipient. Who has ever boasted about how they worked for that birthday gift simply because they cashed a check or used a gift card? Yet a gift is not a gift unless one has the power to refuse it. The gift of salvation can be refused but how glorious it is when we say yes.

Thank you Lord for the gift of salvation. Help us to live lives that reflect the bright light of salvation.

The name above all other names ...

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. -Philippians 2:9-11 NLT

The exaltation of Jesus Christ speaks to me about the eternal aspect of humility - he who humbled himself on earth by taking on human flesh is forever exalted in heaven. Divine exaltation requires divine humility. We are called to this kind of humility. It is a matter of perspective. We cannot confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and then walk in a prideful fashion. We must live humbly acknowledging that that everything we have is rooted in divine providence and sovereignty.

The phrase "name above all other names" informs us of the divine nature of Jesus Christ. No other name can match this name - humans names cannot. Demonic and angelic ones bow to that name as well. The Greek work kurios is translated Lord and tells us of Jesus' full deity as God the Son - the Father does not want us to bow our knees to one who is not His equal. It is again a matter of bowing to Jesus in humility knowing who he is and who we are.

In unison with believers all over the world we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Be glorified in our lives today Lord.

He took the humble position ...

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. -Philippians 2:5-8 NLT

These words break me and inspire me. When I compare my attitude to that of Jesus I find myself severely lacking. It is impossible for us to comprehend what it was like for Christ to lay aside eternity and enter a finite existence. It has been compared to a human being being born as an ant, living as an ant and giving their life so that other ants might live. Even that scenario comes up short. I cannot image how Jesus humbled himself as a human his whole life.

The phrase "he took the humble position of a slave" teaches us what real humility looks like. It is hard for many of us in America to understand what it is like to be a slave. Yet how many of us have worked in jobs that we hated or have suffered in abusive relationships. These images begin to describe the humility of Christ Jesus as he walked amongst us and was lastly condemned to a cruel death. Yet who can understand trading a royal crown for one made of thorns?

We are in need of humility Lord. Teach us to walk as slaves. Help us to embrace the crown of thorns.

The same attitude that Christ Jesus had ...

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. [Philippians 2:3-5 NLT]

The heart of humility is not so much our opinion of ourselves but our opinion about others. Humility is not a narcissistic quest to debase ourselves in some monastic self-flagellating fashion but an attitude that sees ourselves in the context of something greater. A humble person is willing to put themselves on the line for others. There is no greater example of this than the incarnation, life and death of God the Son. On the cross Jesus showed us personified humility.

I think that Mother Teresa was a humble person. Here is something that she once said: "Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work." She saw humility as something more than an attitude. Teresa of Calcutta set an example for all of us as she touched others with the loving hands of Christ. This is the kind of humility that changes the world.

Transform us dear Lord. We do not possess humility. Help us to not to be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.

Working together with one mind and purpose ...

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. -Philippians 2:1-2 NLT

The words that Paul first speaks in these verse are "together" ones. One cannot receive encouragement or comfort from Christ apart from another person. When he speaks of fellowship together in the Spirit Paul is accenting the word together. And, apart from being together there would be no need for tenderness or compassion. In truth, the best that we ever have to offer can only be accomplished when we are together with another person.

Paul speaks as a spiritual father when he tells his readers that he wants them to make him happy. I sense that these are the things that make our heavenly father happy as well - we bring a smile to the face of God when we are working together with one mind and purpose. Even so, it sometimes seems to be such a struggle to find common purpose when working with folks who go to a different church. Perhaps it is in those times that we need to love the most?

Help us to see past our minor theological differences Lord. Teach us to love each other and work together.

Live as citizens of heaven ...

Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News. ... For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it. -Philippians 1:27,29-30 NLT,

In your day-to-day life, when you look around, is it obvious to you which people are living as citizens of heaven? Sometimes it is hard to tell, even in our own lives, what one of these citizens look like. In this passage Paul tells us that they are people who are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith. He also says that these have the privilege of suffering for him. And he tells us that we citizens are in this struggle together

The thing that stands out to me in these words is the idea of togetherness. Following God is never something that one does alone. Being a citizen of heaven encapsulates the idea that we who believe in Jesus are members together of something greater than ourselves and greater than the churches that we attend. In truth we all belong to the church of heaven and should therefore act like we do. We who name the name of Jesus must always stand and suffer together.

Help us today Lord to look past ourselves and embrace those who attend churches that are not like ours.

I’m torn between two desires ...

I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. -Philippians 1:20-25 NLT

For a Christian, the main thing in life is living for Someone who is greater than life itself. It reminds me how Paul writes to the Corinthians that each of us, on the cross of Christ, were bought with a price and therefore should honor God with our bodies. The concept of honor and integrity plays out in our lives every day in the way that we walk out the values that we know in our hearts to be true. Honoring God is usually about doing the small things that no one ever sees.

Can you relate to Paul's dilemma? Has life ever been so hard that you simply wanted to die and be with Jesus in heaven? I have known that experience. Sometimes the only thing that keeps us tied to this life is our responsibilities to the ones that we love. The parent lives for the needs of the child. The caregiver for the life of the one that they love so much. It is a way that Paul, and many others since, have honored God by putting the needs of others before their own.

Help us to awake each day Lord Jesus knowing that our lives are not our own and that we are called to live for you.

Others do not have pure motives ...

It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives. They preach because they love me, for they know I have been appointed to defend the Good News. Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me. But that doesn't matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice. -Philippians 1:15-18 NLT

I rarely consider people who minister in church When I think of people with bad motives. It is surprising to hear Paul speak of such people as he sits in chains. I wish that this whole idea of religious jealousy and rivalry ceased back in Paul's day. For even today religious leaders brag about the number who attend their services and revel in the tithes that are collected on Sunday mornings. I would get angry if not for these words written so very long ago.

Are you not amazed how Paul can see good coming out of bad motives? Instead of fixating on the selfish ambition he chooses to continue to rejoice that, even with bad motives, the message about Christ is being preached. He seems to also understand that others are preaching from pure motives. This is where I choose to land today. I am not qualified to judge the motives of others so I will (with Paul) choose to rejoice that the name of Jesus is proclaimed.

Help us to be people of pure motives dear Lord. Cause our hearts to rejoice that the gospel is being preached.

I am in chains because of Christ.

And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear. -Philippians 1:12-14 NLT

The most amazing aspect of this epistle is that Paul writes it from a prison in Rome. Of the one hundred and four verses in it he mentions joy sixteen times. Some of the most inspirational ideas are contained here. In chapter two Paul speaks of how Christ humbled himself as an example for us. In the third chapter he speaks of pressing on. In the fourth chapter he says that he can do all things though Christ. So inspiring when we consider the jail he wrote from.

Paul's chains move me - they cause me to want to follow him as he followed Christ. Could it be possible that those who suffer can be like Paul? Perhaps the invisible chains that we each bear are an opportunity for us to inspire others as we joyfully persevere? Maybe the image of Paul joyfully writing this letter from jail is meant to give hope to those who suffer? I think that we can each be an epistle to the world that testifies that all things are possible through Christ.

Help us Lord to rejoice each day and in every situation. Cause us to be your epistles to the world.

What really matters ...

I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God. -Philippians 1:9-11 NLT

As I read these words I get an image of a fountain overflowing as water bubbles up from it. Perhaps that is the image that we saw when Christ walked the earth? Did not love bubble up in his heart and overflow to all he touched? Isn't that the desire of our hearts as we grow in knowledge and understanding? Does not the path to a pure and blameless life entail an embracing of the love of God for each person we encounter? Is not love what really matters in our lives?

I love how Paul speaks of the righteous character produced in your life as being the fruit of your salvation. In his letter to the Galatians he describes this righteous character as one made up of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In essence, a life filled with these qualities is one that will bring much glory and praise to God. This is the kind of life that is filled with things that really matter - now and forever.

We pray that the righteous fruit of our lives will overflow like a fountain and touch those who need you today.

Every time I think of you ...

Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. -Philippians 1:3-6 NLT

These last few days I have been sharing here about the people that Paul first met and ministered to in Philippi. There was Lydia who believed after the Lord opened her heart - Paul stayed at her place while in that city. There was the fortune teller who was delivered of a demon as Paul cast it out in the name of Jesus. And there was the jailer and his family who all believed and were baptized. I imagine that Paul was thinking of these friends as he opened this epistle.

I love thinking about how God began a good work in these people and was continuing it even as Paul was writing to them. Even though Paul had left them the Holy Spirit remained with them teaching, comforting and encouraging them in every good work. Perhaps that is the how we should look at our fellow believers. Maybe we would be easier on them if we saw them as a divine work in progress? Maybe this is one way we can learn to give thanks to God for them?

Thank you for the works in progress that you have placed in my life Lord. Help me to encourage them today.

Believe in the Lord Jesus ...

The jailer woke up to see the prison doors wide open. He assumed the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword to kill himself. But Paul shouted to him, “Stop! Don’t kill yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights and ran to the dungeon and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” [Acts 16:27-31 NLT]

I wonder how many prisoners were in the jail that night? It is amazing that the prisoners had stayed in their cells. I wonder if it was the sounds of Paul and Silas praising God that held them captive? The jailer must have been relieved to hear Paul shout out to him. His reaction is so profound - he saw the Lord at work in the earthquake and discerned that God was speaking to him through it. Interesting how Paul was concerned for more than just the jailer.

How would the leaders at your church have answered the jailer? Would they have added anything to Paul's simple, yet perfect, response? The Greek word pisteuō is simply translated believe but the concept is not all that simple as the word carries with it the notion of entrusting yourself to the care of another. Salvation is never about some sort of mental assent to an ideology or theology but about fully giving your whole being to Jesus Christ. It always has been.

Cause us to believe again Lord and in every way give ourselves fully to you.

The other prisoners were listening ...

A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn't escape. So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks. Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! -Acts 16:22-26

Paul and Silas were stripped, beaten and jailed simply because they spoke the name of Jesus and a young girl was delivered from demons. Often things done in God's name are met with severe opposition by those who profit from the suffering of others. Such was the case here as the girl was no longer willing or able to make money for her masters by telling fortunes. My heart hurts as I read of how they were mistreated simply because they preached the gospel.

I am amazed by the attitude of these men as they prayed and sang in jail. Small wonder that others were listening. How is it that people can react that way to unjust suffering? It reminds me of an old song that affirms that the chains that seem to bind you drop powerless bind you when you praise Him. There is something about praise that frees you. In truth Paul and Silas were free even though they were bound in chains. Perhaps their's is a story we can share in?

Thank you Father for the examples of Paul and Silas. Help me to remember to praise when I am hurting the most.

Instantly it left her ...

One day as we were going down to the place of prayer, we met a demon-possessed slave girl. She was a fortune-teller who earned a lot of money for her masters. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved.” This went on day after day until Paul got so exasperated that he turned and said to the demon within her, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And instantly it left her. -Acts 16:16-18 NLT

From the very beginnings of my walk with the Lord I have been around people who practiced exorcism of demonic forces. Regularly I have seen ministers pray for people trying to cast out demons. Mostly what I saw was religious in nature. People would practice and say what they heard and saw other people doing. And on a very rare occasion the person would be helped. Sadly in most cases, the prayers were ineffectual because they did not involve discernment.

This passage from Acts is very different from those experiences. It took Paul a while to discern that this girl was troubled by a demon. After all, she was giving testimony about them and how they had come to offer salvation. Yet something happened that day and Paul discerned the demon - and in an instant it was gone as Paul spoke the name of Jesus. The example I glean from this account is that discernment, not religious repetition, is required to deal with evil.

Deliver us from evil Lord and help us to discern how to deal with it when it comes.

The Lord opened her heart ...

On the Sabbath we went a little way outside the city to a riverbank, where we thought people would be meeting for prayer, and we sat down to speak with some women who had gathered there. One of them was Lydia from Thyatira, a merchant of expensive purple cloth, who worshiped God. As she listened to us, the Lord opened her heart, and she accepted what Paul was saying. She was baptized along with other members of her household, and she asked us to be her guests. -Acts 16:13-15 NLT

Philippi was the first city that Paul and his companions visited after they heard God call them to Macedonia. This passage recounts their first experience with the folks who lived there. Interesting how folks gathered by the river to worship God. It must have been so encouraging to get such a great reception to their message. Fascinating how it says that Lydia was one who already worshiped God. Most likely she was one who worshiped with the Jews on the Sabbath.

The phrase "the Lord opened her heart" speaks to me of how God often tenderizes our hearts and opens our eyes. It reminds me that it only took an instant for my first wife to respond to the gospel and eight months for me to bow my heart - sometimes the heart tenderizing process is longer for some than others. I love the radical nature of Lydia's conversion. She was not satisfied with a mere Sabbath Day experience but insisted that these strangers stay with her.

Open out hearts once again dear Lord that we might disciple and be discipled in loving communion and community.

So we decided to leave ...

That night Paul had a vision: A man from Macedonia in northern Greece was standing there, pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there. -Acts 16:9-10 NLT

Solomon once opined about how the plans of a person's heart are often adjusted by God. The ways that God adjusts our steps are so diverse yet they always seem to involve our participation. I love how God gave an invitation, and not a command, to Paul and his companions in this vision. It reminds me of the time when God changed my plans and led me to accept a retirement package with a simple question about which option was the riskiest.

Interesting how the decision to to head to Macedonia was a "we" decision. These who heard Paul recount the vision concluded together that God was adjusting their plans. It speaks to me of Paul's relationship with the Lord and the trusting relationship that his traveling companions had with him. Perhaps this is a good way for Christians today to follow what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians by proving all things and holding fast that which is good?

Thank you Lord for the opportunity to partner with you in life. Help us to be sensitive to your invitations today.

They separated ...

After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. -Acts 15:36-39 NLT

The idea that Christians, even strong leaders, sometimes do not get along is not a new idea. The things that we separate over sometimes seems so insignificant. Years ago, as a fairly new believer, I remember leaving a fellowship of friends over a doctrinal issue. Many years later I saw the leader of that group and all I could do was embrace him - secretly wishing that we were still friends. Why is it that Christians allow ideology and theology to come between us?

Perhaps one of the things that we can learn from today's passage is that we must always allow love to prevail. Paul and Barnabas both had the same goal but Paul could not get past the past - something happened between him and John Mark that he could not let go of. John Mark also deserted Barnabas on their first trip but, unlike Paul, he was willing to give him a second chance. Relationships are so complicated even between the most spiritual among us.

Teach us to love Lord. Help us to show each other love even when we sharply disagree.

The Holy Spirit said ...

One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.” So after more fasting and prayer, the men laid their hands on them and sent them on their way. So Barnabas and Saul were sent out by the Holy Spirit. -Acts 13:2-4 NLT

These verses introduce us to Paul’s first missionary journey. He was sent out with Barnabas and Mark about ten years after he met the Lord on the road to Damascus. The trip would last a few years and would test him in ways that he could not have known. Mark would desert him. In Lystra he would miraculously heal a man then later be stoned and left for dead. Laying there he had to be wondering if this was part of the work that the Spirit had called him to.

I guess we all want our spiritual call to be all about miracles and healings. No one wants to think that hardship (that seems such a severe mischaracterization of being stoned) is a part of the special work that we are called to. I think that Paul might have given up if he did not understand, along with the men who laid their hands on him in prayer, that it was not man but the Holy Spirit who had called him. Perhaps we would do well to know that as well?

Thank you Holy Spirit that you have called us and equipped us for every good work. Teach us to be faithful.

How much he must suffer ...

The Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. -Acts 9:15-18 NLT

I wonder if, years later, Ananias looked back and understood how accurate the Lord's words about Saul were. The words had to seem a bit crazy as he spoke them. How could it be that the persecutor would become the persecuted? The story of Paul's life after his conversion is nothing short of amazing. Ananias' words would come true. Saul would become Paul and the world would not be the same as he preached the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.

Saul's outer and inner eyes were opened that day. Yet he could not have understood how his journey would change so much so soon. In an instant he lost all of his religious power and would be one opposed by friends and family. On many occasions he would come to understand what the Lord meant when he spoke of "how much he must suffer for my name’s sake." It reminds me that following the Lord is often a difficult path that one cannot blindly walk alone.

Dear Father, fill us afresh with the Holy Spirit and remove the scales from our eyes that we might really see.

Why are you persecuting me?

Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison. Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, lord?” Saul asked. And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! -Acst 8:1,3;9:1,3-5 NLT

Is there a more stunning encounter in all of the bible? The story reminds me of how Moses met God when he was drawn to the spectacle of a burning bush. Isn't it amazing how one experience with the Almighty can change your whole life? I remember clearly that day when I first bowed my head and my heart to God in prayer. Nothing was the same after that. It was as if I had crossed over into a world that I had previously never known.

The bible and Christian history is replete with stories like mine and like the one in these verses. It speaks to me of God's pursuit of the souls of people who are so misguided and so in need of his redemption. So often our religious zeal, like that of Saul in these verses, can be so out of step with God. It is a good reminder that we must test our zeal with the love of God lest we find ourselves persecuting the very people that Jesus Christ loves and died for.

Help us to remember Lord that we may be persecuting you when we do not act with love towards those you love.

Pauline Devotions

These past 100 days I have so enjoyed sharing daily reflections on the writings of King Solomon in Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. I hope that you have had a chance to catch a few of my thoughts as I have journaled through his writings.

Beginning tomorrow I will be sharing daily devotional thoughts from the epistles of the Apostle Paul. I look forward to learning from and reflecting on what this amazing man teaches us about faith, hope and love. With deep appreciation, I invite you to travel along with me.

Everything is meaningless ...

“Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless.” That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. -Eccl 12:8,13-14

This is the sad way that Solomon finishes Ecclesiastes. It is such a negative ending but exactly, word for word, the way he began it in chapter one. No words about God's love for us or our love for him in this book - only descriptions of life as meaningless and "chasing the wind". How is it that the so-called wisest man on earth did not understand that real and meaningful life is all about love? Could it be that Solomon was not as wise as people perceive him to be?

I wonder how much influence an unhealthy fear of God had in Solomon's life? I find it interesting how he distills it all down to fear, obedience and judgment. It is as if he is telling us to obey out of a fear of judgment. Hard to understand how such an intelligent person missed the most important aspect of life. How is it that he did not understand that we are called to obey because God loves us? How is it that Solomon did not understand that glorious command to love?

Your love gives our lives meaning Lord. Help us to be like you and find love in everything that we do.

You must give an account ...

Young people, it’s wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it. Do everything you want to do; take it all in. But remember that you must give an account to God for everything you do. So refuse to worry, and keep your body healthy. But remember that youth, with a whole life before you, is meaningless. -Ecclesiastes 11:9-10 NLT

When folks get older they often, like Solomon does here, opine about how wonderful it was when they were young. It is as if they forget how hard those young years can be. I remember how my teen years were filled insecurity and fears. Along with the joys of first loves came the challenges of school and the reality of the Vietnam War. I think that we all wear rose colored glasses when we look back. Even so, I disagree with Solomon when he says it is meaningless.

In these verses Solomon speaks of giving "an account to God for everything you do". Sometimes people read a verse like this and get fearful of a future judgment day where a terrifying God will cause them to shake to their bones. I see this a bit differently. When I think of that day when my actions will be called into account I envision an encounter with my Heavenly Father. A time in which I am taught about the ways that I should have loved and did not.

Dear Lord help us to remember that, in all we do, we are accountable for the ways that we love.

A new day dawning ...

Light is sweet; how pleasant to see a new day dawning. When people live to be very old, let them rejoice in every day of life. But let them also remember there will be many dark days. -Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 NLT

Each new day brings with it an opportunity to give thanks for it. The Psalmist tells us that we should rejoice and be glad in it because God has made the day. Jeremiah reminds us that God's mercies are new every morning. There is just something about the dawn of a new day that can bring hope to our souls. Even so, there are people all over the world who live in hardship and find it difficult to rejoice because of the darkness that a new day brings to them.

Looking back over my life I find that there are always things to praise God for even in the midst of dark times. Perhaps the way that we handle difficulty is the way that we can light a candle in the darkness? It is interesting how, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of being salt and light to the world immediately after he speaks of his followers being persecuted. It is as if he is saying that our lives can shine the brightest when our days are the darkest.

Remind us Lord that we are sometimes the only light in the darkness. Help us to shine for you.

Perfect Weather

Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest. -Ecclesiastes 11:4 NLT

When I think about what if means to be successful the words apathy, excuse, rationalization and procrastination never come to mind. Success in life is never about perfect weather - in fact the most successful people are ones who seemed have overcome great obstacles. The words that I associate with such people are the opposite of the ones I previously mentioned. Words like integrity, passion and perseverance are the hallmarks of success.

Yet we often forget how our walk of faith is challenged by bad weather. I wonder how much I would actually pray and seek the Lord if I did not face challenges. Perhaps that is why God speaks to us in the scriptures of bringing beauty from ashes and working all things together for our good? Maybe some of us will get real with God only when we are covered in ashes? It may be the reason we are called to give thanks in all things.

You are with us in the storms and in the ashes dear Lord. In that we rejoice and give thanks!

Divide your investments ...

Divide your investments among many places, for you do not know what risks might lie ahead. -Ecclesiastes 11:2

There is an investment strategy called asset allocation that somewhat mirrors Solomon's sentiments in this verse. The idea is to balance your investments across stocks, bonds and cash. If done correctly you will minimize your exposure to risk when one sector of the market goes down. If you counter higher risk growth stocks with value oriented ones or bonds you may not see large swings in your portfolio when bad new hits Wall Street.

In a sense investing is a metaphor for life. People risk much when they apply a rigid black and white investment strategy - it is also risky when we employ such narrow strategies to other parts of our lives. Yet people who find a balance to life are often able to ride the waves of change in ways similar to the investor who has not put all of their proverbial eggs in one basket. Yet finding diversity on Main Street is often harder than finding it on Wall Street.

Help us Lord to find balance and live lives that are pleasing to you.

Don’t hoard your goods ...

Be generous: Invest in acts of charity. Charity yields high returns. Don’t hoard your goods; spread them around. Be a blessing to others. This could be your last night. Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 MSG

There seems to be a spiritual law of generosity in the Kingdom of God. Jesus put it this way: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." So often this sentiment is reduced to acts of charity rather than a life of charity. In a very real sense generosity and charity is all about humility. When we are generous we are humbly acknowledging our own poverty. When we are charitable towards others we are making a humble investment in their lives.

Sometimes in the bible the words charity and love are intermingled - both are used to translate the Greek word agápe which denotes God's sacrificial love for us. Perhaps sacrifice is the word that most defines charity and generosity? I wonder. Is one really generous if their gift does not involve sacrifice? Can one be charitable by giving what they no longer need? It seems to me that the charity that God really blesses is the kind that costs us something.

Thank you Lord that life is not found in things. Help us to loosen our grip on our possessions.

Sharpen the blade ...

Using a dull ax requires great strength, so sharpen the blade. That’s the value of wisdom; it helps you succeed. [Ecclesiastes 10:10 NLT]

I love how wisdom is so practical. I think that is why some often call it common sense. Solomon here compares it with the simplicity of keeping an ax blade sharp. Yet I wonder why this kind of common sense seems to escape so many. Is it because some simply prefer tradition over change? Could it be that some refuse to embrace it because they are lazy or choose to remain ignorant? Why is it that many can see the wisdom or common sense and others cannot?

I liken sharpening a blade to being prepared - to leading a life that keeps us strong and able to withstand hard times. What comes to your mind when you think about tomorrow? Are you like the student who has not done your homework or have you done all you know today to be ready for tomorrow? Have you strengthened your heart for tomorrow? Perhaps wisdom and common sense is all about having a heart sharpened by prayer, study and spiritual exercise?

I often procrastinate Lord. Help me to live today in a way that keeps my heart prepared for tomorrow.

Dead flies cause perfume to stink ...

As dead flies cause even a bottle of perfume to stink, so a little foolishness spoils great wisdom and honor. [Ecclesiastes 10:1 NLT]

The book of Ecclesiastes seems to exude regret. I often wonder if Solomon is speaking from first hand experience when he talks about fools and foolishness. Interesting to note how many people I have known have virtually thrown their lives and their ministry away because of one act of foolishness. I remember how, in one foolish acquiescence to temptation, my pastor of 18 years ruined his reputation. It seems to me that a pride filled ego often grows stronger with age.

The words "dead flies" reminds me of how Jesus describes religious leaders as whitewashed graves that looked good on the outside but were dead on the inside. Connecting that to what Solomon says here, one could say that the legalism and judgmentalism of some is what makes religion stink. What was meant to be something beautiful and aromatic is made to stink simply because of the unloving and uncaring way that religion is exercised and practiced.

Help us Lord. Our religion too often looks pharisaic. Help our lives to be a sweel aroma in your nostrils.

The woman you love ...

Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless days of life that God has given you under the sun. The wife God gives you is your reward for all your earthly toil. -Ecclesiastes 9:9 NLT

This verse reminds me that I might still be a man without faith if it were not for my first wife Ellen. It causes me to think of a time when my agnosticism was challenged. Here it is as told in The Weekend that Changed my Life:
On a weeknight in the fall of 1975 Ellen interrupted my TV time with a few questions ... ones that would impact me for the rest of my life. She started with “Do you believe in the bible?” I replied sarcastically “Of course I do ... Episcopalians believe in the bible.” ... I wasn’t going to let her get the best of me ... my religion was just as good as hers. She asked another question: “Do you believe in evolution?” I said “Of course I do ... it is science.” Then she said something that rocked me – “Then you don’t believe in the bible”. Of course being a New Yorker I had to say something, so I retorted “I don’t know about all that but whatever the Episcopalians believe is what I believe.” I had no clue what the bible said because I had never read it and for some reason this bothered me.
My life began to change that night because of the blessing of a wife who challenged me to leave the safety of agnosticism. My heart opened a bit that night to Jesus and a desire to read the bible began to grow inside me. It is amazing how all of this happened through the faith of the woman who loved me enough to speak truth to me.

Thank you Lord for the people of faith in our lives who, by their words and their lives, challenge us to believe.

Caught by sudden tragedy ...

People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy. -Ecclesiastes 9:12 NLT

Memories flashed through me when I read the words "sudden tragedy". It was in April of 1972 that it happened. I came home from my new job to find my young wife crying. She had been to an optometrist that day. He told her that she had diabetic retinopathy and was going blind. "Sudden tragedy" hit us and all we could do was weep uncontrollably. I was not a praying man and in the following years I did not know how to deal with the pain of this "sudden tragedy".

As I write another "sudden tragedy" comes to mind. In December 2002 my wife Ann and I boarded a cruise ship. Within days Ann found herself paralyzed from the waist down. Stressed to the max I began to pray and heard this response deep within me: "You cannot manage this like one of your work projects. You must learn to flow." That taught me that our response to "sudden tragedy" should be to release control, trust God and learn to flow with life.

Help us today Lord to release control of that which cannot be controlled. Help us to trust you with all of our hearts.

It is all decided by chance ...

I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time. -Ecclesiates 9:11 NLT

So much of our lives were determined before we were born. We did not choose the country, city or family that we were born into. After birth we did not choose the level of care that our parents gave us. We all grew up in a closed environment where we were exposed to only what our parents allowed or what we experienced in our small part of the world. The concepts of self-determination and life choices would come later after our childhood programming.

It is amazing that any of us ever see past our early environments and do the things that we do as adults. It is here where I see the influence of God on my life. In contrast to the narrowness of youthful experiences I find God to be one who encourages and empowers us to escape our environmental limitations. In Christ it is written that all things are possible. In a sense it is not decided by chance at all but by our response to Christ's call to follow him.

All things are possible in you Lord Jesus. Help me to trust you to lead me today.

Receive the same treatment as sinners ...

This, too, I carefully explored: Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether God will show them favor. The same destiny ultimately awaits everyone, whether righteous or wicked, good or bad, ceremonially clean or unclean, religious or irreligious. Good people receive the same treatment as sinners, and people who make promises to God are treated like people who don’t. -Ecclesiastes 9:1-2

Jesus Christ seems to echo this sentiment in the Sermon on the Mount when he says that God "gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike." There is something about life that levels the playing field - the best and the worst of us can experience the joys of family and the devastation of cancer. Many theologians have struggled with this and have asked the question of why bad things happen to good people.

When I think about the bad things that have happened in my life I see it more as the result of a fallen world than a fallen God. In the beginning God created all things and called them good. Yet he ceded a bit of his sovereignty, at a micro level, to his creation and bad things eventually began to happen as people began to make decisions. Some decisions seemed to originate in faith while many originated elsewhere. That challenge remains today. Will we respond in faith?

Help us Lord to always respond in faith - to the good and bad things of life.

Better to be a live dog ...

There is hope only for the living. As they say, “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!” The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered. Whatever they did in their lifetime—loving, hating, envying—is all long gone. They no longer play a part in anything here on earth.
[Ecclesiastes 9:4-6 NLT]

The words of Solomon in these verses are absolutely true - if one takes God out of the equation. It is true for those who do not believe in heaven - earth is all there is for such people. It is true for those who see death as final - life for those is limited to their time on this planet. Many people cannot see past what their minds tell them - sometimes these are known as "intellectuals". These are ones who eat, drink and are merry while others hurt, thirst and are hungry.

In contrast are those who embrace the promises of God and see this life as just the beginning of something so much greater. These understand that being born of the Spirit means beginning a life that will surpass death. They realize that their lives are so much more than their times here. People of faith have the potential to lead the richest of lives because they see everything in light of eternity. They embrace a love that will never die. These will one day see God.

Help us to embrace eternity in our everyday living Lord. Open our eyes to the glory of heaven.

Power to hurt each other ...

I have thought deeply about all that goes on here under the sun, where people have the power to hurt each other. I have seen wicked people buried with honor. Yet they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are now praised in the same city where they committed their crimes! This, too, is meaningless. And this is not all that is meaningless in our world. In this life, good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless! -Ecclesiastes 8:9-10,14 NLT

These verses cause me to flashback to the ending of the first Godfather movie where a young Michael Corleone has gangster leaders murdered as he becomes Godfather of his sister's child. Violent and perverted people often seek the legitimacy of the institution of religion yet are in no way attracted to following God. While I cannot relate to Michael Corleone I do resonate with the attraction of religious affirmation and the judgmental attitude that accompanies it.

The unfairness of this life is reflected in the ways that Solomon speaks of the evil being honored and how good people are often treated as bad people. Reminds me of that cynical saying: "Life is not fair and then you die." Sometimes our journey seems like that. Even so, I find in the life, teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ a power that heals rather than hurts ... a power that sees people as ones whom God loves ... a force that brings love and hope to the world.

Help us dear Lord Jesus Christ to see past our cynicism and embrace the love that you showed us on the cross.

Not even the wisest people ...

In my search for wisdom and in my observation of people’s burdens here on earth, I discovered that there is ceaseless activity, day and night. I realized that no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim. -Ecclesiastes 8:16-17 NLT

Socrates once said "True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing." In truth, even our greatest minds know very little when their knowledge is compared to what there is to know about their area of expertise. In this passage Solomon seems to agree with that assessment. Yet there seems to be an intellectualism that permeates society that communicates an idea that is contrary to what Socrates and Solomon came to understand.

There is something about knowledge, even a lit bit of it, that twists us and causes us to do believe that we are more than we really are. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul acknowledged that while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens us. I find a humility in those words that is so hard to grasp. In a sense, knowledge is all about us but love is all about others. Perhaps that is why wisdom is not all about knowledge?

Lord, keep us free from pride. Help us to embrace the humility of love.

In the face of death ...

Indeed, how can people avoid what they don’t know is going to happen? None of us can hold back our spirit from departing. None of us has the power to prevent the day of our death. There is no escaping that obligation, that dark battle. And in the face of death, wickedness will certainly not rescue the wicked. -Ecclesiastes 8:7-8 NLT

A good friend recently shared with me her list of things that she would die for. I loved the list - something like that has a way of putting the things of life in perspective. I suspect that there are things that you would die for. Soldiers often risk all in battle telling the world that they would die for their country. Misguided teenage suicide bombers believe that they are dying for God and their religion. The world is replete with heroes like police and firefighters who risk their lives daily.

Solomon's words speak to me about the brevity of life and the importance of living 'today' to the fullest. Having a 'to die for' list puts 'today' in perspective a bit. It reminds me of how Jesus Christ laid down his life for us when he was crucified. Before he was sentenced to die he told Pontius Pilate that he could call 10,000 angels to rescue him. Yet, in the face of death, he proclaimed to all who would hear his story, then and now, that he loved us enough to die for us.

Lord, help us today to ponder the brevity of life and the importance of living today as it may be our last.

Wisdom is always distant ...

I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn't work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. ... “This is my conclusion,” says the Teacher. “I discovered this after looking at the matter from every possible angle. Though I have searched repeatedly, I have not found what I was looking for.” [Ecclesiastes 7:23-25,27-28]

Is it possible to be wise apart from God? Now I am not asking if one is able to be brilliant, in an intellectual sense, apart from God - it seems that many intellectuals are agnostics or atheists. In a sense, I am asking if one can be smart and unwise at the same time. Looking at what Solomon says here it certainly seems possible. In my thinking wisdom is an issue of the heart and not the head. Consequentially even the most intellectually challenged can be wise.

This idea speaks to me and helps me to understand why Solomon, the purported wisest man of his time, says that wisdom "is always distant and difficult to find". Thinking will not always bring wisdom to you. Sometimes wisdom is only found by trusting the Lord with all of your heart. Often the path to wise living can only be found through prayer. To answer my original question, I do not think it possible to be wise apart from God. It is a matter of having a new heart.

Teach us to be wise Lord. Help us to trust you with our heart and not lean on the thoughts of our head.

Both come from God ...

Accept the way God does things, for who can straighten what he has made crooked?
Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God.
Remember that nothing is certain in this life. [Ecclesiastes 7:13-14 NLT]

As wise as Solomon was he absolutely got it wrong in these verses. Yet many perceive God in this way. Well meaning and faithful people throughout the years have viewed God as some sort of divine puppet master pulling the strings one way and bringing blessings but causing hard times by pulling different strings. It is an ancient view that was totally destroyed and set on end by Jesus Christ when he came and showed us what God, and his kingdom, is really like.

Jesus Christ told Phillip that anyone who has seen him has seen God. In that statement Jesus put to rest any idea that God makes things crooked and inflicts us with hard times. For in the gospels we see in Christ a God who is consistently moved by love and compassion. We do not see some sort of divine puppet master but one who consistently blesses everyone that he touches with his hands and his words. In Jesus we find the one certain thing in life - love.

Help us to see you clearly dear Lord as the one who is called Love.