Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Heaping Up Those Burning Coals

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.  On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. 
 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’” (Romans 12:18-20 NIV)

There are traditions in every religion which call adherents to defend their God.  Muslims, Hindus, and, yes, even some in realm of Christianity, feel called to take action in defense of their God or gods.

The Apostle Paul lived in similar times when people were quick to pull the trigger on defending their gods.  Acts 19:23-41 tells the story of a riot by the worshippers of the Greek goddess, Artemus.  They believed Paul and other Christians were blaspheming by advocating that Artemus was no god at all.  They rioted in defense of her deity.

So this passage is significant because of the times in which he lived and the times in which we live as well.  Paul is telling us that, unlike worshippers of other gods, we do not need to defend God or seek revenge on His behalf.  In fact, he takes it one step further.  Not only do we not need to defend God, we should respond with kindness rather than revenge toward those who are attacking Him. 

In the times that we now live, this should give us pause.  Who do we consider the enemies of God and how do we treat them?  Are we responding with thoughts, words, and actions of revenge?  Would we rather get back at them than be kind to them?  

Today, recognize the Lord is calling you to kindness toward His enemies rather than revenge.  He does not need you to come to His defense.  In due time He will set things right, but for now He wants you to start heaping up those burning coals of kindness on the heads of those against Him.  Sounds like a great plan.  

© Jim Musser 2017

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Measures

“We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you. We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. 

Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in someone else’s territory. But, ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” (II Corinthians 10:12-18 NIV)

As part of my cardiac rehab, I was working out on a stationary bike, doing around 120 rpms with a fairly high resistance, and sweating profusely.  A woman walked by and said, “You’re working way too hard.” A little later, after I explained a little about my physical challenges over the years and that I’m seizing the day now than I can once again do vigorous exercise, she said, “I can’t stand it!”  Whether she was referring to my working out so hard or her loathing of the machine, I’m not sure, but it brought to mind how easy it is to compare ourselves to others and the dangers of it.

When I’m working out these days, it feels good and I often feel like I am so much younger than I am.  And when I observe all the others in their workouts, I’m tempted to think how much better shape I’m in compared to them. But when I wander in that mental direction, I have to quickly remind myself with whom I am making the comparisons.  I once asked one of the interns, a college student, what resistance he used when riding the bike.  It was nearly twice what I used.  

As Paul rightly says, when we compare ourselves with just ourselves as the standard or others who seem to fall below us, we are not wise. We are always going to find others with whom to compare ourselves to whom we are going to appear superior. But they will be the wrong measure. Instead, it is wise always to measure ourselves against the Lord. 

Measuring ourselves against anyone else can easily lead to self-righteousness or self-loathing. We tend to think we are better than we are or, conversely, worse than we are. When I compare myself physically to elderly people, I can think I’m quite the athlete, but against younger people, I get a dose of reality that I am not nearly as good as I have imagined. It all depends on the measure.

We should compare ourselves to God for two reasons.  First, it is quite humbling and keeps us from self-righteousness and ignorance of our true standing.  It leaves no doubt: we are sinners and have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Second, it levels the field of our tempted comparisons.  What good is it to compare ourselves with other sinners who are on the same level?  There are no distinctions of sin; there is just sin.  When we admit that we are merely sinners without any claims of righteousness, then we are in the position of accepting the truth that we are loved despite our sin (Romans 5:8).

Today, consider the measure against which you measure yourself. Are you being wise and measuring yourself against the righteousness of the Lord? Or are you falling into the trap of measuring yourself against yourself or other sinners like you?  The latter will keep you in bondage to self-righteousness or self-loathing.  The former will set you free to live life humbly and with the knowledge you are deeply loved despite your shortcomings.  

© Jim Musser 2017

Monday, September 18, 2017

Planting and Watering

“For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 3:4-11 NIV)

This past weekend, the ministry I direct celebrated being on campus for 25 years.  In attendance were many alumni from those 25 years—a few now middle-aged, many married with small children, and some in the early stages of their post-college lives. What an encouragement to see them continuing to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ!

There were testimonies about the beginnings of the ministry and about the many years that followed. A quarter-of-a-century of the Lord’s work in students’ lives. Years devoted to planting and watering, and the blessings in often seeing the Lord’s harvest through the fruits of faithful laborers.  Many of the testimonies focused on me and the impact I had on the lives of alumni, but while I appreciated the comments, I am, and always have been, merely a planter and waterer. I have worked hard to maintain that perspective, the same one the Apostle Paul held regarding his ministry.  

I say, “worked hard” because there is a strong pull to take credit where it is not due.  We, or others, want to pat ourselves on the back for the results of our work, but, as the agricultural metaphor implies, a farmer can do his best at planting and watering his crops, but he cannot make them grow or produce fruit.  All he can do is be faithful in planting and watering the seeds. The harvest is out of his hands.

Often, that harvest is slow in coming.  The seeds are planted and watered faithfully, but little or no growth is evident.  That doesn’t necessarily mean nothing is happening.  Just as a seed germinates underground, the spiritual work of the Spirit is often unseen for many months or even years, but there is still much happening beneath the surface.  Planting and watering requires a lot of patience, of which many times I am lacking.  I want to see the evidence of the effects of my labors.  

These are the challenges when we are about the work of planting and watering seeds of the Kingdom, but as I was reminded this weekend, they are worth overcoming in order to enjoy the harvest that the Lord brings—lives built solidly on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

Today, know the importance of planting and watering in God’s Kingdom. For if you are a follower of Jesus, then your role is to be planting and watering seeds in the lives of those He puts in your path.  It is a challenge, but the fruit the Lord will produce from your efforts, and the enjoyment they bring, will be more than worth it.  I know. I have tasted them often.

© Jim Musser 2017

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Joy of the Lord

“Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

The Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.’

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.” (Nehemiah 8:9-12 NIV)

When you first fall in love, you feel like you can overcome anything—poverty, resistance from parents, anything that is thrown your way. Love, as the saying goes, can conquer all.  

The Israelites had just returned to a Jerusalem in ruins.  There were no houses and few businesses.  Yet Nehemiah had felt the call of the Lord to rebuild the city and he had begun with the walls.  In these ancient times, a city’s walls were vital for protection and symbolized a strong and vital community.  Now that the wall had been built, Nehemiah had called the people to return.  

At the dedication of the wall, the Word of the Lord was read and the people were cut to the heart by the recognition of their sin.  For the Lord had allowed the city to be destroyed because of the disobedience of the Israelites. (II Chronicles 36:15-19)  Their eyes welled up in tears of grief and fear.  But Nehemiah exhorted them not to grieve, but instead to celebrate.  He said, “For the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

All of us have and will continue to experience difficult times, whether by things thrust upon us or by things of our own making.  In those times we will find ourselves very low, but we need not weep or mourn.  Like young people in love, the joy we have in the Lord can carry us through whatever we face.  For the Lord is above all things and our troubles, no matter how great they may seem, are, as Paul describes them, “light and momentary” (II Corinthians 4:17) The joy we have in the Lord far outweighs them all because we know there is coming a day when all our trials and sorrows will pass away.  So this joy, this hope, is a source of strength when times get really hard.

Today, if you are going through a difficult time, know the joy of the Lord can be your strength.  Regardless of what you are facing, His love can conquer it. 

© Jim Musser 2017

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Chasing After the Trendy Things

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.” (Isaiah 55:1-3 NIV)

Apple announced this week the coming release of the i-Phone X into the marketplace, and the question immediately was raised: Will people pay $1000 for a smartphone? Apple seems confident they will and what they hope to do is create a buzz about this phone, as it has done with every one of its phones since the original, so people will jump on the bandwagon and plop down their 10 “Benjamins” to own one.

That’s how it works in the marketplace: Get enough people’s attention to a product, convince them it’s the next hot thing, and watch as others quickly follow in order to be “in” and trendy.  The sellers don’t want people to ask if they really need it, just follow the crowd and buy it! The sad thing is many people’s lives consist of this chasing after what is the “in” thing without a lot of thought about the long-term consequences. 

Isaiah paints a picture of a middle-eastern market where vendors are competing for the attention of buyers.  They are yelling and reaching out to lead people back to their stalls, offering “a very good price” for their wares. If you have ever been to one of these markets (there are similar ones in Africa as well), then you know how chaotic they can be. And in Isaiah’s market, there is one vender selling something very different and is trying to be heard.  It is the Lord.  He is selling something that is not “hot” or trendy, but rather steadfast and reliable.  It does not provide a temporary rush when you hand over your money, but rather pays out long-lasting dividends such as peace, contentment, and everlasting life. But so often He is drowned out by the other vendors and His wares fail to draw much attention because they have to compete with more flashy and interesting products. 

Think about our marketplace today.  People are selling trendy things such as smartphones, apps, games, diets and food, clothing, etc. All tend to drown out the voice of the Lord and what He is offering us. Our fallen natures lead us to be attracted to the “shiniest” and most exciting things. And they can provide temporary satisfaction, but they have a short shelf life, which is the lifeblood of the retail business world. “Get something new; it will give you greater satisfaction!” Until it won’t any longer.

Today, what are the trendy things that are grabbing your attention, but distracting you from what the Lord is offering? Don’t be like the masses and spend your life chasing after the latest and most trendy things. The satisfaction they offer is very short-lived and a lifetime of pursuing them will leave you ultimately empty and disappointed. Only the Lord can satisfy your deepest needs. You will never regret wading past the crowds and ignoring the screaming vendors to get to the One who offers the best there is and ever will be.

© Jim Musser 2017

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Living By Faith

“For we live by faith, not by sight.”  (II Corinthians 5:7 NIV)

One of the great privileges of doing support-based ministry is you are forced to trust God to provide for you.  With it, there are no guarantees, particularly in the economy we have experienced the past four years. You are dependent on the generosity of churches and individuals, whose checks determine how much you get paid on a monthly basis. And as humans do, sometimes they disappoint.  They commit to a certain amount, but then fail to follow through.  Or they forget to send their checks for a couple of months.  Or their circumstances change and they stop support altogether, but do not let you know.  The end result is that month in and month out, you have to trust God to provide.

Ultimately, there are no guarantees for anyone who has a job, as many have learned in recent years.  And there are no guarantees for students graduating with a college degree that a job in their field will be waiting for them.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all dependent on God, but not all live by faith.  

Living by faith is living in confidence that the Lord has your back.  You do not need to worry that He is going to leave you on your own because you know He is going to take care of you.  Living by sight, on the other hand, is wringing your hands and looking constantly for evidence that things are going to be okay.  And the only time you are content is when things are going exactly the way you want them.

Paul says we live by faith because there isn’t always clear evidence of what we believe and put our hope in.  This is why many I have known who have wanted to enter a support-based ministry have encountered great resistance from parents, family, and friends.  They think it is crazy to earn a college degree and then, instead of getting a steady paying job, go into something where you are, as many view it, begging for money.  In other words, they don’t understand living by faith.  And they don’t understand the many benefits of doing it.

Living by faith draws us into a deeper relationship with the Lord because we are placing our trust in Him.  And when we put our trust in Him, we experience how faithful He is, and the more we trust Him, the bolder we will live out our faith.  

Today, you don’t have to do the work I do to live by faith.  You can do it by trusting the Lord to provide for you no matter your circumstance, no matter what things look like at the moment.  To live by faith is simply having the confidence God is going to work things out and then living in a way reflecting that.

© Jim Musser 2017 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Value of Hospitality

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:9-13 NIV)

I remember it just like it was yesterday.  I was in my early 20’s, a seminary student, and one very sad individual.  My mother had a died a little more than a year ago and my girlfriend, who I had in my mind I would one day marry, had just broken up with me.  It was the week before Thanksgiving and I was very lonely.  I made a call to a family I had met the previous summer while interning at a church and they invited me to come to their home for the holiday.  It was a time that significantly shaped my life. I remember feeling so “at home” there, as if I were part of their family.  They practiced hospitality well.

There have been many stories in recent days of people practicing hospitality for those affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, taking in family members, friends from afar, and total strangers, all people with needs.  Sometimes we have the misunderstanding that hospitality is all about welcoming people into our homes or apartments and putting on a show—a gourmet dinner, a birthday party, etc.—things that entertain your guests.  But in reality, the biblical one at least, hospitality is about meeting needs—physical, emotional, and spiritual.  

We recently hosted five international students for dinner.  They all had just arrived in the States a few weeks ago.  They didn’t have any physical needs, but while sharing prayer requests, it was obvious they had emotional and spiritual ones-homesickness, loneliness, and even fear.  Our home, the attention we gave them, provided some comfort during the challenging time of adjusting to a new culture. They, like me so many years ago, felt loved and no longer alone.  

That is the power of hospitality and why Paul and the other Apostles commanded its practice.  In the 1st Century, Christians had a lot of needs.  They were often persecuted and oppressed.  Hospitality served as a way to both protect them and encourage them, as it has done down through the centuries for followers of Jesus.  While we in the West do not suffer persecution of the magnitude of our Christian forebears, or modern-day believers living in nations hostile to the faith, it does not mean the practice of hospitality is any less needed.  

Loneliness, depression, and anxiety are increasing hallmarks of our culture, contributing to the rise in suicide rates.  Along with natural events such as wild fires, earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes, hospitality still is necessary to meet needs.

Today, consider people in your life who could benefit from your hospitality.  Regardless of your living situation, even living in a dorm room, your space can become a welcome haven for someone in need. It is amazing what a warm, welcoming environment, along with good food, drink and conversation, can do for someone in need.  I know because I experienced it and it helped to change my life.

© Jim Musser 2017