Thursday, April 19, 2018

Living Life in the Shadowlands

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” (I Timothy 6:17-19 NIV)

This is the time of year when most students are stressed, with the semester nearing its end and papers, exams, and projects looming. For those about to complete their degrees, it is also a time of hope. After nearly a decade and a half of school, they are on the cusp of moving fully into adult life, which will include, they hope, a significant income and a certain amount of prestige and fulfillment in their careers of choice.

In a recent discussion with a student with whom I am studying I Timothy, we talked about this passage and how easy it is for people to frame life solely in terms of a career and making money. I have known many students over the years who have gone on to successful careers and made lots of money, but have done little in terms of laying up treasures for themselves for what Paul refers as “the coming age,” aside from going to church. Their focus, instead, is to make the most of their newfound careers and earning capabilities—for themselves. 

Of course, this is what they have been taught all their lives. Careers are to benefit just our families and us. We make money so we can buy things, fulfill our desires, whatever they may be, and to be financially secure. Granted, there are those who use their careers and the money they make from them to benefit others and bring glory to the Lord, but the norm is to seek to benefit in this life rather than sacrifice in order to benefit more in the next.

Paul makes an interesting statement: “In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”  Notice the last phrase. We tend to think of this life as the one that is real, but the truth is it is the one that follows that is true life. C.S. Lewis referred to this life as “the shadowlands.” A shadow has a certain reality to it, but it is not the real thing, and that was his point, and I believe it is Paul’s as well.  We will find real life in the coming age—in heaven—rather than here. 

But since this life is the only one we know, we tend to think it is the real one and we invest all of our time, energy, and resources in it. But as Paul warns, it is a colossal mistake and to be avoided, for the coming age is infinite, while this one is so very short by comparison. Like the college student who wastes a large portion of time on partying and comes to regret it later on, so will those who waste this life living for themselves.

Today, consider the priorities of your life. Are you living in such a way as to store up treasures that have lasting value? Are you grasping to hold onto shadows rather than pursuing what is real? Now is the time to figure that out because the shadows will fade sooner than you think.

© Jim Musser 2017

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Recognizing Who's Special

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:3-5 NIV)

A survey of freshmen several years ago revealed what continues to be a long-term trend with recent high school graduates—they tend to think very highly of themselves in terms of their abilities and potential.

In the world of social media, this has only increased the narcissistic tendencies, not only of this latest generation, but in all of us.  Every Facebook post, every tweet, and every Instagram photo we post gains us the immediate attention of dozens to hundreds of people.  The focus continually is on us and it is increasingly more difficult to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought.  

Yet, in this social media saturated world in which we find ourselves, Paul’s warning is a much-needed one.  Thinking about ourselves in terms of who we are compared to the Lord, and who we are to be in the Body of Christ is a necessary exercise to induce humility.  Compared to the Almighty God, we are nothing.  And given that we are His creatures means we are no more special than the next person.  He has created us for a purpose, but that purpose is one which fits into His overall will, which is achieved by all who are called by His Name.  In other words, it is God who is special, not us.  

This goes directly against the cultural current in which we live and it will not be easy to extricate ourselves from its grip, but it is something we must seek to do.  For God gives His glory to no one.  All eyes are to be focused on Him.  When our glory becomes more important than His, we are indeed wading in dangerous waters.  

Today, think of yourself with sober judgment.  Recognize the only one special in this world, or the universe, is the Lord.  You indeed have your place in it, but only by His will.  But if you think about it, that’s pretty special.

© Jim Musser 2018

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Kind Rather than Right

“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35 NIV)

A number of years ago, I saw on Facebook a former student treat another former student’s post with extreme harshness. Privately, I challenged his tone. He apologized to her, but he, from then on, was hostile to me in a couple of his posts, and eventually “unfriended” me. 

There is a coarseness and harshness to so much of what is posted on social media, and I am disturbed, particularly when people claiming to be Christians do it. There is legitimate criticism to be made about many things, but followers of Jesus, of all people, need to avoid the vitriol in which comments are so often wrapped. It’s as if we somehow feel a certain freedom behind the screen of a phone or computer to write things we would never say to a person’s face. 

Although Jesus was not on earth during the advent of social media, it appears His words are appropriate for the age in which we live. While we may not consciously view people who disagree with our views as enemies, often our responses reflect otherwise. I suppose the man to whom I referred above doesn’t really consider me an enemy, but he did, in a way, treat me like one. 

If we are to be kind to “the ungrateful and wicked,” then shouldn’t we be kind to everyone? Our pastor has often said there is no command to be right, but there is one telling us to be kind. 

It is a challenge, though. Our flesh is prone to pride and, thus, we like to be right and for people to know that we are. Through subtle digs or sarcasm, or more blatant harshness, we often seek to protect our pride or enhance it. If we are to overcome our pride, we have to depend on the Lord for strength and discernment to respond to people with kindness.

Today, where do your struggles with a lack of kindness lie? Is it on social media? Or in the way you talk about others with friends? Or is it face to face with family members where the old cliché—familiarity breeds contempt—often applies? Wherever they are, know the Lord calls you to be kind rather than right. 

© Jim Musser 2018

Monday, April 16, 2018

Being First

“Then Peter spoke up, ‘We have left everything to follow you!’

‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’” (Mark 10:28-31 NIV)

Last week, I flew to Denver to visit with some alumni from my campus ministries-the University of Kansas, where I served for many years, and Appalachian State, where I currently serve. It was a good trip where I was able to reconnect with people I once watched grow into adults and who continue to walk the narrow road that leads to life. But this really has nothing to do with this morning’s thoughts, except that I traveled on planes.

Have you ever noticed at airline gates how there are some people who begin standing in line almost as soon as the gate personnel arrive? For many, there is something about getting on first that is appealing. In fact, airlines often make offers that allow certain passengers the ability to have “priority boarding.” It may be based on the number of “sky miles” you have, that you possess a certain credit card, or that you are flying First or Business Class. There is just something about being first that is attractive to us.

For this trip, it just so happened that I had a credit card that allows me to have priority boarding. I have to admit that it felt quite good to stand in the line on the left and to answer the call, “Sky Priority passengers may now begin boarding.” And as the rest of the passengers stood by, my fellow priority passengers and I walked into a nearly empty plane to find our seats and get settled. We were special.

The pull to be first is a strong one, whether it is in a line for food, a concert, a class exam, or even possessing news which we can be the first to tell someone. Even if we rarely, if ever, are first, most of us still have that longing. The truth is, being first feels good. It makes us feel special in some way.

This is the reason Jesus speaks in a rather upside down manner—many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. The disciples had just reminded Him they had left everything to follow Him. They, in essence, had chosen to be last. While their families and friends retained possessions and status, they had intentionally forsaken those in order to follow Jesus. So He comforted them by saying because they had chosen to be last, they would be eventually rewarded by being first when it counted the most.

The challenge for all of us who seek to follow Jesus is to resist the temptation of being first. If we follow Him, then we are to value others above ourselves, and to serve them.  As we all know, this does not come naturally to us. This is why we will be rewarded if we do. By sacrificing now, we will be rewarded later, just as Jesus promised to His disciples.

Today, consider how you can be last rather than seeking to be first. By doing so, your sacrifice now will be rewarded later when it really counts to be first.

© Jim Musser 2018

Friday, April 13, 2018

Talking About Jesus

“‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.  But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say.  So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together.  ‘What are we going to do with these men?’ they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it.  But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.’

Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.  But Peter and John replied, ‘Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him?  You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’” (Acts 4:12-20 NIV)

For my Bachelor of Social Work degree, I was required to do a practicum, or internship, during my final semester.  When I met with my supervising professor, she asked a very direct question: Can you promise you will not share your faith during the practicum?  I told her I could not, and she replied that she might refuse to allow me to finish my degree.  

What she was afraid of was I would be proselytizing—attempting to convert people to the Christian faith.  It is a loaded word that in our culture conjures up images of telling people they are going to hell, cornering someone and reciting Scripture to them, or brainwashing them.  Proselytizing is illegal in many countries and often cited as unacceptable in the codes of conduct of businesses and educational institutions, as well as the U.S. military.  

It is what the religious authorities were accusing Peter and John of doing.  And what they commanded of them is increasingly what our culture is telling those of us who believe: Don’t speak any longer to anyone in this name.  We don’t want to hear it!  

While there are examples of those following Christ being rude, judgmental, and coercive to unbelievers, this isn’t the norm nor is it what most are against.  They just don’t want to hear about Jesus, their need for Him as Savior, and the fact that He is Lord of their lives whether they acknowledge Him or not.  That was my professor.  She disliked Christians and what they represented (though pressure from the department chairman forced her to allow me to do my practicum). Those with similar views are increasing and are gaining influential positions in our society.  

As the hostility towards followers of Jesus increases, Peter and John offer the perfect example of responding to it.  They were not angry or rude, just matter of fact: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him?  You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”   They were not cowered by the hostility they encountered.  They knew what they had seen, heard, and experienced with Jesus.  No amount of pressure, harassment, or suffering was going to deter or silence them.  They were going to tell others about their Lord.

Today, recognize the increasingly hostile environment growing around you as a follower of Jesus.  More and more, you are going to hear voices that tell you not speak to anyone about Jesus.  But take courage from the example of Peter and John.  They could not help but tell others about Jesus because of the transformative impact He had on their lives. It should be the same with you.  

© Jim Musser 2018

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Loving the Lost

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.  “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:20-24 NIV)

It happened very early on a Saturday morning. I received a call from one of my students.  I immediately knew there was a problem because students don’t call me that early.  He and some other guys had gone camping.  Two had gone out to look for firewood the previous night and hadn’t returned.  Feelings of dread rose inside of me.  They were experienced hikers and the only explanation in my mind was something bad had happened.  

While the student called 911, I sent a text to one of the missing student’s phone, hoping he would respond.  A few minutes later, a text came through—they were safe.  They had gotten lost and, because night was falling, they had had to build a shelter and hunker down for the night.  They were unable to get a cell phone signal, so they were not able to let their fellow hikers know they were safe.  It wasn’t until daylight the next morning that they were able to hike to a point where they had cell service.

When that text came through, my heart leapt in my chest.  They had been lost, and I had feared the worst, but now they were found.  What a great feeling that was!

I am sure the father in Jesus’ parable had similar feelings at the sight of his son.  I suspect the father assumed the worst, so his joy was immense when he saw his son coming down the road towards home.  

Jesus told this parable to highlight the Heavenly Father’s concern for the spiritually lost in face of criticism that He hung out with “sinners.” The spiritual leaders of the day refused to associate with those they deemed living sinful lives.  So when Jesus came on the scene and spent time with them, they were appalled.  

His parable points out the fact, the greater the love for a person, the greater the joy will be when the person is lost and then is found.  So what He is saying in this parable and the others in Luke 15 is that God cares deeply for the lost; thus, so should we.  

The question is, do we care?  Do we care about those in our neighborhood, those we work with, those we know in our classes that are lost?  Or do we succumb to the cultural belief of ‘to each his own’ and just mind our own business?  

Today, recognize the Father’s deep love for those who are lost.  If you haven’t already, begin to pray for the lost in your midst and look for opportunities to share with them the Good News that they are loved by their Father who longs for them to return home.  

© Jim Musser 2018

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Repentance: Jesus' Loving Command

“At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.  The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’  They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’  Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.  Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

’No one, sir,’ she said.

‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’” (John 8:2-11 NIV)

This has always been one of my favorite stories in the Scriptures.  The teachers of the law and the Pharisees, full of self-righteousness, drag a woman before Jesus who they claim was caught in adultery.  One question I have always had is, where is the man with whom she was caught in the act?  Was he not, too, deserving of punishment?

They are seeking to test Jesus, to see if He will be faithful to the Law of Moses.  But Jesus knows their hearts and rebukes them in a fascinating way.  After the men drop their stones and leave, the woman is left standing alone.  Given what she had just been through, most of us I think would expect Jesus (in our 21st Century western mindset) to wrap His arms around her and tell her how much she is loved.  Yet, He did something entirely different.  He assured her He did not condemn her for her adultery.  But then He commanded her to change her lifestyle. In other words, He told her to repent.

In much of today’s church, repentance is a forsaken concept.  It has been moved aside in favor of love and acceptance.  Yet, repentance is what Jesus commands of all sinners (Luke 13:1-5).  It is what Peter told those gathered at Pentecost to do if they wanted to be saved (Acts 2:37-38).

Did Jesus love and accept the adulterous woman?  Of course, but if we delve deeper we will see His command for her to repent flows from His love for her.  By definition, sin is going against what the Lord commands.  But He gives such commands because He loves us and wants what is best for us.  So Jesus, out of His love for her, tells the woman to leave her life of sin.  

Today we have been deceived into thinking that to love someone is to accept them as they are, period.  It does sound very appealing, but we must realize Jesus went further.  He called on people to repent of their sins.  And doing so is not condemnation; it is love.

Today, know we are to love people regardless of their lifestyles.  But where sin is involved, we are also to encourage them toward repentance.  This is true love and exactly what Jesus did.

© Jim Musser 2018