Friday, January 31, 2014

He's Got It Under Control

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV)

Daily life can, at times, be overwhelming.  The students with whom I work often struggle with the demands of their class loads, combined with the typical ordeals of college life such as relationships and decisions about the future.  They are often overwhelmed with everything coming at them. But, as I often tell them, the stresses of life will never let up, even after they graduate.  They may be different, but they will always be present.  

Adults, too, have many stresses.  Pressures from jobs, marriage, raising children, and on-going financial challenges cause lots of stress as we move through life.  The reality is life at almost any point contains elements of stress.  We often imagine, particularly when we are young, that there will come a point in our lives when we will be stress-free, but that is an illusion.  Life in a fallen world will always contain some stress.

The question then is how do we deal with it in a healthy manner?  We all know stress handled poorly can take years off of our lives.  Stress leads to elevated blood pressure, sleepless nights, and irritability, all of which can harm us physically.  Again, the Scriptures provide helpful guidance.

Paul says to rejoice always, pray continually, and to give thanks in all circumstances.  Now 1st Century life was full of stress, particularly for followers of Jesus.  Not only did they face the normal challenges of mere survival common in that day, but they also faced the daily threat of persecution for their faith.  If anyone had reason to be overwhelmed by life, it was 1st Century believers.  So if this command applies to them, it most definitely applies to us today.

Underlying Paul’s command is a deeply held belief that the Lord is in complete control.  No matter the circumstances of our lives, God is not throwing up His hands in desperation, having no idea how to deal with your particular situation.  He’s got it under control.  Thus, Paul says we should rejoice and give thanks because the Lord can be trusted even in the most desperate of circumstances.  And we should pray because that is the way our trust in the Lord is fed and maintained.  As we talk with Him, like when a child is soothed of his fear when in his father’s lap hearing his gentle words, our anxieties will melt away.

Today, know life will always be filled with stress.  Yet know that regardless of what is happening, the Lord is in control.  When you are feeling overwhelmed, run to Him and share your fears.  Then you will be able to rejoice and be thankful regardless of what you face because you will know the Lord has got everything in your life under control.

© Jim Musser 2014

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hot Coals

“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.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 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.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9-21 NIV)

Christian singer Natalie Grant created a firestorm on social media after she wrote this on her Facebook page on Sunday evening: “We left the Grammy's early. I've many thoughts about the show tonight, most of which are probably better left inside my head. But I'll say this: I've never been more honored to sing about Jesus and for Jesus. And I've never been more sure of the path I've chosen.”

Grant was lambasted by those who considered her early departure from the show, which featured a performance by Katy Perry described by many as resembling an act of witchcraft, a very sexually suggestive performance by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and a gay wedding ceremony, an act of condemnation and hate.  She responded to the criticism this way:

“I NEVER said I left during any particular performance,” Grant wrote. “I only said I left early. I never pointed out any one particular performance, I only said I had many thoughts about the entire show, which were best left inside my head and that is where they will stay. So those who say I condemned one performance but then condoned others clearly did not read the post. I will never stand on a street corner and wave a sign, I won't use my platform to engage in political arguments that will only divide and not unite. I do have my own personal convictions that I live by, and I will continue to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord. (Philippians 2:12)”

What I think her critics hoped for, and expected, was a ranting response pointing out the evils of homosexuality, the dangers of witchcraft, and the basic disintegration of family values on display at the Grammy’s.  Instead, what they got were some hot coals on their heads.

The 1st Century culture in which Paul lived was as harsh and coarse as anything we experience today.  You name it, it was present—orgies, homosexuality, witchcraft, drunkenness, idolatry, and excessive violence. If we were somehow transported back to that day, we just might think 21st Century America is not as bad as we have thought.  

It is in this context that we gain an understanding of the power of Paul’s words.  In the midst of such debauchery, Paul commands believers to hate what is evil, but to bless those who treat them badly; not to be vengeful, but to be loving toward the enemies of God.  

Enemies expect to be treated as such.  When they wrong someone, they are on their guard against retaliation.  To receive love and kindness instead can be either disarming or exasperating, depending on the condition of their hearts.  Either way, like when one comes into contact with hot coals, there will be a reaction.  

Natalie Grant’s response to her critics had the feel of hot coals.  She didn’t respond with righteous indignation or condemnation, but rather with gentleness and grace.  It stands out in a culture where people are so easily offended by almost anything and not hesitant to let the world know, often in the most harsh and coarse terms.  And, sadly, followers of Jesus have often done the same.  We have been quick to go on the defensive, thinking we are standing up for God.  But God is more than capable of taking care of Himself.  Instead, He calls us to love those who hate Him and us for a very practical reason: It is the best way to get their attention and create a pathway for the love of God to enter their hearts.  

Today, recognize love is always the best response to those who hate and condemn us for following Jesus.  Hot coals, like grace, kindness, and gentleness, will always get their attention in ways anger and revenge will not.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Our Humongous God

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!  Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.” (Psalm 139:17-18 NIV)

As I was sitting on the beach last month, I grabbed a handful of sand and thought about this verse.  It almost took by breath away.  It was impossible to count the grains of sand so I emptied my hand and tried to count the grains left stuck to my palm.  Again, it was impossible.  Literally hundreds of grains were still clinging to my skin.

The Psalmist is poetically saying it is impossible to grasp the immensity of God.  Imagine a beach full of sand and realize the sum of His thoughts are greater than the grains making up that beach.  Perhaps another way to illustrate this is to use the super computer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.  It can perform more than a quadrillion mathematical equations per second.  God can easily do more.  Imagine what it takes to hold a universe and all its components together operating in synch—a universe measured in size by the amount of time light can traverse distance in a year; a universe in which the earth is a tiny dot. Doesn’t it take your breath away?

God is really, really big.  Sometimes we just need to be reminded of that fact.  As my wife and I walked along the beach with the countless grains of sand under our feet, we watched in awe of the ocean waves, one after another after another, knowing that underneath those waves were countless varieties of life.  And a visit to any public aquarium will give an up close view of many of those species—countless varieties of all shapes, colors, and sizes.  And this is only the ocean.  Think of what’s in the rivers and the lakes.  Think of what is on the land—in the mountains, on the plains, and in the desert.  

I could go on and on.  Yet, I would never come close to adequately describing the breadth of God’s creation.  It is just too big.  He’s just too big.  

Today, take a minute or more to contemplate how big God really is.  It is a humbling, yet exciting exercise when you realize that humongous God knows you and loves you.

© Jim Musser 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Taking the Next Step

“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:6-7 NIV)

From working many years with college students who have grown up in the church, one gets a sense of what churches are teaching, or at least the messages being received by, the young people passing through.  One message is obvious: You must receive Jesus into your life to be saved.   The vast majority of students with whom I have worked have understood this message when they walked onto campus for the first time.  Most have embraced it as their own.  No doubt the church has this message down and proclaims it well.

But Paul also instructs us to continue to live in Him, to root ourselves deeply in a relationship with Him, to build ourselves into ever-growing spiritual maturity through that relationship, to continue to be strengthened by our faith, and to be so aware of the blessings of knowing Jesus to be continually overflowing with thankfulness.  And from what I have observed, this message either is not being proclaimed or is falling upon deaf ears.

The message seems to be that receiving Jesus is where one’s spiritual life begins and ends.  Nothing more is needed.  Sadly, this flies in the face of the teachings of Scripture and particularly what Paul says here.  It is like parents being satisfied with their babies merely standing instead growing up with the ability to walk and run.  

Paul’s message is, instead, that receiving Jesus as Savior and Lord is merely the beginning.  What is to follow is a lifelong commitment to grow in faith and maturity.  This involves getting to know Jesus through His Word, through having conversations with Him (aka: prayer), through spending time in meaningful conversations with fellow believers, and through living in obedience to the Lord’s commands.  The consistent practice of these strengthens faith and builds maturity over a lifetime, which is the point of beginning a new life.  Babies are born to grow up into adults.  In the same way, men and women who are born again (John 3:3) are meant to mature from spiritual babies into spiritual adults (Hebrews 5:11-6:3).  Receiving Jesus is the first necessary step, but it is only the first one.  

If you have believed that receiving Jesus as your Savior and Lord is all that is needed, know you have only part of the message.  In fact, that is just the first step on a lifelong journey of spiritual growth and maturity. And there is no better time than now to begin taking the next steps.  For they are just as important as the first one.

© Jim Musser 2014

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Hard Work of Forgiveness

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:43-47 NIV)

I spent almost all of last week in bed or on the couch trying to recover from the flu.  Thankfully, I had streaming movies and TV to keep me occupied. (I’ve always found it very difficult to read when I’m sick.)  One movie I watched was “The Kingdom,” a movie about FBI agents trying to solve a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.  If one word could capture the gist of this movie, it is hate.  The main FBI character said he would kill all the terrorists responsible.  The organizer of the attack whispered to his grandson as he lay dying: “Do not fear them; we will kill them all.”  Sadly, this pretty much captures what is happening in many parts of the world—a cycle of hate and death.

I also watched another movie, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary entitled, “The 16th Man.  It tells the true story of Nelson Mandela’s use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to bring hate-torn South Africa together after his election as the first black president.  The whites interviewed said they originally feared Mandela’s release from prison because it was the white government which had made him suffer for over 25 years.  They were sure he would be angry and feared he would seek revenge.  Yet, that is not what happened.  Even before his election, Mandela had already set his sights on using rugby—a white man’s game—and the Springboks, the national team and a despised symbol of white rule to the blacks, as a means to bridge the divide between the two races.  One of the most powerful scenes is when Mandela dons a Springbok hat in front of a throng of supporters and many boo.  In response, he explains how important rugby is to the whites, but also emphasizes the Springboks are the national team representing all South Africans.  He exhorts them for the sake of unity and peace to support the team in the World Cup.  

What allowed Mandela to be such a transformative figure in the history of South Africa and of the world was his ability to forgive his enemies.  And make no mistake, they were indeed enemies.  One former white leader said he was dismayed by Mandela’s release from prison and thought, rather, he should have been hung for his crimes instead.  Yet, when he saw Mandela’s forgiveness play out in meaningful dialogue with those who imprisoned him, the man’s hatred dissipated. 

And the 1995 World Cup did indeed unite South Africans just as Mandela had envisioned.  Blacks and Whites joined together, putting aside their hate for one another, to cheer on the Springboks, who went on to win the tournament.  Sadly, after Mandela left office, the voices of hate began to return and have grown louder over time.  

The truth is, what Mandela was able to do is so hard.  To forgive hateful acts and injustice is not natural.  And it seems to equate in people’s minds the same as letting them go unpunished.  So they seek revenge.  

This is what makes Jesus’ command so radical, yet so practical.  Imagine what the world would be like if it were put into practice.  Imagine if Palestinians were able to forgive Israelis and they the Palestinians.  Or if the warring factions in Syria would exchange hate for forgiveness.  Or even our political leaders in Washington instead of seeking to crush their opponents would be willing to put past disputes behind and work together for the common good of the country.  Hate and revenge bring on continual misery, but forgiveness brings freedom—freedom from a cycle of hate, injustice, and revenge.

Today, recognize the power of forgiveness of those you despise, hate, or merely dislike at some level.  It will be hard, but it will set you free from misery and make possible peace with your enemies, whoever they may be.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Friday, January 24, 2014

A God Made in Our Image

“With whom, then, will you compare God?
   To what image will you liken him?  As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
 and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.  A person too poor to present such an offering
 selects wood that will not rot;
 they look for a skilled worker
 to set up an idol that will not topple.

Do you not know?
 Have you not heard?
 Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood since the earth was founded?  He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
 and its people are like grasshoppers.
 He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught
 and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.  No sooner are they planted,
 no sooner are they sown,
 no sooner do they take root in the ground,
 than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

‘To whom will you compare me?
 Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.  Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?
 He who brings out the starry host one by one
 and calls forth each of them by name.
 Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” (Isaiah 40:18-26 NIV)

As I shared yesterday, human beings are the only created creatures that are created in the image of God.  We hold a special place in God’s universe.  Yet, we are still creatures, not the Creator.  And that has been a very difficult fact for humans down to through history to accept.  Our bent is to be the ones in charge.  For most of history, we have acknowledged that we are at the mercy of Powers far beyond us.  Yet, as creations of God, we have had much difficulty in submitting to Him.

In Eden, Adam and Eve decided there was a better way to live than the one God had given them.  The Israelites for many centuries cast aside God for images made by their own hands.  The Prophets repeatedly warned them and pointed out the foolishness of worshipping a god made by our own hands in our own image.  

Today, particularly in the West, most people don’t worship physical images of gods.  However, there are plenty who worship God as they have created Him in their own minds, or refuse to worship Him because He doesn’t fit their criteria of an acceptable God.  They either choose the “acceptable” descriptions of God in the Scriptures while ignoring those that are disdainful to them, or they reject God altogether because they can’t accept such a God as the Old and New Testaments describe. Either way, they are making their own images of who God is and should be.  Isaiah asks the question, “With whom, then, will you compare God?” For many, the answer is ourselves.

We often want God to do things the way we would do them.  So to comfort ourselves with our own righteousness, we demand He be that way or we won’t acknowledge Him, or we create an image of Him and insist that is truly who He is. 

There are many today who believe in a God that considers sin unimportant; He’s only focused on love.  There are those who proclaim from the TV studio and the pulpit that God’s main goal is for you to be rich in material wealth.  Still others believe God favors Democrats over Republicans or vice-versa.  All are man-made images and grotesque portrayals of the God of the Universe.  

Today, heed the words of the prophet: There is no way we can compare God to ourselves.  As the Lord says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,”
 declares the Lord.  As the heavens are higher than the earth,
 so are my ways higher than your ways
 and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) God has revealed Himself in the Scriptures—all of them—and that is where you must look in order to know who He is.  The goal is not for Him to look more like you, but for you to look more like Him in how you think and how you live.

© Jim Musser 2014

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Humans and Pets

“When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.” (I Corinthians 15:37-39 NIV)

In 2011, Americans spent more than 60 billion dollars on their pets.  In recent years, pet insurance, pet spas, and businesses allowing pets on their premises have become increasingly common.  It makes sense as more people refer to their pets as their children and include them in family pictures and even in their wills.  

Just this week, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) tweeted the following on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: "If we are 2 honor Dr. King today, we must continue 2 seek justice for EVERYONE who is disadvantaged"  The organization has long sought to equate animals with humans.  A number of years ago after a truck carrying live fish crashed along a California highway, it petitioned the government to erect a memorial in memory of the fish killed that day.  

In explaining to the Corinthian Christians the resurrection of the dead, Paul says there is a distinction between humans and animals, and that it is a God-given distinction.  Today, that distinction is increasingly blurred. Many have elevated the status of animals to that of humans, and sometimes even higher.  

The danger in this is we lose sight of the order of creation as the Lord made it.  In all that He created, God gave humans supremacy (Genesis 1:24-28), and He created humans in His own image.  To demonstrate loving respect for animals is a good thing, but to elevate them to the status of human beings is a distortion of God’s will.  

Today, recognize that God gave us animals as a source of pleasure.  He did not intend them to be put on the same level as human beings.  We are the only ones created in His image.  Thus, the needs of humans always take precedence over the needs of animals, whether it be the baby in a womb, a refugee from a war zone, or a neighbor next door.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Being Good Is Not Good Enough

“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’  ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone.’”(Mark 10:17-18 NIV)

Most people have a difficult time understanding how a good person could end up in Hell.  In fact, it is a stumbling block for many.  If their very good grandmother, aunt, mother, or uncle is sent to Hell, then they want nothing to do with a God like that.  But they are failing to realize that being good is not the standard God set for any of us.  Being good will never be good enough and Jesus tells us why.

In this conversation with a man, Jesus is not denying His divinity; instead He is making a point.  It was typical then, as it is today, to laud a man for his goodness, as if somehow that gained him favor with God.  This man didn’t recognize Jesus as God, only as a good man.  Jesus points out that only God is good, echoing the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 14:3) that no man is good.  

If God is the only one that is good, then where does that leave us?  In a world of hurt if we rely only on our goodness to somehow please God. The bar is set way too high.  Our goodness can never be good enough. So we can be kind and thoughtful, always showing respect to people and doing many good deeds in the world, but it will not be good enough.  If it were, then why would Jesus’ crucifixion be necessary?  If we could earn our way into Heaven based on our good deeds, then why would Jesus have to die?  As Paul clearly states, we are saved by grace through faith, not by our own good deeds. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

It is difficult to know how to respond to the person who asks, “but what about my grandma?  She was a wonderful person but she never went to church.”  All I can say is I know God is fair and He will never give anyone a raw deal.  I also know that everyone must come to God humbly acknowledging themselves as sinners in need of forgiveness.  For only then are we in the position to receive God’s grace, and it is by that grace we are saved.  

Many strive to be good and that is not a bad thing, but for it to count for anything, we must be doing it as a result of receiving God’s grace, not to earn it.  He is the only one that is good and we will never be good enough without His grace.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Getting Comfortable in the Deep End

“We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. 

“Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.” (Hebrews 5:11-6:1-3 NIV)

When a child is first learning to swim, her parents take her into the shallow end of the pool with floaties on her arms.  As she becomes more comfortable in the water, the floaties are removed and she learns to swim in the shallow end of the pool.  As she gains confidence and ability, mom and dad let her venture into the deep end.  It will usually take some time, but eventually she will become comfortable swimming in the deep end.

Maturing in our spiritual lives is a lot like learning to swim.  The goal is learning the deeper things of God and being comfortable there.  We all start out learning the basics—God loves us; Jesus died for our sins; we can only be saved through accepting Jesus as our Savior and Lord; we need to leave our lifestyles of sin and live in ways honoring to the Lord. These are the basics, the shallow end of the spiritual life.  But our goal should be to get comfortable in the deep end.  There we find the deeper understandings of God’s Word, a deeper intimacy with Him through prayer, the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) emanating from our lives, and a life that is transformed from the inside out to look more and more like Jesus.

There are some kids who are content with staying in the shallow end of the pool, but most want to get rid of the floaties, learn how to swim, and start playing in the deep end.  How is it that so many of us after we are born again become content to stay in the shallow end with our spiritual floaties on?  God never intended it to be that way.  He wants us to get to the deep end and enjoy being there.  

The goal of every Christian is to be spiritual growth.  Babies are destined to grow up and become adults.  Anything less than that we view as a tragedy.  It is no different in the spiritual realm.  We are to grow and mature spiritually.  

Today, ask the Lord to help you learn how to get to the deep end of the spiritual life and be comfortable there.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Warning

"Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.”  (Proverbs 30:5 NIV)

If you have ever gone bungee jumping, skydiving, or something else that involves risk of injury, you are familiar with the waiver of liability.  The companies providing these opportunities insist you sign this waiver absolving them of any liability for your injuries if they were to occur. And of course we are familiar with the warnings on coffee cups (“This beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot…”) and on television commercials advertising trucks or cars (“Professional driver on closed course.  Do not attempt.”).  All are cautioning there is some risk and all are basically saying, “You were warned; don’t blame us if you get hurt.”

This verse is basically a warning about living a life apart from God—you are exposed to life and all its dangers.  You may be hurt.  In other words, don’t blame God if life doesn’t go so well for you.  You were warned.  

I have known people angry with God because life didn’t turn out the way they expected.  They blame Him even though they never really sought to live for Him.  Like the person who puts a cup of coffee between their legs while driving, they want to blame God when they act foolishly and reap the consequences.  

God promises to be a shield against the dangers of life in a fallen world, if we take refuge in Him. (Not every physical danger or bad thing, mind you. Christians are hurt and die every day.  But His blessings are upon us even in those circumstances.)  But if we choose not to seek refuge in Him, He has also warned us of the consequences.  Thus, don’t blame Him if you do not choose to live for Him and things go badly for you.  You were warned.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Friday, January 17, 2014

Rendering God's Love Meaningless

“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)

Rob Bell, popular author and former pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church, said this last spring: “I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs – I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”

Bell’s views are being repeated and promoted in churches and blogs across the country and reflect the changing attitude toward sin.  Sin is being viewed less as an affront to God and more as an incurable disease with which everyone is afflicted.  Thus, don’t blame the victim.  Our response to sin, as Bell and others tell us, should be love and affirmation. It sounds good and reasonable, until we look a little deeper.  

In this story, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law fit perfectly the profile of the “haters” of today.  They don’t love; they only condemn.  They are hypocrites of the highest order.  And Jesus rightly puts them in their place by making a simple statement:  “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  They walk away in shame and you can almost hear the applause of this generation and the collective shout of approval: “Way to go Jesus!  Now that’s what we’re talkin’ about! No more hate; only love!”

If this were an unknown story, the expectation would follow that Jesus would affirm the woman and say nothing at all about the sin in her life.  For isn’t that how love is being defined these days?  We only affirm.  We accept people for who they are and how they live.  To correct is offensive and condemning.  Of course, Jesus did exactly what people today say shouldn’t be done.  He dared to tell the woman to leave her life of sin.  

I believe Rob Bell and others have good intentions, but what I don’t think they realize is by preaching God’s love at the expense of an emphasis on sin they are rendering that love meaningless.  What is so extraordinary about God’s love if sin is removed from the equation?  What need of a Savior do we have if condemnation and death are not the consequence of sin?  Would this story have even been recorded if sin (theirs and hers) were not mentioned?  

Sin is what separates us from God.  Sin is deadly and our destiny is in peril because of it.  Sin is why Jesus came.  To understand the fullness of His love, we must recognize the depth of our own sin.  God’s love is never intended to “make us proud of who we are,” but to be a mirror into which we gaze and see how far we have fallen and how desperate we are for a Savior.  It is not to lead to the acceptance of any sinful lifestyle or habit, but rather to the departure from it.  

Today, contemplate this question: If loving God means affirming those engaging in habitual sin, what meaning does His love really have?

© Jim Musser 2014

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Longing for the Seat on Stage

“When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’” (Luke 14:7-11 NIV)

Like almost every writer who has ever written, I enjoy my work being read.  In fact, I admit that almost every day I check my blog stats to see how many people have viewed it.  When the view graph spikes, I confess it gives me a sense of excitement and, occasionally, I wonder if that spike will lead to having a large audience and perhaps even a book deal.  

While it is okay to dream of bigger things for myself, there is also a danger in it, of which the Lord reminded me through this passage several weeks ago.  So many people these days want to be recognized and perhaps even famous; thus the popularity of social media such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.  People put themselves out there to be noticed; some hoping their next post will go viral.  In many respects, they are like the people in Jesus’ parable—they are seeking special attention rather than allowing it to come to them naturally.  

Like today, people in the 1st Century were easily seduced by status and power.  The disciples of Jesus were no exception, as is seen clearly in their debate among themselves about who was the greatest among them (Mark 9:33-35).  Though Jesus had the right to claim the highest honors and the most attention, He never did in His earthly life.  As Paul so eloquently describes, He “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
 by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)  Jesus came, not to become the most famous human being to ever live, but to do His Father’s will.  He humbled Himself, and fame and honor followed His obedience.  

Throughout His ministry, Jesus sought to get this across to His disciples. It was a truth they found difficult to learn, and so it is with us today.  What I have begun to realize is my desire for recognition is evidence of my lack of humility.  I want the attention because deep down I think I deserve it.  I am unwilling to sit in the back of the room; I want to grab that seat on the stage where everyone will recognize my abilities and applaud me.  

So when I read this a few weeks ago, it was as though the host escorted me from the place of honor on stage, which I sought for myself, and led me to a seat in the back of the room.  I was humbled and rightly so.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled.  

Today, follow the example of Jesus.  Don’t seek glory and honor for yourself.  Be humble and content with living your life in obedience to Him. Your seat on the stage will become available in His time.

© Jim Musser 2014

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Taking Notice

“He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 18:2-4 NIV)

Joshua Bell is a world-class violinist at whose concerts people pay as much as $100 for a seat.  Yet, on an early winter’s morning back in 2007, Bell couldn’t get more than a handful of people to listen to him play a 45-minute concert.  Bell was asked by the Washington Post to play in a Washington, D.C. subway station during the morning rush hour to see if people, in the course of their daily routines, would take notice of his beautiful music if they didn’t know who he was.  

So he arrived at the subway stop, took out his million-dollar Stradivarius, threw a couple bucks into the case for “seed” money, and began to play. He played six pieces by Bach.  After the first, the man who was accustomed to standing ovations, received no applause. He awkwardly paused and then began his second piece.  Of the hundreds passing by, only a few stopped to listen.  Some dropped a dollar in his case as they passed by.  One said later he never even heard the music because he was listening to his iPod.  

The only ones who seemed to really pay attention were the children. Every child that passed by turned to look and some fought their parents to stop and listen.  One three year-old continued to look back as his mother pulled him through the doors onto the street.  None of the parents were willing to let their kids stop and listen.  

By the end of the 45-minute concert, only two people were standing listening (one was a woman who recognized Bell from a concert she had attended earlier that week) and there was a total of $32 in his case.  

Our busyness and the task-oriented culture in which we live often lead us to miss the beauty of what is right in front of us.  Just this week, I sat in my living room at dusk working on my computer.  As I looked outside, I noticed the faint shades of dark pink and gray—the remnants of a beautiful sunset.  A sunset that occurred right outside my window, yet of which I had taken no notice. 

There are a number of reasons we should remain like children.  One of those is so we can continue to notice and be awed by the beauty of all God has created.  Whether it be a concert violinist, a sunset, or any other thing of beauty, we should always be the first to stop and take notice. After all, beauty is one of God’s great gifts to us. 

© Jim Musser 2014

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Knowing Jesus

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’

Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’

Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”?  Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.  Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.  And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.  If you love me, keep my commands.’” (John 14:6-15 NIV)

Every theistic religion focuses on reaching/pleasing God through human effort.  It is all about the works you do.  In the various forms of Christianity that exist and have existed down through the centuries, this has been manifested by emphases on faithful attendance at worship services, commitment to various rituals (such as the saying of the rosary or partaking of Communion every week), or withdrawal from society as demonstrations of one’s faithfulness to God.  And Jesus’s words can seem to endorse such attitudes—“If you love me, keep my commands.”  

Yet, the Pharisees are the Jewish equivalent of many Christians.  They were very committed to keeping what they believed to be the commands of God.  Yet, Jesus, in an earlier encounter with them, proclaimed they did not truly know God (John 8:19).  In this passage and later when He speaks about being the Vine (John 15:1-8), Jesus makes clear the first requirement of pleasing God is to know Him.  He IS the way; He IS the truth; He IS the life.  No one gains access to the Father but THROUGH Him.  

Typically, however, we humans are prone to get the proverbial cart before the horse.  We think the way to please God is to do what we think He wants us to do.  And usually that is some sort of good work.  So we faithfully go to church thinking we are pleasing Him.  Or we do our best to be a better person than others around us.  Or we make sacrifices in our lives to demonstrate our worthiness to Him.  

These attempts are not necessarily wrong, but if they are done as a way to earn God’s love rather than as a result of His love, then we miss an important truth: God’s love cannot be earned, but only received.  And it is received, not through a single prayer, but through knowing Jesus, as one would a spouse or close friend.  It would never do for me just to do good things for my wife; she wants me to spend time with her talking and getting to know her on a more deep and intimate level.  It is the same with Jesus.  He doesn’t just want us to do things for Him; He wants us to know Him.

Today, recognize that following Jesus is first and foremost a journey of getting to know Him.  When you do, you will want to obey Him, not out of obligation, but out of love, which is always the most satisfying motivation.

© Jim Musser 2014

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Lesson from a Waiter

“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.  He will not always accuse,
 nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.  For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
 so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:8-12 NIV)

It was Christmas Day and my wife and I were in Destin, Florida enjoying a week away from the cold and snow of our home in Boone, North Carolina. We were eating a lunch at one of the few restaurants open that day. Sitting at our table on the edge of Destin Harbor, the Lord had put it on my heart to leave a large tip for our waiter.  That sense was there long before we arrived at the restaurant, which was fortunate for the waiter because his service was average at best.  He wasn’t particularly friendly or attentive.  

As I laid my 50% gratuity on the table out of obedience, a realization dawned on me about the Lord’s grace and mercy.  Our waiter, based on his service, did not deserve the tip I gave him; yet, I had great joy in being gracious toward him.  In fact, more so than I think I would have if he had provided excellent service.  

As I reflected on this the rest of the week, I understood why the Lord led me to tip so generously.  It gave me a first-hand experience of showing grace and mercy when it is not earned or deserved.  In that waiter, who didn’t give his best or treat us as well as we should have been, I saw myself.   I often treat the Lord and those He loves in a similar manner. Yet time and time again, He joyfully shows me grace and mercy; He doesn’t treat me as my sins deserve.  

As I look upon my life, I have been incredibly blessed.  Yet, as Paul did (I Timothy 1:15), I see myself as the chief among sinners.  My life is anything but a résumé of righteousness.  I am the waiter that doesn’t give his best, but keeps being given generous tips.  At lunch that day, the Lord reminded me of this.

We never saw our waiter’s reaction and, in reality, that was unimportant. The truth of which I was reminded in my obedience was the reward: I often give poor service to my Lord, but He joyfully continues to leave me great tips.  

Today, may this be a lesson we put into practice with those around us.

© Jim Musser 2014