Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Vacation Destination

“While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’  They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” (Luke 24:36-43 NIV)

The death and resurrection of Jesus gives His followers the hope and assurance of new life.  Why then is death so frightening?  Paul says that dying is winning (Philippians 1:21), but we mostly treat it as a terrible loss. Most people are scared to die and want to postpone the prospect for as long as possible.  I recently read that those seeking extraordinary medical procedures to sustain their physical lives are more likely to hold Christian beliefs.  Why is that?

I think it is because we can’t really imagine life in eternity.  It’s like trying something new, like going on a rollercoaster or traveling to a foreign country, that people tell us is so great, but we are unsure because we haven’t experienced it.  We know we should be excited, and we may even act as if we are, but deep down we are scared.  

Jesus schooled the disciples on things of Heaven, but they had never experienced it.  And when they saw Him for the first time after His resurrection, they were terrified.  Seeking to reassure them, Jesus showed them His hands and His feet still bearing the scars of His crucifixion.  And then He asked for food and ate it in front of them.  Could it be that life after death somewhat resembles this life?  I think Jesus sought to reassure them that it does.  

Death didn’t enter the created world immediately.  There was a time when Adam and Eve lived in Paradise where there was no death or suffering. They ate, they drank, and they laughed.  When they rebelled against the authority of God, then things turned bleak.  But still, as C.S. Lewis once described it, life here is a shadow of eternity.  We see resemblances, but not the real thing.  The real thing, however, is probably not as far removed from our own experience as we might imagine.  We will have real bodies and eat real food.  The mountains, the rivers, and the oceans will still exist, but will even be more beautiful than the sin-tainted ones we enjoy so much here on earth.  

By simply showing the similarities of His resurrected body to His earthly one, I think Jesus was attempting to reassure His disciples and us that death is not something we need fear.  What we encounter on the other side will be recognizable and somewhat familiar to us.  Indeed, it will be different, but I think we will find those differences much to our liking.  

Today, think of death as like taking a permanent vacation to one of your favorite destinations.  It is not something to fear, but to be excited about when it finally is your turn to go.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Unvanquished Grace

“I remember my affliction and my wandering,
 the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind
 and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:19-23 NIV)

I should have known, writing as I did yesterday, that I needed to be prepared for a day of challenges.  I told my wife what I wrote was as much for me as anyone (as it often is).  For the past couple of weeks, the stress points have been accumulating in my life and my irritability levels have been on the rise.  That’s usually how my stress reveals itself—small things getting under my skin.  Always has, which really irritates me that it is still such a struggle.  

I knew it was going to be a busy day, but it was also my birthday, so I was looking forward to a good day.  But within a couple hours of waking up, the day’s plans were already off the rails.  Our car needed immediate repairs and both my wife and I had planned on using our vehicles during the day.  Now those plans had to change and I was frustrated.  And I took it out on my wife.  I yelled at her.

Later I asked for her forgiveness, but a cloud of disappointment hung over me the rest of the day.  Much like Peter who confidently proclaimed his willingness to die for Jesus and hours later denied he even knew Him, I heard the rooster crow as I thought about the devotion I had written only hours earlier.  

We can have such good intentions and know what we need to do, but that damnable flesh has a way of humbling us, even if we have been humbled similarly time and time again.  And this is what the enemy wants to hammer us with: “How can you say you follow Jesus and continue to do this over and over? You’re a hypocrite!”  I am sure Peter heard something like this after his denial and that’s how I felt yesterday.

Yet, the amazing thing about God is His abundant grace and mercy towards us.  There is always an opportunity for a fresh start, as Jesus demonstrated with Peter (John 21:15-19).  His mercies are new every morning!  These wonderful words of Jeremiah were in my mind as I awoke this morning.  And how encouraging and freeing they were! Yesterday is past and my sin is forgiven.  Today starts afresh and I have a clean slate.  The battle with my flesh will continue, but it is not weighed down by previous losses.  God’s grace cannot be vanquished; it is restored with each new day.

Today, if like me, you have been bruised and battered by the struggle with your flesh, know that your day is starting afresh.  The sins of yesterday, if you confessed them, have remained there, and God’s grace is fully available to you as you begin a new day.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Monday, April 28, 2014

How To Live a Worry-Free Life

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:4-8 NIV)

It is the time of year when students are worried about a lot of things: projects, final exams, and, for some, what comes next after they graduate.  Stress levels are always higher at this point in the year.  

One thing I encourage students to do is to be different from their classmates, to trust the Lord and not freak out as the final weeks of the school year wind down.  We are told by Jesus not to worry (Matthew 6:25-27).  Peter says the same thing (I Peter 5:7).  And the fruit of the Spirit contains peace and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  Yet, they (and I) often have such a hard time putting this into practice.  

So what’s the problem?  Why does worry and stress so easily creep into our lives, crowding out the peace the Lord has for us to enjoy even in the midst of living in a trouble, stress-filled world?  Why do we struggle to control our anxiety even when we know we should?  I think Jesus gives us the answer.

He uses the phrase “remain in me” five times in five verses.  He refers to Himself as the “vine” and to us as the “branches,” saying we are totally dependent on Him.  Might it be our struggles with worry and stress are due to our independence?  We may realize we are not to worry and are called to a peace-filled life, but do we do what is necessary to achieve it? I think it is likely we do not.  Rather, we try to handle life on our own, bearing our many burdens on our own shoulders in our own strength. Instead of being attached to the Vine, we hover nearby; just close enough to convince ourselves we are in Him, but too far to produce the abundance of fruit the Lord promises.

“Remain in me” implies a way of life.  The more we surrender our independence to Him, trusting and living in submission to the Lord, the more peace will become an evident fruit in our lives regardless of our circumstances.  

Today, if you want to worry less and decrease the amount of stress in your life, then attach yourself to the Lord.  Draw from Him the peace and self-control that He naturally produces.  Otherwise, it will never happen, because apart from Him it is impossible to achieve.

© Jim Musser 2014

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Winding Path to God's Purpose

“Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails.” (Proverbs 19:21 NIV)

I entered college as journalism major and a social work minor.  I had always wanted to be a writer, but I also enjoyed helping people. However, I could never find my niche in journalism (newspaper, then magazine layout, then photography) and so I switched to a social work major. Having spent weeks visiting my dad in the hospital during my junior year and experiencing the challenges of family members of patients, I decided on hospital social work as a profession.  

By my senior year, fed up with the intolerance of my social work professors to followers of Jesus, I decided hospital chaplaincy would be a good alternative for me.  So, on to seminary where I realized I would need several years of pastoral experience before meeting the qualifications for chaplaincy. There was no experience I loved more than my involvement with a campus ministry as a college student.  Thus, I decided to pursue campus ministry as a means of gaining the required experience to become a hospital chaplain.  That was over 30 years ago.  I never did become a chaplain.

I had many plans early in my life, but God had a purpose for me, and He used my plans to achieve His purpose.  Since deciding to follow Jesus, I had always wanted to follow His will, but I didn’t always know what that was.  I just did my best.  As you can see, there were a lot of changes of plans and direction, but from the perspective of a 50-something adult, God’s purpose prevailed in my life.  

I know people who are afraid of making decisions because they fear missing God’s will for their lives.  I even once knew a student who would not choose her wardrobe for the day without first consulting God.  What I have found is if our desire is to honor God with our lives, to seek to live for Him, then we can make our plans without worrying if they are exactly the right ones.  Ultimately, God’s purpose for us will prevail.  We do our best; He will do the rest.

Today, if you are wondering what God’s purpose for your life is, know the plans you are making or contemplating for your life will lead you there.  It will likely not be a straight path, but you will end up there just the same.

© Jim Musser 2014

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Spiritual Spontaneity

“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’  So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked.  ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.  This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
 so he did not open his mouth.  In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. 
 Who can speak of his descendants? 
 For his life was taken from the earth.’

The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’  Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?’ And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.” (Acts 8:26-40 NIV)

As we sang praises to the Lord by the edge of the river in the darkness of night, I couldn’t help but thank God for the turn of events in our day.  We had traveled to Charlotte to pick up a student from the airport and stopped for dinner to celebrate her birthday on the way back.  As we drove the remaining way home, the discussion turned to spiritual things.  She said she wanted to follow the Lord with all of her heart and felt she had been holding back for many years.  “Tonight”, she said, “I want to be baptized!”
Within an hour, friends had been called and we were huddled together on the riverbank.  Much like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we had unexpectedly gathered at the water’s edge to participate in a work of the Lord.  

So often in our spiritual lives, things are pre-planned.  Most of our church services are planned days or weeks in advance.  Sermons are prepared in advance, sometimes even weeks before they are preached.  Hymns or worship songs are chosen ahead of time.  Even baptisms often are pre-planned for a certain day.  

So much of our time together as believers is pre-planned that we can lose any sense of spontaneity and miss out on the beauty of just following the lead of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, planning is often necessary and good, but sometimes our immense devotion to it crowds out opportunities for the Spirit to work.  Imagine what would have been missed if Philip had told the eunuch he didn’t have time to stop for a baptism, or if the eunuch had sought to schedule a date in the future for his baptism.

When the student said she wanted to be baptized, it was at the end of a long day.  I was tired and ready to be home.  It would have been easy to suggest waiting until the next day or until Sunday, but I knew the Spirit was at work and I wasn’t about to impede Him.  And, from previous experience, I knew He would make this spontaneous moment into something special.  And indeed He did.

There was such a sense of unity, thanksgiving, and praise as she was baptized and prayed over by those who gathered with her.  The songs we sang filled the cool air of the night with sweet melodies from thankful and exuberant hearts.  It was as if the Spirit had led us to edges of Heaven. In no way could we have planned something so rich and meaningful.  

Today, be open to those moments when the Spirit of God leads in unexpected and unplanned directions.  They may not be convenient, but they will be very special.

© Jim Musser 2014

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Widening the Narrow Road

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV)

Almost anywhere you travel, you will run into road construction.  Bright orange cones and barricades greet you on practically every highway at some point.  Most of the road construction is intended, eventually, to make it easier for travelers to get from point A to point B, and often it involves widening the existing road.  

I see a spiritual parallel to this in the many who try to make it easier and easier for people to get into the Kingdom of God.  Paul and Jude ran into this at the very beginning of the Church.  Teachers were telling people that God’s grace widened the path, that sin didn’t matter and, thus, one could live as he pleased and still get into heaven.  And that teaching, in some form or other, has continued down to the present.  

In the past century, the “sinner’s prayer” was developed and people were told all they had to do to be saved was to repeat the words of this prayer. “It’s that easy!”, they said.  In the present one, there seems to be a sense of shame toward the narrow road of which Jesus spoke.  It has become for many a symbol of intolerance and lack of love.  Thus, they seek to widen the road, making it easier for many more to travel on it.  On this road, there are no requirements or expectations because, as they promote it, God’s love is unconditional and no one is excluded.  To them, churches have been much like the Pharisees, of whom Jesus said, “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13)  

But it seems strange to me that something of which Jesus spoke as being so difficult, we continually try to make easier.  The Kingdom of God is ruled by the Lord and is for those who desire to submit their lives to Him. C.S. Lewis once wrote that people choose hell because they do not want God to rule their lives.  By making the road wider, we are trying to entice people with a false promise—you can come into the God’s Kingdom, but you still get to be the ruler of your life.  

Instead of trying to make the path easier, like an expert guide, shouldn’t we be pointing the way to the narrow and difficult road, and pointing people to the One who can help lead them along it?  Widening the road for cars to flow more easily is a good thing, but the same cannot be applied to the road that leads to God’s Kingdom.  It was designed to be narrow.  Instead of trying to widen it, we should help people find it.  And if they decide to take it, then we will know they are fit for it. 

© Jim Musser 2014 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Being an Evangelist

“When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus' feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.  The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, ’Return home and tell how much God has done for you.’ So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:35-39 NIV)

When you hear the word “evangelism,” what images come to mind?  A man on a street corner yelling about sinners going to hell?  A group on a sidewalk holding signs saying, “Jesus Loves You”?   A person passing by your table at a restaurant and laying down a “salvation booklet”?

A common view of evangelism is one that is negative.  We view it as pushy, insensitive, and, sometimes, downright mean.  At the very least, it is uncomfortable and not something we are excited to participate in.  

In this account, Jesus has just done something extraordinary for a man. Possessed by a myriad of demons, the man had been exiled to a remote place to keep him from harming and frightening others.  Literally, he was out of his mind.  Then Jesus expelled the demons and set the man free from his torment.  So grateful was the man that he begged Jesus to let him join the disciples, but Jesus refused saying, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”  And as the man did exactly as Jesus instructed, he became an evangelist.  

Evangelism literally means the spreading of good news.  And the good news is what Jesus has done for you.  It is simply telling that to others.  

Our enemy is very clever.  He takes something so great and so simple and twists it into something totally unrecognizable.  Relating a personal story of transformation is turned into impersonal rantings of judgment on a street corner, or the holding of a sign for distant passersby to see.  We are right to dislike and be uncomfortable with evangelism, if that is what it is.  But that is a skewed version.  

The true version is what the demon-possessed man did once Jesus set him free—he told people about the transformation Jesus had brought about in his life.  This is true evangelism.

What has Jesus done to transform your life?  What has He done for you? Today, be an evangelist and go tell someone.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Monday, April 21, 2014

Not an Empty Promise

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’  He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”(Revelation 21:3-5 NIV)

When I was a child, I spent many a day at a friend’s house listening to stories of their travels.  Every summer they would take a long, two to three week, vacation to various parts of the U.S.  Upon their return, I would listen to their stories, look at their pictures, and long to travel to distant places like they did.  

Unfortunately, I had a father who hated to travel.  For many years, I begged my father to take us on a vacation.  His answer was always the same: “Maybe next year.”  And for a long time, I believed “next year” was going to be the time we would finally go.  Then, one year, when I made my annual request and my father gave his annual answer, my mother said in exasperation, “Owen, stop telling him ‘maybe next year.’  You know you’re never going to go!”  

It was the end of a childhood dream and a realization I had been on the receiving end of an empty promise.  My father was trying not to crush my dream, but he had no intention of fulfilling it and never did.

As we look at our lives and our world, we dread the suffering and pain that life seems to eventually bring.  We long for a day when all that vanishes like the fog when the morning sun finally burns through.  And we hear the promises of the Lord that one day all of it will go away.  But it hasn’t yet, and many of us begin to wonder if, like those of my father long ago, the promises of the Lord are empty ones.  

As an adult looking back, there was no reason to trust my father would follow through on his promise.  He never ventured far from home or expressed interest or curiosity in faraway places.  He was a homebody through and through.  Nothing about him or in his life suggested he was ever going to be the family tour guide on trips around the country.  There was just no basis in fact that he was going to follow through.  My mother knew that because she knew him.  

The Lord has made a promise to us to eliminate suffering and death.  The question is, can He be trusted to follow through?  His life gives us a glimpse that He is able to do so, for He healed many from devastating diseases and afflictions, and He brought several back to life.  But the empty tomb is by far the strongest evidence that not only can He fulfill the promise, but will do it.  He said He would die and would rise to life again (Luke 18:31-33).  The empty tomb proves He is a man of His word.  So when He proclaims to John in the heavenly realm that one day all suffering and death will come to an end, we can count on it.  

Today, in a world of suffering and sorrow, know that one day the pain will end.  That is the Lord’s promise and it is not an empty one because everything about His life, His death, and the vacant tomb point to it being fulfilled.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

Resurrectionless Christianity

“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (I Corinthians 15:12-19 NIV)

A few years ago, I read an opinion piece in The Washington Post where the author argued for a de-emphasis on Jesus dying for our sins and His resurrection.  He believes, rather, that Christians should emphasize all the wonderful teachings of an extraordinary man.  In his opinion, this would make Christianity much more relevant.  

This is not a new argument.  Since the 1st Century, people have been debating the significance and the historicity of the resurrection.  As this passage shows, there was debate shortly after the death of Jesus as to whether or not He was raised back to life.

Many have argued, and still do, that the resurrection has no real significance.  What is important, they say, are the teachings of Jesus.  As the author of the Post opinion piece argued, these teachings can sustain the Christian faith without all the emphasis being on the hope of an afterlife.  He sees that as diminishing the focus on the here and now. Christians so obsessed with the afterlife, he says, are missing the opportunities to impact their world.  

Of course, there is some truth to this because there are those Christians whose whole focus is on getting to heaven and getting others there with them.  They don’t really care about the needs in this world because they don’t matter.  And perhaps the Post writer has met more than his share of those; however, the argument against the necessity of the resurrection ignores the claims of Jesus Himself and common sense.

Jesus told His disciples He would be killed and then rise from the dead. (Matthew 20:18-19).  After His resurrection, He explained from the Old Testament scriptures how that had been the plan from Day One. (Luke 24:25-27)  Paul clearly states that apart from the resurrection, the Christian faith is meaningless.  And, without the resurrection, the New Testament would never have been written.  All of its writings were penned after Jesus arose.  If He hadn’t risen, not one of those books would have been written because the true significance of Jesus and the Christian faith is linked to the resurrection.  

The resurrection and the hope of eternal life are the foundation on which our faith rests.  The resurrection validates the claims of Jesus as Lord of all, and the hope of eternal life motivates us to live our lives in service to Him.  So, far from this making our faith irrelevant to the times, it is what makes it the most significant.  There is hope in this life because He has risen.  We love people and meet their needs because He is alive.  And if there were no resurrection, Jesus would be a liar or a delusional person, not a great teacher.

With all due respect to those who diminish the significance of the resurrection, true Christianity cannot exist without it.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Torn Curtain

“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:44-46 NIV)

I have been in vocational ministry most of my adult life, and as other pastors and missionaries experience, I am often treated differently.  I have often been asked to give the blessing at a community meal.  People have told me how much they admire me for what I do.  Some have even implied they think my position makes me closer to God.  

This was the thinking as well among 1st Century Jews.  The religious leaders, especially those serving as High Priests, were viewed as being closer to God than the normal folk.  And it made sense.  Once a year, the High Priest, according to Mosaic Law (Leviticus 16), was to enter into the Holy of Holies, the most inner sanctum of the Temple, to offer a sacrifice before the Lord for the sins of the people.  A thick curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the rooms in the Temple and entrance into it was forbidden on any other day by any person.  So it is understandable why so much deference was given to the High Priest.  Only certain designated people were ever allowed into the presence of the Lord.

This is why the tearing of the Temple curtain upon the death of Jesus is so important.  It was the continuing presence of unforgiven sin that made the curtain necessary.  Not just anyone could come before the Lord.  An intermediary was required.  For centuries it was the man designated as the High Priest.  He was the chosen one.  But, as the Hebrew writer explains (Hebrews 7:26-27), Jesus was the perfect High Priest who took away the need for the curtain.  Access to the Lord was now open to all who desired to draw near to the Lord.  

By His death (and resurrection), Jesus eliminated the need for an intermediary to represent us before the Lord.  The curtain was torn signifying a new reality: God no longer limits our access to Him.  He invites each of us to “approach His throne of grace with confidence so that we receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).  No need for religious professionals to do our bidding; we can confidently go before the Lord ourselves.  

Today, recognize there is no longer anything preventing you from going before the Lord, of having a relationship with Him.  The curtain has been removed.  You don’t need a pastor, a priest, or any religious credentials to gain access to God.  All you need is an honest and open heart, acknowledging your need for His mercy and grace. 

© Jim Musser 2014   

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tested Faith

“Then Jesus told them, ‘This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:  “I will strike the shepherd,
 and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter replied, ‘Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.’  ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’  But Peter declared, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ And all the other disciples said the same.” (Matthew 26:31-35 NIV)

This week is a heady time for followers of Jesus.  Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, celebrating the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem upon which He was first publically declared King.  Next Sunday is Easter, the ultimate celebration of the crucified but risen Savior.  But it is the week in between that tells the story of our human struggle, and should provide us with some sober reflection.

Just days after their “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, when the crowds ecstatically greeted their long awaited Messiah, Jesus predicted that they and the disciples would all abandon Him.  They refused to believe it and adamantly insisted they would remain faithful to Him.  Yet, that same night they all fled in fear for their lives when Jesus was arrested.  How empty their promises seem in light of what happened, but we cannot doubt their sincerity at the time they made them.  And this is the reason for our sober reflection upon this.

The crowd on the streets of Jerusalem and the disciples seemed genuine in their faithfulness, but it had yet to be tested.  It is easy to be bold about our faith when things are easy.  But as when precious metals are put into the fire, the true nature of our faith is revealed when it is tested, whether by temptation or difficult and trying times.  

It is this week, between Palm Sunday and Easter, which should humble us and make us wary of the veracity of our faith.  Not in doubtful way, but with the acknowledgement of our weakness.  Within us resides the potential to deny and flee from our Lord.  It is arrogance, like that of the disciples, that sets us up for failure.   

Today, reflect on the week between the Lord’s triumphal entry and His resurrection.  What you may learn is you’re not nearly as strong in your faith as you think.  And that is a good thing to know.

© Jim Musser 2014

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Winding Path

“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; 
 I will turn the darkness into light before them
 and make the rough places smooth.” (Isaiah 42:16 NIV)

Have you ever noticed on college campuses or in public parks, worn paths taking a more direct route than the sidewalks laid out by landscape architects allow.  There is beauty in a winding path, but many people prefer to get where they are going as quick and conveniently as possible. So no matter how beautiful the winding paths are, many people will still make their own, more direct ones.  

Life following the Lord is very much a winding path.  If we want things in our lives to become clear or to work out quickly, we will probably be disappointed on a fairly frequent basis.  And that disappointment can lead to impatience.  We end up making our own path.  I thought, when I was in college, that I would be married by my late 20’s.  Tired of being single as I moved into my 30’s, I began my own path.  I married a woman I should have never married and experienced years of upheaval in my life until she left me seven years later.  I had grown impatient and chose to get off the winding path in order to create a more direct one.  

Recently, one of my former students told of the path she and her husband have been on since they graduated from college.  They have both struggled with a lot of health issues, as well as the inability to get pregnant.  It has been a challenge for them to remain patient and to stay on the path the Lord has laid out for them, but they have remained faithful. Not long ago, they learned they are going to have the baby they have longed for.  

The Lord tells us through Isaiah that the paths onto which He leads us will be unfamiliar and perhaps not what we expect.  But the key point is it is the Lord leading us; thus, we are in excellent hands.  Though the path may be winding and less direct, it can be a beautiful walk if we just trust the Lord and not our own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5)

Today, if you are not exactly content with the path you are on, be patient and resist the temptation of creating your own, seemingly more direct, path.  While you may think you will get there faster, you will miss what the Lord has for you along the way, and you may find disappointment at where you end up.  Faster and more direct is not necessarily better for us in the long run.

© Jim Musser 2014

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Bad News of the Gospel

“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?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48 NIV)

Twenty years ago, 800,000 men, women, and children were slaughtered in a three-month period in the African country of Rwanda as part of a diabolical plot by one tribe to wipe out another.  Five of those victims were the relatives of a woman named Alice, about which columnist Michael Gerson recently wrote.  Her father, mother, brother, sister, and first-born child were murdered before her eyes, and she was nearly killed herself by a man who is now her neighbor.  Gerson quotes Alice as saying, “We have an obligation to forgive, to heal, to move forward.”  And so she has, as have many of her fellow Rwandans.  It is this willingness to forgive that allows her and many others to live next to and amongst those who murdered their family members and sought to kill them as well.  

There are many who try to make following Jesus easy and convenient. Many churches are packed on Sundays with people eager to hear feel-good sermons and pastors eager to comply.  The good news of the Gospel (God’s grace, love, mercy, and acceptance) is the primary, and, sometimes, the exclusive focus of the messages preached.  The bad news, (repentance from sin and applying God’s attributes, not to just ourselves but toward others as well) not so much.  And, for most of us, the worst news is this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

We may acknowledge this in theory, but it is the hardest thing to do because it goes against our sense of justice.  Love (and by implication forgive) someone who raped you, molested you as a child, murdered your father, betrayed your trust, or holds views you consider repulsive and even evil?  “Never!” our hearts cry.  And many come to our defense for our right to hate and despise the perpetrators because this seems right and justified.  And it is why so little is said on Sunday mornings regarding this teaching—because it is so hard and seems so unfair.  We would rather hear things much easier to accept and that make us feel good. Teaching on loving and forgiving people we despise doesn’t fit that category.

Yet, Jesus was very straightforward in His command.  There is no wiggle room.  And the reason is summed up by this command: “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13)  Before we decided to submit our lives to the authority of Christ, by definition, we were His enemies.  Yet, He was still willing to love and forgive us.  What right then do we have to withhold love and forgiveness from others when we have accepted forgiveness that we have never deserved or earned?

Alice serves as a poignant example of forgiving one’s enemies, and few could argue that their situations were worse than hers.  And there is beauty in the result: former enemies living in peace with one another and, perhaps more importantly, with themselves.  

Today, recognize the bad news of the Gospel: you have no right to hate your enemies because God does not hate you.  Are there people in your life from whom you are withholding forgiveness?  If so, the good news is that love and forgiveness can set you free from the bondage of bitterness and hate.  

© Jim Musser 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014


“Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (II John 12 NIV)

Increasingly, we live in a world where digital communication is the preferred way of relating to others.  Texting, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat are becoming more and more the means by which people relate to one another, particularly young people.  Face to face conversation, though far from a relic, is not as highly valued as in previous generations. 

It is in this context that the simple desire of John to talk “face to face” leapt off the page when I read it this week.  And what added great depth to it was his reason: “so that our joy may be complete.”

Like us today, though quite limited, 1st Century folks had indirect ways to communicate with one another—primarily through letters and messengers.  And, as the Bible demonstrates as well as other historic documents, they used them regularly.  Yet, John indicates his belief that face-to-face communication is the best way to get the fullest experience in our relationships with others.  I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” (I Thessalonians 2:8)

Relationships are best developed by face-to-face contact.  In the presence of another, there is a connection made that cannot be replicated from afar or via social media.  The world may increasingly fail to understand this, but the Church must resist this at all costs.  True fellowship among believers can’t be had via text or social media.  Sitting down over a cup of coffee or a meal, taking a walk, or working side by side sharing the content of our lives—the joys and the struggles, the hope and the doubt—is the only way we will experience the joy of the fellowship of believers as the Lord intended.  For the depth of what we have and need to share, a tweet, a post, or a picture, are wholly inadequate for the task.

Today, if you are going to communicate with someone via your smartphone or computer, make it an invitation to get together so you can experience the joy of sharing life with someone the way it was meant to be shared—face-to-face. 

© Jim Musser 2014

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fear and Trembling

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV)

This passage is often confusing to people.  If we are saved by grace through faith, they ask, then why does Paul say we must work out our salvation?  You may be asking the same thing.  

Whenever we read the Scriptures, context is crucial, and whenever we see a “therefore” at the beginning of a paragraph, we should ask ourselves, what’s that therefore there for?  The “therefore” is there to alert us to look at what has just been written.  In this case, Paul had been telling his readers they should have the same attitude as that of Jesus. He then proceeds to describe exactly what that is.  

He says the attitude of Jesus was one of humility, demonstrated by His willingness to leave His home in Glory to come live in a sin-tainted world. But not only to live, but also to die in the most humiliating way as a common criminal.   Do you think you can live with the same attitude, caring less about yourself and more about others?

If you are honest, probably not.  This is not our nature and, so, what Paul is telling us to do is a very daunting task.  I am not sure I can do it, and this is where the fear and trembling comes in.  I am saved by His grace through my faith, but there are expectations of how I am to be once I surrender my life to God.  I am not to be the selfish, arrogant person I was before.  My attitude is to change and, thus, my life.  

But it is such a high bar to clear.  How will I be able to do it?  Let the fear and trembling begin!

Our humility will not come from what we are able to do to achieve God’s will for our lives, but from the recognition of our inability to accomplish it. The expectation is there, but we are unable to meet it.  The recognition of this leads to fear and trembling and continual striving to let God do the work He wants to do in us.   

Today, know God has great expectations of you, that He is not satisfied with just you being saved.  He wants to transform you into the person He created you to be.  But you are not up to the task.  That’s a humbling realization, isn’t it?  And with that, you can begin working to let Him change you. 

© Jim Musser 2014 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Our Cloud of Witnesses

“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 11:39-12:3 NIV)

This past Sunday at our church, one of the elders gave a prayer of thanksgiving for those faithful servants to the Lord who had passed away in recent months.  There was the elder who faced terminal cancer with great hope and courage.  There was the retired pastor who humbly served the church as a greeter and prayer warrior, and who, just weeks before he died, had preached a sermon where he proclaimed his hope in the resurrected life through Jesus.  They were witnesses of faithfulness and hope.

As one gets older, the “cloud of witnesses” in our lives grows bigger.  The men and women who faithfully followed the Lord in this life and served as spiritual examples and mentors to us move on to the eternal reward for which they spent their lives anticipating.  They may be grandparents, parents, elders, pastors, siblings, or close friends.  They pass on, but their legacies of faithfulness live on to encourage and inspire us.  

I believe this is why the Hebrew writer recounted so many of the faithful from Jewish history (Hebrews 11:4-38).  The Jewish followers of Jesus were experiencing difficult times.  They were being mocked, scorned, and abused because they claimed Jesus as Lord.  They were very discouraged.  So the writer brought back to mind all those faithful servants of the Lord from their past as a means to encourage and strengthen them.

The fact is sometimes Jesus is not enough to inspire us.  While He became one of us, He is not like us.  The Hebrew writer understood this (and since he was inspired by God to write, then we know the Lord understands this as well) and provided a multitude of examples of ordinary people having extraordinary faith and hope—a cloud of witnesses.

Today, think about the people you know who have passed on from this life that faithfully served the Lord during their time on earth in anticipation of the reward they now are experiencing.  These are your witnesses given you by the Lord to encourage and inspire when times get tough and you are discouraged.   They may be gone, but the fruit of their lives can continue to help us produce fruit of our own.

© Jim Musser 2014

Monday, April 7, 2014

Driving Out Fear

“This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.  There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.” (I John 4:13-19 NIV)

For nearly all of our world’s existence, people have lived in fear.  They have feared each other, natural phenomenon, and the future.  And they still do today.  Fear runs deep among us, and it is on display daily. “Doomsday preppers” fear the future and so they hoard weapons, build fortresses, and amass stockpiles of food.  Progressives fear conservatives and what they will do to the country.  Conservatives fear progressives for the same reasons.  In our individual lives, there are many fears we harbor—abuse from a loved one, what others think of us, whether we truly have value.  And often where fear leads us is to anger and hate.

After 9/11, a lot of Americans became fearful of Muslims, including Christians.  There were protests, vandalism at mosques, death threats, and even some Muslims were murdered.  Fear drives away love, and anger and hate fill the void.  Most wars start with fear.  Even personal struggles such as with self-worth start with fear of what others think of us and then often lead to self-hatred expressing itself through eating disorders, cutting, and suicide.  

There is a great scene in the movie, “Remember the Titans,” where Gerry Bertier, a white football player, confesses to his black teammate, Julius, that he was scared of him when the football team was integrated.  But he concluded, “I was just hating my brother.” In that true story, fear was driven out by love.  

John describes love and fear as opposites.  There is no fear in love. Why?  Because God is love, His Spirit resides in those who have surrendered their lives to Him, and He can be trusted.  There is no person and no situation that we need to fear because we are loved and not facing them alone.  

Today, recognize you have no reason to be fearful about people or situations.  The perfect love of the Lord is enough for you to face anything fearlessly and with love.

© Jim Musser 2014

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Fool's Errand

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (I Peter 5:6-7 NIV)

As Jesus points out, worrying is the futile attempt to control what is beyond our power to influence. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27)  

Our culture is notorious for worry.  On campus, students worry about homework, projects, exams, and what lies ahead for them in the future. Adults also do the same.  They worry about their finances, their children, and the future.  

As Jesus implies, it’s a fool’s errand.  Worry creates undue stress and anxiety, raises blood pressure, heightens irritability, and crowds out peace in our lives without changing the very things about which we are anxious.  

This may sound a bit odd, but I think at the heart of our worrying is pride. I think that is why Peter connects the two.  Casting our anxiety on the Lord as opposed to carrying it requires humility.  It requires us to recognize we are not in control of most things and to submit to and trust His control of the things in our lives.  We worry because we don’t truly trust the Lord. We would rather have our hands on the wheel of our lives, and worrying gives us that sense, albeit false, that we are somehow in control.  

At its heart, worry is sin because it pushes God aside in favor of us being in control.  It is foolish because it gives us the illusion of control without actually having any.  

Today, free yourself from worry by humbling yourself before the Lord. Give up your need to be in control.  Give over your anxieties to the Him who cares for you and who is the One who is truly in control.  And then you will begin to experience the peace that has so long eluded you.

© Jim Musser 2014

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The True Meaning of the Name

“Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews.  Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.  He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.  Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:19-26 NIV)

If you have not heard, there is a civil war going on in the Central African Republic.  News services have framed this battle as between Christians and Muslims because militias claiming to be Christian and Muslim have both committed terrible atrocities against one another.  As a follower of Jesus, I am appalled that such acts of evil are being attributed to Christians.  Nothing about what they are doing—raping and killing Muslims, pillaging and burning villages—is consistent with ones who follow Jesus.  

As Paul points out, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which all true Christians have living within them, is: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). And Jesus said it is the love Christians have toward others that is the evidence they are His disciples (John 13:35).  In fact, a closer look on the ground in the CAR reveals that the true Christians are exhibiting these attributes toward their Muslim neighbors.  Far from abusing and killing them, they are showing love through protecting and sheltering them from harm.

The 1st Century believers were first called “Christians” because people knew they were followers of Christ.  Originally, it was a term of disparagement because those who aligned themselves with Jesus were scorned as fools.  It was their close identity with Christ that led to the name.

Today, however, the name is used very loosely.  If one goes to church, he is called a Christian.  If one is born into a family that identifies itself as Christian, then she is called a Christian as well.  If one holds to certain biblical beliefs (e.g., Jesus is the Son of God), regardless if he lives by them, he is considered to be a Christian And in some cultures, those who are not Muslims are considered Christians by default.  These days, the original meaning of the word has been lost in its application.

From the earliest days of the Church, Christians were those who, not only by their words but also by the way they lived their lives, were closely identified with Jesus.  Today, if you identify yourself as a Christian, then recognize the true meaning of the name—follower of Christ.  What the world so desperately needs is for people identifying themselves as Christians to live like those who truly follow Jesus.

© Jim Musser 2014

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Doing a Hard Thing

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:16-21 NIV)

It had been months since I had seen the student.  Once he had been very active in our ministry and then he just stopped coming.  Too busy, he said.  I knew there was more, but as I have experienced many times, people are often loath to tell you the truth.  They would rather just move on.

In a world in rebellion against God and often fighting with each other, followers of Jesus are called to a ministry of reconciliation.  However, it is difficult to be effective in that ministry if we fail to pursue reconciliation with fellow believers.  What do we have to say to an angry, fighting world when we cannot seem to handle our disagreements any differently?

Many years ago, a woman in a church where I served as an elder refused to speak to me, literally.  Finally, I walked up to her and asked her why she refused to talk with me.  She was convinced I had lied to her at one point and was angry with me.  To her it was an unforgivable offense and she had no interest in reconciliation.  And we never did.  

I wish I could say this was an isolated instance, but it is not.  In my years in vocational ministry, I have seen many occasions where Christians choose to avoid reconciliation with each other.  And I know why.  It’s hard.  

There is nothing more difficult than going to someone with whom you are angry and trying to work things out.  This is why so many couples get divorced and friendships dissolve.  It’s just much easier to walk away. Yet, followers of Jesus are called to do the hard things just as He did.  If the Lord’s message of reconciliation is to have any power, then His followers must seek to live it out in their own lives.  

I am happy to say the student came back and sought me out.  We talked, sought forgiveness from each other and were reconciled.  It was a beautiful experience, reminding us both of the power of God’s love.  

The world needs to see this from Christians and we need to experience it with each other.  Today, if there is a brother or sister toward whom you have hard feelings, seek them out and reconcile with them.  It is to this hard ministry all of us are called and for which Jesus died.

© Jim Musser 2014

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

What a Rainbow Tells Us

“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: ‘I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth.  I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.’

And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.’

So God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.’” (Genesis 9:8-17 NIV)

As I looked out this morning to check the weather, a beautiful surprise greeted me.  In the distance, over the mountains to the west, was a rainbow.  What a wonderful welcome to a new day!

Rainbows are beautiful, but they are also reminders from God that He is for us and not against us.  For in the time of Noah, after God had wiped out virtually all of life on earth via the Flood, He made a promise never to do it again.  From that point to this very day, the Lord has sought to infuse us with life rather than to take it away.  

But what we see from biblical history and in our own world today is so many of those whom God is for turn against Him and go their own way. As a result, it may seem He is not really for us because we are often caught in the undertow of the evil they wrought.  We can suffer physical or emotional abuse, be lied to, taken advantage of, neglected, and left brokenhearted.  We can easily find ourselves pulled into the current of hopelessness by the acts of those who have hardened their hearts against the Lord.  It may feel as if our very lives are ebbing away.

And then that rainbow appears so beautifully in the sky to remind us of a promise God made so long ago.  No matter what is happening around us or to us, the fact remains the Lord is for us and not against us.  He has not abandoned us in the terrible circumstances in which we may find ourselves.  Rather, He is there with us to bring good out of evil, as Paul so powerfully reminds us in Romans 8.  He is there to infuse us with life and stands against those who would seek to drain it from us.

Today, if you have been bruised and battered by the evil in this world, remember God’s promise: He is for you, not against you.  The rainbow is a reminder that, in the midst of evil, He is right there, working His will for the good of those who place their trust in Him.

© Jim Musser 2014