Monday, November 30, 2015

Walking the Road with Unfaithful People

“When Jeremiah had finished telling the people all the words of the Lord their God—everything the Lord had sent him to tell them—Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, ‘You are lying! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, ‘You must not go to Egypt to settle there.’ But Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us to hand us over to the Babylonians, so they may kill us or carry us into exile to Babylon.’

So Johanan son of Kareah and all the army officers and all the people disobeyed the Lord’s command to stay in the land of Judah. Instead, Johanan son of Kareah and all the army officers led away all the remnant of Judah who had come back to live in the land of Judah from all the nations where they had been scattered. They also led away all those whom Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard had left with Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan—the men, the women, the children and the king’s daughters. And they took Jeremiah the prophet and Baruch son of Neriah along with them. So they entered Egypt in disobedience to the Lord and went as far as Tahpanhes.” (Jeremiah 43:1-7 NIV)

The prophet Jeremiah had a thankless job.  He was caught between God’s calling on his life to be a voice of judgment and to call God’s people to repentance, and a people (his people) whose hearts were hardened and determined to go their own way.  He kept warning and they kept refusing to change their ways.  

We pick up the story with Jeremiah assuring the people, after they asked what God wanted them to do, that they are to go into exile in Babylon where they will be safe and cared for.  It seemed like nonsense to them, to place themselves in the hands of their enemy, and they rejected it out of hand.  Instead, in defiance they headed to Egypt.  And Jeremiah resolutely followed.

Why would a man whose counsel had been repeatedly ignored, who had been ridiculed and scorned, continue to stick by such a stubborn, hardhearted people?  Could it be not only due to his calling, but also to his love?  These were not just any people; they were his people.  Like the father of the lost son, and the woman searching for the lost coin, he was not going to give up.  They were just too valuable and his love was too deep.  

In my years of ministry, I have been tempted many times (and, sadly, have on a few occasions) to wash my hands of people who insist on doing life their way rather than the Lord’s way.  Though they have sought to hear the Lord’s counsel, when it was not what they wanted to hear, they ignored it.  I think I have some sense of Jeremiah’s frustration, and continue to learn how to have his faithfulness in loving people in spite of their hardheartedness, to continue to walk the road with them rather than abandon them.  Hope wins out over exasperation.

Are there people in your life who steadfastly refuse to humble themselves before the Lord and change their ways?  Are you tempted to wash your hands of them?  Then today let the example of Jeremiah inspire you.  Don’t give up.  Keep walking the road with them.  Though rebellious, they are still people created and loved by God.  And your presence could one day convince them of that.

© Jim Musser 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Practicing Thankfulness

(Author's Note: The campus is taking a break for Thanksgiving and so will I.  Have a blessed holiday!  WftW will return on November 30th. Jim)

“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)

Thankfulness is something that has to be practiced in order to become good at it.  That is why I think there is so much awkwardness around the table during Thanksgiving when we’re asked what we are thankful for.  There are often impolite giggles, awkward silences, shallow responses such as, “I’m thankful for this food; now let’s eat it!” or general comments, such as “I’m thankful to live in this country.”  Or, nothing is said.  We just eat, talk, and carry out the traditions of the day. When it comes to being thankful, most of us are lowly amateurs.  

Think about it.  How often do you express thanks to God or to others for what you have in your life—your possessions, your opportunities, such as having a job or getting an education?  How often do you give thanks for your family—your parents, even with all their imperfections, who still provided for you, or your siblings, even when they sometimes frustrate you?  And are you able to offer thanks when your circumstances are less than ideal as Paul exhorts us to do?  

Being thankful is a discipline; it does not come naturally to us.  We have to practice it to become adept at it.  So my challenge to you is to start practicing thankfulness by making a list of the many things for which are (or can be) thankful.  To help you get started, here are some of mine:

I am thankful for:

*Jesus Christ, who sought me out when I was lost and loved me, who removed my guilt and my shame, giving me meaning, hope and purpose in my life.

*My wife, who daily exemplifies for me the love of God. She loves me unconditionally, but continually encourages me to become more and more like Jesus.

*Our home which provides me shelter from the elements and the opportunity to use our gift of hospitality

*My ministry to which God called me so many years ago, which I continue to enjoy, and through which I have been richly blessed.

*The food in our pantry and refrigerator, and the clothes in my closet.

*Our vehicles which, though old, still run well and come without car payments.

*Our friends, locally and around the country, who love us and give us the gift of fellowship.

*Our financial supporters who have given faithfully and generously over many years.

*The beauty of our surroundings, for the mountains and the rivers, for the variety of birds that come every day to visit our feeders.

*For the weather, whatever it is, for the Lord uses it for His glory.  

Like fresh water being poured into a glass of dirty water, the discipline of thankfulness can flush out the negative thoughts and attitudes of our lives.  It can enhance our appreciation of what we do have and tamp down our discontent for what we feel we are lacking.  Thankfulness is what helps make it possible to be content in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.  

So today, start practicing.  Then when you are asked, “what are you thankful for?” you will have no awkwardness or hesitancy in answering. Your constant practice will pay off.

© Jim Musser 2015

Monday, November 23, 2015

Family Expectations

“While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’

He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’  Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:46-50 NIV)

As the beginning of the holiday season approaches, along with the excitement of reuniting with family comes for some a sense of dread. The holidays often require us to spend time with people we really don’t like that much, or in the case of believers, people who do not share our faith and perhaps think of us as weird and out of touch with reality.  The truth is the holiday season is often very different from the fantasies of the Hallmark Channel.

I remember going home for the holidays after my conversion early in college.  Because I had become “really religious,” it was assumed I should offer up the prayer for the meals.  Yet, at that time, my family did not understand the true nature of what had happened to me. Conversations were often awkward because my priorities had changed. And, in my immaturity, I often said things that were disrespectful of their nominal beliefs, which sometimes created more tension than love between us.  Most of the time, I couldn’t wait to return to my Christian family back at school.

As I grew older and more mature, I began to realize why it often is so hard as a believer to go home to family who do not share your faith. For 18+ years, you live and develop intimate relationships with individuals. Personalities and interests may vary widely, but family bonds are strong.  There are expectations, both internal and external, of what these relationships are supposed to look like, between you and your parents and with your siblings.  But, as Jesus warned us, faith in Him can dramatically impact those relationships. If our families don’t accept what we believe and the often-dramatic changes in our lives, then our families can begin to feel more like strangers, and fellow believers more like our real family.  And that is a very difficult adjustment to make and accept.  For me, it resulted in anger and resentment, not necessarily helpful emotions in maintaining good relationships.

So I had to learn to practice love as Paul defines it, and not expect to be loved in the same way or even to be understood.  That approach, over time, worked well for both my family and me.  I was increasingly able to treat them kindly and to be patient when they didn’t understand my faith and all the things it had led me to do in my life.  And I want to think that played some role in most of my family over time choosing to follow Jesus just as I had.  

So today, if you are one who is not looking forward that much to reuniting with your family for the holidays, lower your expectations of what you will experience with them.  When you choose to follow Jesus, as He said, your brothers and sisters in the Lord are your real family and your biological family may not be able to give you the same acceptance and love.  But by loving them with the love of Jesus, you are creating the opportunity for them to become part of your spiritual family as well.

© Jim Musser 2015

Friday, November 20, 2015

Winning the Battle

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (II Corinthians 10:4-5 NIV)

I received a friend request from “Catherine” earlier this week.  Thinking she was a student in our ministry, I clicked to look at her profile to see if I recognized her.  Quickly, I realized I didn’t know her and didn’t want to. In her profile pic, “Catherine” was seductively looking at me in a pose that could have been from a Playboy centerfold.  The battle was on.

I was tempted to accept her friend request and access her other pictures, but instead I clicked the “report this person” button.  But that image got stuck in my mind.  And throughout the day, I had to take it captive and give it over to Jesus, and not let it take control.  It wasn’t easy and there were a couple of times that I foolishly sought to see if the profile had been blocked, only to be faced with the same picture. The enemy was trying to drag me into a swamp of lust, but even in the midst of my weakness, divine power won out.  Eventually, the thought became powerless.  

We live in the midst of a spiritual battlefield and at any moment we may find ourselves in a battle.  We must be ready to fight.  Yet, if we attempt to fight with our own strength, we will inevitably fail.  Trying harder to avoid lashing out in anger, or trying harder not to give into lust, or trying harder to avoid gossiping is doomed to failure, because we are relying on our strength or ability to do it.  That’s the world’s approach—just try harder to be a better person.  

The message of the Gospel is that we cannot save ourselves; we cannot transform ourselves.  Only God can do that.  So, too, when we face temptation.   We need the power of God to help us overcome it. Taking a thought captive, whether it be one of anger, lust, or something else contrary to the will of God, means handing it over to Him.  Literally, “Jesus, take this from me!”  That’s what I did with the picture of “Catherine.”  “Jesus, take this.  It is sin and I do not want it in my mind.” And He took it.  But then it came back into my mind and I immediately gave it over to Him again.  That sequence occurred several times throughout the day, but, as James 4:7 promises, I continued to resist and the devil eventually fled.  

Today, recognize you are entering a spiritual battlefield on which you are a target for attack.  Therefore, be ready to cry out to Jesus to take control of whatever temptation comes your way.  You may not have the strength to overcome it, but He does.

© Jim Musser 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Following Jesus Is Risky

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:28-31 NIV)

I remember the fear that permeated this nation after the attacks of 9/11, so I can imagine the fear in France and all of Europe right now.  And, of course, the terrorists want to stoke that fear, for it is what gives them power.  That is why they have declared they are “coming after” Washington, London, and other major cities of the world.  They want to paralyze us and turn us against one another because that is what fear tends to do.  And followers of Jesus are not immune to fear; thus, His words of encouragement to His disciples.

It is difficult to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to do to others what we would have them do to us if we are afraid. Rather, we will tend to avoid them, hate them, or go on the attack in order to protect ourselves.  Fear keeps us from doing what the Lord commands us to do.

We live in a culture that puts safety above all else.  We pray for safety. We are told to be safe.  We are encouraged to seek “safe spaces.”  In other words, the encouragement and incentives given us are to live risk-free lives, to protect ourselves at all costs.  And in an ever-dangerous world, this attitude leads to a shrinking back from life and engagement with people, making it virtually impossible to live the lives Jesus tells us to lead.

What’s interesting about Jesus’ encouragement is He does not promise safety if we will trust Him.  In fact, all His original disciples except Judas and John were put to death as a direct result of their faith.  No, what He is promising is the assurance our Heavenly Father loves us and, thus, will take care of us.  However, this refers to our place in Eternity, not necessarily our safety on earth.  

In order to serve the Lord to the fullest, we must stop clinging to our lives and to our personal safety.  We must stop being afraid and go where He leads us and do what He commands us, regardless of the risk to our comfort or safety.  The reality is following Jesus is risky.

Today, do not be afraid of what might happen to you if you do this or that, or if others follow through with their threats. Your soul is much more important than your physical life and it is nurtured by being obedient to your Lord who was willing to suffer in order to love people and calls you to follow in His steps.

© Jim Musser 2015

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Dealing with Trouble

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV)

It would seem that most of us who follow Jesus often forget these words.  Why else would we be surprised, and often disillusioned, when trouble comes into our lives?   I recently talked with a student who had a lot of “why me” questions.  Events in her life have shaken her faith.  

My wife and I were having lunch with some friends the other day and we were talking about how the New Testament writers, with only one exception, never wrote or prayed about being shielded from trouble, but rather how to thrive in the midst of it.  Paul praying for the “thorn” to be removed (II Corinthians 12:8-10) was the one exception, and the Lord told him no, that His grace was sufficient for him and that His power was made perfect in weakness.  

James says that we should “count it pure joy” when trouble comes into our lives because it develops within us perseverance. (James 1:2-4) Peter says, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (I Peter 4:12-13)

The reality is we live in a fallen world controlled currently by the Enemy. Trouble is his game.  None of us are immune or exempt, even if we are followers of Jesus.  He, too, experienced much trouble during His life. The promise we have been given, however, is that through Jesus we can overcome whatever trouble we encounter in our lives.  

Today, as James and Peter exhort us, embrace trouble as an opportunity to share in the experience of Jesus.  It was not easy for Him, nor will it be for you, but take heart, He overcame what the world threw at Him.  And if you are following Him, you can as well.

© Jim Musser 2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

He's Big Enough

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:14-21 NIV)

Years ago, J.B. Phillips wrote an excellent book called, Your God Is Too Small.  In it he addresses the typical views people have of God.   They are typically one-dimensional and fail to grasp the sheer enormity of God.  

As human beings, one of our greatest temptations is to shrink God down to our size, to thrust limits on Him that more reflect the boundaries of our own abilities.  Each year in our ministry we take an overseas mission trip for which the cost can be up to several thousand dollars for each student.  There are always students who choose not to go because of the cost.  Their thinking is they don’t have that kind of money to spend and they don’t believe God will provide it.  Yet, every year every student who commits to the trip experiences God’s provision.  We’ve never had to leave a student behind for lack of money.  

I remember several years ago when my wife and I had to make an emergency trip to South Africa.  We did not have the nearly $4000 for the flights, yet I felt led only to ask for prayers for my ailing in-laws, not for money.  The Lord wanted to show us how big He was.  Within hours of sending an email, offers and commitments to send money were coming in.  By the time the bill came due, we had received all the money we needed.  

How often we limit God when He is in fact limitless.  Paul’s powerful prayer is aimed at getting us to grasp how big God really is and to begin living that way.  Is the Lord calling you to do something you believe improbable if not impossible?  He is big enough to make it happen.  Do you have a need you know you cannot meet?  God is big enough to meet it.  Do you know someone whom you are ready to give up on ever becoming a follower of Jesus?  Keep praying because God can do more in a person’s heart than you can ever imagine.

Today, make Paul’s prayer your own.  Pray to grasp how big God truly is.  When you can, you will be amazed at what He does.

© Jim Musser 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

Recognizing the Real Enemy

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” (Ephesians 6:10-13 NIV)

On Friday afternoon, I was discussing this passage with several guys I meet with weekly.  It seems even more appropriate after the events of Friday evening in Paris.  I was pointing out to them the need to recognize we live on a spiritual battleground, whether we recognize it or not.  As Peter says, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (I Peter 5:8)

With what happened in Paris reverberating in our minds, this passage is a good reminder to us that we live in a fallen world ruled by the devil. Radical jihadists, mass murderers, pedophiles, and the like are merely his pawns in his objective to “steal, kill, and destroy.” And if you are tempted to think Paul is writing some type of “Pollyannaish” mush, remember that he is writing in the context of Christians being covered in animal skins and given to lions for their consumption, and being crucified, set on fire, and used as torches to light the emperor’s gardens.  The jihadists and mass shootings may be terrifying to us today, but what was occurring in the 1st Century was no less terrifying and reprehensible.

Yet, Paul reminds us the perpetrators of these atrocities are not our real enemies.  Rather, our war is against Satan and his minions.  If we make it against the humans, we focus on the wrong target.  This is why Jesus calls us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us and to do good to those who hate us (Matthew 5:43-44; Luke 6:27-28).  The real enemy is not of flesh and blood.

And, too, God is not the least bit intimidated by those who threaten or enact reigns of terror.  The Psalmist says he laughs at their pretense of power (37:13).  They may terrify us; they don’t scare Him in the least. So Paul can confidently say, “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power,” because although current events may frighten us, He who is within us is greater than he who is in the world. (I John 4:4)

Today, regardless of what is happening in the world or around you, know the Lord is in control.  Be strong in Him and resist hating those who seek to oppose us and kill us.  They are not the real enemy. Rather, stand firm in faith and love—for those are our most effective weapons in the spiritual battle we face.

© Jim Musser 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Power of Kindness

“Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.” (Acts 28:1-2 NIV)

I remember one time while a college student and living in the campus ministry house, I got so sick that I was unable to get out of bed.  My campus minister came up to my room with a pitcher of orange juice. Why do I remember this after all these years?  It was a small act of kindness when I was in great need.  I remember another time from that era when I was a camp counselor in Colorado one summer.  We had just returned to the camp after an overnight hiking trip with the kids.  A severe storm had descended upon us and we had to truck the kids out of the forest.  I was so wet and cold that I could barely move my hands. Awaiting us back at the camp were hot coffee and blankets given to us by a very kitchen staff.  Acts of kindness are powerful, so much so that I can remember two of them from decades ago.  

Paul was a prisoner on a ship of prisoners.  They were caught up in a violent storm that lasted for days.  Finally, the captain spotted land and crashed the ship upon the rocks.  The ship broke apart and the men were plunged into the water.  When they made it ashore, they were wet, cold, and exhausted.  No wonder Luke was so taken by the kindness of the islanders.  Imagine a warm fire after all they had just experienced! And that act of kindness has been preserved in history because Luke found it so memorable.

In a world that is so coarse and abrasive, and often uncaring, we as followers of Jesus have a powerful gift to share that has been given to us by our Heavenly Father who is kind.  A component of love as Paul describes it is kindness. Like dripping or flowing water that can over time dissolve rock, acts of kindness can soften a hardened heart.  

A student and I were discussing yesterday the events happening on the campuses of the University of Missouri and Yale and what Christians can do.  I think speaking and acting kindly in the face of all the anger and tension would go a long way to bringing light into the darkness.  We can so easily get caught up in the verbal volleys between cultures and philosophies that we often forget the folks on both sides are fellow human beings, created and loved by God.  In fact, we are told that a trait of our Lord is to show kindness to those who are ungrateful to Him and even to the wicked (Luke 8:35). 

I think there are two reasons kindness matters so much.  First, if God is kind, then we should be as well if we love Him and want to please Him. Secondly, kindness is powerful in opening up hearts.  It strikes chords deep within us, which are not easily ignored or forgotten.  

Today, recognize the power of kindness to impact and transform lives. If Luke remembered a warm fire and I remembered being given a pitcher of orange juice when I was sick, what small things could you do that would make a difference in people’s lives and give a glimpse of God’s love?

© Jim Musser 2015

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Being Offended

“In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (II Timothy 3:12-15 NIV)

I’m not sure if the Starbuck’s cup thing is really a thing.  If you have been sleeping all week or have been disconnected from social media, then know that some folks have complained about the plain red cups the company is using this holiday.  No one knows how many, but other folks have felt the need to take issue with these folks’ complaints as being ridiculous.  And, thus, we have embarked on another round of the seasonal “War on Christmas.”

What I have been observing over the past decade or more is just how easily people are offended and how much they feel the need to express their indignation. And social media has given them a quick and effective outlet.  And this cuts across political and religious spectrums, as well as the cultural one.  I am afraid we are becoming a chronically offended people at a time where the common belief is we have the right not to be offended.   

So the question is, how are followers of Jesus to respond to this cultural current?   Paul, I think, gives us the guidance we need.  First of all, he states clearly that if we truly follow Jesus, we WILL be persecuted as a result of that choice.  Jesus said the same thing (John 15:18-19).  Thus, we should get over this idea that we have the right to be respected and are entitled to be treated kindly and fairly.  We shouldn’t expect the culture to roll out the red carpet for us, and we shouldn’t be surprised or offended when it doesn’t.  

Secondly, Paul points to the study and understanding of the Scriptures as the guiding point in our lives.  Is it perhaps because so many do not have a clear knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures that they seemed to be so shocked and offended that the world stands against us as Christians? For within them there is a clear picture of the spiritual battle being waged between the forces of light and darkness.  Battles have casualties; they are not picnics in the park.  Any thorough reading of the Word will confirm this.

So in a culture that is so easily offended, should not the followers of Jesus respond differently?  Instead of complaining, should we not instead love those who offend us?  Instead of responding in kind to those who persecute us, should we not rather treat them as we would want to be treated?  Instead of being shocked that we are being persecuted, should we not be prepared for such treatment?  And instead of bemoaning our circumstances, should we not rejoice

Today, recognize that we live in a fallen world that has rebelled against God.  As Christians across the world and for two millennia have experienced, there is a cost to following Jesus.  We shouldn’t be shocked or offended when we have to pay the price.  Instead, we should follow the example of Jesus who left us an example that we might follow in His steps and be lights in the midst of the darkness.  

© Jim Musser 2015  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Power To Set Us Free

“Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness, prisoners suffering in iron chains, because they rebelled against God’s commands and despised the plans of the Most High. So he subjected them to bitter labor; they stumbled, and there was no one to help. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains. 
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, for he breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron.” (Psalm 107:10-16 NIV)

There is a poignant scene in the movie, “Invictus,” about the beginning of Nelson Mandela’s term as president of South Africa, where Matt Damon’s character is visiting Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.  He is standing in Mandela’s tiny cell, the iron door shut with arms outstretched almost touching the walls, trying to imagine being confined there for so long.  There was no way of escape. Only then-President de Klerk could free Mandela.

Prisons, by default, are built to prevent escape; thus, heavy metal doors and bars are always used.  The only way prisoners can gain their freedom is to be released by a higher authority.  

Most of us, hopefully, will never spend a day in a physical prison, but there are many of us who are imprisoned nonetheless—held captive by addictions, the after effects of emotional or physical abuse, our own neediness, spiritual blindness, or by a particular sin.  And for those of us aware of our captivity, it may seem hopeless.  We may have tried many times to escape, but to no avail.  Yet, there is hope!  The Lord can free us.  

The Psalmist is re-telling the story of the Israelites, how when they rebelled against the Lord, He allowed them to be imprisoned. Desperate to be set free, they cried out to God and He responded. The Psalmist uses this story to draw a broad conclusion about the Lord: “He breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron.” We serve a God who can set us free, no matter how secure our prison seems to be.  

Today, if you find yourself held captive by something, cry out to God knowing He is able to set you free.

© Jim Musser 2015

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Taking the Path to Righteousness

“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!  Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?  But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.  You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Romans 6:15-18 NIV)

There is a narrative among many Christians that since we are all sinners, sin is just a part of life and we shouldn’t make that big of deal of it.  The need for obedience to the God’s commands fades in the midst of His abundant grace and love.  A call to repentance is viewed as condemnation and judgment.  Like many of the Roman Christians were proclaiming, sin is viewed as an opportunity for God’s grace to abound.

But what is lost in this narrative is God’s desire for us to become righteous, not just forgiven.  And, as Paul states here, righteousness is formed along the path of obedience.  Yes, any sin can be forgiven, but is it better to sin and gain forgiveness rather than be obedient in the first place?  To that Paul answers a resounding “NO!” 

Perhaps this is the reason the Church is so weak; the emphasis has been skewed too far toward forgiveness at the expense of calling people to obedience.  Paul was no slouch on grace, but it seems he saw the danger of people using it as an excuse to sin and resist obedience.  And I have seen that as well.

When I first came to my present ministry, I found a lot of students claiming to follow Jesus, but who felt free to get drunk and sleep with their significant others because they were already “saved.”  One student leader proclaimed when I confronted her, “Jim, we’re college students,” as the excuse for such behavior.  They had the mistaken belief that grace was a license to live as they pleased.  

What grace provides is the way back to God when the road should have been permanently closed.  But once we get there, we are not free to just do as we please, nor should we want to be.  Rather, our desire should be to be like Christ and the only way we can achieve that is through obedience.  It is through obedience that the death march of the flesh begins.  “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature…,” Paul writes to the Colossians (3:5).  This is what obedience looks like.  It is not easy, nor does the flesh go quietly, but consistent obedience will lead to greater righteousness and maturity.

Today, recognize grace is your path to God, but it is not a license to do as you please. Instead grace is to lead you to a life of obedience in order that you can become more like Him. 

© Jim Musser 2015 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Jesus Is the Answer

“You, Lord, showed favor to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.  You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins.  You set aside all your wrath and turned from your fierce anger.  Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us.  Will you be angry with us forever?  Will you prolong your anger through all generations?  Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?  Show us your unfailing love, Lord, and grant us your salvation.” (Psalm 85:1-7 NIV)

I’ve been a bit nostalgic the past few days.  It was 40 years ago that a lost 19-year-old college freshman found his Father and a love he had longed for but had never before experienced.  It was the mid-70’s and revival was sweeping the country among what was then called the “hippy generation.”  It was made up of young people scarred by the fallout from the Viet Nam war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the failed promise of an utopian life via sex and drugs.  The Holy Spirit was moving and young men and women were coming to know Jesus in numbers not seen for generations.  

My conversion came at the tail end of what became known as the “Jesus Movement.”  The memories of that time came flooding back as my wife and I viewed the movie, “Woodlawn,” the story of how a high school football team in the early 1970’s had a major impact on the struggles for desegregation in Birmingham, Alabama.  The entire team gave their lives to Jesus and demonstrated the truth of Galatians 3:26-28, that in Jesus we are all one regardless of our race, gender, or ethnic background. 

Forty years later, it seems we are returning to much of the same environment that was present then.  Hatred for one another is being spewed on social media.  Protests and riots follow what are believed to be racist and unjust events.  The cracks in our society are beginning to resemble those of an earlier generation.  And the suggested remedies are similar as well—more understanding, more tolerance, more justice.

In the movie, there is a scene where Hank, the team chaplain, asks the players if they aren’t tired of all the anger, hatred, and injustice.  If so, he says, then there is only one way to solve it—Jesus.  The team responds to his invitation en masse, and the anger and hatred among the team members dissipates into love.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of all the anger and hate in our society right now.  I’m tired of the greed, the callousness, the self-centeredness, the shallowness, and the pettiness of people.  And I know no hashtag campaign or petition is going to make any real difference. Nor are conferences or summits on diversity and peace. No, what we need is a revival where the Spirit is transforming hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, where the walls of hostility are broken down not by force but by love, and where seated on the thrones of our lives is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!

You may think it a cliché, but the truth is Jesus IS the answer.  Indeed, He is the only way out of this mess.  So I am committing myself to pray earnestly for revival in this nation of ours, for repentant hearts and transformed lives. It has happened before; it can happen again.  Today, will you join me in praying for God to begin a revival among the people of our nation? We need it in the most desperate of ways.  

© Jim Musser 2015

Friday, November 6, 2015

An Important Question

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.  When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’

‘Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’

Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’ At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.” (John 5:1-9 NIV)

Sometimes I want to ask this same question of students: Do you want to get well?  They complain of continual stress or anxiety, about an unhealthy relationship, or about a long-term struggle with a sin.  It may sound like an uncaring question, but Jesus did ask it of the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda.  

I think the reason is that some people can find their identity in a particular struggle with sin or an ailment or life situation or grow so accustomed to it that a change is threatening because it is unknown. Such a person may not, in fact, want to take a way out of their circumstances.  In an odd way, it works for them.  So, when we seek to help them, to point a way out of their predicament, they are not interested because that would mean a radical change in their lives.

We are, for the most part, creatures of comfort and refrain from making changes that threaten our comfort.  For instance, we may resist the urging to try new food or don a much different outfit than we’re used to wearing.  Or we may stay in the same job even if we hate it and there are better ones out there for us.  If our comfort range is very narrow, then we will resist change, even if it may be in our best interests.

Jesus was testing this man’s true desire to be healed.  Did he request to be brought to the pool every day in hopes of being healed, or had it just become his daily routine, something he was used to and content with doing?  It is a good question that sometimes needs to be asked.  I recall asking it of a young man struggling with pornography.  He often spoke of his struggle but never seemed interested in the counsel I gave him to help him overcome it.  I once posed it to a young woman who had a problem with drunkenness, but never seemed inclined to give up the friends who encouraged her to keep on drinking.  It is one thing to struggle with something; it is quite another to only want to talk about it but never want to do the necessary things to overcome it.

Today, perhaps there is a struggle in your own life that is ongoing.  It may be a good time to ask yourself the same question that Jesus posed to the crippled man: Do you want to get well?  And like this man, if the answer is yes, then Jesus can provide the way to healing. 

© Jim Musser 2015 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Singular Focus

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:14-22 NIV)

Earlier this week, over 800,000 fans of the World Series champion Kansas City Royals gathered in downtown Kansas City to celebrate. The city was literally a sea of Royal blue,  and there were no reports of rioting or vandalism.  

There is no doubt this crowd was made up of different races, political views, socioeconomic levels, and limitless varieties of ages and personalities.  Yet, here they were united as one in their love for their Kansas City Royals.

In today’s society, we hear a lot about diversity, but very little about unity.  The emphasis is on accepting and honoring our differences.  It is not a bad goal for us to appreciate one another, but as is clearly evident, there is not much unity coming from the emphasis on diversity. The reason is unity can only come about from a singular focus on something outside of ourselves.  In World War II, our country was united by the singular focus on defeating the Nazis and Japan.  On 9/11, the shock and grief of an attack on our country and the death of more than 3,000 of our citizens united us.  

But it is difficult, as evident by our nation’s history, to keep that singular focus.  Some would say we are more divided than ever by our politics and by our views of what the American way of life should look like.  We cannot agree, so we are at odds with one another.  

And it is no different in the Church.  We have long been divided along theological lines—Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and mainline, conservative and progressive—and for the same reason.  We lose our singular focus on Jesus.  Instead of pursuing Him, we pursue bolstering our personal beliefs.  Instead of submitting to Him, we seek to recreate Him into what we want Him to be.  Instead of focusing on His will, we focus on our own.  And this naturally leads to divisions and fights among us.

What happened in Kansas City this week was amazing and it just shows how people can unite regardless of their differences when there is singular focus among them.  Today, recognize we can only be united as believers if our singular focus is on Jesus.  It cannot happen by focusing on social justice, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, or right doctrine—all of which are important.  No, it can only happen if our singular focus is on Jesus, loving and worshipping Him above all else.  

© Jim Musser 2015

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Spiritual Vitality for a Lifetime

“The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God.  They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, ‘The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.’” (Psalm 92:12-15 NIV)

As I was reading this yesterday morning, the phrase “they will still bear fruit in old age” jumped out at me.  Now age is relative.  To the students with whom I work, I am old, but to others I know who are retired or near retirement, they see me as still a youngster.  One thing is clear, however, I am not getting any younger.  

We live in a culture that glorifies youth and connects aging with decline. Physically, that is usually true.  My body isn’t what it once was. Although a knee replacement has given me the opportunity to become more active, I am still move much slower than I was in my 20’s and my vertical leap can be measured in mere inches.  A once full and dark head of hair is noticeably thinner and graying.  Yet, spiritually, instead of declining, over the years I believe I have continued to grow and bear fruit.

That is the beauty of walking with the Lord.  While we may be in physical decline (and experts say that begins in our early 20’s!), we have the hope of thriving spiritually throughout our lives.  And that is God’s desire.  Just because we are reaching a stage of transition in our lives, whether that be graduating from college, marriage and family, or retirement, doesn’t mean we move into some sort of spiritual low gear or park.  He wants us to remain productive, to continue bearing spiritual fruit throughout our lives.  And contrary to the beliefs of our culture, the Psalmist reminds us that it is indeed possible.  As I age, I find that exciting and reassuring, knowing I can be spiritually productive to the very end of my life.

Today, regardless of your age, remember the Lord’s desire for you is to bear fruit throughout your life.  And regardless of how old you get, you can still retain spiritual vitality.  I think that makes the reality of aging a lot more tolerable.

© Jim Musser 2015

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

It's Love that Makes the Difference

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35 NIV)

A number of years ago, my wife and I were looking for a new church. We had attended a large church in town, but never felt a part of the community.  Every week, during the “greeting moment,” which I dubbed “the most uncomfortable minute of the week,” we felt as if we were strangers among people who had no interest in knowing us.  There were smiles and handshakes, but no real conversation.  After the service, we often stood in the middle of the fellowship hall observing people talking with one another, but rarely engaging us.  When we realized we were waking up and dreading going to this church, we knew we had to seek out a different community.

And we both remember the second time we walked into what is now our home church.  I say the second time, because the first time was what we expected.  An elderly man greeted us, introducing himself and asking our names and what we did.  It was nice, but not out of the ordinary.  What got our attention was the next week when this same gentleman greeted us by name and said that he and his wife had prayed for us and our ministry that previous week.  It was like a hot drink on a very cold day.  And we have remained a part of this community ever since.

Both churches are strong on biblical teaching, great missions outreach, and wonderful worship, but the sense of love was the difference for us. Now I’m sure there are many in our previous church who could write and say wonderful things about the love of that community, but we personally did not experience it.  And that made all the difference.  Love is that important!

Love is what drew me to the Lord back when I was a college student.  I saw love between believers and experienced it from them.  I have seen students who are broken be transformed by this love and churches who bring healing to deep wounds by the same love.  

Regardless if a community of believers has sound doctrine, a wonderful worship band, a great missions outreach, great children’s and youth programs, it is really nothing if individual people don’t experience love. And that is the great challenge of the Church, to show love to those around us and never assuming “they are taken care of.”  

“Love one another” is an inclusive command.  It includes not just the people we know well, but those around us we may not know as well or at all.  And it is a difficult one to keep because our tendency is to focus on those we know and are comfortable with.  

Today, think about how you can demonstrate love to those in your church or campus ministry that are beyond your friendship circle.  As you well know, if they experience love, it will make all the difference.

© Jim Musser 2015

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Church as a Team

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:23-25 NIV)

I went to bed this morning at 1 AM and woke up at 6 AM, so we will see how this goes.  Why was I up so late?  Well, after 30 years, the Kansas City Royals major league baseball team had the opportunity to win the World Series and I wasn’t going to miss seeing it.  I lived an hour away from the Royals stadium for many years and have been a long-time fan. And in typical Royals fashion, they came from behind to win the title in 12 innings!

After so many years of futility on the field, it has been fun to watch this team scratch and claw its way to the pinnacle of professional baseball. They never lose hope when the situation seems dire.  They’re confident they can still win regardless of the circumstances.  And they encourage each other to never give up.  It sort of reminds me of what this passage commands us to do as followers of Jesus.  But, of course, the stakes are much higher.  

We who follow Jesus are in the midst of our season and it’s a long, hard one.  While there may be moments of celebration, the challenges and struggles make it a grind.  That is why we need to function as a team and not just as a group of individuals looking out for ourselves.  We need the power of collective hope; the ability to look around in the midst of troubled times and see hopeful faces rather than dire ones.  We need the strength to look beyond our present circumstances to give encouragement to our fellow brothers and sisters that much better times are ahead.  And we need the humility to know we cannot go this alone. This is, in reality, the Church, or at least how it is supposed to be.  

It may seem silly to compare the Church to a baseball team, particularly when sports metaphors are often overused.  Yet, watching the Royals over the past two weeks, I can’t help but take inspiration from their example and see its application in my life and the lives of my fellow believers.  From the start of the season, they had one goal—to finish at the top.  They were in it together and worked together to accomplish it. And they had faith, not the blind kind, but the type that is built on evidence and experience (last season).  Not all went smoothly or as planned.  They lost five in a row in late August; they lost their closer for the season.  Yet, they were undeterred and they kept encouraging one another along the way.  Early this morning, they reached their goal.

In the Church, particularly here in the States, we need that sense of team.  Yes, we each follow Jesus, but we together ARE the Church.  It is less about our individual walks with God, and more about we as a community.  For it is in the community of believers we are to find strength to maintain our hope and carry out our purpose.

Today, recognize how much you need other believers to maintain your faith and fulfill your purpose in this world.  You may not be a Kansas City Royals fan, or a baseball fan for that matter, but there is a lesson for you to learn from these newly crowned champions—never lose hope, never give up.  In the end, we will win!

© Jim Musser 2015