Friday, December 11, 2015

News that Sends the Heart Dancing

(Author's Note: Today is the last day of final exams, so as the students take a break, so will I.  WftW will reappear on January 11th.  May you have a blessed Christmas season!  See you in 2016!  Jim)

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’  Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:8-20 NIV)

Imagine for a moment that you are a citizen of Syria and someone appears in your town telling you that soon a leader would come to put an end to your suffering.  Or imagine you are a North Korean, struggling to survive day to day under the heavy hand of a dictator, and you receive word that soon someone will come to rescue you.  That indeed would be good news!

The shepherds at the time of Jesus’ birth lived a very hard life.  They were poor and on the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale.  The culture found them of little note.  Yet, there they were one night watching over their flocks when Heaven took note and delivered first to them the Good News of their Savior’s birth.  When there is never anything even resembling good news in your world, even a sliver of something positive can give your heart a lift.  But this was great news, and it was for them!  This sent their hearts dancing!

I recall the old video clips of the French celebrating when the Allied troops entered Paris in victory over the Nazis.  And images are still fresh of East Germans hammering away at the Berlin Wall in 1989 after hearing of the fall of their Communist government.  Good news had come to those who desperately needed it and their hearts rejoiced.

For many of us, the Good News doesn’t generate a lot of excitement. We are caught up in living our own lives, and though we may acknowledge our need for a Savior, it lies there in our brain, far from our heart.  Unlike the shepherds or the peoples down through the centuries who have suffered and have been desperate for good news, we often are very comfortable with our circumstances.  But regardless, the desperate need for a Savior is still there because without Him, there is no hope.  

Today, recognize the Good News is “good” because of our desperate situation.  We are sinners, and apart from our Savior, we have no hope. As you celebrate Christmas this year, let that desperate need penetrate your heart.  Then join with the shepherds and the countless millions down through the centuries whose hearts have danced when they heard the news: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

© Jim Musser 2015

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Problem of Clinging to this Life

“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:20-21 NIV)

One often hears older people say when their joints ache and the ailments come on more frequently, that it is better than the alternative, meaning death.  Because it is all we’ve ever known, most of us tend to cling to this life.  We can talk much about life in Heaven, but we really don’t embrace it as a better alternative.  Instead, we embrace the known and the comfortable, which is the earthly life we live.  

Perhaps this is why we can almost be obsessed with staving off death, whether by searching out the “super foods” which experts tell us will keep us healthy and extend our lives, becoming fitness junkies, or exhausting every medical procedure or treatment to prolong our lives, if only for a few months.  Perhaps it is also why so many are risk-adverse, not participating in any activity they think might possibly be a threat to their lives, such as flying, traveling to a foreign country, or riding a motorcycle.  

Paul takes a different view and it is one we believers need to re-examine.  Paul saw death as not something to avoid at all costs, but as a door to a much better existence.  And as a result, we see a life well lived.  He did not fear death, for it promised something much greater, which enabled him to live a life fully committed to the Lord.  This fearlessness allowed him to fulfill God’s will, to not shrink back from the inherent dangers of bringing light into the darkness.  

As Paul did, we live in a time of great darkness.  Terrorism, slavery, and crime abound.  Add to that natural disasters and disease and the facts are clear that we live in a world full of danger and risk.  It is a lost world for which Jesus came to save.  He has not returned because there is still work to be done.  There are still so many who have never heard the Gospel.  Yet, our fear of death is inhibiting fulfilling God’s call to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).

If we cling to this life so much that we are not willing to take any risks of losing it, then how will the Muslims of the Middle East ever hear about Jesus?  Who will tell them?  How will the poor in the slums of cities around the world, including in our own nation, hear of the hope and freedom there is in Christ?  Who will share it with them?  How will the millions in Europe who don’t believe hear how much God loves them? Who will live among them in order to share this news with them?

Of course, we are not all called to go into these dangerous places, but we all play a part in creating an environment that promotes risk-taking for the sake of the Gospel.  And by clinging to Jesus rather than our own lives, we do just that.  We create a community that views this type of risk-taking not as heroic, but as normative for the Church.  Thus, the natural result is men and women coming out of this community with a zeal for spreading the Gospel regardless of the risk, and without hearing the worldly wisdom that they should instead remain cautious and safe.   

The truth Paul has to say to us is this: the less we hold on to this life, the more freedom we have to live it to the fullest, which in his understanding would be to live it for the Lord. Today, consider how much you are clinging to this life.  Is it preventing you and others from living fearlessly for Jesus, and thus the Gospel from being shared with the masses living in darkness?  Something to think about as you prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world.  

© Jim Musser 2015

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Being Faithful in the Everyday Things

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them.  To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.  The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more.  So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more.  But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?  Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.  For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.  And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 25:14-30 NIV)

It is final exam week on campus where worry and stress are as common as the sound of Christmas songs in the stores.  And, as is my habit, I remind students that worry is a sin (Matthew 6:25) and that if they are following Jesus, then He should make some difference in how they handle the stress of college life.

It is so easy to call ourselves Christians or followers of Jesus.  It is so easy to say we love Him and want to do His will, but the truth to these declarations is proved by how we conduct ourselves in the everyday things of life.  How do we treat our roommate or the server at a restaurant?  How do we handle commitments we have made?  Do we follow through or do we ignore them?  How do we handle conflict with others?  Do we hold a grudge or do we seek reconciliation?

Like a book contains many words and pages, life is made up of a myriad of small choices and actions.  The sum of its parts defines the whole.  However, we often fail to recognize this.  Instead, we focus on the whole (I’m a Christian; I love Jesus) and ignore the fact it is the tiny parts that truly define it.  

This is why I so often mention worry to students.  If they are truly followers of Jesus, then, come exam time, how they approach these tests should be very different from their peers who claim no such allegiance.  If they believe in Jesus, then what real difference does He make?

It is a question we all should ask and seek to answer with sober examination.  As I once heard it asked: If we were put on trial for following Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict us?

In this parable, Jesus emphasizes the Kingdom truth that our faithfulness in the everyday things of life, the opportunities we are given to be obedient, demonstrates our true commitment to Him.  All were considered servants, but it is what they did, the choices they made, that proved their faithfulness.

Today, recognize being faithful to Jesus is not proved by your declarations, but rather by your obedience in the daily situations of life. For it is in these that you accumulate the evidence for your faith that can one day lead to hearing these words from the Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

© Jim Musser 2015

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Praying for Those Who Hate Us

“When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.  Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’  And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.  The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’” (Luke 23:33-35 NIV)

By now, unless you are a student consumed with final exams, you have probably seen their faces staring at you.  Syed Farook looks weary and a bit dazed. His wife, Tashfeen, however, has a look of determination and perhaps defiance.  Of course, the picture was taken in 2014 at an airport after a long flight, so their recent rampage in San Bernardino, California and recent conclusions about it by law enforcement may be influencing my perception of this image.  

Regardless, I find myself looking at this image with a sense of sadness for them.  I know that may strike you as odd, or perhaps even offensive, in light of what they did last week, but I think it is similar to the way Jesus looked at those who were approving His execution.

What they both have in common, these Islamic terrorists and the Jews who orchestrated Jesus’ crucifixion, is they truly believed they were carrying out God’s will.  They thought doing these things would be pleasing to God.  How extremely sad!  Yes, the calls for revenge are tantalizing, but some of the last words from the lips of our Lord did not form a call for payback, but rather forgiveness for people who did not truly know what they were doing.  When Jesus was under attack, His call was not for retaliation, but for mercy on the perpetrators.

Right now there is much fear in the world and it is seeping into the Church.  And often what we fear, we hate.  The Nazis feared the Jews, as did the Klan the blacks.  There is danger that as our fear of Islamic terrorists grows, it will transform into hate.  It is time to step back and examine how Jesus responded to those who sought to take His life.  It was not fear or hate, but compassion and mercy.  He understood the blindness of their motivations and the drastic eternal consequences that would be the result.  

The terrorists in our midst today are blinded by their religious zeal. They think they are pleasing God through murdering innocent people. They couldn’t be more deluded in their thinking and the consequences couldn’t be greater.  That is why instead of fearing and hating them, we need to be asking for God’s mercy for them, that their hearts and minds will be open to the Truth.  (See this link  for a true story of how this is actually happening!)

Today, reflect on the prayer Jesus prayed for those responsible for putting Him to death.  I think He looked into their faces and felt a deep sadness.  They truly believed they were serving God by crucifying Him. Are the Islamic terrorists any different?  I don’t think they are.  So I am praying for God’s mercy upon them and that the eyes of their hearts will be opened the One who truly loves them.  Will you join me?

© Jim Musser 2015

Monday, December 7, 2015

Hope in the Midst of Mayhem

“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)

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is an old Christmas hymn rarely sung anymore, so I was surprised to sing it yesterday at our church. Written by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the midst of the American Civil War, when his son was a member of the Union army, its words reveal a heart struggling with the promised coming of the Prince of Peace and the realities of a violent world.  As I sang the lyrics, I was struck by the relevancy of the song.  The words could have easily been penned in the second decade of the 21st Century.  

In the past month, we have been witnesses to the brutal killings of innocents in Paris, Lebanon, and San Bernardino, and, if we have been paying close attention, in nations around the world.  Unless we bury our heads in the proverbial sand, there is no escaping the fact we live in a world where hate and violence are real and common, and the news of such runs a steady stream along broadband widths.  

So the haunting words of Longfellow—“And in despair I bowed my head; There is no peace on earth, I said; For hate is strong, And mocks the song, of peace on earth, good-will to men!"—resonate with us.  As declared the New York Daily News right after the killings in San Bernardino, “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS,” the headline expressed the feelings of many that God is not fulfilling His promise to bring peace on earth.  Instead of being sought, He is mocked for His perceived powerlessness.  

So as we enter the season celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, we are tempted, as Longfellow was, to wonder if the promise of Christmas is but a mere fantasy in the face of the stark realities of a world increasingly mired in mayhem.  Does, can Jesus make any difference?

The question is legitimate and to answer it we need to remove much of the sentimentality and false narratives that have come to embody our thoughts of Christmas and the life of Jesus in general.  At the time Jesus entered human history, the Roman Empire controlled the known world.  Its rulers tolerated no threat or dissent.  In fact, the birth of Jesus resulted in a Roman genocide of male infants and toddlers because Herod considered the baby Jesus a threat to Roman rule.  The stark reality of the Nativity was it resulted in a bloodbath; yet the heavenly hosts had only recently promised “peace and good will.”  Jesus walked on Roman-controlled territory and His Sermon on the Mount was taught in the context of brutal oppression.  And, of course, Jesus was brutally murdered by the Romans.   

If we thoroughly examine the life and teachings of Jesus, what we come to realize is He wasn’t the “Prince of No Conflict,” but rather the One who brings hope and inner peace in the midst of conflict.  “In this world you will have trouble,” is a clear warning that life in this world will not be easy nor without hardship.  “But take heart! I have overcome the world” is His call for courage in the midst of the world’s mayhem.  No matter what is happening on the outside, there can peace on the inside because Jesus has overcome the sin that binds the world.  You and I have been reconciled to God and no amount of war or violence can separate us from Him!

So, along with Longfellow, we can proclaim, "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men."  Today, though the world is full of uncertainty and violence, know you can still experience peace.  For indeed that is the promise of Christmas:  The Almighty God entered history and is in the process of establishing His Kingdom in the hearts of people.  He has indeed overcome the world and one day His peace will not only reign in our hearts, but throughout all of Creation!  In the meantime, we cling to Him who is our Hope in the midst of the mayhem of this world.

© Jim Musser 2015

Friday, December 4, 2015

Being an Encouragement

“After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him.  But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.

When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.  But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.  So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.” (Acts 9:23-28 NIV)

The Christian journey didn’t start out too well for Paul (at this point, he was still referred to as Saul).  Once the most stalwart defender of Judaism and a darling of the Jewish elite, he now was working for the “enemy” and it wasn’t sitting too well.  After speaking boldly in the name of Jesus and confounding the arguments of the Jews, their frustration with this new convert rose to the point of wanting him dead.  Fleeing for his life, Paul headed for Jerusalem in hopes of joining up with other followers there, but they didn’t trust he had truly become a follower of Jesus and so refused to meet with him.  I can imagine Paul was very discouraged.

We all experience points in our lives where life becomes very discouraging.  Everything seems to be on a downhill slide.   That’s when we need someone like Barnabas, whose name meant “son of encouragement.”  He believed Paul and was confident his conversion was real.  At a time of great discouragement for Paul, he came along side of him and defended him before the apostles.  He was the encouragement Paul desperately needed at the time.  

I remember a time years ago when I was really struggling.  My girlfriend had just broken up with me and a couple I had recently met invited me to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with them.  It was a wonderful time as they loved and encouraged me.  I left their home at the end of the weekend with a new outlook on my life.  Though there were still rough days ahead, this couple served as the encouragement I had desperately needed.  

Do you know someone who is very discouraged?   Could you possibly be the encouragement they desperately need?    Today, consider how you can be a Barnabas to them.  As God used him in such a significant way in Paul’s life, so, too, can he use you in someone else’s life.

© Jim Musser 2015

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Doing the Hard Things

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.  Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.  Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:17-24 NIV)

It is the time of year when the vast majority of students are stressed out. Papers and projects are coming due and exams loom ahead.   Yet, the reality is, for many, much of this stress could be avoided.  The due dates for the projects and papers have long been known, but the work put off.  I know.  I was a student once.  Spending time with friends, watching movies, catching up on Facebook, hiking, playing sports, etc. replaces time spent in diligent study.  That is put off because it is so much easier to do the things we want to do rather than the things we have to do.  

Yet, with every role or vocation in life, there come responsibilities, whether you are a student, an employee, or a parent.  And many of these responsibilities are not easy or necessarily enjoyable.  Yet, to be successful, they must be fulfilled and done well.  And if we have to live a life full of responsibilities, it would help to find some joy in them as well.  So in a world where most people complain about the demands on their lives at school, work, and home, and often do the least possible to get by, where do we find the motivation to do our best and how do we experience joy in fulfilling the responsibilities given us?

Paul has the answer—doing everything as if we were doing it for the Lord.  Is it studying?  Do it as if the Lord is your professor.  Is it your job?  Do it as if the Lord is your boss.  Is it as a parent?  Do it as if you were raising the Lord Himself.  

What strikes me in this passage is all the things Paul lists are hard things.  Husbands in the 1st Century were normally harsh with their wives because women were viewed as second-class citizens.  Women and slaves who accepted the Gospel with all of its freedom and equality were being asked to continue to submit to their husbands and masters. Children were being asked to obey their parents.  Hard things indeed.

Paul knew the only way we could fulfill the responsibilities of this life successfully and in a way that honors the Lord is to put Him at the center of all we do.  He must be the motivation to do the hard things of life.  

Today, whatever responsibilities you have in life, put the Lord at the center of them.  Fulfill them as if you are carrying them out for Him.  In this way, hard things become a bit easier and a bit more enjoyable.

© Jim Musser 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

God's Default Mode

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5 NIV)

When we talk about default modes, we normally think of cameras or software.  But it occurred to me the other day that God has a default mode—generosity.  He is generous to everyone, no matter who they are or what they have done in life.  He is generous to old people and young people, college graduates and high school dropouts, doctors and drug lords.  His generosity is not dependent on our successes or our shortcomings.  

This is not to say God ignores our sin.  There will come a day when each of us is judged for what we have done in this life (Romans 2:6). However, until that time, God is generous towards everyone, particularly to those who ask.  

I recently saw a story about a man, obviously not serving the Lord, who became stranded while hiking.  Injured and near death, he prayed to be rescued.  After days of searching, rescuers had given up, but a friend decided to make one last attempt to find him.  Miraculously, the friend spotted him on the ledge of a cliff miles from where rescuers assumed he would be.   In an interview afterwards, the man who was rescued gave no credit to God.  Of course, the Lord knew that beforehand, but was still generous to him.  

Often we don’t approach the Lord with our needs because we think we do not deserve His help.  We are too embarrassed or ashamed to ask. But the Lord doesn’t operate that way.  He doesn’t base His generosity on how much we deserve it.  He is willing to be generous regardless. And that is what makes Him so amazing!

Today, recognize we serve a God who is generous to us regardless of what we have done.  It is His default mode, especially to those who ask Him.

© Jim Musser 2015

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

From Religion to Relationship

“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29 NIV)

Paul was writing at a time when the Jews considered themselves special merely because of their cultural heritage.  Early in biblical history, God declared the Jews to be His people, set apart to proclaim His glory to the world.  He made a covenant with them that He would bless them if they obeyed His commands.  Of course, throughout the Old Testament, we see the Jews struggling to keep their end of the bargain, and by the time of Jesus, there had developed an elite class of Jews who believed and taught that being a Jew meant merely following certain rules.  What had been lost down through the centuries was any sense of a relationship with God.  

Christian religion, since the time of Christ, has made the same error. The emphasis is on doing outward things such as going to church, following certain rituals like Confirmation or Catechism, baptism and Communion, being a good person, etc.  And to many, the fact they are born into a “Christian home” makes them Christians.  

Jesus said, “Come follow me.”  He was not calling people out of one religion into another. Rather, He was calling people into a personal relationship with Him.  He was calling them away from empty rituals to a change of heart and allegiance.   

It is quite possible to go to church faithfully, to be a good person, to be baptized, but still have an unchanged and unsurrendered heart.   In following Jesus, that is impossible.   To paraphrase Paul, a Christian is not one who merely does what’s perceived as “Christian” things. Rather, he is one who has surrendered his heart to Jesus and lives in allegiance to Him.  

Today, take a serious look at your heart.  Do you merely look like a Christian, or are you truly one who has surrendered your life to Him? The latter is the one that will gain you His praise.

© Jim Musser 2015