Friday, April 29, 2016

Maintaining Your Identity

“This is what the LORD says:  ‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24 NIV)

I remember being shocked when I returned to campus just six months after I graduated and not being recognized by some students when I stopped by our campus ministry house, where I had been a leader for two years.  They were new to the ministry and had no knowledge, or appreciation, of my role there.  The same would happen if I were to return to the campus ministry I directed for more than two decades.  No one but the staff would have any clue who I was or would appreciate my years of leadership there.  

I was thinking about this the other day after one of the elders of my church shared his life story at a men’s breakfast.  Up to that point, I had known him only generally as an elder, a retired military officer and a former businessman.  I didn’t know many details of his eighty years of life.  I certainly didn’t know he had been a combat paratrooper in Viet Nam and nearly lost his life in an ambush.  I only knew him as a kind, elderly gentleman and had no appreciation for his past.  

As I was pondering this, I thought how easy it is to tie our identities and value to what we are doing in the moment.  But what happens when we move on to the next thing in our lives?  Only those closest to us will have any memories or appreciation for what we’ve done.  For everyone else that we meet will only know us in the present.  Almost every university building in the country is named after someone of significance in the history of the particular institution, but almost none of the current students know who these people are or what they did.  They are just names and, perhaps, images captured in oil paintings hanging in the lobbies.  

When I eventually leave campus ministry and move on to the next thing in my life, my identity with the people I meet will be what I am doing in the present.  They might be curious about my past, but my identity with them will be found in the present.  Thus, I realize how important it is to hold onto my identity in Christ, to recognize my value is found in the fact that I know the Lord.  For my identity as a campus minister will one day come to an end.

Today, recognize your only consistent identity in life will be that of a follower of the Lord.  No matter how many times you change jobs or careers, your identity in Christ is the one constant and the most important to maintain.  

© Jim Musser 2016

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Beauty of God

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 NIV)

“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 3:20-21 NIV)

These two passages sum up my life, upon which I am reflecting as I celebrate 60 years of existence today.  I was born the third son of Depression-era children.  My dad was orphaned at six years old when his parents died in the 1918 flu epidemic and my mom was an only child.  Dad quit school after 6th grade to go to work.  Mom finished high school and was determined her boys would all go to college.  

They met while Dad was in the Navy during World War II.  There marriage wasn’t great, but they stuck it out and gave my brothers and I a roof over our heads and loved us the best they knew how.  Like most families in the 60’s, they took us to church, but were not believers.  I never saw them read the Bible or pray, and, thus, I didn’t either; well, except that time I got lost in the woods and begged God to show me the way home.

To imagine that I would end up not only becoming a follower of Jesus, but spend my adult life in campus ministry was impossible then and still almost beyond comprehension today.  And then to examine the winding path of my life since making that decision, seeing the sin from my old life struggling to keep its grip on me, the numerous poor decisions I made along the way, and yet God working it all together for my good and using me to bring glory to His Kingdom, and blessing me in ways I could not have imagined is mind-blowing!  

The joy and benefit of getting older as a follower of Jesus is to be able to reflect on His work in your life.  None of us begins walking that road as a perfect person.  The journey is God’s means to shape us into the man or woman He created us to be. The poor character, the bad habits, the hurts that tend to define us, the wrong thinking, all need to be tended to by the Great Potter who eliminates the defects, smooths the rough edges, and shapes us into something better than we were at the start.  This takes time and, sometimes, it’s painful.  But the end result is worth it.

As I reflect on my own life, my imperfections were great and I got in God’s way many times, and sometimes still do. And bad things happened which caused me great pain. But God is loving and faithful, and He has made my life into something I could have never imagined when I was young or even after I first met Him.  I am blessed far beyond what I could have imagined and far more than I deserve.  That, my friends, is the beauty of God!  

Today, whether you are just starting this journey, are well down the road, or haven’t even started yet, know God will do much more in and through your life than you can imagine, and whatever bad things have happened, whether they’re your responsibility or someone else’s, He has the power to bring good out of them.  Nothing is too bad to stand in His way.  My life is evidence of that and yours can be as well, if you will let Him do His work.

© Jim Musser 2016

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Taste of New Wine

“They said to him, ‘John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.’ Jesus answered, ‘Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?  But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.’

He told them this parable: ‘No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old.  And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.” (Luke 5:33-39 NIV)

I grew up going to a traditional, denominational church.  The services were pretty much the same Sunday after Sunday.  One didn’t really need the standard bulletin to know what was happening, except perhaps what particular hymns were being sung.  It is not any different today for many churches.  Even in so-called “contemporary” churches, there is a lot of tradition.  

Tradition is popular and comfortable.  We like it, often too much.  Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees was focused on their resistance to accept anything new or different.  They liked the old ways so much, it prevented them from seeing the new things the Lord wanted to do. Jesus came to set people free; the traditions of the day were holding them back from experiencing this freedom.  He wanted to focus on the heart and relationships; they wanted to focus on rituals and laws.  

We are no different.  We naturally like our traditional ways of doing things.  We like routine, like sitting in the same seat on Sunday mornings or having the same order of service.  We like rules we can follow that give us a sense that we are “in”.  But when it comes to loving God, rules and rituals fall short.  He desires our hearts instead.  But this is a tough sell.  People tend to like the traditional ways better; the new way feels weird and “out there.”  Things like submitting one’s plans and dreams to the Lord, or radically changing one’s lifestyle for the sake of the Lord seem extreme.  It’s a little too much and so we stay with what is comfortable.  By doing so, we will miss out on the freedom and joy Jesus offers us when we are willing to wholeheartedly follow Him.  

This reminds me of a baptism I witnessed a few years ago.  A student decided late one night that he was tired of the religious life he had been living—going to church, being part of a campus ministry, trying to be a good person—and wanted to embrace the new life Jesus offers.  So, around midnight, he was baptized in a local river in the midst of a storm with about 30 witnesses.  Three pastors were present, but they didn’t perform the baptism.  Instead, two influential peers were the baptizers. To many, this is just weird.  He was baptized when he was ten, why do it again?  Why not wait for a more reasonable time and better weather? Why not do it in a church baptistry?  In reality, these are the questions of Pharisees, people more comfortable with traditional ways.  What they miss is the joy of spontaneous obedience, the joy of faith grounded in love rather than routine, and the Lord’s concern more for the attitude of the heart than the exact way things are done.  

Today, recognize that new wine has been poured and it is there for you to drink and enjoy.  But know it may taste much different than what you have been drinking.  It is an acquired taste, but if you are willing to give it time, it will taste better than you could ever imagine.  

© Jim Musser 2016

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Changing Our Focus

“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV)

Let’s try an experiment this morning: With what would you fill the blank of this statement if you examined how you really live?  I love _____________ with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind.  In other words, what is the motivation or focus of your life right now?  

When I look back at my life and consider what I see in people today, here are some possibilities that perhaps ring true for you: What people think of you—your reputation among your peers, how many “likes” and comments you get on social media; your career or your career goals; your romantic life; the wrongs done to you and your lingering bitterness over them; having fun and enjoying life; regret over past sins; accumulating wealth and/or power; the appearance of your body; your personal comfort and safety. 

The call of Jesus is to deny ourselves and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). This means what we want out of life is secondary to what He wants for us and where He leads us.  Too often today Christians live and think as if their lives still belong to them, that they can do whatever they want. However, the call of Jesus is one of surrender.  To follow Him is to surrender our wants and desires to Him.  Now He may surely give us what we want, like a career goal or a romantic interest, but it is from His decree, not ours.  We don’t demand it or take it.  We humbly submit to His will, trusting that He loves us and has our best in mind.  

By filling in the blank of the above statement honestly, we can get a sense of where our hearts truly are, to what or whom they are truly devoted.  The wonderful thing about the Lord is He is so patient.  He knows we struggle with self-absorption and He grieves at the trouble it causes us.  If your blank was filled in with something other than the Lord, know that He is willing to forgive you.  Yet know continued self-focus will only lead to more heartache and regret.

The Lord wants what’s best for you, and living for Him is truly the best. Consider where your heart is today and ask Him to change it to where the focus is increasing more on Him and less on yourself.

© Jim Musser 2016

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Wonderful Gift

“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?  You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.  You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8 NIV)

I started noticing them just a few weeks ago—the songs of birds welcoming the new day.  First, solos and duets; now trios and quartets. This wonderful gift, along with warmer weather and lengthening days, are the sure signs of spring, that most glorious time of year when we are reminded of the hope of new life.  

I love this time of year because, after months of being closed up by the cold and nature’s palette of color and sounds receding into hibernation, it’s time to open the windows, letting the fresh spring air in to renew our senses (and allergies for some unfortunate souls!), time to bask in the warmth of the sun’s bright rays, and time to revel in God’s awesome creation that is coming to life all around us.  

This is a Psalm for all seasons, but particularly Spring.  As I am out walking and taking in all the beauty that is emerging around me, or sitting on my front porch watching the sun set behind the mountains, or just enjoying the fresh breeze flowing through the house, my heart sings, “O Lord, my Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”  

God has given us His wonderful Creation to enjoy.  In this great gift, we can see His love for us. Not only has He given us new life, He has given us a beautiful backdrop in which to experience it.  

Today, let your heart experience the beauty that is emerging around you.  It is a wonderful gift from your Lord.  And, if you are so inclined, let your heart sing, “O Lord, my Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

© Jim Musser 2016

Friday, April 22, 2016

"Cut Flowers" Spirituality

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 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 15:1-8 NIV)

Cut flowers are beautiful—for awhile.  Placed in a vase of water, they will provide a few days of color and beauty.  But slowly they will begin to wilt, then die, and then be discarded. It is inevitable because a flower cannot survive long on its own, separated from its source of nourishment.  

Spiritually, many of us are like cut flowers.  We have the appearance of being alive—we go to church, maybe participate in another weekly meeting with Christians; temporarily, we look good—but we in reality are dying because we are not attached to the Source for all spiritual nourishment.  

What institutional religion has taught us is we can be spiritual by the outward things we do—following proscribed rituals and being a good person.  But Jesus warns us about this “cut flower” approach.  Nothing apart from Him has any lasting value and, like a bouquet of flowers that has reached its end, will be thrown away.

The Jewish religion promoted by its leaders in Jesus’ day was heavy on rituals, but had been separated from a true faith in God (Mark 12:24). The Lord even went so far to label them “whitewashed tombs,” because while they looked good on the outside, they were actually spiritually dead.  And the most frightening thing is they were completely unaware of their condition.  

So today examine your spiritual life.  Are you attached to Jesus?  Is He the Source of your spiritual life, or are you more like a cut flower, having the appearance of a believer but are in reality slowly dying.  If the latter, know it is not too late.  Re-attach yourself to Jesus and let His life-giving power transform you from the inside out.  Only then can you do things that have any lasting value.  

© Jim Musser 2016

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Gaining Wisdom

“Love the Lord, all his faithful people!  The Lord preserves those who are true to him, but the proud he pays back in full.  Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.” (Psalm 31:23-24 NIV)

These are the words of an experienced man, a man who had known both blessings and hardship in his life.  He had walked a road that took him to the highest of heights and into the deepest of valleys.  And, at the time he wrote these words, King David still maintained that the Lord is faithful and worthy of our allegiance.  

Men and women who have walked for much of their lives on the narrow path that leads to life have much to offer those who are just starting out. Nothing can substitute for faithfulness to the Lord over decades of life in a world that is fallen and full of trouble.  The temptation of the young, however, is to listen only to their own voices and dismiss older ones as “out of touch” or “unenlightened.”  

Yet, those of us who are older now were young once and can identify with this hardness of heart towards the wisdom of our elders.  Most of us, too, thought they didn’t understand the realities of our lives and how much life had changed since they were young.  But as we became older, so did many of the things our elders told us become wiser.  Their counsel didn’t change; we did.  We gained life experience.  We tried things our way and often failed, or lived to regret what we did.

This is why this Psalm resonates with me.  David, as a man of faith and who has lived a long life, is imparting his wisdom to his people, wisdom gained from both victory and defeat.  His life was far from easy and far from perfect; yet as he neared the end of his earthly life, he declared God to be faithful no matter what we experience in life and the wisdom of obeying Him even when the world around us is openly rejecting Him and His ways.

There are two things each of us need in our lives.  First, we need to have the deepest respect for the Scriptures, which help keep us on the path that leads to life (II Timothy 3:16-17).  They are the words of God and are above time and culture.  Second, we need older mentors in our lives to help guide and encourage us in the ways of the Lord.  Like David, they have the life experience and know of the Lord’s faithfulness in the midst of hard times, as well as the many dangers that lurk, which can lead us away from Him.

Today, if you are young, don’t assume you know everything and have life figured out.  Dig into the Word for wisdom and guidance and seek out older people whom you see have remained faithful to the Lord.  Ask for their counsel; listen to them tell of their experiences living for the Lord.  And if you are older, seek out younger people in whom you, like David, can invest your experience and wisdom in order to help them grow to be faithful followers of the Lord.   As one who is now older, I can tell you this is the way we gain wisdom and maintain our faithfulness for a lifetime.

© Jim Musser 2016

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Dealing with the Pressures of Life

“The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd.  Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.  Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:11-14 NIV)

It is the time of year on college campuses where much study has wearied the bodies of students.  It has been a long year, full of pressure, and where they have often wondered if there is no end to the books professors will have them read.  They are tired and ready for the summer break.

It is easy for people under stress to be all consumed with the tasks causing all the pressure. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the pressures of life, be they academic, professional, social, or familial, never really abate.  They are a constant presence regardless of our age or stage in life.  To allow oneself to be all consumed by the pressures of the moment is to risk living a life that is both void of joy and absent of discipline.  To borrow a quote from James, we are like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed about by the wind. (James1:6)

In the world in which we live, the words of the Teacher are a good reminder of the importance of not losing sight of our purpose in the midst of the turbulent winds of life—to respect God and to keep His commands.  It is in living out this purpose that we will find stability and peace in a life that tends to push us away from both.  

So, today, regardless if you are a student, an employee, a spouse, a parent, or any combination of these, and are finding the pressures of these roles consuming you, don’t lose sight of your ultimate purpose. The Lord is your first priority and commitment.  And it is in Him you will find relief from the pressures that are weighing you down.  For it is He who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NIV)

© Jim Musser 2016

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Finding Your Security

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13:1-5 NIV)

Insecurity breeds self-centeredness.  The less secure we feel, the more likely we are to focus on ourselves. Working with college students, I see this frequently.  They put a lot of focus on how they look, how many “likes” they get on Facebook, and what makes them happy.  When I was their age, I was insecure as well, so I understand.  And for most of us, insecurity can be a lifelong struggle. The truth is, it is difficult to get beyond ourselves when we aren’t secure in who we are.  Yet, if we want to follow Jesus, getting beyond ourselves is a must.

Jesus came into the world not to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28).  And He left us an example so that we should follow in His steps (I Peter 2:21). Following Jesus, then, means to focus less on serving ourselves and more on serving others.  But this is so much easier said than done, as evidenced by the vast majority of people around us.  Our bent is to desire to serve ourselves far more than others.  So what to do?

I think John gives us insight into overcoming the problem.  He says Jesus “knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.”  In other words, Jesus was secure in His identity.  He knew who He was, and, thus, this enabled Him to serve others.  Security leads to freedom.  Jesus was able to do what He did, to endure the persecution and the suffering, precisely because He knew who He was.

So who are you?  According to Jesus, if you have received Him and accept Him, you are a child of God (John 1:12), a child of a God who loves you and can be trusted to take care of you (Matthew 6:25-33). If you have trouble focusing on others and serving them, it is because you don’t fully understand who you are.

Today, reflect on these Scriptures and the example of Jesus.  In order to follow Him fully, you need to know who you are, just as Jesus did.  And the more you do, the easier it will be to focus more on others and less on yourself.  

© Jim Musser 2016

Monday, April 18, 2016

Prisons of Our Own Making

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’  But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’

Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’  Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” (John 20:19-29 NIV)

Even after seeing and hearing compelling evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, His disciples were still afraid.  They had locked themselves inside a home fearing the realities outside of the walls.  Then, out of nowhere, the risen Jesus appeared to them and reassured them.  They should be at peace because He would be with them through the Holy Spirit and wanted them to go out into the world as His messengers.  

A week later, we find them once again together and, once again, cowering behind locked doors.  The message Jesus had proclaimed to them had yet to find its mark.  Instead of moving about freely in the peace and confidence of the Lord, they chose to remain in their self-made prison, alone and afraid.  Then Jesus appeared again with the same message: “Peace be with you.”  He also demonstrated He wasn’t a ghost, but a real person.  He had indeed conquered death!  It was after this that the men found the courage to move out of their prison and into the adventure that would change the world.

How hard it is to allow Jesus to free us from our self-made prisons!  It took two actual appearances by Him for the disciples to finally unlock the doors and walk into freedom.  Is it any wonder why we, too, find it so difficult to escape our self-made prisons?  

When I was first beginning campus ministry, I often feared making appointments with students.  My introversion was my prison.  I also had created another with my fear of singleness.  It took me years to fully be free from both of these.  I was slow to accept Jesus’ promise of peace and to set myself free.

Earlier in this gospel, Jesus promises us freedom through Himself (John 8:36), yet often we are loath to take it.  Fear consumes us and we lock ourselves away.  Instead of being ambassadors, we are prisoners. Instead of freely proclaiming the Lord’s message, we remain locked in prisons of our own making, fearing what is outside the walls.  

Today, consider what fears you are allowing to imprison you, to keep you from freely proclaiming the message of the Lord.  Imagine Jesus entering the room and promising you will experience peace outside those walls if you will only unlock the door and leave.  Know the promise is true and freedom is yours if you will only accept it.

© Jim Musser 2016

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Words We Speak

“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:1-4 NIV)

Someone I know to be a Christ-follower recently dropped the f-bomb into a tweet over some minor irritation.  It seems to be a popular thing to do these days. 

Obviously, obscene language has been around a long time and it is no surprise that people of the world make plenty of use of it.  But what strikes me as odd is when those who follow Jesus drop those bombs, particularly in light of Paul’s straightforward command.  Perhaps they think they are being “edgy” when they do it.  Some believe, because of the stereotyped image of Christians, that this opens doors with unbelievers.  

I once had a professor in seminary who loved to tell his students that when Paul wrote to the Philippians that he considered his past life “rubbish” or “garbage” (3:8-9), the word meant excrement and then for effect he would say, “In other words, he was saying Paul considered his past life sh**.”  Then he went on to say that if our ears were bothered by that word, we better get used to it because that is the way the world talked.  

Of course it does.  In fact, I am well versed in the use of obscene language, having been a master of it in my teens.  But when I decided to follow Jesus, new standards were introduced, including the content and tone of my language.  Thus, I stopped dropping f-bombs a long time ago and don’t see any need to return to using them in order to impress people with how edgy or cool I am.  Rather, I want my language to be speaking words of love, encouragement, and thanksgiving.

Today, think about the content and tone of your language.  If you are in the habit of dropping f-bombs and s-bombs, perhaps it’s time to reconsider.  Following God’s example is taking a different path from that of the world and this includes the words we speak.

© Jim Musser 2016

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Do Not Be Afraid

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27 NIV)

When the Scriptures talk a lot about a certain topic, you can be sure it reveals something about us, or God, or both.  For example, the word “remember” is used countless times.  Could it be that we have difficulty remembering God’s faithfulness or love?  Or the word “obey.”  It appears quite frequently.  Could it be that we have a rebellious streak deep within us?

The Scriptures also speak a lot about fear.  Fear of God, which is the healthy kind, and fear of people and circumstances, which is usually detrimental to us.  Jesus, in speaking to His disciples, is talking about the latter and He has a simple message: “Do not be afraid.”  

In talking with students on campus in recent weeks, I have heard many expressions of fear.  Fear of the future as many prepare to graduate without concrete plans or to embark on post-college life; fear of disapproval from parents or others when deciding to follow the leading of the Lord; fear of stepping out in faith to trust the Lord for His provision.  Being afraid is something common to us all.  This is why the Scriptures give this explicit assurance more than 100 times—do not be afraid.  

Do not be afraid because the Lord is in control.  He is the Shepherd who leads you. (I Peter 5:4)   He knows the plans He has for you. (Jeremiah 29:11)  He has overcome the world. (John 16:33)  There is no need to fear.

I have experienced fear many times in my life, such as when my parents died when I was in my early 20’s, when my first wife left me, and when I resigned from a long-held ministry position without any prospects of another.  Fear attempted to get its grip on me, but I heeded the comforting words of Jesus: Do not be afraid.  And, as it always does when we trust the Lord, everything worked out.  It wasn’t always easy, but God always came through.  He always will.

Today, what do you fear?  Whatever it is, know the Lord has everything under control.  He will lead you through it. Let His reassuring words envelop your spirit: Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

© Jim Musser 2016

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Unmistakeable Sign of True Faith

“For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (I Thessalonians 1:4-10 NIV)

Something had dramatically changed with the people in Thessalonica. Having once worshipped idols and lived in ungodly ways that accompanied it, many were now acknowledging the Lord and living lives submitted to Him.  They were now radically different and their transformation had an effect.  There lives now “rang out” with the message of the gospel.  Their faith became known, Paul says, everywhere.

There is a quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says, “Preach the gospel always.  Use words if necessary.”  The point being that words have little impact if not accompanied by action.  What made the Thessalonian believers stand out was not what they proclaimed, but how their lives had been transformed by the message they proclaimed. The power of God is demonstrated, not by our words, but the transformation of our lives.  The words of the New Testament would have little meaning if Jesus had not been raised from the dead (I Corinthians 15:14).  It is the power demonstrated by the resurrection that makes us take notice.

It is so easy for those of us raised in the church and Christian homes to talk a good game.  We talk about love, about faith, about putting God first.  The question is, how much do our lives reflect our words?  Do our lives “ring out” with the message of the gospel, or do they instead have the hollow clang of hypocrisy?  

Today, reflect on whether or not there is power accompanying the words you speak regarding accepting the gospel.  True faith is accompanied by the unmistakable sign of a transformed life.

© Jim Musser 2016

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Master Weaver

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 NIV)

What a grand, glorious, and hopeful mystery this is!  I have lived it, but it’s still so hard to grasp: God can take the lousy things of life, both those completely out of our control and those which we have brought on ourselves, and turn them into blessings for us!

I was sharing some of my life story with a student recently and, as I talked, this idea formed in my mind of God as the master weaver who is able to take the poor, the unsuitable, and even the wretched pieces of our lives and weave them into a beautiful tapestry if we will only let Him.  
The more I deal with students, the more I see how many view themselves as victims of life’s circumstances, and, thus, helpless to do anything but just to get by.  They are crippled by their hopelessness. Campuses across our country are filled with depressed and anxiety-filled students who are overwhelming the counseling services there to serve them.  On our campus alone, the Dean of Students office employs several caseworkers whose sole job is to follow up on troubled students and the Dean told me not long ago he thinks they need additional help.

This is a generation increasingly mired in hopelessness, seeing themselves as controlled by their pasts and powerless to gain their freedom, hoping only to learn to cope the best they can.  But God offers us something miraculous—to turn our woeful pasts and circumstances into something beautiful.  If only we will trust Him.  And that is a big IF!

The currents of our culture flow in the opposite direction.  The voices of influence scoff at this type of hope as unrealistic and even delusional. How can a man or a woman ever recover from the effects of molestation as a young child? How can good come out of being abandoned as a child or from growing up with an alcoholic parent? How can one ever overcome the consequences of being a murderer or a rapist?  The world will say the best you can do is to cope with the consequences and limp through life saddled with the ill-effects.

BUT God says something entirely different.  He CAN overcome anything that has ever happened to us or that which we have done. NOTHING is beyond His redemptive power.  If only we will trust Him and submit these things to Him.  Then He will weave these less than desirable, and sometimes, awful things into something more beautiful than we can think and imagine (Ephesians 3:20).  Paul persecuted Christians and approved the murder of Stephen (Acts 7 and 8), Peter denied he even knew Jesus (Luke 22), Mary Magdeline engaged in prostitution (Luke 7); Zacchaeus was a thief (Luke 19); and the man possessed with demons suffered for years (Luke 8:26-39); yet all went on to follow Jesus and to be used for the glory of His Kingdom.  

Today, what things in your life, those you have done or those that have been done to you, are you holding onto thinking that nothing can be done and with which you just have to cope?  Turn them over to the master weaver and see what He will do.  I have and continue to be amazed by His skill.  I am confident you will, as well.  He can be trusted to do extraordinary work.

© Jim Musser 2016

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Heart of the Gospel

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV)

The self-made man or woman is an American icon.  In general, Americans don’t look too fondly upon those who make it in life relying on handouts or the kindness of others.  We are more than willing to help people who have fallen on hard times, but we expect people to earn their way if they are able to do so.  

It is this mindset that makes the gospel such a hard sell.  Many can acknowledge Jesus died for their sins, but then they also believe they must be a good person to earn His favor.   Many can proclaim God’s grace, but then despise those who they view as treating them in the wrong way.   

The gospel is a radical concept, and truth be told, it is often hard for us implement in our everyday lives.  To a people steeped in a tradition of picking yourself up by your own bootstraps, it is something often very hard to grasp.  This is why many people are attracted to legalistic or religious forms of faith.  It meets their inclinations and desires to earn their way.  

But at the heart of the gospel is freedom.  God freely, without obligation, gave His love to us.  Thus, He wants our response to be free and without a sense of obligation.  In other words, we love and obey Him because we love Him and not because we have a need to earn His favor.  

Today, recognize you cannot earn God’s love.  He has already freely given it to you though you’ve done nothing to deserve it.  All He wants you to do is to freely accept it and freely love Him in return.  

© Jim Musser 2016

Friday, April 8, 2016

Always the Best

“On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’

‘Woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My hour has not yet come.’  His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.  Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water’; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.’

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, ‘Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.’

What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:1-11 NIV)

When my wife and I were looking to buy a new house, we looked at hundreds online, did countless drive-bys, toured several dozen homes, and made two offers.  Nothing worked out.  And as we look back, we are so glad it didn’t.  That is because we consider the house we did eventually buy as the best house for us.  It is big enough and close enough to campus to allow us to host student events, it is in a wonderful neighborhood, and it is now appraised for far more than what we paid for it. 

But in the middle of the search process, our frustration grew.  We were always praying for the right house, but with our increasing weariness, we more inclined to settle.  I am thankful we kept praying because I believe God understood our fatigue and discouragement and did not allow us to experience the consequences of a bad decision.  The houses on which we made offers paled in comparison to the one in which we now live.  No way we could have used those homes for ministry the way we are using our home.

Life-altering decisions, like buying a home, choosing a spouse, or a career can produce a lot of anxiety and often that anxiety propels us into making poor decisions.  As a single man in my late 30’s, I made a very poor decision in marrying my first wife.  Rather than covered in prayer, that decision was made out of desperation, from fear that life was passing me by and in hopelessness that I might never get married. And I paid a very high price.  The second time around was different. Ever seeking the Lord, several relationships failed to materialize into anything serious until I met Marianna.  And she turned out to be the best for me.  I can’t imagine a better woman to be my wife!

When I read this story, what jumps out at me are the comments from the master of the banquet, who tastes the wine and declares it “the best.”  When Jesus was sought out to resolve the wine shortage dilemma, He could have done what the master obviously expected—provided cheap wine because few would have even noticed.  Rather, He provided exquisitely tasting wine, which no doubt today would have won top awards for its quality.  

What this tells me about Jesus is He doesn’t skimp when it comes to His children.  He wants us to have the best.  But what I also know is He will allow us to experience much less if we are determined to have our way.  That is why in making life-altering decisions, it is so important always to seek His will in the midst of the process.  If we truly desire to follow Him, then He will not allow our decisions to end badly.  

So, today, if you are in the midst of making some important decisions, cover those decisions in prayer.  Ask for the Lord’s will and not just your own.  Trust that the Lord is good and wants what’s best for you.  Be confident that if you are truly seeking Him, He won’t shortchange you. Like the wine He provided for the wedding guests, it will always be the best.

© Jim Musser 2016

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Feelings and Your Walk with God

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8 NIV)

Spring is usually a volatile time weather-wise and the proof of that is the weather forecast for the next few days.  While we’ve had sunny weather in the 50’s most of this week, this weekend’s forecast is for snow and freezing temperatures, followed by temps in the 60’s to begin the new week.  During the spring, it seems like we can get weather from all four seasons in a matter of days.  It's always changing.

I am thinking about the weather this morning because I have had several conversations with students lately about linking our emotions to our relationship with the Lord.  Human emotions remind me of early spring weather.  The only thing predictable about them is their changing nature.  One day we can feel great and the next we can feel lousy.  The problem is when we tie these ever-changing emotions to how we view the Lord and our relationship with Him.  

When I was a college student, I would go on retreats or spring break trips and come back feeling so good about the Lord.  “Me and Him, we’re really tight,” I would think.  Until a day or two later.  Then I would be struggling with the pressures of school or some relationship, and my feelings would change.  I didn’t feel so excited about the Lord at that moment.  I remember this going on for several years until I realized it was not the way I wanted to live.  I realized the problem was allowing my emotions to influence my perceptions of God and my relationship with Him.   There was no stability because my emotions were all over the place.  It was then this verse opened my eyes.

The Lord never changes.  He is stable and consistent.  Instead of using my emotions as my gauge for how I was doing spiritually, I needed to shift my focus to Him.  Instead of relying on lingering feelings of guilt after I sinned, I needed to focus on His Word, which says if I confess my sins, He is faithful and just to forgive me and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9).  Instead of trusting my feelings of abandonment by God, I needed instead to trust His Word, which promises He will never leave me or forsake me. (Hebrews 13:5)

It is a lesson that has served me well over the years.  My walk with the Lord is no longer a roller coaster of ups and downs.  I have learned to trust more in the Lord and less in my feelings.

Today, recognize that your feelings, like the weather of early spring, are constantly changing and unpredictable.  If you use them as your spiritual guide, you are in for a wild ride.  Rather, place your trust in the Lord.  He never changes.

© Jim Musser 2016

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Way to Transformation

“That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. ‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.  Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” (Ephesians 4:20-28 NIV)

I grew up in a time when going to church was something every respectable family did.  It was seen as good for business, good for one’s reputation, good for society.  So my family went to church.  As a child of the 60’s and a teenager of the 70’s, when all authority and social constructs were being questioned, I couldn’t help but see the hypocrisy of so many in church, including my own parents.  

Like most people, I understood the promise of the church—to be people who love God and love each other, to be different than the rest who claimed no allegiance to God.  And, as did they, I saw there was little difference between those who went to church and those who didn’t, except where they chose to spend their time on Sunday mornings.  My parents never prayed, never read the Bible, and treated each other poorly.  What I saw was church had little impact on their lives.  

It is for this reason so many are skeptical of Christianity and the church. They see so many who claim to love God, but who live much the same way as everyone else.  This is precisely what Paul was warning against. Following after Jesus is far different than being religious, where you seek to incorporate religious teaching and practice into your life.  To go the way of Jesus is to discard one’s old life and to take up a new one.   To follow after Jesus is to surrender one’s own will and submit to His. When we do this, transformation is inevitable.  

I learned that during my first year in college.  My parents learned that from me.  We all were changed and transformed when we submitted our lives to Jesus.  This is the only way out of the hypocrisy of the church.

Today, know there is no accommodating your old way of living into a life of following Jesus.  Discarding it and fully submitting to Jesus is the only way you will experience transformation.  And it is the one sure way to end the hypocrisy people see in the church.

© Jim Musser 2016

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Avoid Being Burned

“Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.  Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:21-22 NIV)

When I first moved to North Carolina, I brought mini-van with me that had a lot of miles and mounting problems.  I hesitated to get rid of it because I already had car payments on another vehicle.  When the water pump went out, I decided it was still worth hanging onto.  Big mistake.  Just a few weeks later, the radiator blew out.  I decided to repair it and then sell it.  I could have done better just junking it.  

My approach to sin in my younger years sometimes mirrored the way I hung onto my mini-van: Even though it didn’t work well and the costs mounted, I convinced myself it worked well enough to stick with it.  I often see that same flaw in the students with whom I work.  They just can’t seem to let go of certain sins because, while not working very well for them, they’re determined to stick with it just a little longer.  And, like me, they end up paying the price.

A month ago, I was told my truck had blown a head gasket, the second one in its life.  I paid dearly for the first repair, but I learned my lesson with my mini-van—I was done paying the price and would not be burned again.  

We often have to learn lessons the hard way.  In a recent conversation with a student, he told me he often dismissed what I taught about dating relationships when he was a freshman, but now several years later is seeing the truth in what I said based on his own experience.  Often, this is how we approach the Word of God—we hear it but then we go ahead and do what we want.  Yet, as James points out, there is a reason for us to pay attention and to obey—doing so will save us.

The temptation we face is attempting to maintain our sinful ways because we think they can still work for us.  But the truth is we will get burned by them.  The longer we hang on, the greater the cost.  This is why James is very blunt—get rid all the moral filth and evil in your life and humbly accept the truth that life will be better following God’s will than your own.  

Today, if you are trying to maintain a life (or an aspect of it) that is broken, recognize it’s time to get rid of it because it is only going to cost you more if you keep holding onto it.  Rid yourself of it and humbly accept what the Lord wants you to do.  It will save not only your life, but also a lot of pain and heartache along the way.  

© Jim Musser 2016

Monday, April 4, 2016

Becoming Easy Prey

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:15-25 NIV)

Sometimes we can underestimate the power of sin in our lives and its lingering grip on us.   I remember being a new believer and thinking my days of anger and cursing were behind me.  Then one day, with my parents and my girlfriend present, I boiled over with frustration and went into an obscenity-laced tirade.  Like many new believers, I had this impression that once I accepted Jesus, then everything would change. I was shocked and humbled.  Like Paul, I had to admit that what I did not want to do, I kept on doing.  

When we turn our lives over to Jesus, He indeed forgives our sins and they are no longer counted against us; but we still continue to sin.  The rebelliousness that we inherited stubbornly remains in us and the enemy will not cease to attempt to exploit it.  Like a trainer working with a wild animal, we must always be alert to the danger of being attacked, no matter how safe we feel at the moment.  

The other mistake I made was not to see my need for the Lord’s strength every day, every hour, every moment.  I was coasting on my conversion experience and felt strong, but it was an illusion because I was relying on my own emotional high and confusing it with spiritual strength.  I can imagine the enemy, that roaring lion (I Peter 5:8), licking his chops.

Countless times I have seen students come back from mission trips and conferences, or out of the waters of baptism full of excitement and confidence, only to be mercilessly attacked and fall because their confidence was based on their own emotional high of the moment. Paul gives us a winning strategy in our struggle with sin.  Who will rescue us from the jaws of our enemy?  Jesus Christ our Lord! Emotional highs after our conversion or an exciting experience are great and should be enjoyed, but they should never be seen as providing us with any protection from sin.  Only Jesus can do that.

Today, recognize your need for the Lord’s strength and protection.  No matter how strong and confident you may feel, apart from Him you are easy prey.

© Jim Musser 2016

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Way of a Fool

“The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15 NIV)

By this definition, I have been a fool numerous times over the course of my life.  Fortunately for my ego, so have you.  We are convinced we are right and we go through with whatever we’ve decided, even if others are advising against it.  

When I was a college freshman and a new follower of Jesus, I broke up with my girlfriend of nearly two years.  She did not understand my conversion and was not seeking to follow the Lord.  It was a wise decision.  However, a few months later, I began having second thoughts and entertained the idea of getting back together with her.  As I talked with some trusted friends, they all advised against it.  But it seemed right to me.  I still had feelings for her.  Perhaps I could convince her more easily to follow Jesus if I were back in a relationship with her.  So we got back together.  Big mistake, as everyone knew but me.  I didn’t persuade her to follow Jesus and the relationship drug me down spiritually.  Fortunately, she found someone else a few months later and broke up with me.  

When I look back on that situation, clearly I was a fool, but in the moment, I had no clue.  If I had only trusted the advice of others whom I did consider more wise than I, it would have turned out differently and better.  Therein lies the rub.  We tend to default to our own judgment when we think it will attain us what we want.  I wanted my girlfriend back; listening to the advice I was getting would have meant giving up that desire.  So I didn’t listen.  

Life comes with many decisions.  It is good to have wise people in our lives to whom we can turn to for advice.  One is definitely on the road to foolishness if he is the sole guide of his life.  We all need people wiser and with more life experience than us in our lives to help us navigate the many decisions and situations we will face.  But then we need to listen to the advice we are given rather than merely following after our hearts’ desires.  

Today, seek to develop relationships with people who have greater wisdom and more life experience than you do.  By getting their advice and following it, you will avoid the way of the fool.

© Jim Musser 2016