Thursday, August 31, 2017

Recognizing the Battles We Face

“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. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (Ephesians 6:10-18 NIV)

Just within 10 days of school starting, there are roommate issues, people are discouraged, and students are already feeling stress. Spiritual warfare, anyone?

Some will probably scoff that these are anything other than the typical problems of college life, but I would argue that is just another scheme of the devil—to deceive us into ignoring his work behind the scenes.  Paul is clear that our struggle in this life is not against “flesh and blood,” that which we can easily see and understand, but rather against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” and the dark powers of this world that are influenced by them.  The problem with ignoring the source of many of the things we face is we will attempt to apply the wrong remedy.  Like when one gets a splinter and the area becomes infected.  If you merely treat the infection, the source of the infection, the splinter, will remain.  But if you remove the splinter and treat the infection, the treatment will be successful.

In our world, people often ignore the deeper causes of things.  People easily get stressed by the demands of school or work, or just by how current circumstances in their lives are going to work out.  However, Jesus tells us not to worry about the things of our lives (Matthew 6:25-34). Thus, this becomes a spiritual battleground.  The devil wants to draw us into thinking and believing we cannot trust God and His promises to provide for our needs.  In other words, to worry.  Paul, however, is calling us to engage in spiritual battle by taking up “the shield of faith” to extinguish the enemy’s “flaming arrow” of worry.  

The same can be applied to the other issues we face in life.  They are spiritual battlegrounds and God has given the weapons with which to fight them.  

Today, consider what is going on in your life.  Are the things you’re facing perhaps not just mere struggles, but instead spiritual battles?  If so, there are weapons available to you to use and now would be a good time to grab hold of them.  

© Jim Musser 2017

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Offending People

“On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’  Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!  The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ 

For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him.  He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.’ From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:60-66 NIV)

I sometimes wonder how Jesus would have fared in our culture, because He never seems to care if people are offended by His words. He doesn’t go out of His way to offend or use offensive language merely to get attention, but He doesn’t shy away from speaking truth regardless of what people might think, those opposed to Him (Matthew 15:7-14) or even those devoted to Him.  

Imagine the tweets or blog posts if Jesus were to say no one could have a relationship with God apart from a relationship with Him (John 14:6).  Imagine the reaction if He said a woman should forgive her rapist or a child the murderer of his father (Luke 6:37).  Imagine the fallout if He said we should love those who hate us and do good things for them (Luke 6:35).  

We naturally like to hear what validates our views and feelings, but that isn’t always what we need.  Yet, our fallen natures often react very negatively to the truth.  We often are offended by what we need to hear. In our culture, “offensive speech” is considered one of the worst transgressions a person can commit.  I don’t think Jesus would have cared.  He would still speak the truth because that is what people really need, even if it isn’t what they prefer.  And, likely, He would be crucified for it.  

Today, recognize following Jesus means speaking the truth He has given us through His Word.  Like Him, we don’t share it harshly or in a mean-spirited way, but we share it because that is what people need to hear.  So what if they are offended?  That didn’t seem to bother Jesus.  

© Jim Musser 2017

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Crying Out for Rescue

“In you, Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me. Keep me free from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.” (Psalm 31:1-5 NIV)

The desperate calls have been unending in the aftermath of Hurricane Henry that came crashing ashore on the Texas coast over the weekend. People trapped in their destroyed or flooded homes have been calling 911 or reaching out on social media with cries for help to be rescued. Local authorities have been so overwhelmed they have put out calls for civilian volunteers to assist the rescue efforts.

From a distance, one can only imagine the fear and desperation of those surrounded by flooding waters.  Yet, it doesn’t take too much imagination if we recall times when we   found ourselves in desperate circumstances.  These circumstances come in many forms, from natural disasters, such as the one we are now witnessing in Texas, to grief over the loss of someone very dear to us; from being trapped in an abusive home situation to having to having a long-held dream crushed; and from being bullied to being depressed.  Truly, the spectrum of desperation knows no bounds.

Yet, there is no situation so desperate that it is beyond the rescuing arm of the Lord.  But unlike what we normally think of being rescued, the Lord doesn’t always remove us from the situation.  The last words of this passage may sound familiar.  They are the words Jesus repeated as He was dying on the cross. God didn’t rescue Him from the cross, but allowed Him to die on it.  Why?  Because He had a greater purpose in mind.  And Jesus trusted His Father.

We tend to recoil at suffering and think it is always bad, but God often uses suffering for a higher purpose.  Jesus suffered, Paul suffered, as did Peter and the rest of the disciples.  Over the past two millennia, followers of Christ have suffered and died.  Some believe that a life following Jesus is meant to be free of suffering, but that goes directly against what Jesus said (“take up your cross and follow me” Luke 9:23) and the biblical and historical record of the Church. Yet, these brothers and sisters cried out to the Lord and He was there with them in the midst of their suffering. They trusted Him even in the midst of their desperation.

As we look at the horrific pictures and video coming out of Texas, it is hard to comprehend the reason God is allowing it, but we can be confident He has a purpose beyond what we can see.  And if the people trust Him, they will likely see it over time.

Today, if you are in a desperate situation, cry out to the Lord for rescue. Whether or not He removes you from it, He will be right there with you using it for His glory, which is ultimately the purpose of each of our lives.

© Jim Musser 2017

Monday, August 28, 2017

Eliminating the Wall of Hostility

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

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 2:11-21 NIV)

For the past several years, it seems our nation has been embroiled in racial tensions—Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Chicago, Dallas, and, most recently, Charlottesville.  For followers of Jesus, it is tough ground to navigate.  In the era of social media, the pull is to one side or the other, with each having its own justification why it is right and the other wrong, and treating the other side as the enemy.  

For those who read the Scriptures, it should have a familiar ring to it. For millennia, the Jews (the Israelites) and the Gentiles (non-Jews) looked upon each other with suspicion, disgust, and, often, hatred.  It was into this cauldron that Jesus entered and lived.  For the Jews and Gentiles, the only way there could be peace between them was to cross from side to the other.  The wall of hostility was an unmovable fact.  You either stayed on your side or climbed over to the other.  Tearing it down was inconceivable.  So the hostility remained constant—most of the time simmering, but sometimes erupting into a full boil, similar to what we have experienced in our own country.

One of the things about Jesus that shocked the people of the 1st Century (there were so many) was His willingness to interact and be kind toward Gentiles—both men and women.  The religious leaders accused him of “welcoming and eating with sinners.” He wasn’t climbing over the wall; He was busting through it!

Paul summarizes Jesus’ work toward racial and cultural reconciliation in his letter to the Church at Ephesus.  He didn’t continue the tradition of having to choose sides.  He eliminated the reason for the sides.  He destroyed the wall of hostility between them and made it possible for them to become part of the same family-a brand new one whose focus was no longer on themselves, but on Him.  He alone is the Source of peace between us.

Ultimately, the cause of division is arrogance. We view ourselves higher than we ought, and we view others lower than we ought.  Reconciliation can happen only when we recognize our own sinfulness and, instead of trying to tear others down in order to mask that reality, we turn our eyes toward Jesus, humbly acknowledging our need for Him.  That is when sinners, regardless of racial or cultural heritage, can unite together in their shared plight and shared Savior.

Today, in these troubled times of racial and cultural hostility, remember there is only One who can truly unite us.  He has already destroyed the wall of hostility through the Cross.  Following Him is the only way of bringing about peace with those of different races and cultures. There is no other.

© Jim Musser 2017

Friday, August 25, 2017

Livin' the Dream

“Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’” (John 10:7-10 NIV)

There is a long-standing notion that college life comprises the best time of life for a student.  Well-meaning adults will tell soon-to-be freshmen to enjoy their years on campus for they’ll be “the best years of your life.” There is a sense that college is the last fun experience before the oppressive weight of adulthood is handed to us and, thus, should be enjoyed to its fullest.  But what do they mean?

I recently had a conversation with the nurse involved in the cardiac rehab program in which I currently participate.  I was telling her of my relationship with a man she worked with whom I know well and who is an alumnus of the ministry I direct. I shared how he had gotten his life straightened out late in college through his relationship with the Lord and had become a wonderful husband, father, and a member of our Board of Directors.  Her response?  She was glad to hear it, but also glad he was able to have fun and enjoy his college experience.

This is a classic misunderstanding people have of following Jesus.  You better have all your fun before you start down that path because there is no fun in following Him!  Isn’t this why so many students raised in churches and involved in youth groups go off to college bent on leaving their religious past behind, or keeping it on the fringe, so they can have fun and enjoy their college years?  In the parlance of the day, their goal is to be livin’ the dream.  

But what those of us who work on campus know is that college life for many is no dream; it’s closer to a nightmare.  Anxiety, depression, and binge drinking often dominate students’ lives, even among those attending church on a weekly basis.

Note that this is exactly what Jesus warned against.  Turning away from Him leads us into the trap laid by our enemy to steal from us the blessings of a godly life, to kill our hope, and to destroy our souls.  Livin’ the dream is in reality following Jesus and obeying His commands.  It is through Him, and Him alone, that we will experience true joy and fulfillment.  The notion that true enjoyment can only come by casting aside the shackles of a godly life is a lie directly from Hell.

Today, consider if you are falling for this lie as well. Do you believe life can be a lot more enjoyable if you keep Jesus at bay, on the fringes of your life? Or if you live your life on the fence—having just enough of Jesus to make you feel good about yourself, but not enough to intrude on the way you want to live your life?  If so, know you have stepped into the trap meant to destroy you.  What the world says will impinge on your enjoyment of life in actuality is what will lead you to experiencing it fully.  The truth is, following Jesus IS livin’ the dream.

© Jim Musser 2017

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Cure for a Hardened Heart

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel!” (Ezekiel 36:24-32 NIV)

Ever since my open-heart surgery in May, I’ve thought a lot about “hearts of stone” and “hearts of flesh.”  After the surgery, my surgeon described my aortic valve as “very calcified.”  In other words, it was like stone—very hardened.  

I was born with what is called a bicuspid valve, which means that instead of the normal three leaves in the valve opening, mine had two. For some unknown reason, a bicuspid valve is very prone to calcification.  Over decades, the valve hardens and narrows.  By the time of my surgery, my valve had an opening the size of a pencil.  A normal opening is akin to diameter of a garden hose.  Thus, it desperately needed to be replaced.  My life was at risk.

Spiritually, the human heart is also prone to hardening.  Acts of rebellion and disobedience over time slowly lead to a calcification of the conscience.  The blood flow of life is slowly diminished and people, unbeknownst to them, live on the precarious edge of spiritual death. Just as I did in a physical sense, they live their lives in a normal way, mostly unaware of the dangerous path they are on.  That is right out of the playbook of the enemy, that we live our lives as we please and remain in the dark of our true condition.  

I was like that with my heart condition.  For years I had known my aortic valve was going to be a problem.  The doctors told me so.  But I had no symptoms, so I carried on with my life.  In the last couple of years, the alarm bells were being sounded by my cardiologist, but still I had no symptoms and so, as the British say, I kept calm and carried on. But last spring was different.  A heart catheterization procedure revealed the valve was going bad quickly and my “moment of truth” came when my wife and I consulted with the surgeon who performed the replacement surgery and he used his pencil illustration to describe my valve.  It was then I knew exactly how precarious my situation was.  Still, I was powerless to do anything, except to ask for his help to correct the problem.  

The Israelites were in the same position, as each of us is—we can’t fix our heart problem ourselves.  We need an expert to do it.  Our hearts of stone can only be turned into hearts of flesh by seeking out the Lord. But it’s a scary thing to turn our hearts over to someone else.  I remember the fear and uncertainty my wife and I felt as we committed to the surgery.  Yet, we knew it had to be done; the only alternative was death.  

In essence, this is the choice we face spiritually—either we give our hearts fully over to the Lord or we will die.  And I can say without hesitancy, having been on the other side of both the physical and spiritual choices, the uncertainty and pain are worth getting to the other side!  My physical life has been transformed, as I described yesterday, by my decision to place my trust in my surgeon and allow him to do the surgery.  I have no regrets.  And I have never regretted my decision on that November day of my freshmen year in college to turn my heart of stone over to the Lord.  I rejoice always in the way he has transformed my life and look upon my formal life without one whit of nostalgia.

What about you?  What is the condition of your heart?  Is there a softness to it, an openness to the Lord?  Or is it more hardened, resistant to His work?  If it is the latter, know you are in a very precarious position and are denying yourself the blessings that a renewed heart brings.  My advice is to let Him do what He is skilled to do.  I guarantee you will have no regrets.

© Jim Musser 2017

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Feeling His Pleasure

“King Nebuchadnezzar,

To the nations and peoples of every language, who live in all the earth: May you prosper greatly! It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me. How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation.” (Daniel 4:1-3 NIV)

It is an interesting thought to be comparing myself to Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian king who ruled during the days of Daniel and was responsible for the “Babylonian Exile” of the Israelites.  Yet the words at the beginning of his recounting the prophetic dream he had regarding his plunge into insanity and his eventual healing by the Lord resonate with me: “How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders!”

Three months ago, I underwent major open-heart surgery to replace what my surgeon described as a “very bad” aortic valve.  It was a five-hour procedure during which my heart was stopped for 90 minutes. When I awoke in great discomfort, my body had more than a dozen tubes pumping various fluids in and out of it.  I was in ICU for 24 hours and in the hospital for five days.  When I arrived home and gazed at my body, it was like looking at some stranger, battered, bruised, and bloated, staring back at me.  I jokingly told my wife in those early days of my recovery, “This is not my body!”  

The recovery was slow at first, short walks and plenty of naps, but began to pick up speed after a month upon entering cardiac rehab.  And this is where my resonation with the Babylonian king’s words began. I remember it very clearly.  I was a couple of weeks into my rehab, listening to worship music while riding a stationary bike.  It was kicking my butt.  My heart was pumping at over 160 beats per minute; I was breathing hard; my legs were screaming; and I was sweating profusely. But at the same time, I was smiling.  

Just a few weeks before, I had had surgery that literally saved my life. For years before that, I had been hampered by a bad knee, and once that was replaced and I began to get active again, my heart issue began hindering my activities.  Now here I was pushing my body to its capacity and it felt good, real good.  And I couldn’t help smiling and rejoicing at what the Lord had done.  How mighty were His wonders in my life!

I am continuing my cardiac rehab for a few more weeks and enjoying every minute of it.  I have also managed to start playing tennis again. And as I am exercising and playing, I am reminded of that well-known quote from the Oscar-winning movie from the early 1980’s, Chariots of Fire, when the main character, Eric Liddell, an Olympic runner and future missionary to China, told his sister, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”  That is exactly how I feel when my respiration is challenged and sweat is pouring from my pores.  God was pleased to heal my heart and now we have the mutual pleasure of enjoying the fruits of it.  And as did King Nebuchadnezzar, I want the world to know how great is the Most High God!

Today, think about what the Lord has done for you.  For what mighty works can you praise Him?  In what can you take pleasure?  It is worth noting that God delights in His works and, thus, so should we.  

© Jim Musser 2017

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

No Cosmic Coincidence

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:16-20 NIV)

The solar eclipse across the U.S. yesterday was an event of a lifetime, particularly if you were one of those who lived or placed yourself in the path of totality.  Millions across the country gathered in parks, stadiums, front yards, and parking lots to gaze into the sky for several hours.  In a time of turbulence for our nation, people seemed united together around this singular celestial event. An event clearly produced by the Lord of Creation.

Have you ever wondered how earth’s small moon can block our view of the much larger sun?  I admit I had never really thought about it until I heard it mentioned during the coverage of yesterday’s eclipse.  It can only happen because of two unique facts: While the sun is 400 times the size of the moon, it is also 400 times farther away from earth than the moon.  Think about that for a moment. Is this just a mere cosmic coincidence?

The phenomenon of a solar eclipse is in line with other ones, such as the precise distance of the sun from the earth prevents us our planet from being uninhabitable due to too much heat or not enough; the precise rotation and orbit of the earth creates our days and seasons; the gravitational pull of the moon creates the conditions for our ocean tides; the earth’s atmosphere existing as it does prevents the deadly radiation of the sun from reaching us and creates the perfect conditions for life, not to mention that we just happen to be created precisely for those conditions (e.g., lungs and noses).  

Much of the world credits “Nature” for these common phenomena, but it is clear from what we experience, and confirmed by the Scriptures, that behind all of these is the God of Creation.  The evidence is so overwhelming that Paul says human beings are without excuse if they refuse to submit to the Lord and give Him the glory that is due Him.

This is why he can boldly proclaim, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”  His courage and boldness comes from what He has seen and experienced in his life—the powerful and transforming work of God!

Today, may you reflect on what you see around you and what has taken place in your life. Can you see the glory of God?  If so, then don’t be cowered by this world into being ashamed of what you believe.  God’s power is clearly evident by both Creation and the Cross.  It is no cosmic coincidence. By His power we are saved and nothing should deter us from proclaiming that eternal truth. 

© Jim Musser 2017