Monday, June 6, 2011

Psalm 23

In elementary school, I was very fortunate to join several of my friends for "Release Time" on Wednesday mornings. Release Time was a designated hour every week that allowed for kids to be released from school for "religious" activities. (I very rarely use that word without quotations...more on that later.) It was during this hour that several kids in my group learned to memorize Psalm 23. We had these cool orange pocket Bibles that we read from and to this day, I still have the Psalm memorized (complete with all of the thy's and thou's found in the KJV.)

I recently stumbled across the Psalm again in my Bible reading and was struck by the phrase, "your rod and your staff, they comfort me." This had always bothered me, even in 5th grade when it was "thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." Growing up, "the rod" was a method of discipline I had come to dread. Why, then, did David find comfort in it?

That is when I was reminded of an older post and what Christ has been showing me in regards to his discipline. Hebrews 12 so beautifully illustrates some powerful truths.

"God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness." (vs. 10)

"No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. " (vs. 11)

Discipline produces holiness, righteousness, and peace. Not only that, but it validates our relationship with God. (Because, "If you are not disciplined, then you are illegitimate children and not true sons." vs. 8) This is why both David and the writer of Hebrews urge us to take comfort in the rod of God's discipline. It is why the Bible repeatedly tells us to rejoice in suffering and persecution. It means that the Spirit is at work in us in order that Christ might become greater and we might become less. (John 3:30.)

Because of these truths, we should count ourselves both blessed and priviledged to be disciplined by Christ. It ultimately produces fruit in us and glorifies the only one to whom glory is due. We are drawn closer to Jesus as a result, and we can take comfort in His rod because it leads us to take comfort in him.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Christianity and the American Dream

When the Pharisees first began to plot against Jesus, they revealed an interesting characteristic seen in many American "Christians" today. This was recently brought to my attention as my pastor preached on John 11.

Starting in verse 45 it reads, "Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. 'What are we accomplishing?' they asked. 'Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.' Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, 'You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." (John 11:45-49)

The Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat to their position and power in society. They were afraid his influence would continue to draw people until the Romans saw him as a force to be stopped. They reasoned that the entire Jewish nation would be punished as a result of this one man. Enter High Priest Caiaphas with a simple (heroic) plan. Just kill the rabble rouser! Country Saved. Problem Solved.

Jesus is so often parallelled with sacrifice. His death on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice. The story in John 11 shows that the Jewish leaders were willing to have Jesus sacrificed, but it was for their own gain. They believed he must die so they could keep their power and prestige. Their purpose was entirely earthly in nature, and neither their goal nor their means were just.

The scary thing is that these guys were religious. They knew all the laws, and yet they didn't know God himself. They followed all the rules, but they were still enemies of Him. In the end, they saw Jesus as a sacrifice that would preserve their earthly goals, and they were willing to allow an innocent man to suffer injustly for their personal glorification.

The truth is that Jesus did not die so we could follow our own agendas...he died so we could have himself. He did not suffer the wrath of the Father so that we could reach our goals, and he didn't die to save us from temporary afflictions. He died to save us from eternal punishment in hell.

If we are to truly accept his sacrifice for us, it means we must also accept his purposes for our lives. This is something many American "Christians" struggle to accept. The American Dream and the whole of our society says that life should be about YOU...your happiness, your purposes, your comfort, yourself. Jesus' kingdom says otherwise. He says that if you are going to follow him, you need to lose yourself. (Luke 9:24) Jesus did not sacrifice himself so we could go on living as we please. He did not die so that we could make him an add-on while we "do our own thing." He gave up his life willingly so that we could give up ours. The Christian life is a dying life. It means dying every day and sacrificing ourselves not because we have to earn God's pleasure, but because we already have his pleasure.

If we really understood what happened to us when Jesus died and rose again, and if we really knew him and trusted his Word, we would see that the pursuit of our agendas is really missing out on true fellowship with Jesus. It doesn't make sense in light of makes sense in light of the rest of America. Shouldn't we be concerned?

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Lately I've been dwelling on thoughts about God's peace. From a personal standpoint, it is something I have been struggling with as of late, and I'd love to share some of those thoughts with you.

First and foremost, true peace comes from Christ alone. Isaiah 26:12 says "Lord, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us." Peace is not something we bring about as a result of our own actions (no matter how righteous they are.) Peace is established by God, and any good we have done is because of his grace.

Secondly, peace is a result of the spirit at work in us. Everyone loves to recite Galations 5:22..."But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law." Peace is a fruit of the spirit. This leads into my next point.

Peace stems from a mindset, not an emotion. This means that it is something I may have to work at from time to time. Now, to be clear, this does not mean that God's peace is the result of man's effort. This is far from the truth, as we already know that true peace is found in Jesus and no one else. What I mean to say here is that peace, like all the other fruit of the spirit, is not just some feeling that we get. It is worked out over time as we embrace the truth, say 'no' to our flesh, and pursue godliness. All of this is done through Christ alone.

I think this is the toughest one for me. It is so much easier to think that peace is an emotion that just settles on us when the time is right. If this were the case, it would allow us to sit back, relax, and indulge in spiritual laziness. Praise be to God, he has much better plans for us! He knows that our emotions are fragile. That is why I thank him for verses like 1 John 3:10, which says that "God is greater than our hearts." In a similar manner, his peace is greater than our hearts because it is not at the mercy of our emotions.

Peace is the result of a heart at rest. This is where that mindset comes in. Our hearts are put to rest when we know the truth and cling to God's promises. When things go south, I am so quick to forget all that God has promised me (as if his Word isn't enough to remind me day in and day out.) Worse yet, I let my problems cloud my view of who God is and I forget about his very nature. In the words of Mark Altrogge, God isn't good only when I prosper, and he isn't true only when I'm filled up. He is not king only when I am carefree, or God only when I am well. He is good when I am poor and needy. He is true when I'm parched and dry. He still reigns in the deepest valley, and he is still God in the darkest night. This mindset requires the core of our relationship with

Peace comes from faith in the Prince of Peace. It is found when we understand who we are in light of who God is and all that he's done for us. When we look to the cross and truly understand even a fraction of what Jesus has done for us, we can take comfort in our identity in him. This is huge! Our identity in Christ is what frees us to "set our minds on things above" rather than our circumstances below. As a result, we find hope and lasting peace.

Peace is for God's glory...not ours. We reap the benefits of his grace, but ultimately, it is all for him. The goal of this is that others may see the fruit of our salvation and praise him.

Whatever you face today, don't be afraid to wrestle with God's peace. Cry out to Jehovah Shalom and ask him to quiet your restless heart. Take comfort in the knowledge his Word supplies and "pursue peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." (2 Timothy 2:22.)

"Then you will know that I am the Lord; those who hope in me will not be disappointed." (Isaiah 49:23b)

"Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace." (Colossians 3:15)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Thought for the Day

There is an older song called "God-Shaped Hole" (sung by the artist Plumb) that I've been thinking about lately. The chorus goes something like, "There's a God-shaped hole in all of us and the restless soul is searching; there's a God-shaped hole in all of us and it's a void only He can fill."

The concept expressed in this song led me to pray for my unsaved friends in such a way that the "God-shaped" holes in their hearts would be filled by him. It wasn't until recently that I began to see how I have been slightly off in my thinking.

God doesn't long to fill a hole in us. He wants to fill all of us.

Saying that there is a God-shaped hole within us implies that the rest of us can be filled and satisfied except for that one hole. The fact of the matter is that nothing else can bring lasting satisfaction. Ever. God is not simply another piece of the puzzle or factor in the equation. He is to be our everything. Our hearts are not meant to be shared with any other person or thing. Christ is to be our heart.

This is where many people fall short in their faith. They try to make Jesus an add-on while keeping the rest of their lives for themselves. Rather than surrendering their hearts to him, they try to force him into a tiny mold when he is meant to consume every part of their being. Oh, what marvelous freedom we miss out on when we try to withold ourselves from him!

Deuteronomy 4:24 says, "For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God." May we never forget that we serve a God who is jealous for our love, our time, our worship, and everything that we are.

(As a disclaimer, this post was not meant to criticize Plumb's song by any means! I believe her lyrics were intended to communicate this all important truth and my intent was only to verbalize the dangers of using her song as an excuse to think differently.)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Late Bloomers

I've always been what many would call a "late bloomer." I didn't get to be a flower girl until I was almost almost old enough to be a bridesmaid. My dream of spending hot summers playing games with throngs of neighbor kids didn't come true until I was well into my teenage years. I've always looked upon these kinds of experiences with a hint of amusement. It wasn't until I read the story of Elizabeth in the book of Luke that I came to see that God has a special place in his heart for late bloomers like me.

We hear the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth every time Christmas rolls around. He was a priest; she was his wife. They had no children for many many years...and then along came John. I don't know about you, but sometimes after hearing a certain story told the same way at the same time each year, I find myself skimming over it in my own private reading. Thankfully, God kept me from doing that this time around.

Luke 1:5 sets the scene, "In the time of Herod King of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years."

You get the picture. One couple. Too old. No children. Oh how God loves to do the impossible!

"Once when Zecharaiah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense...There an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar...the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth for he will be great in the sight of the Lord." (Luke 1:8-9, 11, 13-14)

I'd like to point out a few things here. First, you may already know that having lots of children was a huge component of Elizabeth's culture at the time. It was part of a woman's identity, and to not have kids was a terrible terrible that many people thought it could be some kind of punishment for sin. The affect that this had on Elizabeth would be significantly greater than if she were living at the present time. Having children would have been one of her greatest desires. It seems almost unfair that God would deny of her of that wish. It is hard to reconcile the pain she felt with the love of a God who could grant her children in an instant. After all, her desire doesn't appear to be outright sinful.

Let us not forget that God loves saving the day. He had events perfectly orchestrated before Elizabeth was even born. She got her baby...just several years and miracle later. This resulted in God getting more glory--not anybody else.

Now I would like to shift gears to what appears to be a totally unrelated story. John 11 tells of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. A couple of lines in this passage just kill me because I think they are so powerful.

In John 11:32, it says, "When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said,' Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'" How many times have we said the same thing? If you erase a few of the words in that statement and replace them with your own, you get something to the affect of, "Lord, if you had been here--if you had acted--this death/loss/pain wouldn't have happened." Jesus hears Mary's statement and is "deeply moved in spirit and troubled." (vs. 33.) Make no mistake, Jesus does feel our pain in these circumstances! He felt Elizabeth's pain when she suffered for not having any children, and he feels yours too.

The amazing thing is that this pain is not without purpose. A few verses later, right before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he says, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" and turning to the Father, he continues later on, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." Right after that, he proves that God has indeed heard him by raising Lazarus from the dead.

The whole point I want to make here is that it was for God's greater glory that Lazarus had died. To be sure, Jesus could have healed him while he was still living, but he didn't. God could have given Elizabeth children while she was still young, but he didn't. Instead, he orchestrated events so that when everything was said and done, the only explanation could be the work of himself.

Oftentimes, this involves waiting and great faith on our part. Did you notice that in the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the angel spoke the words, "Your prayer has been heard"? We don't know if that prayer was spoken years before Zechariah entered the temple that day or if he was still praying it up until that moment. Whatever the case, Zechariah's faith in God prompted him to pray for a child. Likewise, Martha was the one who declared, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." (John 11:27) In both of these examples, faith was present. Then came the waiting.

You may be experience a time of waiting right now. Maybe you are feeling a little bit like Elizabeth, with a whole list of desires that haven't been fulfilled. Maybe you are drowning in the aftermath of a tragedy like Mary and Martha. You think, "If only God would have acted, this wouldn't have happened." The thing to remember is that it is not an issue of why, but when.

Psalm 34:18 says, "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." God is not slow in keeping his promises. When he says he'll save us, he will. It just becomes a matter of his perfect, impeccable timing and how he--not you, not anybody else--will get the greater glory in the end. You may appear to be a "late bloomer", but in God's eyes, you'll be right where you should be.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mercies in Disguise

I love stealing.

Let me rephrase that...I love stealing certain expressions from other people. I follow the music artist Lecrae on Facebook, and nearly all of his statuses become mine. They are so full of wisdom and insight, and I love stealing those tidbits to share with others.

Laura Story has a great new song out, and I'd love to steal yet again to share some of her lyrics with you. The song is called "Blessings" and I find it so powerful and compelling in light of all that has happened recently in my life and the lives of those around me. You can check out the full song (with lyrics) here.

The whole of the song is basically summed up in a question: What if the hardships of this life are God's mercies in disguise? The chorus reads:

Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

Can you relate?

Earlier in the song is the line Your love is way too much to give us lesser things. This is so profound. I've never thought of trials as the result of Jesus loving me enough to allow nothing less. It is so utterly backward to the American way of thinking.

When we look at Scripture, however, this is precisely the truth. Hebrews 12:5-6 reads, "And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: 'My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.'"

Christ's grace is so great that he doesn't want to short-change us out of the magnificent growth trials bring. It is all a part of the crazy love he gives us day in and day out.

"Well ok," you say, "I get that part, but how can these trials be a result of his mercy?"

From a personal standpoint, I never seem to understand the value of trials until I realize that I am a totally changed person as a result of them. My greatest periods of spiritual growth have resulted from the worst circumstances in my life. I know that if I were left alone to control my own little world as I please, I would be an utter mess. If I got my way all the time, I'd be as far away from Jesus as possible.

I am reminded of Philippians 3:19-21, which says, "Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables himto bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body."

If the only thing I'm concerned about is feeding my desires, getting my way, and controlling my life the way I want, I'm doomed. That's an earthly focus. Trials have a way of capturing our focus and training it upon the only person on whom it is due: Christ alone.

The second part of that passage references transformation. When we surrender our agendas and selfish desires and give all our attention to Jesus, we finally come to a place where he can transform us. This is how Christ demonstrates his mercy. Rather than allowing us to wallow in our selfishness and earthly desires, he sends trials to transform us and draw us closer to him.

This leads to another startling realization. Our so-called disappointments may not be disappointments after all. When trials are viewed as instruments of God's mercy, our disappointments become mere extensions of that. Not getting our way might be the biggest blessing we'll ever experience.

What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?
What if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are your mercies in disguise?

Trials continually bring us back to the place where we realize that Christ is all we need. Nothing in this world can possibly compare with all that he is.

Don't ever forget to listen for God's voice in the rain...his calm, reassuring, "I love you."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


"But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' Was not Amos an extremist for justice: 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.' Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: 'I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.'...So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice? In the dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their enviornment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his enviornment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."

That's Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. This piece was recently brought to my attention in English class as a reading assignment, and I must confess that it has become one of the very few reading assignments that I have gone back to read again. King's arguments in the letter are full of Biblical insight and knowledge of the gospel. The primary focus of his writing is the Civil Rights movement, but he also touches on a variety of other topics such as justice, the laxity of church, and the application of laws.

The quote above didn't catch my attention until the third time around, which I find hard to believe since it is so compelling. I love how King states that we are all extremists, and how he then points to Jesus as the ultimate example. John 15:13 says, "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Jesus demonstrated the greatest amount of love possible in sacrificing his life for us. That is extreme. As followers of Christ, we are called to tread in his footsteps. He laid the foundations of an entire kingdom with extreme love. We are called to live out that kingdom in the same way.

I recently read about Thomas Cranmer, a Christian martyr who died in 1556. I find his story fitting because I believe it is an example of the extreme love Christ calls us to. Prior to his death, Cranmer recanted of his Protestant beliefs, only to regret it and return to the faith later on. He was eventually sentenced to be burned at stake, and at the very end he declared, "I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe with my heart. When the flames are lit, this hand shall be the first to burn." With those words, he stuck his hand into the flames until it was burned to a stump before he surrendered the rest of his body to the flames. People would call such a display 'extreme.' Would your love for Jesus lead you to do the same?

So many times, I read these stories about people who have been killed for their faith and think that they were called to a different lifestyle than I am. We do this all the time in the church when we encounter 'extreme' faith. (We make excuses, too, like "I can't go to Africa...God has simply called her to go." or "I'm not qualified to head to the inner city...God has called others to do that.") The reality is this: God calls all of us to live the same lifestyle as Cranmer. In Matthew 16:25, Jesus says, "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." He calls all of us to give up our lives for him. Whether or not we surrender our physical lives on earth for His name is a different story...the point is that Jesus calls us to live extreme either way.

"You may never have to face the decision of whether or not to die for your faith, but every day you face the decision of whether or not you will live for it." (Jesus Freaks, by dcTalk.) Remember, according to King, the question is not whether you will be an extremist, but what kind of extremist you will be. Christ said "He who is not with me is against me." (Luke 11:23) We can come up with excuses our whole lives about how we aren't living the wrong extreme, but do our lifestyles show proof that we are living the right one?

The picture at the top of this post is of a cross in Broad St., Oxford, and it marks the spot where two of Cranmer's friends were burned at stake a few months prior to his own death in the same general location. For more on Cranmer's story, click here.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Abundant Life

In leu of this blog's title, I have a confession to make. I am the champion of starting projects and never finishing them. Journaling has never been a strength of mine, despite all my good intentions to be a faithful writer. I think I can now add blogging to the list. My last post was over a year ago...awesome.

Since it would be next to impossible to cover all the wonderful things God has revealed to me in the past 15 months, I will not attempt to. However, because 2010 was the most transformational year of my life to date, I feel like it would be foolish to not write about some of the lessons I have learned.

John 10:10 says"The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full." This verse jumped out at me in the midst of a particularly dark time period last year, and I have clung to the hope it offers ever since. After reading it, I came to a rather stunning conclusion. Jesus is not against me.

I don't know why, or for how long, I subconciously believed this lie, but John 10:10 brought me face to face with the consequences of my twisted thinking.

Now, to others, this conclusion may not be as earth-shattering as it was for me. You see, I am a people pleaser, and this forces me to feel like I must prove myself to others time and again. This has further lead me to a place where I feel like people are against me. It's a hard concept to wrap your head around if you're not a people pleaser yourself. Because this has dominated the way I do relationships for as far back as I can remember, it has also become a huge factor in the way I relate to my Heavenly Father. It has encouraged me slip into an unbiblical mindset that says I must prove myself to God, and therefore he is against me.

But He isn't. That's Satan we're talking about.

According to that verse in John, Satan comes to steal, kill, and destroy. People pleasing steals, kills, and destroys. It steals your hope, kills your joy, and destroys your identity in Christ. Jesus has come to bring life...abundant life. He isn't against me.

I cannot accurately describe what a liberating feeling that has been for me. In the midst of much pain this past year, Jesus has revealed that abundant life to me. It has never been sweeter.

God is good. All the time. Don't ever forget it.

Ellie V.