Turn Signals

Recently as I was driving on the highway, I was reminded of the significance and importance of using turn signals and the fact that some people have forgotten about this factory installed feature on their vehicle. Turn signals provide a means of communication to let other drivers around you know where you are going so that they can act appropriately. 

My last blog entry (click here if you missed it) indicated that I was closing off my time in Nehemiah, but I was inspired one last time by his words and I wanted to share one last thought. 

For twelve years Nehemiah used his God given gifts of leadership and discernment to bring honor and glory back to a nation of people that God had chosen as his own, to bring honor and glory to the great and awesome God that he served. During his time as governor of Jerusalem Nehemiah never led the people without a signal of what direction he was going. All the rebuilding, the prayer, the scripture reading, the teaching, the love and compassion were signals that were used to help bring the people back into a right relationship with God. 

Through opposition by other leaders, corruption in his own ranks, and amid intimidation and offerings of bribes Nehemiah never lost sight of the direction he has heading. He may have had to signal around these obstacles but always stayed on course making sure that everyone knew where he was leading them to go.

This made me think about the signals that we may or may not use that other people see, indicating the direction that we are headed in our own relationships with God. While some of these things are personal and remain between God and us, there are some that are obvious indicators that provide opportunity for others to see and follow. 

What are these signals? What will people recognize in our lives that set us apart from the rest of the world? Well, after reading Nehemiah I would say the number one signal that others can see is humility.

First, Nehemiah did nothing for his own personal gain or recognition. His motivation was to serve God first, then the people of Jerusalem. Living humbly and serving God and others before ourselves seems counter-cultural in our world today. When we live a life outside the bounds of cultural norms, we signal to others that we are different and that opens opportunities to share the answers of why.

Second, Nehemiah showed incredible compassion and generosity to the people. He did more than just listen to the needs of the community around him. As governor he put into motion a plan that levelled the playing field in respect to social and economic injustice. He gave generously from his own wages so that other could benefit. When we serve and give freely to those in need, we signal to those who are watching that other people matter to us. 

Third, Nehemiah was dedicated to the reading of the word of God and prayer. Our lives should reflect the same. We have an incredible opportunity to show the people around us who our God is and how much he loves them. Prayerfully reading and studying the word of God will inspire us, motivates us, and show us that our God can and will use us to be a signal of hope for those in the world. 

The Key Ingredient.

I am a big fan of chocolate chip cookies. I may be biased but my very talented wife makes the best chocolate chip cookies on the planet. I took a peek at her recipe book and found the dog eared, grease-stained, timeworn page that lists all the ingredients that make up these mouthwatering morsels. The main ingredient by measure is of course flour, but the key ingredient is the semi-sweet chocolate morsels. Without this key ingredient these delectable treats wouldn’t even get a second look. (That is my expert opinion). 

As I finished reading through the book of Nehemiah, I couldn’t help but think about one of the main themes or ingredients that was key in his life and work as a servant of God. While we can garner an incredible amount of wisdom from Nehemiah’s leadership and many accomplishments, the key ingredient that made me take a second, third and even fourth look was his commitment to prayer. 

Found throughout the accounts of Nehemiah’s story we find a variety of prayers; prayers filled with offerings of praise and thanksgiving, prayers of confession, petition, and blessing. It seems that no matter the time or place, the practice of prayer was a part of Nehemiah’s life and leadership, something he modeled for the people of Jerusalem. 

The opening words of Nehemiah begin with a prayer as do the closing words in chapter 13. These words and the many in between are clear evidence of Nehemiah’s dependance on God to help him undertake the mission of rebuilding and rekindling the physical and spiritual condition of God’s people and city of Jerusalem. 

When we examine the life of Nehemiah through his actions, we can see that his motivation came from his complete trust in the Lord. The “main ingredient” in his life and faith was a trust that was proven repeatedly throughout the narrative of his story. The “key ingredient” to his faith and trust in God was renewed each and every day through his devotion to prayer. Nehemiah’s success in life and mission came because he depended on God. 

Nehemiah opens his first prayer with an incredible reminder of who God is, “the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments.” These words continue to stand true for us today as they did when Nehemiah recorded them. This covenant of love God made with his people was magnified many years later through the incredible sacrifice of his one and only Son so that we could be saved from our sins. How great and awesome is that? 

The loving relationship that we have with Jesus today continues to be the main ingredient of our faith. Christ lived and died for us; his love for us, his sacrifice is the foundation of our forgiveness and promise of an everlasting life in the presence of his father. Our God is an awesome God. 

The key ingredient in faith and life in him is prayer. How often did Nehemiah get down on his knees and pray to God? How often do we get down on our knees and pray to the same great and awesome God? 1 John 5:14 is an assurance to those who believe in the name of the Son of God, it reads, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” It is my prayer that these words inspire you to draw closer to our great and awesome God in prayer today. 

Tending to the Fire

One of my favourite things to do while camping is watching the burning fire. The sight of the flames dancing around, the smell and sound of the wood burning, and the comforting warmth all work together to help me slip into a mysteriously hypnotic state. Fires need tending, a constant supply of fuel to keep burning; without it, the fire slowly burns out leaving small burning embers or nothing more than a pile of ash in its place.

From the moment when Nehemiah first inspected the damage to the walls surrounding Jerusalem, to the time he returned to his position as cup bearer for the king (a span of 12 years) he had been tending “fires” of a different kind. Not only did Nehemiah light the fire of inspiration and drive of the people to commit to rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, but he also re-kindled the fire and passion in the hearts of the people to fall back into a life that honored and glorified their Heavenly Father.  

Chapter 10 of Nehemiah outlines the elements of a binding agreement or covenant the nation and its leaders made and committed to follow together. At that time the priests and Levites were responsible for the continued spiritual leadership of the city. In many ways they were responsible to tend the “spiritual fire” that brought the people back into a right relationship with God. As we continue to read on, Nehemiah outlines for us in chapter 13 several things that, after he left, began to stifle the desire (the fire) of the people to stay on track with a life devoted to following the laws and commands given to them. 

If we fast-forward a few thousand years to today, we can see some similarities to our own walk of faith in the Lord. 

Many of you can remember the time in your life when you first accepted the good news of the gospel and made Jesus a part of your life. There was an excitement, a fire that burned inside of you as a new believer; you devoted your life to following and serving the Lord, loving him, and loving others. God’s word (the bible) became your guide for life, you immersed yourself in it and you surrounded yourself with others who lived with that same fire in their soul. 

I have seen in others and experienced for myself this incredible feeling as the fire burned bright in life. I will be the first to admit that there are times when the fire does not burn as bright as it should. There have been times when the fuel for the fire seems in short supply, and we only see a few burning embers. 

Nehemiah saw a fire in need of tending among the people of Jerusalem and once again did his part to help re-kindle the flames of life with God among them. Like Nehemiah, we must pray and seek God’s mercy and grace in our lives; confess to him our weaknesses and He will begin a work in us to restore that burning fire in life. Keep the fire fueled through the reading of his word. When you do, you will hear his voice, his direction for your life. Surround yourself again with those who share in the warmth and comfort of knowing Christ as their Lord and Savior. Consider these words of an old hymn that continue to inspire new life in Christ, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going”. 

The Beginning of a New Start

Have you ever worked through a home improvement project? At the beginning of most renovation projects there is a feeling of excitement and energy, there are hopes and dreams about what the outcome will be. Along the way there are many steps to bring those dreams alive. From demolition to decorating and everything in between each step of the job takes hard work and commitment to reach the end.

As I continue to read through the book of Nehemiah, the account of the wall being rebuilt comes to an end. I am sure that when the last brick was cemented into place and the final gate was hung by its hinges, Nehemiah drew a deep breath of relief to know that the wall around Jerusalem was finally restored. Step one was complete. With the wall finished, Nehemiah begins to focus on his next step, the restoration of the inhabitants of the city.

When you read through chapter 8 of Nehemiah the next stage of his plan is laid out for us. His goal in this phase is to help restore the people of the city back into a right relationship with God through the reading and understanding of the Law as given to them in scripture. It was time to focus on the spiritual needs of the city. Verse 8 of chapter 8 says, “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving meaning so that the people understood what was being read.” 

The beginning of a new start for the people in the city was a reminder of who God is, what he has done for them and how his love for them has not changed over time. The message of what was being read was a reminder for the people to live in obedience to God’s will. 

In my last blog entry, I briefly talked about how we might “lend a hand” in the process of re-building the church after our time of physical separation. All through the pandemic things have constantly been changing for all of us. One of the incredible truths about scripture and its message for us is that it is unchanging. God’s word is and always will be the solid foundation on which our faith is built. 

The people of the city were gathered to hear God speak through these words, they were willing to stand and listen as scripture describes, attentively, from daybreak to noon every day for a week! When was the last time you had a thirst for hearing the word of God read out like this? 

Nehemiah fortified the walls of the city and provided a safe place for the people to gather and hear the words of God spoken and explained. Each day holds the potential beginning of a new start in life and faith as we seek to hear God’s voice for our lives. The words that Ezra read then were persevered for us and continue to inspire many people today as they read God’s word. 

It is my hope and prayer that as we gather again that the center of all we do is found in the words of scripture. From Genesis to Revelation and everything in between God’s Word is the best place to begin a new start. Where will you start today? What is your next step in life and faith? 

Lending a Hand

Have you ever felt like you needed a third hand? There are times in life when having that third hand would be handy. One of my hobbies requires some soldering from time to time and to make life easier I have what is called a third hand jig (also known as a helping hand). This adjustable device holds wires in place while I work with the soldering iron. Without that third hand the task would be difficult. 

Chapter 3 of Nehemiah is about helping hands. In many ways this chapter reads like one of those extensive genealogies found in other parts of scriptures. If you’re anything like me, I tend to just browse right past these types of passages because let’s be honest, we feel like they don’t have much to offer, plus all those names are hard to pronounce. 

Following his inspection of the wall around Jerusalem Nehemiah began to assign workers to repair areas near where they lived or worked. Chapter three holds the blueprint to the reconstruction process. Starting in verse 2 we see the beginning of two repeating phrases that becomes the mortar between the bricks of such a massive project. “Next to him” or “next to them” is repeated in one form another over 20 times. As I read these words, I noticed a theme that connects to the many aspects of living and working in community both in Nehemiah’s day and here and now. 

Much like the situation Nehemiah and the people of the city found themselves in, we as followers of Jesus are living amid a similar but different re-building process. As the church gathers again after a challenging time of physical separation, many of them are starting to re-build. With what seems like an ever-changing blueprint in the process, there is one constant that remains and that is the message and mission of the Gospel. 

“Next to him” or “next to them” reveals to us a picture of a community committed to a purpose. In context, Nehemiah was writing about rebuilding the wall (phase two of his plan) so that God’s glory would be able to shine. In our context, it is about coming together again and working next to one another so that others will continue to see the glory of God shine through his people. 

Many leaders today are calling on the church (you and I) to come together, next to one another, to serve and love one another. No one person could have accomplished the work of repairing the walls around Jerusalem; the same stands for today as we work to rebuild. We must work together if we are to continue our God given mission. Our work is to glorify God, to love one another, to serve with the gifts we have been given and to share the good news of the gospel with those who don’t yet know the incredible love of God. 

So, how might you be a “third hand” in helping the church grow into a renewed passion and presence in your community? Who will you work “next to”? Not for your glory, but for the glory of our Father in heaven? In the words of Nehemiah, “Let us start rebuilding.”

A Journey in Time

I remember the moment with vivid clarity, it was early January 2016, I was awkwardly crammed into the back of a vibrantly decorated Jeepney with a mission’s team and several new Pilipino friends. One of our new friends was a local pastor with a propensity for telling jokes. While we were nervously weaving in and out of traffic, he shared this joke: “Who was the shortest man in the Bible?”. Not knowing the answer, he regaled us with this witty response, “Nehemiah” but with a twist… (Knee-High-Miah).  

I share this with you because every time I turn in my Bible to the book of Nehemiah this memory floods back into my mind. This past week I spent some time reading through Nehemiah’s words and one of the themes I have been considering is that of “time”. This remarkable story recounts Nehemiah’s incredible leadership and reliance on God in completing the re-construction of the wall around Jerusalem in only 52 days. Yet, there is another important segment of time that precedes the building of the wall that was critical to its success. 

Chapter 1:4 records these words, “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” While it takes us less than two minutes to read these words and transition to the next events of Nehemiah’s story we must stop and understand that “For some days” was a span of time that was approximately four months long. Today, living in a culture that thrives on instant gratification, high achievement and quick solutions four months might feel like a lifetime. 

After receiving news about the trouble and disgrace of what was transpiring in Jerusalem three things occurred in the months following for Nehemiah. First, he mourned over the circumstances surrounding the lives of the people and the city that was their home. Second, he fasted and third, he prayed day and night before the God of heaven to help the people of Israel. 

Something I need to ask myself and one thing I can ask of you is this: In the light of a difficult situation or experience do I/you take the appropriate amount of time to mourn, fast and pray for God’s direction in moving forward?  While some difficult experiences in life may not require a lengthy period of time to navigate, others will. Who we are will often influence the length of time each of us needs to work through life’s challenges, the important part is how we start the journey. 

The book of Nehemiah is filled with examples of his dependance on God through prayer to accomplish the tasks that God called him to. The meaning of the name Nehemiah is “Yahweh comforts”. In times of mourning, in times of fasting, and in times of prayer, God is our comfort. He is our hope, and he is our guide in life. Paul, in Thessalonians 5:16-18 reminds us to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ”. My prayer is that no matter what life brings our way, easy or hard, positive or negative, that we are on the journey together with a God who loves us. 

Knee-Jerk Reactions

In the medical field a knee-jerk reflex is a sudden kicking movement of the lower leg in response to a sharp tap just below the kneecap. We also use this knee-jerk expression to describe someone’s response or reaction to a question or situation, often in a very predictable way or without thinking. A knee-jerk reaction is typically a quick reaction that does not allow you time to consider something carefully. 

While I could share an overflowing bucket full of illustrations and stories from my own life that would make you either laugh out loud or shift uncomfortably in your seat, I thought it would be more valuable to share some thoughts about what should be at the epicenter of our reactions.

I was recently reading Paul’s words to the church in Colossae. In chapter three he gives instruction to his brothers and sisters in Christ to have their hearts and minds set on things above, not on earthly things. He calls them (and us) to rid ourselves of things like anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language. Each of these destructive “things” Paul describes can be a dangerously attached “spur” riding on the side of our reactive comments or actions. Be it un-intentional or otherwise, these “spurs” of destruction (a tool of the evil one) can have a powerful impact on the relationships we have with others. 

Paul offers us some strong counsel on how we as followers of Christ can work in our lives to help smooth the sharp points down on the spurs that can cause harm. He says: 

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Col. 3:12-14)

In Christ we have the power to overcome the fractured image of a once perfect reflection of our heavenly Father who created us. When the peace of Christ rules in our hearts and the perfect unity of love, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience come together they are the means that help to condition (for better) our sometimes-hasty reactions. 

Knee jerk reactions are inevitable in life, they surface in our daily face-to-face interactions, through social media posts and other areas of life. We would do well to heed to Paul’s words in verse 17 of Colossians 3: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Today, it is my prayer for all of you that strive to live according to our Fathers will, that you will show a natural response of love and compassion in all your words and deeds with those around you.

What is in a Song?

Each Sunday for forty-six years (give or take a few weeks here and there) an integral part of my worship experience in church was listening to and singing songs filled with words of praise, honor, and glory to God. With the recent interruption to our regular pattern of worship and now the gradual return to gathering again, I have been thinking about the songs that we sing. 

A little while back I was sharing a meal with a friend and one of our conversations about life and faith led us into a short discussion about the purpose and power found in the songs that we sing in church. With our generational differences and personal biases in check we agreed that many of the songs we sing (old & new) speak powerfully the words of scripture and their message of salvation. 

Consider for a moment the purpose of the worship songs we sing together. In many of the older hymns that we sing the words were written to communicate the incredible truths of scripture. As we sing, we need to ask ourselves questions like, to whom is our worship directed?  What is our hearts desire as we sing? What scriptural truths are being revealed in our worship through song? Do we sing because it makes us “feel good” or brings back nostalgic memories? Are we truly and humbly giving praise, honor and glory to our God who loves us through our worship?

In 1910 John Wilbur Chapman wrote the mighty words of the hymn titled “One Day” (Living He Loved Me). Over the years these words have been used by contemporary Christian artists like Casting Crowns to continue spreading the incredible timeless truth of what Jesus did for us.

“Living he loved me, dying he saved me,
buried he carried my sins far away.
Rising he justified, freed me for heaven.
One day he’s coming back, glorious day.”

The beautiful words of this hymn tell the incredible story of why God sent his perfect son into a world plagued by the power of evil and the grip it continues to hold in the lives of his people. Read the words of this verse again. He loved us so much, he died to save us. He carried the sins of the world upon his shoulders so that our lives could be set right (justified) before God. Let’s not forget about that glorious day when as promised Christ comes back and we can all live into the incredible promise of eternal life with him. 

Songs like this present us with the transformational message of the gospel found in the pages of scripture. The next time you are singing along to your favorite worship song ask yourself, what is in this song? When you find the answer to your question, I challenge you to share that song with someone. Don’t keep it to yourself as the message it holds is for everyone to hear. 

True North

Most people are familiar with the designations of north, south, east, and west that are represented on a compass, but did you know a compass doesn’t point to true north? True north is where the lines of longitude converge in the geographic north pole. A compass (depending on where you are on the earth) locates the magnetic north which is approximately 500 kilometers away from the geographic North Pole. A compass works by magnetic force and can be affected by a variety of different factors, weather, other magnetic forces, and metal objects. 

What is your compass in life? Where is true north for you? 

This past week as I was reading scripture, I asked myself these same questions. 2 Timothy chapter 3, and particularly verses 16 and 17 inspired me to look and think about how God’s word to us is like a compass, but one that points to true north. These verses read, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

As followers of Christ, the Bible should be the compass or guide that we follow in life and faith. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy gives some instruction on how scripture (our compass) functions. First, he establishes the direction we receive comes directly from God himself, speaking to its authenticity and usefulness. Following this foundational truth Paul breaks down some of its usefulness for us. Teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness; while each one of these tasks is important, correcting was one that resonated with my thoughts of direction and being on a pathway to our true north destination. 

All of scripture points us in one direction. Think about all that happens in scripture, both in the Old and New testaments. Imagine for a moment that all of scripture, the many events that take place are the longitudinal lines on a map, they all converge in one place, at the foot of the cross with Christ and ultimately with our father in heaven. 

Like finding the point of convergence of true geographic north with a compass, our life and faith will need some course correction along the way. Often when we read these verses in 2 Timothy we have an outward focus, we use scripture to teach, rebuke or correct others. What if we applied the charge of correcting to our own life? There are forces at play in life that can easily pull us in directions that keep us from reaching our final destination of true north. 

Course correction is common in any form of navigation so why wouldn’t it be important for our life and faith today? While wrong turns in life are sometimes difficult, they are some of the best times in life that help us correct our course of direction.

We have been given the words of scripture to be our compass in life and faith, we have also been given a guide. As we stand at the foot of the cross and live a life that honors Christ, he equips us with the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit. The word of God (our compass) and the Holy Spirit (our guide) work together to help us reach our true north destination. As we apply the word of God to our lives and listen for his voice for direction in life there is no greater power that can knock us off course.

Transformation

I consider myself to be a bit of a woodworker. I enjoy making smaller projects that can be hung on the wall or displayed on a shelf. One of the trends in woodworking right now is using epoxy to make “river tables” and other beautiful projects. Epoxy typically comes in two separate containers, one with resin and the other with the hardener.  When combined, the two create a super strong bond that is virtually unbreakable. This chemical reaction transforms two liquids into a solid and is only possible when one part interacts with the other. 

The Christian life is centered around the power of transformation. One of the key verses that speak to this transformation is found in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” There are two key elements that make up the components of the life/faith transformation: God and us, that’s right, you and I. “In Christ” is the catalyst to the transformation of our heart, soul, and mind.

Christ, through his death and resurrection on the cross invites each and everyone of us to be made new in him; It is an open invitation, to be shared with everyone. One of the best examples of this transformation is found in Acts chapter 9. Saul, later known as Paul was one of the most feared opponents to the life and teachings of Jesus, his mission was to bring all those who followed him to “justice”. Almost immediately after his own encounter with Jesus, his heart, soul and mind were transformed. The “old Saul” was gone, the “new Paul” was here. 

The bond or spiritual connection we have in Christ is one unlike any other, it is life transforming in a way that inspires us to be like Christ. Filled with his Spirit, our hearts desire becomes one that wants to know and follow his ways, to be fully devoted to him. Our soul can find complete rest in him knowing that the promise of life everlasting is no longer beyond our reach. The renewal of our minds brings us to a new level of discernment to live in obedience to His will for our lives. 

Change in life is often hard but what about transformation?  The trifecta (heart, soul, and mind) of change in the core of who we are might seem impossible. On our own, it would be impossible, thankfully we are not alone. First, we have Christ in us, filled with his Spirit to lead and guide our decisions. Second, we have a community of believers around who are following on the same journey. If you continue to read Paul’s story in the book of Acts, you will see how he did not journey alone. In fact, he joined the disciples almost right away and God used him in incredible ways to highlight the power of Christ in him. 

These few words only highlight the very beginning of a thought on the powerful transformation that happens in our life as a follower of Christ. Our transformation in Christ is one that is in constant motion. We will grow closer to God through reading his word, spending time in prayer, and being in community with other believers. It is my hope and prayer that we all continue to be “transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”. (2 Corinthians 3:18)