Saturday, June 11, 2016

Nothing Separates from the Love of Christ

by Timothy Howe

Nisqually River Bridge, Mt. Rainier, Wa
On a recent hike, we crossed a bridge over the Nisqually River that runs down from Mt. Rainier. While on the bridge, I happened to bend down and a take a photo of the mountain through the trellis. Interesting how much bigger the beams of wood look when compared to a 14,000 foot mountain. Obviously, they are but specks in comparison to the mountain on which they rest. Though distance and perspective reduce the amount of space that the mountain takes up in the image, the mountain remains 14,410 feet. In a similar way, we too often allow our circumstances to shape our view of reality. Trials and difficulties loom large and the great things of this world seem diminished. Hold onto proper perspective.

Love of God (Rom. 8:31-39)
Dr. Randy Adams, the Executive Director of the NWBC, recently spoke to a group of pastors, pastors' wives, and church leaders. He spoke from Romans 8:31-39 and shared about God's unceasing love for us. The Scripture consists of a series of questions which summarizes our position as children of God, joint-heirs with Christ to be precise (Rom. 8:16-17). Paul uses responses to these questions to solidify what God has done for us. 

He will provide all that we need.
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will be not also with him graciously give us all things? 

God recognized our greatest need and took care of it personally. Consider that at a deep level. He provided for us in a way that we were completely incapable. How much more can we trust that He will continue to meet our needs? Let us trust that He who is capable to meet all of our needs and who cares for us will meet those needs. And in the process let us be careful to not confuse needs and wants nor set improper expectation based on our time-table. 

He takes away our guilt.
Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 

Have you ever caught a child doing or saying something they know they shouldn't? As long as the offense is fairly minor, the adult can take some joy out of the cute, guilty face. The sense of guilt is a whole lot less adorable as we mature. Many people retain a sense of guilt long after the offense has been forgotten or its consequences felt. The scripture above tells us that God has already justified us. What that means is that He, who is most capable of holding our guilt against us, does not charge us as guilty. Don't be subject to guilty feelings. If there are some actions for which you feel guilty that require retribution, recompense or setting things right, then take whatever necessary actions. Beyond that release any feelings of guilt.    

He removes our shame. 
Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 

Similar to guilt, many people continue to harbor shame in our lives. There is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt may be associated with offenses we committed whereas shame are those offenses committed against us. Shame dogs us and tells us that we are not worthy. Paul tells us that the Greatest One does not condemn us, in fact, he advocates for us. Jesus stands next to the Father seeking our very best well-being. Shame can be debilitating and may need counseling to overcome. Many offenses are too painful or too fresh and require the help of professionals and the vantage of greater distances of time to overcome. But let the work of the Spirit help in this healing process. Hold onto the promise that the Savior stands as your champion.

He sticks with us through all difficulties.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 
     "For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
     we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered."
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This last section is often quoted by people in times of difficulty, and rightfully so. In it we are offered a promise from God that nothing will separate us from the love of Christ. What a promise! Paul goes to lengths to make clear what he means by "nothing." Each of us has experienced suffering, stress, threats, deprivation, or danger. The Scriptures remind us that in the very middle of these difficulties, our Savior's love is ever present. May you sense that love during your next trial. If you are currently in that trial, may you know that you are loved beyond measure. 

Dr. Adams challenged a group of pastors and church leaders to memorize Romans 8:31-38, a challenge which I have taken up. I encourage you to do so as well. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Hope in Difficult Times

by Timothy Howe

Gray Days in Paradise
We live in one of the most beautiful places. Within a short distance we can be in the mountains or on the coast. Forest hikes and beach strolls are daily possibilities. We love all the natural wonder surrounding us. Yet, another constant in our area can interrupt these activities. When it rains in the Pacific Northwest, we can't fully enjoy our surroundings in the same way. Sometimes rain can set in for longer periods, and when it does, gray days can have an effect on the people. We stay inside more and as a result avoid seeing and experiencing all that our region has to offer. This serves to me as a picture of life. Each of us has a lot of wonderful things around us. We also have rain, metaphorically speaking, that prevents us from experiencing abundant life.  

Unexpected Problems
There was young girl whose parents took her in for a regular doctor's check up to be told that something was wrong with her feet. This would require a fairly extensive surgery that would leave her incapacitated for a lengthy period of time. The parents, as would any parents, were willing to do whatever for their child, but the procedure seemed like a difficult endeavor for someone so small to endure. As they looked for other options, a less invasive option would require her to wear a type of orthotic during her growth years. The doctor suggested that even by doing this, she would likely not be able to run as she grew. This option seemed the best course. 

The little girl resisted the devices at first, saying that they hurt. They were uncomfortable and limited what type of shoes she could wear. But in time, she got use to them so that resistance lessened into mere annoyance and she even forgot that she was wearing them. Eventually, she outgrew the need to wear them. Her feet had grown into their permanent form. Future orthotics could provide comfort, but not form her feet any more; the shape of her feet had set. 

We all face difficulties. The parents above had a difficult choice where either outcome would significantly affect their daughter. The girl had been given a bad physiological break. Her misshaped feet were the beginning of constant annoyance in her young life. Yet, the parents made their choice and moved on. The girl learned to live with her condition and the changes required. 

Moving Forward in Difficult Circumstances
Many people have much more difficult choices to make than these parents. Many people have much greater difficulties to endure than the girl. But the principles in their circumstances can apply to us all. We make choices and endure difficulties while we continue to move forward. 

In much of the same way that the orthotics redefined the shape of the girl's feet, our difficulties shape us and can define us. The question remains with us of how they shape or define us. We may choose to let adversity form us into defeated and broken shadows of who we are meant to be, or we can allow them to form a strong character within us. 

Discouragement Abounds
It seems that as of late many people who have crossed my path have been brought low by something in their lives. It is as if there is a spirit of discouragement just floating in the air. People have challenges faced at work, in their family relationships, health concerns and financial burdens. The effects range from mild worry to deep anxiety, even debilitating anxiety that affects health and happiness.

Joy in Difficult Circumstances
One person who has recently gone through one of life's difficulties recently shared with me something that spoke to her in the middle of the tough times. She reminded me of just what sort of joy can be found in the midst of life's difficulty. She quoted a scripture that she had memorized as a little girl:

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, (1 Pet. 1:8 ESV) 

Her joy in the midst of difficult circumstances came as a result of her faith, not her circumstances. She placed her faith in Christ, the focus of the love in this verse. He served as her hope when facing unwanted problems. 

Each of us has our own set of problems. For some, they bring acute and seemingly unbearable sorrow. For others, it is prolonged and seemingly never-ending sorrow. Whatever the case, how can we find joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory in the middle of these circumstances? How will we let our struggles shape us? 

Romans 5:3-5 reminds us,

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (NLT)

Let us trust that God love us dearly and allow His love to convert our trials into strong character and confident hope of salvation.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

Love the Foreigner

Love the Foreigner
So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. Deut. 10:19 NLT

3,000,000 Syrian refugees. These are people who are broken. One of the eight terrorists in Paris had a Syrian passport, which may or may not mean he came as a refugee. This is a very small statistical percentage. Many people are speaking about the threat that helping refugees poses. States in the USA are declaring they will not permit them into their state. This will most likely not make the USA any safer. I can't recall any of our many mass murder attackers being a refugee; nor terrorist attacks in our country coming at the hands of refugee. 

If one refugee ever becomes entangled in some horrible crime in this country, it will still not implicate all refugees any more than a crazed gunman proves the need for gun control for all Americans, one rogue police officer casts guilt on all of our fine men and women in blue, or one criminal act by any individual causes me to judge a whole group of people. Corrupted individuals in this nation have consistently found their own means to perpetrate their evil deeds. Making a general decision to keep out all refugees will not protect America. Impure hearts will still find a way to commit injustice. 

Our Actions Reveal Our Hearts
What would setting up barriers accomplish? Keeping out refugees simply reveals a fearful or calloused heart. This revelation matters because the conflict in which we see ourselves is an ideological one, not a geographical nor ethnic-based conflict. Fear plays into the hands of the terrorists. That is precisely the emotion that they want to evoke. They want for us as a people to surrender our lives to their wishes. The want us to submit to their demands. 

A calloused and hardened heart might be worse, though. Hard hearts are not natural. They are produced. A hardened heart moves from being a living thing to a calcified, impenetrable stone on account of hurt and lack of healing. Every person has had hurt. These hurts are real and can be debilitating for a time. Some of our hurts last a lifetime. I stand in the belief that hurt can be healed. Scars may remain, but hurt can become hope again.

We Are People of the Light
We are in a crooked and twisted generation. Recent events in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris demonstrate this. So do the countless crimes we all see in our local news that never make the national or international scene. But we are not a people of fear. We are children of the light. We are called to bear the light even in this crooked and twisted generation. Light expels the darkness, not "darker" darkness. We don't bear light very well in hiding or hunkered down behind walls. Perpetua & Felicita welcomed the animals along with thousands of other early Christian martyrs. Countless believers throughout 2000 centuries stood for faith in the midst of very real and present danger, not fear of mere potential threats, and in so doing gave their lives because they counted the thing promised them more valuable that the things of this world (Heb. 11:13). 

Vigilant and Compassionate
I believe that we can simultaneously be vigilant about security and compassionate for those in grave need and imminent danger. We used to be a people that operated as a beacon of light to those with no hope. Have we lost that edge? Does fear control our hearts to such a degree that it calls the shots now? Not in my heart. I intend to face the future with hope of a risen savior, with the hope of my own eventual bodily resurrection, with resiliency and fervor that befits the tremendous legacy of which I am a recipient, and with a heart full of love for all mankind. This includes people very much unlike myself. Even people that I don't think deserve it. After all, I was offered love and forgiveness when I didn't deserve it (Rom. 5:8, 10).

When I stand before Jesus, I am convinced that he will be little concerned with how I felt comfortable or secure in this short life. Rather, I am convinced that He will inspect my holiness and how I lived out His commands to love the Father, love people (especially the widow, orphan, foreigner, and poor), tell the Story, and surrender to the Holy Spirit's purpose for my life.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Supporting vs Doing

by Timothy Howe

Getting Involved
Summer is fast approaching. It will soon be time for picnics and family vacations. And for many churches and charities it will be one of the busiest times. Like many church leaders, we have traditionally been very involved in kids ministries during the summer since parents are happy to find activities for their bored children. Personally, it is fun for us to participate in sports, music and fun kids programs. Yet it is always hard finding volunteers to help with these activities. Understandably, the timing is off for some of these activities since people work or are out of town. In these cases, individuals often contribute resources when they are not able to help. 

Supporting vs. Doing
Some people have shared with me that they cannot do such and such, so they give to an institution to accomplish that purpose. Giving to agencies which carry out Christ's teaching is good. My family regular donates to such charities. These valuable and effective ministries require this sort of support to carry out the work that they are designed to accomplished. Supporting this work extends our capacity to minister because charitable ministries are often created with specialized strengths that maximize our charitable gifts. Supporting ministry, however, should not replace doing ministry. We are called to serve. Supporting ministry is valuable, but it should only be a part of our ministry effectiveness. 

Increasing Capacity
Supporting ministry that accomplishes what we are not capable of doing extends our overall effectiveness. Yet, each of us possesses gifts and strengths that allow for us to make our unique impact in the world. This does not mean that we have to be the expert of anything that we do. In all likelihood there will always be room to grow in whatever we do, but the continued exercise of our gifts and skills develop them over time to allow us to be better servants. If we allow our gifts to remain idle they will remain inadequate. As we utilize them, they grow and we increase our ministry capacity.

Faith Impact 
Our faith should affect our behavior. What we say we believe about Jesus and His teachings should be evident in how we live our lives. As people of faith we have the intrinsic hope in Christ and of the day when He will return. We know that His Spirit goes before us in ministry, His call is already on the lives of the hurting around us, and His work is going to achieve His purposes. The degree to which we employ our gifts towards that work speaks either to the degree to which we truly believe in Him or to which we are really committed to walking in discipleship. 

Are you ready to serve as well as support ministry?
Are you ready to increase your ministry capacity?
Are you ready for your faith to have an impact outside of yourself?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Following Directions: Living in Harmony

by Timothy Howe

One of my greatest joys has been working with new believers in Africa. Where we worked, there are many cultural divisions. No one language is spoken universally in the country and there is much animosity between different language or tribal groups. The church served as one of the only places where these tensions were erased. Believers from various backgrounds came together to worship and celebrate their faith. Outsiders were often struck by the fact that people who would normally not socialize together would dine, laugh, sing and pray together. This harmony provided a great witness to the message of Christ. 

In John 17:20-21, John records:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

These words make up part of a prayer that Jesus prayed over His disciples. Jesus prayed these words during His last moments with them, only hours before the crucifixion. He was fully aware of the nearness of his departure and this last prayer captured some thoughts found in His key teachings. These verses show that Jesus was concerned in part about how His followers would get along with each other.

Two observations stand out regarding Jesus' thoughts on harmony.

Our harmony draws a picture of God.
In Jesus' prayer, he requests that His followers may all be one. He wants us to be unified. The reason He gives for this is astounding. Our unity demonstrates God's unity. The Son and the Father are two parts of of the Trinity, an eternal co-existing Triune God. The relationship between the different Persons of the Trinity is complex and difficult for us to understand as we try to make sense of how each Person is separate and yet all three Persons are one. Interestingly, Jesus explains that our unity forms a picture of the Holy Trinity. The act of living in harmony with other Christians is itself a living form of theology. 

If our harmony draws a picture of God, what does disharmony among His believers demonstrate? Far too often, churches are characterized by divisions, factions, dissension, anger and bitterness. These divisions certainly do not draw a picture of God. Instead, they portray the lack of God's presence as churches depend on human instincts and talents, not the work or presence of God.

Our harmony points to God.
In addition, to serving a theological purpose, our harmony with other believers serves to give evidence to the message of Christ. One of the greatest proofs of the Christ's work and word is a life that has been changed by Him. Our ability to live in unity with other believers shows the life-changing and community-chaning power of the Holy Spirit. It gives testimony to Jesus' message. 

The harmony of the African church mentioned above points others to God as people from different cultures set aside their differences to worship together. They lived out a faithful unity with people who were different and thereby offered a good testimony of Christ. 

If our harmony points to God, disharmony among His believers weakens their witness. How differently would we treat each other if we recognize that church fights not only cause people to turn away from church, but they can cause some people to turn away from God. 

So, let's live in Harmony
Jesus taught His disciples that the world would recognize Christ through the ability of His followers to live in harmony with each other (John 17:20-21). He explained that our ability to remain in unity would demonstrate to the world the unity of the Father and the Son. His followers should be characterized by operating in harmony with each other.

This may not be easy, we are all still people. We can all be opinionated, obstinate, lazy, grumpy, frustrating or frustrated. Yet, Jesus' teaching remains. The world will know that we are His followers, it will recognize God at work and some may believe on account of our unity. May we take seriously this teaching of Jesus. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Following Directions: Meeting the Needs of Others

by Timothy Howe

Recent posts have dealt with the question of "What did Jesus expect from his followers?" As we have seen, these expectations are not mysterious. Jesus gave clear guidance for those who want to follow after him. The clearest directive from Christ was to love. We know this by the fact that when specifically asked what was the greatest commandment, Christ offered the command to love God and love others. I have spent time with each of these components. Jesus had more to say, though, on what it takes to be a follower. 

Meet the Needs of Others
Jesus explained to His disciples that how they treat other people is very important to Him. He makes this teaching very clear. Feed the hungry, welcome the foreigner, provide clothes for the needy, visit the sick, visit the incarcerated (Matthew 25:31-46). In no uncertain terms, He indicates that one's participation in these action reflects which eternal path one is traveling on. His followers are to be characterized by such actions, those who neglect these actions are not functioning followers. 

We can find the heart of Jesus' teaching on this subject in the Old Testament. God provided many regulations regarding taking care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Jesus' teaching builds on the Old Testament foundation. He explains that when we minister to these, we are in effect ministering to Him. 

Effective Ministry
Feed the Hungry
Welcome the Foreigner
Provide Clothes for the Needy
Visit the Sick
Visit the Incarcerated
The above list is an excellent checklist for us to evaluating how effective we are in ministry. In using the term "ministry" I am not referring to those who serve in the clergy, but rather I am referring to the work all followers of Jesus are called. Jesus didn't applaud having good intentions towards those in need, he extolled turning intentions into realities. We do that in three ways.

Praying Ministry
The first thing we can do is pray. There are many facets to prayer, too many to cover in detail here. But regarding ministry, prayer accomplishes at least two things. First it puts ministry on our hearts and minds. Our prayers focus our attention on the needs at hand. Our prayer demonstrate what is important to us. Second, prayer turns our attention from what we are capable of accomplishing to what God is capable of accomplishing. Prayer demonstrates our faith. It moves our eyes from our capacity to God's capacity. 

Who are you praying for specifically by name today? 
What ministry are you praying for specifically by name today?

Supporting Ministry
As potent as prayer is, the Lord expressed that more is required of his followers. We are to actively support the causes that make a difference in this world. It is easy to take for granted all the agencies out there meeting the needs of people without realizing that these agencies only exist on the basis of voluntary donations of our resources. We are to employ our financial resources, our energy, our time and our attention to meeting the needs of other people. It is easy to find a ministry that fits your interests and passions. There is a charity for every cause. Get behind one and support it.

What ministry are you supporting with your time?
What ministry are you supporting with you finances?

Doing Ministry
Prayer is important. Support ministry is important. But neither of these actions completes the calling. Christ explained that what we did to the "least of these" equates to ministering to him. We regularly pray and support many ministries. But this does not substitute for actively participating in ministry. Make it a priority to actually engage in helping those in need. 

Where have you gone out of your way to meet needs?
Who are you specifically meeting the needs of today?

Each of us have been called to make a difference. Are you doing your part? What can you write on your calendar right now that will be an activity that will make a difference?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Following Directions: Loving

by Timothy Howe

Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque
The Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque is one of our favorite places to visit. Of course, we made it a point to plan at least one visit during the summer months when the lavender was in full bloom and all the senses are fully engaged. The aroma captures attention the moment you step out of your car. The sounds of bees buzzing about and the song of the cicadas reminiscent of an ancient Gregorian chant lull the traveler to another place and time. After a brief walk one peers into field of lavender set in the bottom of towering green valley walls, the scene almost too much to take in. Taste and touch are not to be excluded as lavender honey and lotions await to be tried inside the Abbey.

Arriving at the Abbey was not a simple task from where we lived. It requires travel through a very picturesque region where one interesting hilltop village follows after another, but it also traverses a mountainous area with very narrow roads on cliff's edge or between extremely narrow ravines. Clearly, the monks did not have large numbers of visiting tourists in mind when they built the structure a thousand years ago.

Good Directions
Proper directions are a requirement for obtaining the prize of sensing Sénanque. Apparently, local authorities have concluded that the beautiful country roads retain their charm at least in part by the infrequency of directional signs. This is compounded by the fact that the snaking shape of the valley between to rows of mountains easily throws off one's perspective of North and South. So a word of advice, if you want to get to the Abbey, follow good directions. Really, this is good advice in all of life's journey, isn't it? To arrive anywhere we need to know where we are going and we need to know how to get there.

I have written about following directions for the past couple of weeks. Two weeks ago I listed a few of the major directions that Jesus left for His followers. Last week I highlighted His command for us to love other people. Today, I want to touch on the first part of that command, loving God.

The Great Commandment
When specifically asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus answered in two parts. Love people and love God (Matthew 22:36-40). Jesus was actually quoting an ancient principle found in Deuteronomy 6:5 (NIV):
          Love the Lord your God
          with all your heart and
          with all your soul and
          with all your strength.

I believe in a Creator that is not only all powerful, but who cares for His creation. We are part of His creation. One of the things that this Creator desires is devotion. Yet, how do we show love to an invisible, seemingly not present Being? I offer a few thoughts below.

Keep His Commandments
Jesus tells His followers in John 14 that the simplest way to demonstrate love to God is to keep His commandments. This is why I search the Scriptures to understand them and then try to line up my life with what they teach. His commands range from how we treat other people to how we spend time with Him. I am not perfect, nor will I ever be, but I can daily strive to be better.

Spend Time in His Presence
We are commanded to spend time in the presence of the Divine. Why? Does God need us? No. Rather, I am convinced that we are created to need Him. Prayer, fasting, meditation and worship are spiritual disciplines that bring us into an encounter with God. The Scriptures are full of teachings regarding all four of these. Sometimes I will hear a person say something like, "I don't feel very close to God." After which, I ask, "How are you doing in these four areas?" All relationships require spending time with the other person. Our relationship with the Divine is the same.

Work Hard
The monks who built Sénanque valued hard work. They saw that part of their devotion to God was in manual labor. Hard work in and of itself is not a classic spiritual discipline, but I would suggest that it functions quite similarly. By devoting ourselves to hard work, we improve ourselves. Long hours of solid effort has an effect on the final product and on the producer. Proverbs 13:4 describe the result of laziness as "getting very little" out of life, but the result of hard work as "satisfaction."

Take Care of His Creation
Part of God's command to humankind was to rule over creation. This charge does not mean that we are to exploit it, but that we are to take care of it. When God created the world he stated that it was "good." Unfortunately, most of humanity's interaction with nature has been more akin to exploitation of the land and not taking care of it. We are called to be God's stewards. The monks at Sénanque worked to create a place people want to visit. I enjoy gardening in my yard because it makes my plot of earth a little better place to be. How are you taking care of God's creation?

Personal Checklist
How are you doing at Jesus' teaching to love to God? What are ways that you can think of write now that will help you do a better job?

Remember, we can show love to Him by
     keeping His commandments,
     spending time in His presence,
     working hard, and
     taking care of His creation.