Build that wall!

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Today’s passage: Nehemiah 1-2

As you may have heard, there is a certain wealthy and well-connected gentleman who advocates building a wall on the border. He believes it will help to keep undesirables out and sees it as a matter of homeland security. Although not everyone agrees with his position, he is convinced the wall will be a key component toward making the nation great again. He has a plan to get another nation to pay for the construction of the wall, even though it doesn’t seem to benefit them in any way and could even create some problems for that nation. Of course, that man is… Nehemiah.

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Back in 586 BC Nebuchadnezzar had invaded and wiped out Judah. Seventy years later, those who had returned to the homeland rebuilt the temple. But after another seventy years had passed, the wall around the city was still in ruins. The result was a people group with no national identity who hadn’t taken steps to regroup in 140 years.

Nehemiah finds out the city is still unfortified after all these years and the news devastates him. Even though Nehemiah had evidently never been to Judah, he took it personally that so little had been done to re-establish the land of his. His motivation wasn’t simply the idea that “Make Judah great again!” was a catchy slogan. God gave him a passion to see the wall rebuilt and propel the nation forward. He felt a sense of responsibility to do something about it.

Nehemiah was a well-connected guy. As the head of security in Persia, one of his jobs was testing the king’s food and drink for poison by taste-testing it. One particular day, Nehemiah doesn’t look so well. If you were the king and the guy who checked your wine for poison didn’t look so hot, you’d notice and start asking some questions. That’s exactly what the king does.

Nehemiah prays to God and asks the king for permission to go and rebuild this foreign city. This is a huge risk, since the king could interpret his request as disloyalty or as a threat to his own kingdom. Nehemiah could have come up with any number of excuses why he shouldn’t get involved, especially considering what he didn’t have. What he didn’t possess was any wall-building training on his transcript and no city planning experience on his resume. What he did have was a good job in the Babylonian White House, which he’d be walking away from. The perils to what Nehemiah wanted to do were obvious and were big enough to make the idea seem foolish to most people. But without his boldness, the story of the rebuilding of the wall simply doesn’t happen. The king not only gave him permission, but gave him a security detail and all the resources he’d need.

Are you living courageously? Living courageously means instead of talking ourselves out of getting involved, we talk ourselves into making a difference. It means being dependent on God and willing to take a faith-based risk. It means being counter-cultural and engaging in situations and topics that others are shying away from.

I want to live courageously. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and wonder what MIGHT have happened if I’d only had enough FAITH. Instead, I want to live and lead in a way that would rather take a risk WITH God, than stay STUCK in my comfort zone. What about you?

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What wall is God calling you to build? What situation have you been avoiding or postponing because it just seems too big to tackle? What injustice are you especially passionate about? Living courageously means moving forward in faith. Even though you may not be able to rebuild the entire wall in a day, you can prayerfully take the first step just like Nehemiah. Pray about your situation and then trust God as you move forward in faith.

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My drive from Tennessee to Michigan

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Today’s chapter: Matthew 8

This past weekend I relocated from Tennessee to Michigan. The back of my truck was filled with book boxes, which needed to be taken directly to a storage unit because they had to stay dry and I had nowhere else to put them. So I HAD to get to the storage facility before the office closed at 5:00 on Saturday.

Michigan Pix

Fortunately, my wife reminded me on Friday that I’d be losing an hour during the drive because of the different time zone. I set out early enough Saturday morning to have a 90-minute cushion. I thought that would provide me with plenty of margin. But after sitting in traffic due to various accidents and encountering an unexpected road closure, I used up ALL my margin in the first half of the trip.

At 2:00 PM with 3 hours left on my personal countdown clock, my GPS told me I was still 3 hours away. I may or may not have begun exceeding the speed limit at that point.

About an hour later, I noticed my fuel gauge was getting close to ‘E’. I knew I didn’t have time to stop for gas, so I checked the onboard display and it said I could make it 150 miles before running out. I then checked my GPS to see how much farther I had to go: exactly 150 miles. Now I’m praying I don’t run out of gas AND that I don’t get stopped for speeding.

About this time, my bladder woke up and said hello. I said (out loud), “Are you kidding me right now?” My bladder reminded me that I was the one who decided to chug an entire bottle of diet green tea. I quit listening, started eating salty snacks, and decided my bladder would be prayer request #3.

I’m moving to Michigan because I’m convinced God has led me here. But now everything seems to be going wrong as I make the trip. I was a little confused. Was all this trouble some kind of sign? Could it be I had misunderstood God’s will? Why aren’t things going better?

Maybe you’ve been there before. Have you ever tried to follow God in some way and taken a step of faith, but then been bewildered when things didn’t go well? Ever tried to do the right thing and been convinced things it would lead to better times, but then they actually got worse? We expect following Jesus to lead to clear skies, so it’s puzzling when our steps of faith lead us into a storm.

In Mathew 8:23-27, the disciples find themselves on a boat in the middle of a major storm. It’s interesting to note that following Jesus had led them to this point. In fact, it was Jesus’s idea to get in the boat and go to the other side of the lake. So the disciples were in these circumstances specifically because they followed His direction. Even though things look bleak, they could know without a doubt that they were in this storm because it was exactly where He wanted them to be.

Jesus brought them to this crucial moment because He wants them to learn something they can’t learn any other way. He wants them to see and know He is Lord, even when things aren’t going well. He wants them to know they can trust Him with their fears and uncertainty. He wants their faith to be based not on their circumstances, but on His love for them.

When the going gets tough, your faith will be proven one way or the other. You’ll either become bitter or better. You’ll either take a step toward who God wants you to be or your heart will become a little bit harder.

What is happening around you is significant, but it isn’t as important to God as what is happening inside you. Your circumstances are temporary, but your character will last.

So if you’re going through a trial or tough situation, don’t assume it must be because you’re on the wrong path. Perhaps you’re exactly where He wants you to be. Maybe He wants to teach you what you can’t learn any other way.

Perhaps He will speak to your storm and bring peace to your marriage, resolution to your conflict, provision for your needs, or healing for your hurts. Sometimes He moves in miraculous ways and calms the storm. But even if He doesn’t, He is always willing to do the equally incredible miracle of calming you in the storm. So keep your focus on the One who promised to always walk beside you.

DO IT
What is a concern you have that hasn’t been going the way you want lately? Talk with God about it. Boldly ask Him to miraculously bring the calm and peace that only He can. At the same time, allow Him to bring calm and peace to your soul. Allow Him to teach and shape you during this season of your life. Regardless of the path that led you into the storm, know He is with you even when you can’t see Him. Keep your focus on Him.

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Stop judging me!

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Today’s chapter: Matthew 7
These days it seems like whenever a TV show has good viewer ratings, the producers quickly capitalize on the success by creating a spin-off series. Some shows like CSI and NCIS have created multiple offshoots versions. But the undisputed champ of all spin-offs is Law and Order. Besides the original series, it has spawned Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury (which only lasted 1 season), LA (another 1-season wonder). Reportedly we’ll also soon be blessed with a new live version called You the Jury/i>, so you may want to go ahead and set your DVR for that.

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If you tried to binge watch all the episodes of every Law and Order series, you’d be on your couch for a very long time. Your eyes would be glued to the screen 24 hours a day for over a month and a half. I don’t recommend trying to pull off that marathon.

The Scripture passage that gets quoted most often these days is from Matthew 7. We usually hear it said in the good old King James vocabulary: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” People typically say cite this verse when they feel like they’re being judged and want to make it stop. They play the Bible card, which seemingly dictates that making judgments is always wrong.

Most people seem to understand Jesus’s words as a matter of law and order. Some think it’s saying to not be like a judge by making decisions about guilt and innocence or right and wrong. Others think it means we’re not supposed to act like police by going around enforcing any standards of behavior. When we dig a bit deeper, though, we discover Jesus isn’t saying either of those things.

The church is notorious for policing people outside the church. One would think we’d have learned by now we’re not going to scold or boycott anybody into the kingdom. That approach has never worked yet, so I’m not sure why so many Christians still do it with such enthusiasm. Besides, those outside the church never agreed to live by Christian values. Since they never bought into that standard of behavior, they’re certainly not going to appreciate being criticized for not living by it.

The church’s misunderstanding of this issue is why it often has such a bad reputation. Legislating morality is a silly goal anyway. Even if we were successful at getting nonbelievers to live and behave like Christians, would it be worth it? All we would have accomplished would be to populate hell with nicer and more moral people. That’s not even close to what Jesus called us to do.

When Jesus said “do not judge,” if He meant we aren’t supposed to discern right from wrong, then He did some things that don’t make sense. In fact, He didn’t follow His own teaching. He often labeled people’s sin as “sin,” which is very judgmental. He also made some incredibly harsh statements to the religious leaders of the day and told them they would “be judged by hell.” Ouch. Tell us how you really feel, Jesus.

Jesus isn’t saying don’t make judgments. He frequently displayed piercingly judicial discernment. Instead, He actually instructs us to judge like Him. We just have to keep reading the next few verses to see it. He clarifies in this passage how, when, and why we’re to judge.

In verses 3-5, Jesus explains that this type of judging is something you do with your brother: a fellow believer. We typically shy away from confronting people we know about sin. It feels much safer to pass judgment on outsiders because we can do it from a distance and not have to deal with any messy relational fall-out.

Instead, we’re supposed to love our brother enough to “remove the speck” from his eye. Although it might be more convenient for me to ignore whatever is going on his life, he needs me to love him enough to not enable him to continue making destructive choices. He needs me to be more concerned with helping him to see God and to see the potential consequences of his actions than I am with my own insecurities and fear of rejection.

But when I see my brother stumble, my first response isn’t supposed to be pointing out his error. Instead, step one is taking a look in the mirror at myself. Jesus says I need to identify the plank in my own eye. What’s my real motivation for approaching my brother about the speck in his eye? What personal issues have I been justifying or overlooking rather than dealing with? What is the log in my own eye that needs to be removed?

Jesus makes it clear that the log in my eye isn’t supposed to become a reason for not helping my brother and aborting the entire process. Instead, I need to remove it so I can get an unobstructed view of his speck. Then I’ll be able to see clearly enough to make a good judgment and to help him see more clearly, too.

DO IT
Think about your closest friends at church. What sin can you see in their lives that they don’t seem to be aware of? Start by prayerfully asking God to reveal the plank in your own eye. Allow Him to remove it so you can be free to see more clearly. Then love your friend enough to have a one-on-one conversation about his speck. It might seem like a risky and uncomfortable step to take, but it’s what real love looks like.

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Hey Facebook! Did you realize how awesome I am?

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Today’s chapter: Matthew 6

When firefighter Ryan McCuen responded to a call in February, he encountered a unique situation. He met a mom whose bedridden 18-year old son was on a ventilator. Ryan discovered that the electricity service to the home had been shut off because of an unpaid bill. To make matters worse, the emergency battery power on the ventilator was about three hours away from running out.

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Ryan’s response to this crisis was where the story takes a turn. He took a picture of their electric bill, and then personally paid it in full. The total came to $1,023.76. The generosity and kindness he showed this family have brought him national recognition as a hero. You can read the full story here.

Although I’ve not read anything indicating whether Ryan is a Christian, his example models some important lessons that Christ followers would do well to note.

“Wait a minute… what? I thought in today’s passage Jesus said when we give to the needy we’re not supposed to announce it. He said our giving is supposed to be done in secret.”

Yes, that’s exactly what Jesus said. But it isn’t ALL that He said on this subject. That’s why it is important for us to read His sermon in its entirety to find out (as Paul Harvey used to say) the REST of the story.

I’ve seen Christians use the first few verses of Matthew 6 to beat up on other Christians when they got recognition for doing something good or helping someone in need. “They shouldn’t be publicizing when they help somebody. That’s not what it’s about. The Bible says they have their reward in full.”

It always amazes me when someone launches this sort of criticism of others, then a week later I see that very same person posting on Facebook about the awesome thing he/she did to help someone else. Maybe I’m weird, but sometimes people’s hypocrisy just makes me laugh. I realize they weren’t concerned about the do-gooder’s spiritual growth. They were just jealous of the attention they got. They want people to know they’re like Ron Burgundy: kind of a big deal.

Firefighter McCuen initially wanted to keep his good deed anonymous. He realized, though, that the family needed more assistance than he was able to give on his own. His desire to call attention to their plight outweighed his inclination to stay unidentified, so he let others know about what he had done. In a similar way, a Christian’s desire to give in secret should sometimes be outweighed by another inclination…

What the critics often overlook is what Jesus said earlier in this very same sermon. In Matthew 5:16, Jesus said: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Jesus teaches that when people see the ways you show God’s love to others, they now have an opportunity and reason to praise Him. That means: 1) sometimes I need to let people see my good works, and 2) I need to make sure I connect the dots from my actions to God’s love.

When we compare what Jesus said in Luke 5 and Luke 6 to put it all together, we realize He isn’t saying don’t ever let anybody know when you do good. He’s saying: don’t do it for personal praise. If the underlying motive for your kind actions is so that others will notice you, then Jesus says you’ll get exactly the reward you wanted. People will think you’re awesome and brag on you and celebrate your compassionate heart, but don’t expect any reward from Him. Because He knows why you really did it.

But if you get the motive right and are wanting people to see God’s love through your actions, then He specifically tells us to let people see our good deeds. Help them connect the dots so they see that the real source of this love isn’t an awesome neighbor, but a loving Savior.

DO IT
Find a need today and meet it. Do an act of kindness for someone. If you’re doing it to demonstrate God’s love, then be sure to make that clear. If you’re modeling compassion for someone you’re mentoring, then explain your motivation. But if you’re unsure whether your real motive is for others to be impressed by you, then keep your actions a secret. Allow God to continue to grow your heart so that soon you can let your light shine so that others see Him more clearly.

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Are you ready to make peace?

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Today’s chapter: Matthew 5

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘hippie’? You probably picture someone with long hair wearing a bandana, bell-bottom jeans, and a tie-dyed T-shirt. He probably drives a small van or VW bug covered in bright colors and slogans like “Flower Power” and “Make Love, Not War.” With one hand he’s making the “peace” sign. We’ll assume that’s a Marlboro cigarette in the other hand…

Hippie Peace Sign

Hippies are known for loving peace. They are generally philosophically opposed to war. But even though they’re in favor of peace, they’re not what Jesus has in mind when he talks about peacemakers.

Jesus didn’t say blessed are the peace lovers or the peace keepers. He said it is the peacemakers who are blessed and will be called sons of God. I love being around peacemakers because they are so dependable. They make organizations and people better. Peace lovers, however, do incredible amounts of damage.

Peace lovers are people who avoid conflict in an effort to keep the “peace.” Instead of working through issues, they work around them and try to ignore them. Rather than standing up for what’s right or confronting something that is wrong, peace lovers prefer to not talk about anything unpleasant or that might cause a disagreement. Their primary goal is for everyone to get along, and especially to get along with and like them. Peace lovers mistakenly think peace is an absence of conflict.

Peacemakers, on the other hand, are willing to confront issues. They’re tactful and respectful, but they know it’s unwise to ignore hidden tensions and pretend like everything is okay. Peacemakers embrace conflict, not because they’re psychotic, but because they know it is the only way to real peace.

I’ve seen well-meaning peace lovers destroy families, churches, and companies because they stayed silent in situations that desperately needed someone to speak up. I’ve also seen spiritually mature peacemakers work through conflict and achieve real peace in situations where most people thought it wasn’t possible.

I’ve got three sons and they all look a little bit like me. Fortunately, they look like their mother, too. I suppose that’s one of the ways they are blessed. Regardless, there is definitely a family resemblance.

Jesus said that when we take on the difficult role of being peacemakers, there is also a family resemblance. We’re called sons of God because we look a bit more like our Father than we did before. That’s a blessing I definitely want.

DO IT
Do you tend to avoid conflict? Real peace isn’t an absence of disagreements, but the result of working through them. Prayerfully embrace your next conflict as an opportunity to achieve peace. Listen well and trust God.

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