A great way to grow closer to the Lord is to read His word, pray, and write down what He is teaching you! Many of the people at Paradise Calvary Chapel do just that and we get to share them with you here!
I am sentimental, and I'm not so proud that I won't admit it. I've kept things that I really have no business holding on to, whether they've gone unused or weren't needed in the first place.
I remember one particular item that I received as a gift, a sweater made out of Italian wool. It was special—so special, it had to be washed by hand. It was soft, smooth, and had a sense of worth and value to it. I never wore it, though, not even once. I thought to myself: “This is something of true worth. I better not ruin it.” So I put it in a drawer, careful to be certain where it was. For years, I knew exactly where to find it and what condition it was in, not that it did me any good.
By the time I tried to wear it, I was far too large for it to accommodate me. Disappointed, I passed it on to someone who could wear it. The experience taught me a lesson: a gift unused is a gift wasted.
Sometimes we have to ask ourselves a hard question: are we the sweater in the drawer? Are we a gift, or do we have one, that isn't being used? In not just one, but two separate parables, Jesus told His disciples about servants who had received money from their master. In one, they all received the same amount of money (Luke 19). In the other, they were given according to their measure (Matthew 25). Both stories had servants that used what they were given to bring their master increase, but also servants that wasted what was given by hiding it away. We all have talents, gifts, and skills that we've received from above; what good do they do for heaven if we never share them with earth?
I debated a long while about volunteering my gifts to the Lord's service. I have left some of the gifts He's given me hanging in a closet, thinking: “I may use it someday. I just don't want to use it until I know I won't mess it up.” A gift unused, though…
As I continue to pray and ask myself how I should use what the Lord has given me, I have to keep in mind that He will tell me. God wouldn't have given it to me if He were worried I might ruin it.
“Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6).
“A Song of Ascents. Of David. I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’ Our feet have been standing Within your gates, O Jerusalem!” (Psalms 122:1-2).
Last year I ventured to to Israel for the very first time. I knew it was going to be an experience, but I doubt that I truly comprehended what going there would be like. I gained an understanding and perspective of scriptures beyond any that ever had before; it’s like when you meet someone for the first time, after hearing about them for years. As my group ventured closer to the capital of Jerusalem, our excitement was quite apparent.
I think that it would behoove anyone that takes the bible seriously to go to Israel, even if just once. To be blunt, it makes the stories and everything we read and hear about becomes very real. Perhaps this was the reason why God commanded: “Three times in the year all your men shall appear before the Lord, the LORD God of Israel” (Exodus 34:23). During the time of Jesus, people were traveling from all over the world to visit Jerusalem; as observable at the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2).
True, the world was smaller back then compared to now, but travel also took much longer and was a far riskier endeavor. Unless these pilgrims lived in Israel, this kind of journey couldn’t be done on a whim; even today that would be difficult. The sojourn required investment, planning, and commitment, and was a good metric for one’s faith in their beliefs. If someone considered their work, their investments, or their family as a higher priority, then going on such a journey may not be of significant interest. However, to those that wanted to deepen their spiritual life, this was an opportunity to draw as physically as possibly near to the Lord and His promised land.
One may argue that those were Jewish traditions, and they don’t apply to us. Seeing how much the apostle Paul—at great personal risk—made visiting Jerusalem, I’d have to disagree. Paul was perhaps one of the most influential missionaries of his day, and even on his mission he took the time to pause and draw near the Lord (Acts 18:21). Paul recognized the spiritual significance of visiting the land and house of the Lord, and the value it brought him personally.
Maybe visiting Israel isn’t something in the cards for you right now, but after personally seeing it with my one eyes, walking on the roads with my own feet, touching it’s stones in my own hands, I will never say that making the trip is worth every effort
“Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Romans 6:6).
Every year, Las Vegas has a Renaissance Fair, a big fair where people dress up in medieval garb, talk in olde English, and maybe enjoy a turkey leg. It’s a fun occasion where people reenact days of yore, often with much more light than it deserves. Why is Renaissance Fair fun? Because it’s a sham: it’s all for play. No matter how authentic a fair like that is, once a person is done with it, they’re able to walk away looking at their phone, get into their air conditioned car, and maybe even pick up some fast food on the way home. If they were really in the days of the Renaissance, they statistically would have been poor, most days would be spent in working just to survive the winter, and they would have to deal with the little issue known as the black plague.
Having fun in a make-believe romanticized version is great, but nobody pretends that today isn’t categorically better than living in the era of lords and ladies. This was a problem that Israel had frequently, especially when they were wandering the desert. As they grumbled, they began wishing to return to Egypt, and longing for the comforts they had during that time. Sometimes I wonder if Moses ever just shouted at them: “Yeah, but you were slaves!”
The rose-colored lenses of nostalgia can make anything look better. When things get hard we look back to a time when they were easy, or we had some comfort, and miss it. Those nostalgia-glasses even take away the bad parts, and we start to ask ourselves, “Why’d we stop doing that?” We begin to miss the qualities that we liked, and then we become tempted to return to them. This is how people relapse into old vises or self-destructive lifestyles, and it’s something that we are all vulnerable to.
We were slaves to sin. It ruled in our hearts as it poisoned our lives, and yet sometimes we can say to ourselves: “I miss the good ol’ days.” Here’s the secret: those days weren’t as good as we remember, and if we ever find ourselves returning to them we inevitably discover that. We may miss those days, but just as the Israelites should have looked towards the promised land instead of Egypt, we should keep our hearts and eyes on the one who freed us of our slavery; and the promises He made us.
“But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:20-23).
I miss the light. I'm a night owl and I grew up stargazing, and for a significant portion of my life, night has been considered the time of escape. The light fixture in my bedroom has gone out, though, and even changing the bulb isn't fixing the problem. So, in my leisure hours at home, whether doing projects or just having fun, I am in the dark. I've taken steps to bring some kind of illumination, but still, I miss the light.
For the better part of mankind's history, we have been without light. Darkness obscured the world in a shroud of mystery and confusion; and then, we had a source of light in the night. Light brings comfort, it brings understanding, and it scatters the fears that fester in the dark. In one of my jobs, light was so important. I camped in the woods for work. This wasn't just casual camping; I was roughly six miles deep in the wilderness, utterly isolated for hours in any direction. One night, I was alone, guarding the camp and our food. I must have jumped at every creaking branch that resounded just beyond the reach of the campfire or my flashlight. Sleep came, but not easily, nor soundly. I was confused and scared, even when I told myself I was fine or reminded myself that I was going to be okay. My joy didn't return until sunrise—and what a glorious sunrise it was!
John has an impressively eloquent introduction to Jesus' origin: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:1-5). Jesus not only became life for us, but light; and there is nothing like having a light in the darkness.
The last part of verse five has always caught my eye: “and the darkness did not comprehend it.” We're all in the darkness at some point in our lives. Whether it's before we gain a relationship with Christ, or when we're tempted to hide ourselves in the shadows of this world in hopes that no one will see our sin. It takes a light to bring us understanding, and to cast away the fears that lurk in our hearts. God is light, and darkness, by definition, cannot exist in the light. We have a choice: we can revel in darkness, or we can seek the light and shine as a reflection of that light to others. We can either be blinded by God's brilliance, or we can come to Him in humility, saying, “I miss the light.”
“Down the road three miles, take a left at the gas station. After you see the third big rock, take a right. The driveway with the red mailbox is my house.” These sounds like very straightforward directions in a place like my hometown, where roadsigns were few and far in between. What would happen if I turned around in my seat and said, “You know what? I think I’ll take a left after the first big rock; I’ll get where I want to go”? If you were a passenger with me, you’d probably decide to take the wheel, because my way would almost certainly not get us where we’re going.
One of the most dangerous fallacies in logic that I have observed is an idea propagated by many, and it’s that “all roads lead to heaven,” or that “Allah, Jehovah, God all mean the same thing,” or that “I’m a good person; if there is a God, I’ll be fine.” In a world that continually becomes more specific and defined, it’s astounding that so many are willing to believe these erroneous, over-simplified assumptions.
Perhaps I’m a cynic. Those assumptions seem less of a form of salvation and more of a way to make allowances for complacency. That is, these assumptions grant a gratifying lie: “There’s no need to humble yourself and repent. You’re fine. It’ll all work out anyway. Don’t think about the guilt if it doesn’t make you feel good. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
People may ask, “Why would a God punish so many people just because they don’t follow exactly what He said? They obeyed the broad strokes. Shouldn’t that be good enough?” I can’t help but wonder the opposite: “If there is a God, and He wanted a relationship with humans, why wouldn’t He provide a detailed how-to manual for us to follow so we could find Him?”
That thinking is more on course with the God of the Bible then any relativistic reasoning that I’ve ever heard. Whenever God gave instructions to the Israelites, they were always specific, and if the Israelites ignored the commands and went their own way, God listed the consequences. When Jesus was teaching, He told the people, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). Assuming otherwise is the same as ignoring all directions to a house and wondering how you ended up in Nebraska.
We know the directions to get to the Lord’s address. It’s important that we not only follow them, but that also we share them with those who are convinced they know another route, because any other way eventually leads to a dead-end.
Do you have any idea how incredible bread is? Bread is amazing! Some time back, I was diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity; I didn’t have celiac, but I was told that if I wanted to improve my health I needed to cut wheat out of my diet. It was miserable! Now, I’m being somewhat facetious, after all, I got much healthier and dropped thirty pounds in two months, bringing me into a much better weight range. That said, those first few months when I cut the grain out were harsh. I began salivating at the mere sight of bread, and not to mention that my family went to my favorite pizza place twice in the first month that I was on my new dietary restriction.
It was at that time that I grew a special appreciation for the passages of the bible that referred to bread. There are many parts of the world where baking bread everyday is still commonly practiced, and it makes a major component in a day’s meal. It used to be even more significant than that; for many centuries bread wasn’t just an ingredient that conveniently goes with anything, but for some it was their basic sustenance.
When Israel sojourned through the desert, they were fed manna from heaven; a unique grain for which I envy them as I won’t try it in this life. It was from this substance from the Lord that the Israelites survived in the wilderness; it was where they got their daily bread. God forbade them from gathering more than they needed in a day, except on the eve of the sabbath, and when they tried to ignore Him, they found that it spoiled (Exodus 16). They were forced to rely on God and gather early every day what they needed to keep them alive.
We also have to remember to seek God for our sustenance every day. Not just our physical needs, but our spiritual ones. When Jesus taught His followers how to pray, part of it was to request God: “give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). This supplication can just as easily be applied to our spiritual appetites as our physical ones; Jesus Himself noted just a few chapters earlier that man doesn’t live on bread alone, but on every word of God (Matthew 4:4).
Going without bread for the time that I did wasn’t fun, but going through life without the bread for our souls is much more difficult. It is incumbent on us not only to ask God for Him to provide for us what we need, but also to rise up early and seek what He has given us.
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you…This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53 & 58).
When I was offered a ministry internship, I’d been in a season of spiritual warfare in my thoughts. Working in the church sounded like a dream come true; serving in a place where closeness to God is your coworkers' paramount goal seemed like a good way to keep my mind distracted from the temptations. Besides, it felt good to know I was doing something right for once. All I wanted was to get back into focusing on God again, and going to church seemed like a good start.
The pastor I interned under told me he liked to give people jobs that allowed them to use their spiritual gifts. I wasn’t sure anymore what my gift was (come to find out I’ve got the gifts of helps and administration). I’m not any kind of prophet or evangelist, but I can serve those who are so they have more time to do what they’re good at doing. So I stepped up to plate, not waiting to be asked or told to do something, but taking initiative and serving where I saw it was needed.
I started out with simple things, like cleaning the bathroom, or bringing the pastor his afternoon coffee. The more I offered service, though, the more the pastor entrusted to me, and by the end of the internship, he dubbed me his personal assistant. Counseling sessions that needed to be scheduled, or documents that needed to be filed were filtered through me so they wouldn’t clutter his time in the Word.
Not only did this aid his ministry, but my ability to evangelize actually strengthened; it’s natural for people to talk about their own lives, and if a majority of your life is spent at church, it’s a whole lot easier to bring up the gospel in conversation.
There’s a Proverb that says, “Whoever keeps the fig tree will eat its fruit; so he who waits on his master will be honored” (Proverbs 27:18). In essence, if you submit yourself to taking initiative, if you dedicate yourself to service, then you’re going to eventually get a sort of tenure. You’ll gain trust. This is exactly what happened to me: I was given the role of assistant simply because I stepped into it when I saw assistance was needed. I wanted to serve for the sake of the simplicity, for the sake of being with God. If I were trying to earn my way to some lofty title, I wouldn’t be truly submissive—and a lack of submissiveness would actually hinder my ability to serve!
What about this concept on a larger scale, though? What if the master we’re waiting on isn’t a pastor in need of a secretary, but rather the God who has called us into obedience? What if we tended to the spiritual fruit in our lives, making sure we accurately represented He who saved us? What would it look like if we submitted ourselves in a way that we took initiative in serving Him? What doors of ministry would we open for ourselves and others? How much more focused on God would our minds be if we dedicated every day to His Church and Kingdom?
“To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified” (Isaiah 61:2-3)
The words of one of theses verses have been firmly etched into my mind as we sung it growing up in our bible studies. Granted, it didn’t make as much sense to me then as it does now. It can easily be summarized that essentially God makes a trade with us; He takes away misery and gives us joy. Of course, that is a gross under appreciation of what is being stated here. Ashes were used in mourning, as when people learned terrible news; oil was used for anointing those that served the Lord, such as a high priest or a king; and the Hebrew word for heaviness could just as well mean dull, dark, smoking, or faint, the imagery being something worn out or burned.
I’ve seen people in the depths of misery and depression, and these words seem to capture the vision quite well. It’s almost like you can feel a weight in the air, it permeates the atmosphere like ash or smoke. It’s hard to see people in a state like this, you want to help them and at the same time you just want to escape the suffocating aura they exude. Yet, it’s at this point, this point of undesirable despair, that God seeks us out.
God looks down at us at our lowest point, when we’re hopeless and destitute, and says: “Wanna trade?” Granted, these verses were to comfort the exiles of Israel, but it doesn’t seem like much of a leap to say that He offers the same generous bargain to us. He wants to take away our grief, to take away the weight that bears us down, and wants to anoint us with beauty and joy. I can’t help but think if we were to see a person come to us in our daily lives with such an offer we’d stare at them confused and say, “Really? Are you sure?” By our standards, God is terrible at bartering, yet He considers us a hidden treasure, a pearl of great price (Matthew 13).
If we choose it, we can take God up on His offer, shake off our ashes, our mourning, our spirit of burned-out heaviness. We may not always be happy, because happiness is temperamental, but we can be girded with a joy that persists regardless of our circumstance.
I don’t travel often. I guess it’s just easier to stay home. There are so many preparations to be made, especially if you’re leaving the country. Along with flights, lodging and appropriate wardrobe, the extended absence from job, family, friends and church need to be considered. There may be loose ends to tie up and special arrangements made.
Ready or not, each of us will one day depart from this planet. We won’t have to concern ourselves with transportation, hotels and clothing, but what about all those people we’ll suddenly leave behind? Will we exit earth with those proverbial loose ends still untied? As of now, do we run the risk of entering eternity having left sorrow or pain in our wake? Will there be gracious words left unspoken that were needed for healing, or loving actions left undone that would have paved the way for peace? Needless to say, unlike a planned vacation, we may have zero time for last minute deeds of preparation.
Two years ago, I sat with a dear friend and spiritual mentor as she journeyed from earth to heaven. I know why her flight home was so peaceful. During her funeral, her beautiful legacy of love was confirmed over and over again as one by one her many friends were compelled to share their stories, recounting the difference she had made in their lives. Her life was like a treasure chest that was opened for all to see, brimming with brilliant jewels that sparkled with the warm tears of grateful mourners.
When I am seventy or eighty years old, I may indeed be able to say “I’ve lived a full life.” But dare I ask my future self, “What was it full of”? Did I basically live for my own happiness? Or was I present and useful in the lives of others day in and day out, no matter the cost? Did I regularly invest in others with a servant’s heart or did I spend my 30,000 days on earth seeking only comfort and pleasure?
Have I made sure that all my relatives have heard the Gospel of Jesus from me? Did I embrace divine appointments with enthusiasm? Did I share the money that was entrusted to me with a generous heart? Did I spend the time entrusted to me to guide, teach, cheer, feed, refresh, cry with, labor for, and generally love on others?
King Solomon wisely said, “Here is the conclusion of the matter: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.”
His commandments can all be summed up just as Jesus said in Mark chapter 12:30-31, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
If given a choice, would you choose to be rich, or poor? It sounds like a no brainer right? Is it better to be wealthy or poor, healthy or sick, successful or a failure? In a Proverb, Agur requests to be neither. “Give me neither poverty nor riches—feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny You, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8-9).
The Bible has only promises and comfort for the poor, but many warnings to those striving to be rich. Solomon, who was also very rich, said again in Ecclesiastes 5:10, "He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase." He was probably the richest man ever, and he tells us it does not satisfy. Look at how many stories we’ve heard about how the rich and famous are miserable, or how big lottery winners end up broke and broken.
It's okay to be rich; there are many rich men in the Bible. Money is not the problem. It is the love of money and putting trust in money that is the problem. “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (I Timothy 6:10).
Enough about being rich. If given the choice between being healthy or sick, which would you choose? Or how about being successful or a failure? Another no brainer, right? However, has anyone ever been driven to prayer for help because they were healthy or successful?
I got into a serious motorcycle accident at age seventeen. It seemed pretty bad, but at the time, guys were getting drafted left and right. The accident kept me out of Vietnam, which could have ended my life.
It all boils down to being content with where God has you and what you have. In Philippians, Paul says to be content in whatever state you are in (that includes Nevada!). Jesus tells us not to worry about anything, just to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and He will take care of all the rest. Lay up your treasures in heaven, not here on earth; really, there is nothing worth storing up here on earth anyway. All things do work together for the good for those walking in faith. I know it does not seem like it at times but it always does.