Sunday, January 25, 2015

If we take care of our character, we can trust God to take care of our reputation.  ~~ Warren Wiersbe
A Heart for God

When he was 22, Norman D. Vaughan had a passion and a dream.  When he was 88, he also had a passion and a dream.  And the last passion and dream were related to the first.  You see, in 1927, at age 22, Vaughan was a student at Harvard when he read about Admiral Richard Byrd's proposed expedition to the South Pole.  Although he'd never met Byrd and had received no invitation to join the expedition, Vaughan decided to quit school and go with the Admiral.  Two years later, as they crossed Antarctica toward the Pole, Byrd named one of the mountains they encountered Mount Vaughan.  In December 1994, Vaughan returned to the icy continent to climb Mount Vaughan.  Days before his 89th birthday, the intrepid explorer stood atop the 10,302 foot mountain and declared to all the world, "Wow!  Everywhere you look it's tremendous!  And the best thing I can say about conquering it, if you call it conquering it, is that I dared to fail.  And the one message that I think I want to send to the world is dream big, young and old, dream big and dare to fail."

            When I heard that crusty old gentleman say these words on National Geographic Explorer, I thought almost immediately of another "old man" who at 85 conquered a different mountain.  His name is Caleb, the son of Jephunneh the Kenezite.  Standing atop his mountain, Caleb would have said, "Dream big and dare to trust."  For most of his life, that kind of spirit dominated the man so that at age 85, Caleb could scale a mountain where giants dwelt in fortified cities, drive them out of their cities, and take possession of their mountain.  And Caleb accomplished all these deeds in the power of God because he had a heart for God and because he had dared to trust in God.

            Caleb allowed nothing to deter him from his faith in God.  Two things shine in his testimony: his spirit and his heart.  Virtually every day of his life, Caleb focused his heart on the Lord and on the things of the Lord.  He walked with God consistently.  Please note, when God says something even one time, you know it's important, right?  While it's true He doesn't say very much about Caleb altogether, not less than six times God says of him that "he has followed the Lord fully."  In fact, the first time He said it, He was offering all the land of Hebron to "My servant Caleb, because he has had a different spirit and has followed Me fully" (Numbers 14.24).  There you see both rays of testimony shining, his spirit and his heart for following God.

            Look at the spirit first.  God said, "he has had a different spirit."  What does that mean?  God had sent twelve spies to spy out the land of Canaan, and all twelve spies brought back the same report.  That's right!  All twelve reported essentially the same thing.  Check it out. In Numbers 14, God gives us the details of their report:  (1) The land really is as rich as God said it was, a land flowing with milk and honey and lots of good things (v. 27).  Two of them actually brought back proof.  One single cluster of grapes.  And it took both of them to carry it on a pole across their shoulders.  Can't you just hear the response?  "Man!  Wouldn't you like to see the vine that one came from?"  (2) The people are strong.  (3) The cities are fortified and very large (v. 28).  They all also reported that (4) giants, the descendants of Anak, lived there (v. 28).  Then the report changed.  Like Goliath centuries later, the giants had altered their perspective, intimidating them.  Ten spies added the interpretation, "We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us" (v. 31).  Caleb, on the other hand, declared, "We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it"  (v. 30).

            What makes the difference?  Spirit!  The ten spies had a spirit of fear.  Caleb (and Joshua) had a spirit of faith.  The ten saw the enemy and their own impotence.  Caleb saw the Lord and His omnipotence.  The ten had the spirit of the world.  Caleb had the Spirit of God.  It was in Caleb's heart that God was fully able to give what He had promised.  And He had promised the land of Canaan with all its blessings to Israel.  All they had to do was take the gift.  I can just hear him say, "Let's go get 'em!"

            God also said that Caleb "followed the Lord fully."  It doesn't mean so much that he followed God as a puppy follows its master, but rather it describes the condition of his heart.  His attitude.  His affection and desire.  The Medieval Rabbi Rashi interprets it this way, "He hath filled his heart (to follow) after Me."  He filled his heart after God.  His heart was so full of God there was no room in it for anything else.  His heart was so filled with God there was no room in it for any one else.  A slave in Egypt, he filled his heart after God.  When he spied out the land, he filled his heart after God.  Wandering in the wilderness, he filled his heart after God.  Finally, standing before Joshua, he has the same testimony.  No wonder he can say, "Now, therefore, give me this mountain!" (Joshua 14.12, KJV)  His heart was so tuned to God's he wanted only what God wanted.  And that was actually given to him forty five years before in an irrevocable promise of God.  Since God is glorified in the keeping of His promises, Caleb glorified Him by claiming the promise.  As a result, of all the children of Israel, he is perhaps the only one to fully claim the promise and to fully enjoy the blessings of the Lord.  Because he had a heart for God and because he dared to trust in God.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.  ~~Theodore Roosevelt
I remember my mother's prayers and they have always followed me.  They have clung to me all my life.  ~~Abraham Lincoln
Lest We Forget

The first time we went to Washington D.C., I remember standing  for a long time viewing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that long wall of black marble engraved with the names of those killed in the war.  Every day, people come to the Memorial to remember their friends and loved ones, some leaving tokens of their remembrances:  flags, photos, sealed letters, pieces of clothing.  One man left a headband, dog tags, and a letter that reads, "To all of you here from Echo Company, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division... I leave you my headband which contains my sweat from the war, my dog tag, and a picture of me and Mike.  Another time.  Another place.  I'll never forget you."

            Written on one flag was this message:  "May all of you who died, all of you still missing, and all of you who returned home never be forgotten. - Connie."

            You see, it's important that we remember.  It's important that we remember what those soldiers did for us, and even more it's important that we remember what our God did for us.  As the Psalmist said, "Seek the Lord and His strength; Seek His face continually.  Remember His wonders which He has done, His marvels and the judgments uttered by His mouth...."  (Psalm 105.4-5)  He's telling us three things to remember: Remember our God, remember His works, and remember His words.

          We remember first who He is. And as we get to know Him better, it helps also to remember what He has done for us.  The best place to begin is with His deliverance.  For Israel, it was deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  In one night God brought judgment on the entire nation of Egypt.  Without exception, a firstborn died in every house in Egypt, either the firstborn of the house or the firstborn of the flock who died in the place of the firstborn of the house.  This was the redemption event of the Older Testament.  Lest they forget, God proclaimed a special holiday observed each year to commemorate this deliverance.  On that occasion, known as Passover, they tell stories of the first Passover to fulfill the instructions of Moses who told them to "remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm...."  (Deuteronomy 5.15)

            For you and me, it is the deliverance from bondage to sin that Jesus accomplished for us at the cross, which is the redemption event of the New Testament.  From the day we were born into this world, we were slaves to sin.  When Jesus died on the cross, He died in our place and thereby delivered us from that slavery.  Paul explains that "though you were slaves of sin, you...[have]...been freed from sin and enslaved to God...."  (Romans 6.17-22)  Always remember the deliverance He accomplished when He redeemed you.

            On the last day of Bible School, Friday, the 13th of June, Frances was wrapping up the session at her table.  Seven nine or ten year old boys sat around the table.  Actually only four sat in their places completing their work, while Frances was talking quietly with a fifth, telling him about Jesus.  Two other boys were chasing each other around the table.  No one paid any attention to these two.  Screaming like stereotyped wild Indians, they bumped against chairs, banged the table. Frances calmly continued her conversation with the one boy.  Before she finished, one of the "wild Indians" began to get curious about what she was doing.  Whatever she was talking about had to be important since she would not stop to settle the fracas going on around the table.  So he asked.  Frances gave him an answer  and led him to the Lord as well.  I will never forget that morning because I was that nine-year-old curious scrapper.  I will always remember my deliverance.

            We should also remember His blessings.  Moses told the Children of Israel that they should

Remember the days of old, Consider the years of all generations. Ask your father, and he will inform you, Your elders, and they will tell you....  For the Lord's portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.  He found him in a desert land, And in the howling waste of a wilderness; He encircled him, He cared for him, He guarded him as the pupil of His eye....  The Lord alone guided him, And there was no foreign god with him.  (Deuteronomy 32.7-12)

The first blessing we should remember is that we are His.  The Lord's portion is His people.  In the context, God divided up the nations and took Israel for His own possession.  When Jesus died, He took us as His people.  He adopted us into His family through the birth pangs of Calvary and gave us His name.  We are children of the King.

            And this is only the beginning.  Look again at the passage in Deuteronomy.  He encircled us with His love.  He cared for us as a mother cares for her children.  Nurturing us, comforting us when we are afraid, watching over us and nursing us when we are sick, and teaching us the things we need to learn to enable us to grow.  Then He guarded us, protecting us from evil, from the threats of Satan, even from our own sinfulness at times.  Finally, He guided us with His Word and with His Spirit just as He guided the children of Israel through the wilderness.

            The Lord gave us the ordinance of the Lord's Supper symbolizing His deliverance of us and He gave us His Word and His Spirit to guard and to guide us, lest we forget....
Faith is a bird that feels dawn breaking and sings while it is dark.
                                      ~~Scandinavian Saying

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Grace of Gratitude

An old Jewish tale tells of a rabbi who asked God to show him heaven and hell. The Lord, opening a door to a room, said to him, "First I will show you hell." Inside, he saw a group of people sitting around a large, round table, grumbling and complaining. On the table stood a bowl of delicious stew; and each person had a spoon, one with a handle longer than a person's arm. So the people could dip the stew from the bowl but could not bring it to their mouths.

            "Now," said the Lord, taking the rabbi to another room, "I will show you heaven." He opened the door to a room identical to the first. But here, the people were well-nourished, laughing, and talking among themselves. They, too, had long-handled spoons; but had apparently overcome the problem of feeding. The rabbi turned with a puzzled look, to which the Lord replied, "These have learned to feed each other."

            The people in heaven were obviously flourishing in an atmosphere of giving and receiving. They had fully grasped the meaning of the words of Jesus that "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35) And they had learned the other side of that truth: the grace of receiving. When accompanied with thanksgiving, receiving is as much a grace as giving, perhaps at times even more. In fact, through the example of several Christian friends, the Lord has taught me that gracious receiving is an element of Christian maturity.

            In the New Testament, Paul uses a word for thanksgiving that descended from the same word as grace and joy, the root word charis. Receiving is certainly a joy. Receiving is also a grace. Receiving is always an occasion for giving thanks to the giver and to the Lord for His blessing on both (Ephesians 1:16).

            Paul taught that being able to receive is essential for our Christian lives as well as our growth in the Lord. Listen to what he says to the Philippians,

You have done well to share with me in my afflictions. And you yourselves also know...that at the first preaching of the gospel..., no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone.... I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. (Philippians 4:14-18)

What a beautiful expression of gratitude. For Paul, their gift came not only as a blessing but as an expression of their love for him, their concern for the distress he was experiencing through his imprisonment.

            To receive a gift is, for us the same as for Paul, to acknowledge that someone really cares for us, to acknowledge their love for us, their kindness toward us. "Gratitude," said author, A. J. Cronin, "is the art of receiving gracefully, of showing appreciation for every kindness, great and small." Paul honored the Philippians by comparing their gift with the sacrifices of the Old Testament, sacrifices welcome and acceptable to God. His greatest joy was that their gift, as well as the love that prompted it, was dear to God. And he expressed his gratitude simply and graciously.

            Whether the gift we receive is a material blessing or a kind word, let us, too, receive it graciously, and with Paul, express our thanks the best way we know how, not only during the thanksgiving season when it is certainly appropriate, but all year round. "Always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father." (Ephesians 5:20)

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Shanah Tovah

Sounds like a new rock group that just hit the charts, doesn't it? When I first heart this expression over thirty years ago, I thought so, too. But, of course, it isn't. Shanah Tovah is a Jewish expression with several related meanings. For example, it means, "Happy New year!" Even more specifically, it stands for a longer expression which means, "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." I prefer this last expression because of the tradition it springs from.

          The Jewish New Year, which incidentally never occurs in January, introduces a period of personal examination. According to the tradition, during this time, God "looks into the hearts of men and examines not only their deeds but their motives as well." That's a little scary by itself especially when you realize He does this all the time anyway. But God also calls on all men to examine themselves. In fact, in the synagogue on New Years's Day, the cantor (music leader to us Christians) blows the shofar, the ram's horn trumpet, to call upon the faithful to repent of all their misdeeds of the past year and to return to God with a humble spirit so the next twelve months may be richer in the service to God and to men. Not a bad way to start the year for any of us. Not a bad reason either.

          Ten days after their New Year's Day, the Jews celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Here's the real motive for the self-examination. On this day, Rabbi Meir said, God opens the books of judgment and the penitent are at once "inscribed and sealed" in those books for their good for another year. And so, the greeting, Shanah Tovah.

          I am not a part of this tradition, and my year does begin in January. By the grace of God, my name is already inscribed in the Lamb's Book of Life, not for the coming year only but for eternity. Still, the tradition does teach me some important things because my days contain offenses that need confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Now at the beginning of this New Year, I am made aware again that I need self-examination, not only for the next ten days, but pretty much every day thereafter. How can I best do this?

          Much the same way Israel does -- by prayer and the Word of God. Jesus said, "Search the Scriptures...they...testify of Me" (John 5:39). By reading the Bible, I get better acquainted with the Lord. As I get to know Him, He provides guidance and sound advice through His Word which is "a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path" (Psalm 119:105). He clearly tells me how He wants me to live and how to honor Him with my life. He commands me to bring every thought captive to Him (2 Corinthians 10:5). His Word provides spiritual nourishment, food for thought and life, "sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb" (Psalm 19:10. NASB)

          In prayer, I lift my heart to God and recite humbly in words my feelings, my thoughts, and my wishes to Him. I focus my attention on the glory of God, my Father, my desires for the well-being of myself, my family and those I love, and my gratitude for all God's blessings. Prayer provides the channel for confession and penitence on New Year's and every day throughout the year. Prayer compels me to recognize my dependence on God not only for my very existence, but also for my health and for the provision of order and sense in my life.

          God, on the other hand, straightens up the messes I too often make and uses even the most painful experiences to help me grow (Romans 8:28-29). In that growth, I hope that you can see more the evidence of His gentle hand molding me into the shape of His Son. And what I wish for myself, I wish abundantly for each of you who read this, that through His Word and through prayer, we may all "grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ" (Ephesians 4:15). Then we can express to each other all the time the literal meaning of of the abbreviated expression Shanah Tovah, "Have a good year!"

For over ten years, I penned a monthly Newsletter called -- you guessed it -- Candle Drippings, shared with a small group of friends. Recently, I reworked a number of these Newsletters into a book of the same title -- Candle Drippings. But loads of the Newsletters failed to find their way into the book. And many new ideas have invaded my mind and thoughts since the writing of these Newsletters and the book. So, I will share a few of these additional Newsletters here, along with new articles, new ideas, and new insights as I am able.

.....Dr. Kenneth R. "Ken" Cooper