Monday, October 26, 2015

"God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance."
                                        ~~Abraham Joshua Heschel
"What good is our busy religion if we've lost majesty, reverence, worship--an awareness of the divine."               ~~ A. W. Tozer
"My suspicion is that God is more apt to change those who live in awe of Him than those who have merely recorded His attributes in their sermon 'notebooks.'" 
               ~~ Calvin Miller, Baptist Pastor, Writer, Professor
"His Joy in My Spirit"

On the kitchen counter in my home there once stood a plastic container labeled "New Fresher Lemon Scent Joy." Why should anyone want to call a dishwashing detergent "Joy"? I suppose to generate good feelings; because if you're doing dishes, you need all the good feelings you can get. However, neither that label nor the bottle's contents has ever made washing dishes any more enjoyable for me. But not long ago, while washing the dishes, I began to think again about another kind of joy.

My thoughts turned back to a fifth Sunday evening worship service at Sagamore Hill Baptist Church (before we changed locations and dropped the "Hill" part of the name) some years ago. At the close of a lovely testimony of the grace of God in her life, a singer names Gayle said these words: "I have the praise of the Lord on my lips, His joy in my spirit, and the passion of His love for me in my heart."  Powerful words. Words that penetrated my spirit, lingered there all this time both to encourage me and to challenge me in my own relationship in the Lord.

What is this thing called joy? Many of us relate joy to happiness and define them both as if they were the same. But joy is not happiness. Happiness often depends on circumstances, on events, or on happenings. When something good happens, something pleasant and beneficial as well, it brings us happiness. Alternatively, if something bad occurs, something also unpleasant and not so beneficial, it results in unhappiness. You see, happiness is kin to happenings, both descending from the same root word, "hap," which means luck, fortune, or chance. If you're lucky, you will also be happy. If you're not lucky, well, you get the picture. Not so with joy! Joy does not depend on luck or circumstances.

What, then, is this thing called joy? "O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me; Let them bring me to Your holy hill And to Your dwelling places. Then I will go to the altar of God, To God my exceeding joy; And upon the lyre I shall praise You, O God, my God." (Psalm 43:3-4)

The psalmist takes us into the presence of God to show us that joy is the Lord Himself; it is part of His very nature. For us to discover joy, we must abandon all searching for it and go searching instead for the One who is Himself joy to see, to know, and to love. Seek His face and you will discover not only joy but "exceeding joy," a phrase meaning actually "the gladness of joy" or "the delight of joy." And in your seeking, you will also discover that real joy is a deep, abiding sense of the presence of God in your life.

Very often we perceive His presence only when we discover the wonder that God has built into the daily experience of our lives. In the beauty of a sunset, for instance, I see the Lord. The rose bush beside my house once produced one yellow rose; and in its fragrance, I sensed the Lord's hand. In the warmth of a smile, the refreshment of a cool breeze, the exhilaration of worship at Sagamore (or anywhere else), in the joy of helping another--everywhere I turn, I sense God's presence and thrill in the joy of it. God is a God of joy. And this life--this day--this moment is His gift of joy because He is in my life and in this moment.

The Psalms, the most joyful of Biblical books, resound with rejoicing because its poets were keenly aware that God, the source of joy, is near to protect them and to succor them. Their confidence in His presence and their trust in His power join to remind us of the truth of a sign I once read: "Joy is the flag flown from the castle when the King is in residence."

Sunday, October 11, 2015

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 dared to trust in God; because he had a heart for God.