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Thursday, August 30, 2018

I'm Cool - The Truth As Far As I Can Tell...

1 Thessalonians 2:4 - For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts.

It took me 44 years, but I've finally done it.  I’m cool.  I always wanted to be cool.  When I was a kid, I used to watch the TV show “Happy Days” and idolize the character Arthur Fonzarelli (AKA Fonzie or the Fonz).  I was only five or six-years-old, but I wanted to be like the Fonz.  Fonzie was the epitome of cool.  Looking back now, it seems silly.  He had greasy hair, wore a white undershirt and a black leather jacket, and his “office” was in the men’s bathroom of Arnold’s Diner.  How in the world would anyone in real life think that was cool?  But somehow Fonzie was cool.  He could start the jukebox with the bang of his fist and snap his fingers and two beautiful girls would magically appear beside him.  I wanted to be cool like Fonzie my whole life.

In high school, my friends and I tried to be cool.  We dressed the way we thought cool people should dress and tried to hang out with the cool crowd.  But deep inside, I knew we weren't cool.  I’ve never had fashion sense; I’m socially awkward and shy.  Cool didn’t working for me.  I needed a new plan.

I resigned myself to just being ordinary.  I focused on my school work and went on to college thinking, “I will get a good job and make lots of money and maybe that will make me cool.”  Then, God laughed and called me into what the world might say is the most “uncool” career possible (and certainly not very lucrative): Christian ministry as a pastor of a mainline church.  (As Fonzie would say, “Ayyyyyyyy!”)

Maybe it took parenting teenage children to make me cool.  It’s enlightening to listen to teenagers talk about cool fashions and say things like, “You're too old to wear those shoes.”  And it’s revealing to see some ridiculous fashions from yesteryear suddenly become cool again.  Last year, my family harassed me for being a lame dad who wore Crocs with socks.  Last week, I was in a trendy restaurant and the fashionable waiter was wearing Crocs with white socks.  I pointed it out to my wife and she said, “Yeah.  It’s the cool style now.”  Really?  Who decides this stuff?  

I’m didn't become cool because I took anyone’s fashion advice.  It happened because I finally realized I just don't care what people think about me anymore.  That’s actually the definition of cool.  I mean, look at the Fonz; he didn’t care.  He dressed how he wanted, talked how he wanted, lived how he wanted.  Nobody told him how to be cool.  Cool people don’t worry about all that lame stuff.  If they set any trends, it’s because they’re not trying.  They’re just living who they are.  That’s why people think they’re cool and try to copy them. (Ironically, trying to copy someone who's cool automatically make you uncool.)

So I guess I've just reached a point in my life where I really don't care what people think about me.  I care about the people, but not about their opinion of me.  I care what God thinks; I think it’s cool to walk with Him and seek His will for my life.  Now I'm not saying I don't care about people’s advice.  I want to be the best person I can be and sometimes feedback helps me be a better father, husband, pastor, or friend.  However, I'm not trying to make anyone think I'm cool.  

I've already spent too much time in my life trying to please people.  Walking with Jesus—the coolest person I’ve ever met—helps me worry less and less about pleasing people.  I'm 44-years-old and I feel pretty cool.  You might not think so, but I don't care.  Sorry, not sorry.  That's why I'm cool.  You can copy me if you want.  I don't care about that either.  I'm not trying to be like anyone or be different than anyone.  I'm an original creation by the One True God of the universe.  There’s no one else like me and that’s incredibly cool.  Guess what: you are too.  Of course, I’m no expert and I certainly don’t claim to know everything, but that’s the Truth as far as I can tell…

Remember, God loves you and so do I!

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Fruit of the Spirit - Patience

Galatians 5:22-23
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

Today, We Learn About Patience
As a pastor, I have done my share of funerals and been in many different funeral processions from the funeral service to the cemetery. However, I've never seen anything quite like I did this past weekend. As we were driving a few cars behind the hearse toward the seminary, our headlights were on and our hazard lights were flashing and we moved along in a solemn train toward the cemetery. Normally, cars will pull over to the side of the road as a sign of respect to the family of the deceased. But this weekend, so many people must have been in a real hurry. It seemed like at least have the cars we encountered did not pull over or slow down at all. I lost count of how many cars even sped up and passed our procession. At first, I thought they didn't realize we were conducting a funeral. Maybe when they see the hearse at the head of the parade, they will pull to the side. Nope. They just passed the hearse and kept right on going! I even had one car rudely squeeze in front of me in the middle of the funeral procession! Really? How impatient are you that you butt in on someone else's funeral train?

We are all guilty of being impatient at times. And when we are, I suspect we can be pretty rude too. We all need a little more patience. And that's what I want to talk about today.

What is Patience?
In a recent Bible study, I learned the Greek words commonly used in the New Testament for patience are Makrothymia and Hypomone. Makrothymia literally means long anger; i.e. it takes a long time for someone with patience to get angry. The other word for patience is hypomone which means to remain under; you get the image of a person carrying a heavy backpack, but they don't put it down; they patiently continue to carry it even though it's difficult. These two concepts together give us the picture of Christian patience--to persevere for a long time while carrying a heavy burden 

Longsuffering and perseverance are the two elements that bring balance to Christian patience. Some fear being patient means you must let people walk all over you. What keeps you from just being a doormat? It is the second element of perseverance. Perseverance means you aren’t just ignoring troubles or troublesome people. Perseverance means you’re going to keep a cool head methodically work your way through it.

There is a kind of patience that can just ignore trouble and tune it out, but this is not Christian
patience. That is escapism and it's not very healthy. People may turn to drugs or alcohol or other substances to help them cope and numb their discomfort. Others build an emotional wall or just run away. I can relate. I grew up in a turbulent home. I learned to cope by tuning out. Rather than boiling over with rage or acting out, I just shut down and ignored it all. I was just a kid, but that's the best thing I knew to do. People often thought I was being patient, because things just wouldn't bother me. But I eventually learned, that's not real Christian patience and it's not healthy. The problem for me--and for others who cope this way--is that people who bottle up their frustrations or who run away or tune out of conflict are like volcanoes. All that bottled up pressure is going to come spewing out somewhere eventually. They may remain dormant for a few days, weeks, months, or even years. However, the explosion is coming and you better watch out. Have you ever known someone who is always sweet and easy-going? It's like they never get upset. And then one day, some small irritation sets them off and they go into a rage. And you're thinking: "What's their problem? It's so unlike the, and they're getting upset over such a small thing." Well, they're erupting and it's not just the small thing that set them off they're spewing about. They're blasting out all the pent up emotions from from months or years of built up frustrations.

Christian patience means we can’t just tune out or bottle up or run away from your problems. Christians must endure their burdens and bear up under them. We must carry the load with patience. If our burden is dealing with a difficult or mean behavior, we deal with it. If it is physical suffering, we bear up under it. If it's deep grief, we go through the grieving process. We don’t ignore our troubles. We carry them patiently until God takes them away or shows us a way to eleviate them in a healthy way.

The perfect picture of patience is Jesus hanging on the cross. It was a terrible ordeal, but Jesus didn't cope by tuning it out. He experienced the full agony of it all because he knew it was God's plan. He didn't run away and try to avoid it. He prayed for a way out of it ("Father, if there's any other way, let this cup pass from me. However, not my will, but Your's be done."), but followed his Father's plan instead of running away. He could have called down an army of 10,000 angels to rescue him from the cross and destroy this evil world. Instead, he patiently endure the cross for our sake and salvation. That is the perfect picture of Christian patience.

Our Spiritual Garden
Gardening takes patience.  You can’t make the garden grow; only God can do that. You have to be patient, but that doesn’t mean you do nothing.  Right?  You have to be active in your patience to do what you can to create an environment for growth—fertilize your garden, water and weed it, get rid of pests, etc.  There’s a lot to do while you wait. 

Christian patience is a fruit of the Spirit.  You can’t make it grow. You have to trust God will make it grow in His timing, but that doesn’t mean you do nothing.  Maybe you have a situation that requires patience.  That doesn’t mean you do nothing.  You pray.  You prepare.  Maybe even prepare your own heart.  Then you will be ready when God reveals His plan. 

While You Wait… (How to Nurture Christian Patience)
So let me give you a few things to practice while you wait that help nurture a space where Christian patience can grow. 

First of all, be thankful. Don’t ignore your troubles, but don’t fixate on them either. When you give thanks for your blessings, it helps put your burdens in proper perspective. They are there and you have to carry them, but they are not as heavy as them seem if they are all you think about. When you are thankful and recall how God is walking with you and has blessed you, you're burdens seem lighter.

Breathe and Pray. Take some slow, deep breaths. This physically slows your heart rate and calms you down. It clears your thoughts and releases the stressful buildup of impatient pressure. Breath God's Spirit in, and breathe out the stress and toxic feeling bubbling up inside you. As you breath out, carry your burdens to God in prayer. He will help you carrying them or take them away completely.

Trust in God’s Timing. We don’t like to wait. We want to solve the problem (right now!); but do you realize, God may work out many of your issues all on His own without any help from you at all? When you jump ahead and force a solution on your own, in your own way, by your own impatient timeline, you usually end up making a huge mess. Galatians 5:17 reminds us that there’s a spiritual war going on inside us between God’s Spirit and our sinful nature. Our timeline seeks to do things to satisfy our sinful, selfish nature. God’s timing satisfies the Spirit. Which side do you want to support in this battle—the Spirit or the sinful nature? Every time you choose to do things your way on your timeline, you are just empowering your sinful nature. We have to let go and trust God.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. People sometimes say with exasperation, “Yes. But this is really important. It can’t wait. It has to be settled right now!” Does it? I know there are some things that have to be attended to right now. (When your baby is screaming because it needs a diaper change, you need to settle that right away!) However, not everything we think fixate on is as important as we think it is. There are many things in life that seem urgent, but they are not that important. A simple example is when your cell phone rings. Do you really have to answer it every time? What about text messages, Facebook notifications, etc.? And their are many other things, situations, and people in life that beg us to attend to them right away that really are not that important. Meanwhile, there are many other things in life that aren't as urgent, but are very important--getting the oil changed in your car, annual checkups with your doctor, spending time with your spouse, taking time to regularly rest and pray and study your Bible and worship God at church. Neglect these unurgent things for too long and your will have a very urgent emergency before too long. So, don’t let the small stuff bother you. You’ll have more inner peace and you’ll have more time to focus on the important stuff. As you are being patient, walk closely with the Lord in prayer. Then you will know the Lord’s timing and you will know the difference between what really is important and what isn’t. And you will know when to wait and when to move forward. Walking daily in harmony with the Holy Spirit through prayer is the key.

Be Patient
Think about how patient people have been with you.  Think about how patient God has been with you (and is being with you even now).  Can’t you extend the same grace to others?

I will leave you with a story I heard at my Bible study last week.  A middle aged man took his aged mother in to live with him.  She was growing old and feeble and needed people to help look after her.  Every night, the mother and her son and his family would sit down at the table for a family dinner together.  But she was very feeble and clumsy and would often make a mess or spill her drink or drop a plate that was handed to her.  Over time, this frustrations began to irritate the son more and more.  One night, the mother dropped a dish of steak on the floor, ruining the meat and making a huge mess.  The impatient son angrily barked, "That it!  From now on, you are gong to have to eat at a table by yourself so we can enjoy our meal in peace!"  Sure enough, the next night, the son had setup a seperate card table for the mother in another room.  He sat her down there and brought her plate of food to eat by herself.  As the son returned to the family dinner table, his own son asked a question, "Dad, did you make grandma sit a table by herself because she made a mess last night?"  Stubbornly, the father replied, "Yes son.  I did.  Why do you ask?"  "Well," said his son, "I just want to know how I'm supposed to treat you when you're old and come to live with me."

Offer patience today so that you others will be patient with you tomorrow.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Fruit of the Spirit - Peace

Galatians 5:22-23
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

Over the past few weeks, we've been studying the "Fruit of the Spirit" the Apostle Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23.  Every person who puts their faith in Jesus Christ receives the Holy Spirit and Spirit begins to grow these Christian virtues within us.  I challenge you to memorize them and do everything you can to cultivate a spiritual garden in your heart that encourage the growth of these beautiful attributes.

What is Peace?
When I first started out in the ministry, I began as a youth minister.  Every summer, my church at the time (Lithia Springs UMC) would host youth groups from all over the state of Georgia for a community outreach event called "River of Life."  From Wednesday to Sunday, we would tackle 10-15 service projects such as painting or repairing houses, building wheelchair ramps, and re-roofing projects.  Each night, the 300 participants would gather at my church for a worship service.  I was in charge of coordinating the entire outreach and leading the worship services each night.  It was a great, spirit-filled event and I cherish those memories.  However, it was also tremendously stressful for a 26-year-old leading this way for the first time.  I remember running around in the sanctuary before the first evening worship service trying to coordinate all the many moving parts of the service--the ushers, the technical aspects, the band, the speaker, etc.  And as I was doing all these things while the congregation of 300 hyped up teenagers waited impatiently, many of  my volunteers were asking me questions or making remarks about this or that.  The frustration and anxiety in my heart must have been apparent on my face because my friend, Tim Foreman, pull me to one side and said, "Chris, I can tell you're overwhelmed.  Can I pray for you?"  "Yes!  Of course!  I need it."  Tim prayed this: "Father, just as Jesus calmed the stormy Sea of Galilee in the Bible, please calm Chris right now.  Peace, be still."  That's all he prayed and immediately a sense of peace fell on me.  The congregation and all the pressing turmoil of the evening was still there, but I was at peace in a way that is hard to describe.  It made all the difference for that worship service and remainder of River of Life.  It continues to make a difference as I allow the Holy Spirit to give me peace in the midst of the various storms of life.

Today we examine peace.  What is it?  The term “peace” is popular in our world.  Everyone seems to want peace—from hippies in the 60s to Ronald Reagan in the 80s to Generals in the army to brutal dictators of cruel regimes.  If everyone thinks so much of peace, why then does peace always seem so out of reach in our broken world?  The very same people who clamor for peace viciously fight each other and destroy peace all in the name of peace.  Obviously, we often misunderstand peace and many leaders misuse or abuse the concept of peace or they merely pay lip service to the virtue in order to gain influence over the masses of people they lead.

The fruit of peace the Holy Spirit wants to grow in you is the peace of God or the peace of Christ.  It is what the Hebrews in the Old Testament called Shalom.  Shalom is:
  • Wholeness and health - Shalom is not just the absence of sickness; it carries the connotation that we are whole and healthy in the way God originally created us to be.
  • Living In Harmony - Shalom means that people live in complete harmony with each other and with God because there is nothing to disrupt or frustrate or break a right and perfect relationship between them.  
  • Christian peace leads to relief from anxiety.  We find complete peace when we surrender (stop fighting against the will of God) and live in the very center of God’s will.  When we can truly pray and mean "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven", we find true shalom/peace
Most kids love to go swimming--especially during the hot summer months.  However, there is often that initial fear the first time a child considers going into the water.  If they've never done it before, they might be scared.  Even if their mom or dad is in the pool inviting them and encouraging them, "It's OK!  Your safe.  I'll take care of you.  Come on in.  You're gonna love it!"  When the child finally gets up the nerve to go in the water and they see that their parents do indeed keep them safe, they begin to splash around and have all sorts of fun.  And probably, they won't want to leave when their parents finally say it's time to go.  Well, Jesus said, the Kingdom of God belongs to those who have faith like a child.  (Mark 10:15)  Christian peace is like a child that completely trusts their father will keep them safe in the pool.

Jesus Talked about Peace
Jesus talked a lot about peace in the New Testament.  Sometimes his statements are misunderstood or seem conflicting.  For instance, Jesus said in Matthew 5:9 – “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.”  People who follow Christ work for peace.  That is, we work to win everyone back into a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ which leads to shalom.  Jesus saves us, forgives us, heals us, restores us to a right relationship with God.  Then Jesus commands us to “Go and make disciples of all the world…” (Matthew 28:19) and thus, Jesus bring peace to the whole world.
However, Jesus also said in Matthew 10:34, “Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.”  That doesn't sound like the happy, kind, peaceful Jesus many people imagine.  What does Jesus mean with this aggressive talk of swords?  Well, as long as you are outside of God’s will, no peace is possible.  Often the world offers a counterfeit peace that is not really shalom.  The peace the world usually seeks is just to maintain the status quo (the way things are).  Unfortunately, the status quo--though it is inside our comfort zone--also perpetuates a lot of suffering, evil, and injustice.  Things have to change in order for God to set our crooked world straight.  And Jesus confronts our comfortable status quo and makes us choose between the world's way and God's way.  Thus, Jesus creates a lot of conflict--both in our hearts and in our world--as he works to bring true peace.
Being outside the will of God causes unrest in our soul and in our world.  When we experience this unrest, it is a sign we have wandered outside the will of God.  And then we always have the choice—we can manufacture a false peace by our own human methods or we can surrender to God, seek His divine will, and move back into the center of His plan.

My “Lucky” Tomatoes 
I'm not a very good gardener, but sometimes you just get lucky.   Several months ago, I threw some rotten tomatoes out into my yard and, lo and behold, a tomato plant sprung up!  I did nothing to cultivate this plant--I didn't till the soil, fertilize it, weed it, water it, or anything.  It just grew up all on its own!  Now, I am picking nice cherry tomatoes for my salads just because I got lucky.  That's not the best way to grow a garden, is it?  It's much better and you will have a lot more success if you tend your garden every day on purpose.
Well, the fruit of the Spirit is a lot like a garden.  You can’t do anything to make peace grow in your heart.  Only God, through the Holy Spirit, can make peace grow.  And sometimes you just get lucky and find peace.  However, as with any garden, it's much better to do some things to create a place in your heart that encourages peace to grow.
The first thing I recommend is to pull up some weeds that tend to grow and choke peace.  Pull up worry by the roots.  Some people are natural born worriers.  They worry about everything.  Even if you're not prone to worry, there are times and situations that can make anybody worry.  Worry is like spinning your wheels in a car—it makes a lot of noise and smoke, but it doesn’t get you anywhere and it ruins your tires.  That's why Jesus said, "Do not worry." (Matthew 6)
Another weed you should pull up from your life is being too busy and having too many responsibilities.  Now, some of this you have no control over.  (Being a parents with young kids is an extremely busy season in life.  You just have to buckle down and pray a lot and ask for a lot of help!)  But here's the thing, most people have a lot more control over how busy they are than they think.  It's just that few people are intentional about what they choose to do with their time.  You have to set proper priorities--specifically deciding to what you will commit your time, energy, and money.  If you don't choose how you spend your time, your time or other people will choose for you.  That's why most of us are overbooked most of the time.  So, learn to say “no” to what the world wants you to do and “yes” to what God wants you to do.  The more you grow spiritually, the more you will be able to tell the difference.  Pray the famous Serenity Prayer often (serenity is another term for peace).  God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Philippians 4:6-7 gives us more clues about how to cultivate peace in our garden.
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

This passage teaches us how to water our peace garden:
Focus on God.  Philippians 4:4 actually says “Rejoice in the Lord always.”  You don’t have to be happy about the problems in your life.  However, you can rejoice that the Lord is in control.  Aren’t you glad that—despite your troubles—God’s got your back?  Be glad about that and trust God to take care of you.  You don’t have to worry.  Rest in His love and sovereignty.
Serve Others.  When you turn outward toward others, it keeps you from turning inward to focus on your problems and falling into despair.  When we serve, we find a joy and inner peace that can only come from serving others and obeying God’s command to “love our neighbors…”
Pray.  Perhaps, worry hits us most deeply when we are alone with our thoughts.  What do you do when the lights are out and everyone’s asleep, but you?  This can be a time when our thoughts go round and round on the unmerry-go-round of worry until our peace is all worn out.  Instead, take your worrisome thoughts to God in prayer.  Release them there.  And don’t pray like the pagans do (Matthew 6:7-8), repeating your worries over and over again in prayer.  That’s just worrying out loud to God.  You can do that if you really need to.  God can handle it.  But it's so much better is to tell God what you’re worried about and then just let it go.  Leave it with God knowing He can handle it; He will handle it.  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”  (Proverbs 3:5)  Now, go to sleep.
And there is one more thing you can do:
Philippians 4:8-9
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

What you choose to think about has a tremendous effect on your spiritual peace.  I’m not talking about sticking your head in the sand and ignoring problems or to just “think positively”.  When you're thoughts are fixed on your problems, they seem so big.  They are big.  However, when you fix your thoughts on God--the one who created the whole universe--your problems pale in comparison.  Therefore, fix your thoughts on:
  • The truth, honor, and righteousness of God and His purity 
  • The loveliness of God and His creation and what is admirable 
  • Think of all that is excellent and praise God.
This will create an environment where peace can flourish in your heart.

So, in order to help the Holy Spirit grow more peace in your life, I invite you to spend some time meditating on God’s goodness.  
·       How has God taken care of you in the past?
·       Do you believe He is powerful enough to handle your current problems?
·       Do you believe He loves you enough to take care of you?
·       Do you believe He knows what to do?  (Then what are you worrying about?)
·       Now rest in His love…

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Fruit of the Spirit - Joy

Galatians 5:22-23
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ has the Holy Spirit of God living inside them.  The Apostle Paul says the Spirit produces the fruit--Christian virtues--of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.  For the next several weeks, I will examine one virtu each week.  I challenge you to learn all nine. I know you can.  Most people memorize the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, and that's 31 words.  Surely we can memorize nine Christian virtues.  Here's a song that might help you remember.  Today, lets look at the second virtue Paul lists: joy. 

So What is Joy Anyway?
Some people say that joy is different from happiness.  They say happiness is just an emotion and temporary, whereas joy is somehow deeper and more lasting.  However, the Bible never makes that distinction.  The Greek word for joy in the New Testament is “chara”.  It means cheerfulness, calm delight, gladness, great joy and happiness.  In fact, many places in the Bible use the words joy and happiness interchangeably or link them together.  For instance, in Esther 8:16 (NIV) when the Jews experienced a stunning reversal of fortunes from something very grave and desperate to something glorious, it says, "For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor."  Joy and happiness are linked.   In Jeremiah 31:13, (HCSB), God says, "I  will turn their mourning into joy, give them consolation, and bring happiness out of grief." Proverbs 23:25 (NLT) says, "Give your father and mother joy! May she who gave you birth be happy."  The Bible doesn't distinguish between joy and happiness.  They are just synonyms. 

I've discovered we all really need to know more about joy.  Let's take a deep look at today so we can better understand and seek it in our lives.  I also invite you to come to my church for a study about joy that will start on September 19th.  It's a 6-session study by John Piper.  It will be on Wednesday nights at 6:45.  I invite you all to come.  However, if you aren't able to come, you can watch the videos by clicking here.  I really like John Piper’s definition for joy:  “Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.”

What Makes Christian Joy Special?
Joy/happiness is a feeling, an emotion.  We don’t produce joy/happiness ourselves.  Someone or something causes the emotion to well up within us.  That may be why some make the unnecessary distinction between joy and happiness.  They try to say happiness is caused by worldly things and that joy is caused by God.  I used to make that distinction, but I don’t think it’s really helpful anymore.  Joy and happiness is the same thing.  It’s  the source of your joy and happiness that determines whether it is eternal or will fade away like green grass in a summer drought.

Christian Joy comes from the Holy Spirit.  It is an eternal well of living water that bubbles up from inside.  It is not turned bitter by the tragedies and sorrows of this life. There are many other things in this world beside the Holy Spirit that can make you happy/joyful.  Some are very deep and meaningful—like the birth of a child.  Others can be quite trivial—like when your favorite football team wins a game.  However, if your happiness/joy is based solely on fleeting, earthly things, it is in great danger.  For earthly things pass away.  Football teams lose.  Studies show fan depression is a real thing; it can even affect entire cities.  When the Atlanta Falcon tragically lost the Superbowl after almost winning in 2017, it seemed like the whole southeastern United States was in a depression fro days afterwards.  Fan depression even leads some to thoughts of suicide.  Significantly more serious tragedies like the death of a child can smash your joy/happiness to pieces.  Joy that is tied to such vulnerable, earthly things is as fragile as a snowflake in August.

Yet, the source of the joy of the Lord—the fruit of the Spirit—isn’t earthly.  It comes from the eternal Holy Spirit of God.  And as long as your faith is in Jesus, the Spirit lives in you.  Your “Spirit Joy” is not destroyed when the world comes crashing down.  Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)  Holy Spirit Joy/Happiness is as eternal as God Himself.  That is why the Apostle Paul could write such joyful letters like Philippians even while he was locked in a dungeon for preaching the Gospel.  He said, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

There is a kind of joy that comes from feasting and friends and the things of this world. However, it is temporary joy.  The Holy Spirit invites us to stop expecting our greatest joy to come from people and things that can’t give us ultimate and lasting joy.  Real Joy, Christian Joy, is found through faith in Christ and is produced in your heart by the Holy Spirit.  It is eternal and it never fades away no matter what happens to you.

Now, sometimes you can see the Beauty of Christ in your kids, in your spouse, in your friends, even in the material things of this world.  And when you do—when you see the beauty of Christ in these things—you may derive real joy from the Holy Spirit through them.  And you won’t have to fear the loss of your joy if you lose the things, because you will never lose the Holy Spirit, who is eternal.  And at the end of it all—for those who trust Christ as their Lord and Savior to the end—we will see the beauty of Christ perfectly in all things and for all eternity.  That is why we will praise Him without end.  However, be careful not to confuse seeing the beauty of Christ in things for the things themselves.

Creating a Garden Where JOY Can Grow
The Fruit of the Spirit is produced by the Holy Spirit, not produced by you.  No matter how hard you concentrate or strain your spiritual muscles, you can’t produce these spiritual fruits—and that includes joy.  You can’t make a garden grow.  Only God can make a garden grow.  However, there are some things you can do to help a garden grow.  You can till up the soil to make it soft and receptive, fertilize the soil, plant seeds, water the garden, pull up any weeds that grow, protect your garden from pests, etc.

How can you tend the garden of your heart so the Holy Spirit can grow Joy within you?  Just like with any garden, you’ve got to tend it.  You've got to soften your heart and make it receptive, fertilize your heart through prayer and worship, ask God to plant seeds of joy within you, water your garden everyday by reading God’s Word, and protect your garden from weeds and other pests.

I'm not a very good gardener.  I lack the patience and attentiveness needed to really nurture a fruitful garden.  The first time I tried to grow a garden, I planted some tomato plants.  I was so happy to see those first green tomatoes coming in.  Now, I love a juicy tomato sandwich in the summer!  Everyday, I watched my tomatoes getting ready to pick.  But every time, just before they were ripe enough to pick, some animal (a squirrel or rabbit or something) would sneak in and take two or three bites out of the fruit!  It was so frustrating!  No tomato sandwiches for me!

Get Rid of Spiritual Pests
If you want spirit-filled Joy/Happiness in your heart, you’ve got to protect your spiritual garden from the pests that want to sneak in and steal your joy!  Consider some of the pest that threaten your spiritual garden:

Fear – We fear of what others think about us.  We fear we might miss out on something good if we devote our life to Christ.  We are often afraid we won't measure up and God or others will reject us.  We're afraid of not being loved.  We fear losing something or someone we care about.  Fear is a pest that will sneak in and destroy your garden of joy.  Thankfully, faith is a powerful pesticide against pesky fear.  Jesus said, "Do not worry..." (Matthew 6:25)  Trust God.  Put your faith in Jesus Christ.  Know that he's got your back and if he's for you, nothing can succeed against you.  Don't worry about what people think about you.  Know that the God of the universe thinks you were worth dying for.  Spray your garden with faith and watch the pests flee!

Poor health – Joy is an emotion.  Emotions are biological and chemical and hormonal.  Emotions are affected greatly by your health.  So take care of yourself.  Eat right and exercise.  It will help cultivate a garden where joy can flourish.  A simple 30 minute walk everyday can make a world of difference in your attitude and receptivity to joy.  Everyone's health varies according to many factors that are out of our control.  However, we do have control over somethings.  Be as healthy as you can be and it will help joy grow more in your life.

Negativity – Negativity is one of the peskiest pests that can infiltrate your spiritual garden.  Chase negativity away by hanging around with people who are kind and positive.  Avoid people who criticize, blame, judge, and are driven by fear and negativity.  They will suck you dry.  Now there is always a certain amount of negativity in our lives, but we don't have to seek it out or go for a swim in cesspool of yuk!  Instead, focus on Christ and what he’s done for you and how much he loves you.  This is a powerful pesticide that drives away the negative thoughts that try to sneak in and steal your joy.

As we close, I invite you to meditate on the cross of Christ where the Savior of the world gave his life for you, because he loves you SO MUCH.  Spend some time thinking in the presence of the Holy Spirit about how Jesus left the perfection of Heaven to come down into the cesspool of our brokenness, reach out his loving hands to rescue us, and pull us up out of the mire to safety.  Let the truth of his love fertilize the soil of your heart and nurture the spiritual fruit of joy.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Fruit of the Spirit - Love

The Fruit of the Spirit – Galatians 5:22-23
22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

            The famed list of spiritual virtues from Galatians 5:22-23 are known to Christians as “The Fruits of The Spirit”.  I going to spend some time each week considering each of these spiritual fruits.  Actually, you might notice Paul calls these the Fruit of the Spirit , not fruits; he uses the singular form, not plural. I don't know if he did that on purpose, but I do know that all of these virtues together make up a single fruit that the Spirit produces in us. It is not that one person gets patience and another gets love and another gets self-control. No, the Holy Spirit develops all of these in each follower of Christ. Some people are better at on than the other, but all are accessible to every individual if we allow the Spirit to produce them in us.
As we go through this series of blogs, I challenge you to memorize the list of virtues known as the fruit of the Spirit.  That way you will now the characteristics you should develop as you follow Christ.  And really, it is not that difficult.  If you can remember the ingredients of a Big Mac—two all-beef patties, special sauce,lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun (a jingle with 15 words)—you should be able to learn a learn the list of 9 the spiritual fruits of a Christian. Too young to have learned the Big Mac jingle?  Ok.  If you can remember the words to the Kiki challenge song by Drake (“In My Feelings”), which is a chorus of 60 words, then surely you can memorize the 9 fruits of the Spirit!
As Christians cooperate with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit develops these fruits within us more and more.  It’s important to remember, we do not make these fruits grow. Only God can make them grow.  Just as a 5-year-old child cannot close his eyes, grit his teeth, and will his body to transform into a 16-year-old, neither can we will ourselves to grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control—no matter how hard we clench our teeth and concentrate.  The growth of these spiritual fruits—just like the growth of the human body or the growth of a fruit tree—is the work of God.  However, there are many things we can do to nurture that growth—to cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work and create an environment where the most growth is possible.  This is also something I want to address in the weeks ahead.  So contemplate, as we go along, how you could open your heart and life to God in such a way that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control take root and grow more and more in your life.
Let's begin today with the first and most important of all spiritual fruits—love.

Love - 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
            As a pastor, I have the privilege of uniting many couples in holy matrimony.  One of the most common scriptures to read at a wedding is 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.  It is known as the love passage as it shares St. Paul’s famous description of Christian love.
4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. 
If you’ve ever attended a wedding, you’ve probably heard those words.  They are a great reminder to the newlyweds what it means to love, honor, and cherish each other as they begin their life together as husband and wife.  
St. Paul’s description of love is so common at weddings, people might not know the passage was not originally intended for that occasion. Paul wrote those splendid words that tell the qualities of love—not for weddings, but—for a church of people that were struggling to get along. The Christians in the Corinthian church were fighting over who was in charge, who was more important, and who had the most impressive spiritual gifts.  Paul wrote his famous words about love to implore a deeply divided church to simply love one another.  Paul wanted the Corinthians to stop arguing with each other and jockeying for power and competing to see who is most important person in the church. 
God calls us all to love one another and “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

Love is Essential
Love is the most important of the fruits of the spirit for “…love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) and, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)  Love is what makes us relevant.  Ideas and philosophies and even people come into and go out of fashion as quickly as the Kiki Challenge, but love last forever.  Biblical love (the divine love of God) is the one thing that never goes out of fashion.  Love makes all other things either relevant or irrelevant. When love is present something else is relevant.  When love is absent, people will quickly lose interest because it will soon become irrelevant.
            Love is the very presence of God.  1 John 4:7-12 sums it up.  "Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only
Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 10 This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.
            Love is essential to the Christian journey. It saves us, it sends us, and seals us to one another. As we serve together as a church and as we represent Christ to the world, I pray love will guide all that we do.  Jesus said love would be the defining virtue in all his followers that proves to the world that we are His disciples.  In John 13:35, Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

Creating a Garden Where Love Can Grow
Well, now we have a description of love and how important it is. But how do we help it grow in our lives? We have to prepare the garden of our heart.
Now I'm not a very good gardener. I'm good at building things, but not so good at growing things. I can build a good garden to start with, but it's everything that happens after that gives me trouble. You see, to build a garden, you start by making a place. You clear away the grass or weeds, you till up the soil to make it soft, you plant the seeds and water them. Maybe you put down some fertilizer. And I'm usually good to spend a day or a weekend working on a gardening "project." But I quickly lose interest or get busy with family or work and I don't spend the time I should tending the garden. That's why I do better at building projects like carpentry, because I can work on them for a few hours, and then set them aside and come back to them in a month or so and pick right back p where I let off.
Unfortunately, you can't set a garden aside for a month. It takes constant attention and nurturing. You need to check it everyday to pull up weeds, make sure it's getting enough water (but not too much), and maybe get rid of any pests and bugs that are invading. If you forget about the garden for even a few days (which is what I tend to do), it will quickly run into trouble or be overrun by weeds and eat up by devouring bugs.
Well, what about our spiritual fruit garden? What do we have to do to help nurture the fruit the Holy Spirit wants to produce with in us? It is much like tending a physical garden. To start with, you have to clear out some things in your life so there is room for love to grow. Do you have hatred in your heart? Bitterness? Are you harboring any grudges? These are things you must get rid of or else love will have no room to grow.
One of the things I see so much these days that keeps real love from growing is the impossible and unrealistic fantasy of a love relationship. People have an idealized (idolized really) fantasy of what it is to be in "love". And it hinders the growth of real love. And I often see people who grow older--maybe late into their twenties or thirties or maybe even later and they still haven't married. And for them they want to be married so badly that they make an idol out of marriage. They often make foolish choices or compromise their values all for the sake of the dream of being married. Idolatry is a sin and our idols always let us down and get us into trouble. And it's not until you tear down your idol (or your fantasy) and you clear out space in the garden of your heart, that there is room for real, genuine, fruitful love to grow.
Just like in a real garden, you have to break up and soften the soil of your heart so the Holy Spirit can plant some seeds of love. Have you asked the Holy Spirit to plant seeds of love if your heart? He will if you ask Him. Then, what can you do to water and fertilize the love He is trying to grow within your heart? How can you show love to others through the things you say, the ways you behave, and the things you do?
Now, you have created the perfect environment for growth, but love is not the only thing that will want to grow there.  Now, the Devil will constantly be encouraging weeds to grow in your life. These are things that will distract you, use up your spare resources of time and energy and money. Left unchecked, these weeds will grow up and choke out the love that is starting to grow in your life. How do you take time to watch over your spiritual garden and pull up any weeds that grow alongside your spiritual fruit, stealing vital nutrients from the soil? Do you pray for God to show you those things that are leading you astray or just distracting you from His will for your life? Do you listen and rip them out when He reveals something?

            I want to close with a word of encouragement.  If you ever feel guilty, like you ought to be more loving or patient or whatever, give yourself a break.  Jesus came to set us free from sin and guilt and shame.  It's not your job to change yourself; that's the work of the Holy Spirit.  Be patient with yourself.  The Holy Spirit will do the hard work, the supernatural work of making you more like Jesus.  Your job is just to cooperate.  Do the things the Spirit shows you.  Open yourself up to spiritual growth and nurture what the Spirit is doing in you and leave it at that.  It takes time to grow, so cut yourself some slack.
            I invite you and challenge you ask God to plant the seeds of more spiritual fruit in your life.  Ask Him also to show you what you must tear out of your life to make room for the spiritual garden He wants to grow within you.  Ask Him to show you how you need to break up and soften the soil of your heart and how you can nurture and guard the spiritual fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We will look at each one and some of the spiritual practices that help garden your spirit in the weeks ahead.