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Friday, May 26, 2017

A Timeless Word

“He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.”
(Isaiah 50:4)

     How many books are worth reading more than once?  I have a few on my list … the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia, Pride and Prejudice, a few Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries … but even with these classics, I wait several years before picking them up a second time.  Long enough to forget the details and be surprised and delighted all over again.  Rarely have I opened a book a third time.

     Yet there is one book that I have opened every day for over thirty years and have never grown tired of reading.  Amazing, isn’t it, that one book could never grow old?  That’s because the Bible is more than a book.  It is a key to the most vital relationship in my life.  And when I open the Bible every morning, I do more than read.  I meet with God.  Ours is a two-way relationship that involves two-way communication.  I speak to Him in prayer and He speaks to me through His Word.  This is an amazing thing and not to be taken lightly.  The God of the universe speaks into my life.  That’s enough to get me up every morning eager to read the same book that I’ve read for over thirty years.

     In this verse, Isaiah is also eager.  It’s as if God says to him each morning, “Up, Isaiah!  I have things to say to you!”  And Isaiah gets up to listen.  The Hebrew word used here for “listen” means “to give undivided attention to, to seek to understand, to give heed to and obey.”  This is no half-attentive ear, no sleepy nod in God’s direction, but a fully engaged Isaiah, expecting God to speak and ready to do whatever He says.

     God is ready to be intimately involved with our lives.  He waits to speak to us and He does so through His Word.  The problem is that too often we read the Bible more as a devotional exercise than a vital communication with the One who knows us most and loves us best.  To develop a “listening ear” begin your time with God with the simple prayer, “Lord, what do You have to say to me?”  Remember Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish Christian philosopher: “When you read God’s Word, you must remember to be constantly saying to yourself, ‘It is speaking to me; I am the one it is talking about.’”

     What happens when I read with a “listening ear”?  God speaks to me about who He is and who I am.  He tells me how the world works and how He works in the world.  He reveals the most profound message of grace the world has ever known, but He also speaks into my life challenge, comfort, counsel, and hope for change.  This is worth getting up for every day.

Written by Susan Sutton, a friend of Dr. Doug Hood

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Search for Serenity

“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. 
Your rod and your staff – they protect me.”
Psalm 23:4 (Common English Bible)

            Few would disagree that our present age may be identified as one of insecurity. The recent presidential election in the United States has unmasked a starkly divided nation – the division largely one of how best to protect our way of life in a world that grows increasingly more hostile each day. Behind the rhetoric and rancor of the political right and left is an unrest that is driven by a disillusionment of our modern world. Present in France, Great Britain, Greece and multiple other nations is a spirit of revolt and revolution that is occurring right here in our own nation. Everywhere, it seems, is a feeling that we are no longer secure. We are vulnerable and, if we let down our guard, the world can get at us. People the world over have become weary of being tossed about by conflict, terror and uncertainty. Nations are looking for some haven where they can once again experience a new calm.

            What is it that the Christian faith can provide in these troubling times? What impresses me in reading these few familiar words from Psalm 23 is the complete serenity of the one who walks through, “the darkest valley.” We are not told what is occurring in the Psalmist’ life when these words were written. Perhaps it was the death of a spouse or a child. Perhaps it is economic collapse or a diagnosis of a threatening illness. It does not matter that we aren’t told. It is enough to know that, whatever it may be, the experience is the darkest moment to be experienced in that particular life. Yet, the Psalmist is not disturbed or distracted by the news – the mood that prevails is one of tranquility. The clearly expressed reason is that God shows-up and the Psalmist notices. And that is enough.

            There is present a calm temperament in a life that walks closely with the Lord. Though there are challenges and storms in our day that would unsettle many, the Psalmist is equipped with an amazing power of detachment. The shepherd’s “rod” and “staff” are visible in the midst of the darkness – both signs and symbols of the office of someone who comes alongside the sheep to tend off predators and provide gentle guidance in the right way. The Psalmist never lost sight of God and because of this, felt protected and cared for. Life is faced – even when it is darkest – bravely and with buoyancy.

            That confidence can be ours as well. There is no more certain route to the recovery of serenity than through the discovery of God. The vulnerable life always clings to visible – and perishable – things of the earth, looking for guarantees. This is seen when someone announces that their hope for national security is in one candidate for president and not another. The invulnerable life rests secure in the invisible things, unruffled by the news of calamity because they have fixed their lives upon an unfaltering faith in an unfailing God. Rise each morning and repeat these words from the Psalmist. The power that is nurtured within will not change the external conditions of our world. But inner storms will subside as the presence of God is recognized. 


Friday, May 12, 2017

When the Door Remains Closed

“Meanwhile, Peter remained outside, knocking at the gate.”
Acts 12:16 (Common English Bible)

            Here is a story for everyone; a story of someone who tried and failed, but refused to give up. Peter was one of Jesus’ disciples. At a critical hour, he failed Jesus by denying him three times. But Jesus never failed Peter. Following Jesus’ resurrection, his continued embrace and love for Peter launched Peter into a preaching ministry of considerable zeal and devotion. Up and down the countryside, Peter gave witness to the power of the risen Christ to change lives. Peter’s primary exhibit for his testimony was his own life. Soon he found himself enmeshed by hostile forces and, finally, preached himself into prison.

            Prayers were made for Peter by the Christian communities that he started and were now growing, as a result of his preaching. One night an angel came to Peter, placed the prison guard into a deep sleep, released the chains from Peter’s hands, and opened the prison doors. An important detail of this miracle story is that the angel instructed Peter to place on his sandals. The angel was able to place the guard into a slumber, release Peter’s hands from the chains that held him, and open the prison doors. Yet, the angel holds Peter responsible for placing on his own shoes. Apparent in this small detail is that God will always do what we cannot do, but God will not do for us what we can do. Peter was capable of placing upon his feet his shoes.

            Peter, now freed from prison, goes out into the dark, hiding in the thickness of the night from Roman solders, and makes his way to a home where he hoped to be received and cared for. When Peter knocked at the outer gate, a female servant went to answer. Recognizing Peter, and overcome with surprise and joy, the servant runs back into the house with the grand announcement of Peter’s release. Yet, in her amazement and delight, she forgets to open the gate and let Peter into the residence. “Meanwhile, Peter remained outside, knocking at the gate.”  

            Peter does not shrug his shoulders and walk back into the night, commenting, “It’s no use.” Peter continues to knock. Peter is resilient. He will not give in or give up. By his persistence, Peter reveals the grandeur of his trust in God’s continuing presence and care. Many of us will stand – at some moment of our life – before a closed door. The closed door may be a job opportunity that never materializes, a romantic relationship that is never found, or an illness that lingers – health seemly more and more elusive. Before that closed door, life asks, “Will you continue to trust God in the face of bitterness and disappointment?” Peter stands before a closed door unafraid, determined to see it through. His strength is located in God’s fidelity, demonstrated in his past. That same strength is available to us when we stand before a door that is closed.


Thursday, May 4, 2017

When We Need Help

“Finally, let’s draw near to the throne of favor with confidence 
so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.”
Hebrews 4:16 (Common English Bible)

            This is truly one of the great passages of the New Testament. In these few words we are reminded that Jesus is a source of tremendous power, the place we turn to when we need help. Jesus is not someone who is incapable of understanding and sympathizing with our struggles. Jesus struggled as we struggle, was tempted as we are tempted, and endured disappointment as we endure disappointment, without ever committing any sin. Jesus is full of sympathy for us because he fought, as we fight, on the battlefields of human life. There is remarkable authenticity in the sympathy Jesus has for us because he tasted the same bitterness of conflict and hateful evil forces that seek our defeat. Yet, unfailingly, Jesus emerged a victor. His strength is now our strength.

            It must not be forgotten that Jesus won battle after battle by using the same spiritual resource that is open to us – the spiritual power that comes from God in regular prayer. Jesus engaged no unnatural means to gain victory that is denied to us, no private miracle reserved only for God’s Son. He fought as we fight, standing where we stand, with the same resource that is placed in our hands – regular communion with God through prayer. Victory by any other means would have been of little value for ordinary people like us. The guidance Jesus offers us, and the encouragement we receive, is from someone who battled with no more than what is available to us.

            It is well to remember that temptation is not sin. Jesus was tempted – perhaps the best known moment is when he is on a mountain, with God, for forty days following his baptism. But Jesus did not sin. It is not sin to discover that in some unguarded moment an unkind word for another may come into our mind or an impulse wells-up inside us that isn’t our best self. A downward pull to our lower nature is not sin. It is sin to yield, when a loose rein is given to evil desires. And while we learn from Jesus’ example that temptation is not sin, we also learn from Jesus that temptation must drive us to our knees in prayer. Human strength and resolve to avoid sin is simply insufficient.

            The Gospels speaks often of the deep sympathy of Jesus. Whenever he was in the presence of human suffering or those who had been marginalized by others, the compassion of Jesus was powerfully exhibited. His sympathy stretched out and welcomed Zacchaeus, a dishonest tax collector, a woman caught in adultery, and numerous people afflicted with mental, emotional and physical disabilities. People were lifted and redeemed by his love and friendship. Jesus’ resurrection is a bold declaration that that same Jesus is present with us today, his sympathy continuing to stretch toward every one of us when we need help. And these few words from Hebrews remind us that Jesus sympathy – and strength – is sufficient.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Participate in Ministry

The following is from guest writer, Louis Sutton.

“I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God,
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”
(Psalm 84:10)

Bechir’s wrinkled dark skin and white hair were the only features that betrayed the fact that he was one of the oldest men in the Chadian town of Adre.  Otherwise his energy, his delight in life, his satisfaction and continual hard work surpassed even men half his age.  Bechir and I became good friends through my frequent visits to the local area governor’s house where Bechir would greet me at the door, offer me some water and a seat, then scurry off to notify the governor of my arrival.  Bechir was a servant in the governor’s house, a position he had held for perhaps 50 years.  He had served the French colonial governors who brought their fine china and wine to this end of the Sahara desert and he served the Chadian officials in the now old and run-down mansion.  He had served the good and the corrupt.  The dramas he had seen and the stories he told were amazing.  But was most amazing was his delight in what he did.  He loved serving.  He loved being a part of the bigger picture.  He counted it a privilege to do even the lowest of tasks.  The joy radiated from his face.

That same joy in service radiates from the words of the psalmist in Psalm 84 who called it privilege to take even the lowest of positions in the activities of the faithful.  The psalm was written by one speaking from experience.  It is attributed to the “sons of Korah” who were a portion of the Levitical tribes called upon for various services in the temple.  But perhaps the lowliest and most “mundane” of those roles was that of “doorkeeper”.  In this verse the psalmist’s point was that privilege and delight are found in even the lowliest of roles served for the greatest of causes.  For him service was not duty, not sacrifice, nor obligation, but a privilege.

So too our own service in the church, no matter what the role, is best understood not as duty but privilege.  It is a privilege to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to serve something, and someone eternal and truly significant.  It is a privilege to make a difference, no matter how humble the task.  It is a privilege to serve in the company of others committed to the same truths and vision.  True, our service is crucial and needed.  The church couldn’t exist without our participation in its ministry.  But ultimately it is a privilege.  One to be embraced, entered into, and enjoyed.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Progress in the Spiritual Life

“Only God is my rock and my salvation – my stronghold! – I won’t be shaken anymore.”
Psalm 62:2 (Common English Bible)

            Captured in these few words is a powerful witness to abundant progress in our spiritual life: “Only God is my rock and salvation – my stronghold! – I won’t be shaken anymore.” The author of these words is contemplating difficult circumstances on the horizon. A storm is building in his personal life and a whirlwind is gathering strength and raging. Shortly, the author will be caught in the blast – in the very center of violence that is determined to destroy him. Yet, what is heard in these words is a faith that has moved from painful wobbling in a time of trouble to an experience of being unshakable; of standing strong in the work of the Lord: “I won’t be shaken anymore.”

            A mood of fear and uncertainty is transformed. Present now is a voice of a more vital trust, and the suggestion of spiritual maturity. Where once he would have been shaken by the assault that was drawing near, he is now not overwhelmed. An unshaken confidence of a matured faith now occupies his heart and soul. What changed? He provides the answer – he has found a sturdy footing in the promises of God, “my stronghold.” A trembling spirit that is placed into regular communion with God is settled; the timid fluttering of a heart is quieted. This is the calmness which comes from sharing in the strength of God; a strength that derives from intentional attention to relationship building with God.

            When we nurture our own faith by attention to God’s word and regular prayer, our relationship to God is deepened. In direct proportion to that deepening relationship we discover that fears are scattered and worries, once prolific, are diminished. Lives are no longer lived in small and frightened circles where the soul grows faint and timid. Attention to God, even in the ordinary moments of life, expands the chambers of our souls and our breath becomes deeper. Uncertainties of life become increasingly rare and our slipping feet are steadied upon a certain and firm foundation – “only God is my rock.”

            Here is the great secret of progress in our spiritual life – attentive and regular communion with God. Our own strength for meeting the trying and challenging circumstances of life is insufficient. Alone we will always be defeated. But we are not alone. These words from the Psalms are an invitation to put on the same strength and confidence of a life that cleaves to God. By God’s strengthening fellowship we will face all the hostile forces of this world with ordered lives – lives which demonstrate to others the beauty of God’s peace.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

What Is Good

“Hang on to what is good.”
1 Thessalonians 5:21 (Common English Bible)

            Attempts to define “what is good” are often found to be inadequate. Goodness is difficult to describe but it is wonderfully easy to recognize. We know goodness when we see it and it is a thrilling experience. There is an attractiveness about it that captures both the mind and the heart and goodness proves to be a powerful quality in shaping the disposition of those who observe it. Goodness is a mighty impulse whose radiance gives beauty to the soul.

            Perhaps more difficult than defining goodness is articulating how goodness is achieved or produced. Some have argued that goodness is born and that effort to generate goodness is therefore futile, but is an observable fact that character can be changed. In view of the fact that goodness has the capacity to positively impact the environment of all human interaction some attempt, however feeble, is called for. Though there is no perfect formula that produces completely the results we desire, scripture does provide help.

            The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 3:17 that we are to become imitators of Paul and to watch those who live as he does – to use those with good and godly behavior as models. Here, Paul suggests that a prime condition for generating goodness is simple observation that instructs and infects the heart toward participation in its beauty. David Downie says as much in his book, Paris, Paris: Journey Into The City of Light: “A day spent loitering here teaches you more about Paris and its inhabitants than many a scholarly tome.”[i] This is well demonstrated in the experience of the apostles. In spite of conspicuous limitations and weaknesses, each became good men chiefly as a result of their acquaintance with Christ – their decision to simply spend time with Jesus and learning through observation.

            Goodness is also produced by the disciplined application of those principals taught by Jesus for a holy life. Regular prayer, reading and application of God’s Word to one’s life, and participation in God’s work in the world produce productive soil for the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy, “Train yourself for a holy life!” (1 Timothy 4:7b). The regular discipline of “training” for the holy life breaks down the barriers which hinder the organic development of goodness. Behind anything that is really well done is a long period of self-discipline and mastery, which shape and define the character or skill that is desired. Goodness can be produced in any life. What is required is that we place ourselves in regular contact with those who model goodness and then discipline our spirits that we profit by the experience.


[i] David Downie, Paris, Paris: Journey Into The City of Light (New York: Broadway Books, 2011), 18.