Where Do You Belong?
Belonging

I’ve had some unexpected—and unwanted—visitors this past week.

The first occurred when I let the dogs out one evening for their final outing. A tree frog took the opportunity to hop into the house. Let’s just say he was not easy to catch. Of course, attempting to catch a frog while trying to corral two large boxers is no easy task to begin with. But with a little perseverance, I captured Mr. Tree Frog and released him outside.

Two days later, I’m sitting at my laptop when my dog fixates on a corner in the living room. I get up to see why she’s so laser-focused, but there’s nothing there. The dog remains unconvinced and becomes more agitated. Now I’m wondering what she knows that I don’t know. On the off chance something’s hiding, I angle the furniture away from the wall and find a big, fat lizard, at least 8 inches long.

So, once again I corral the dogs and lock them up. Then I chase the lizard around the house until I catch it. Actually, I caught it 3 times, but it kept escaping. The 4th time was the charm and Mr. Lizard is now enjoying the outside…where he belongs.

Of course, neither of these visitors compares with the alligator who crashed a window to enter a house elsewhere in Florida. Thankfully—and with apologies to that homeowner—I’m glad the gator was not my unwanted visitor #3.

I consider myself to be a lover of nature, but I’m sure you’ll understand when I say some components of nature belong outside and need to remain there.

Which brings me to us…

How do we know where we belong? Or who we belong to?

For Christ-followers, I Corinthians 3:13 tells us Christians belong to Christ. So what we do and where we go should be guided by who we belong to.

Just as a tree frog does not belong in my house, there are places I don’t belong either. This is not about being legalistic, nor is it about isolating ourselves from those who don’t know Christ. It is about making wise choices about my entertainment, the work I do, and the values I espouse. It has everything to do with the books I read, movies I watch, and how I spend my time.

True confession…when I was a new Christian in my early 20s, I was invited to be a bridesmaid for a childhood friend. Her bachelorette party was a girls’ night out at a bar watching men dance and encouraging them with dollar bills—if you know what I mean.

I knew I did not belong there. I was as out-of-place as that tree frog in my living room. But I didn’t have the courage to decline, and I didn’t have the courage to leave by myself after our group arrived. Instead, I sat in a corner, slumped down in my seat, nursed a soda, and prayed the night would end quickly.

Oh, and I prayed for one more thing. You see, as a fairly new Christian, I had only recently learned about eschatology (theology related to end-times). I was terrified Jesus might return that night. I did not want to be seen coming out of a male dance club to join Jesus in the air!

That embarrassing and convicting evening happened almost 40 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. And the lesson has stayed with me all these years: don’t go where I don’t belong.

I belong to Christ. My identity is wrapped up in Him. The direction of my thoughts, the words I speak, the things I do, and the places I go are to reflect Who I belong to. That means listening for the prompting of the Holy Spirit to do or go—or not to do or go, rather than following other people. It means understanding that what is okay for someone else, even other Christians, will not always be okay for me.

It also means being willing—and having the courage—to stand alone in obedience to Adonai, the sovereign Lord who purchased me out of the slave market of sin to belong to Him.

Who do you belong to?
If you belong to Christ, do your choices reflect your identity?


 
Justice, Mercy, or Both?

Look around. Listen to the politicians. Read the headlines. Talk to your neighbors and coworkers. It won’t take long before two themes emerge.

Justice and mercy. But rarely do these two words occur in the same sentence, or even in the same conversation.

There’s a lot of talk about justice. Criminal justice. Social justice. We have a keenly developed sense of what we think is right and wrong. We demand justice for ourselves and for those who need us to stand up for them.

Problem is, we can’t seem to agree on what justice looks like in every situation. What does justice look like for illegal immigrants? Or for babies developing in the womb?

It all depends on our worldview and the values we espouse. But if we’re honest, we have to admit that even if we hold a biblical worldview, we fall short in executing righteous judgment. Because there’s only one righteous Judge.

Then there’s the subject of mercy. I was challenged this week from the Beatitudes to consider what it means to be merciful. “Blessed are the merciful…”

Mercy.

I love the sound of this word when it applies to me. Who doesn’t want to receive mercy? On the other hand, not many of us want to extend mercy.

Most people, myself included, prefer to hand out judgment. You’ve wronged me? I want you to receive the consequences of your actions. My natural inclination is not toward mercy…unless I am the recipient.

Still, there’s at least one Bible verse that includes both concepts, justice and mercy, in the same sentence.

Micah 6:8 (NIV) tells us:

“What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

We’re to act justly. Not demand judgment, but act with justice. Consider the other person’s circumstances and respond with justice, despite our own opinions or preferences.

We’re to love mercy. Interesting, it doesn’t say extend mercy. It says we’re to love it. Some translations use the word kindness instead of mercy. Because mercy is meaningless if it isn’t demonstrated in a tangible way.

But there’s a third part: “Walk humbly with your God.” In many ways, this is the most important phrase in the verse—the phrase that ties it all together. If we have a right view of ourselves in relation to the God we belong to, then justice and mercy will flow out of our relationship in Christ, prompted by the Holy Spirit who indwells us. Will we be perfect in our execution? Not even close. But we’ll be moving in the right direction.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Still, there’s a hitch. The verse begins by saying this is God’s requirement for us. And the fact that it’s a requirement tells us it doesn’t come naturally. For if acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God flowed naturally, we wouldn’t have to be commanded to do it.

They’re not natural. They are intentional choices.

And perhaps, before we take on the problems of the world, we need to start closer to home. With our spouses and children. Our family and friends. The people we work with Monday through Friday and the people we worship with on Sundays.

What would life look like if we really did—intentionally—act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?

Let’s find out!


 
Fall Colors in Nature and in Us

Fall colors

Fall…the time when (in places other than Florida!) nature dons flamboyant garb as God paints His world with vibrant colors. Lush, supple leaves in shades of green gradually change color until the green is just a memory, replaced by vivid red, yellow, and orange.

But where do the fall colors come from? What causes the bright transformation each year?

Actually, those other colors were there the whole time.

Remember middle school science class? Chlorophyll in the leaves creates the green color. Other chemicals, such as carotene, create orange, yellow, and red pigments. The other colors are always there. But the work of the chlorophyll overpowers those chemicals and conceals the additional hues.

Shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the chlorophyll in the leaves to break down. Since the chlorophyll is responsible for the green color, as it breaks down, the other pigments are free to strut their stuff.

Of course, you know there’s a spiritual application in all this, don’t you?

Life can be moving along, fresh and lush. Good things are happening and you’re growing in the warmth of the sun. And then suddenly there’s a chill in the air as tragedy strikes.

You lose your job.

The bank is about to foreclose.

Your husband wants a divorce.

The prognosis is terminal.

And you and I have a choice.

  • We can curl up in a corner and surrender to defeat. Or we can allow the cold circumstances to reveal strength we never knew was there as we depend on God for His upholding.
  • Instead of being overpowered by a situation that would conquer most people, we can stand firm in the power of our heavenly Father.
  • We can become bitter because life didn’t turn out the way we wanted. Or we can grow in the grace of the Holy Spirit as we follow His leading.
  • We can resent our losses. Or we can trust the Lord for what He will give us in their place.

fall colorsOur choice will determine the colors that shine through our life.

Will you and I allow disappointment to be His appointment?

Will we allow God to turn our messes into messages?

Our tests into a testimony?

And our trials into triumphs?

Sometimes green is just for a season. But there’s a season for reds, oranges, and yellows, too. And even when those vibrant colors turn brown and it feels like there’s no coming back…

Fall follows summer.

Winter follows fall.

And spring follows winter.

And with spring comes tender shoots with lush green leaves…again.

What season are you in?
Which colors are you displaying?


 
How to Respond to Suffering

Suffering

Suffering is hard. So we work just as hard—if not harder—to avoid it. We don’t want to talk about it. And we run away from it. We devise detours that often end up causing even more complications.

Of course, no one wants to suffer. It’s even more difficult when we have to watch a loved one suffer. But the reality is that suffering is guaranteed for Christians.

  • Paul said it: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (II Timothy 3:12 ESV).
  • Peter confirmed it: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you” (I Peter 4:12 ESV).
  • And Jesus, Himself, said it: “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33 ESV).

The timing and degree of suffering may vary. Still, the one constant is that in this broken world, suffering is an experience few, if any, escape.

Two movies

Our aversion to viewing suffering was especially evident in the response to the recent release of two movies. I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ were released within a week of each other this spring.

Both movies have strong Christian themes, however one brought in box office receipts of more than $79 million to date, while the other grossed $17 million. The casts of both include well-known actors. One movie is based on a popular song. The other depicts the suffering of early Christians and the end of the apostle Paul’s earthly life.

Both movies also included a measure of suffering. And both ended with the death of a main character. But I Can Only Imagine had a happy ending, while the characters in Paul would experience their happy ending only when they reached heaven.

I wonder if the significant difference in box office receipts is related to the level of suffering depicted in each movie.

Choices

We have choices in how we respond to suffering. And some choices are more biblical than others.

Consider the following options:

  • Avoid it at all costs

Our natural tendency is to run from suffering as fast as we can. But this habit can develop into a lifestyle of hedonism: the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence. A hedonistic life values pleasure above all else. When experiences become inconvenient or unpleasant, our overriding focus is to escape as quickly as possible, regardless of the cost.

  • Seek it out

At the other extreme is masochism. A masochist actually finds pleasure in their own pain. Not only do they not avoid suffering, they seek it and relish it when it occurs.

While you may not know many people who are masochists, most of us know people who like to wallow in their suffering. Their lives are a continual pity party and their motto is “Woe is me” as they seek a steady stream of sympathy.

While the Bible gives us a lot of information about responding to painful circumstances, it never calls Christians to be masochistic. We are not to delight in suffering for suffering’s sake.

 

But there’s one more response to suffering—a response every Christian is called to have:

Walk Through It

Christians are called to walk through suffering. The Bible describes us what that looks like:

  • Consider yourself blessed

Jesus told His followers they are blessed when they are persecuted for righteousness (Matthew 5:10). Suffering and trials will come (John 16:33).

  • Share the comfort

The apostle Paul tells us that suffering develops empathy. We are able to take the comfort we received and in turn, comfort others (II Corinthians 1:4).

  • Maintain an eternal perspective

Paul also notes that suffering and affliction produces a glory than enables us to maintain an eternal perspective (II Corinthians 4:17).  It’s easy to focus on the present when we’re hurting. But this life is not all there is.

  • Be the Body

Paul reminds us that Christians are not called to suffer alone. We are to help each other, bearing each other’s burdens whenever possible (Galatians 6:2).

  • Learn from it

The writer of the book of Hebrews notes that sometimes pain and hardship occur as a result of the Lord’s loving discipline (Hebrews 12:5-7). C.S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Are we listening?

  • Grow from it

James wrote that we should count it as joy when we undergo trials. Not masochistic joy for the trial, but joy because we know the testing of our faith produces perseverance or endurance (James 1:2-4).

  • Continuing to do good

Peter tells us that while good deeds may cause suffering, we should not stop doing good just because life becomes difficult or painful (I Peter 3:17; 4:19).

As a 21st century, Western Christian, the concept of suffering, especially suffering for my faith, is fairly removed from my day to day experience. But early Christians (as well as contemporary Christians in other countries) knew what it was to live in fear for their lives simply because they self-identified as followers of Jesus Christ.

Going back to the two movies I mentioned earlier, when I watched Paul, Apostle of Christ, I was struck by a reminder. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to those early Christians who suffered for Christ as they passed the baton of faith to the next generation.

When it’s my turn, I pray I will follow their example.

How do you respond to suffering?


 
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