Monday, February 27, 2012

The Whispering Spirit

As quiet as the sound of snow falling...
try not to make God yell at you
when He wants to whisper.
I think pastors often say things that their flock might not understand.  Just as often I wonder if even the pastor understands what he says.  Today, I want to talk about “listening to the Holy Spirit” – a church term used as frequently as “Welcome”, but shrouded in mystery and confusion.  To illustrate:

I’ve mentioned my money-pit house before.  I’ve had more than my share of problems with the garage door.  Numerous service calls and many hundreds of dollars invested left me only wearier when new problems arose.  Several years ago, I just threw up my hands.  The door had “seized up” somehow so I just popped the hitch off the powered door opener and we raised and lowered the heavy door for close to a year, maybe more.  That means we also left it unlocked.  No harm befell us, but I certainly put the persons and property of our house at risk.  Let me break here for a word from our Sponsor.
And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. … But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth. (John 16:8-10, 11a)
In a flood of final instructions before Jesus was crucified, He promised us that the Holy Spirit would come and help us realize more fully (convict) the realities of Sin, Righteousness, Judgment, and Truth – four things that we really need to know more about to successfully follow Jesus.  But how does the Holy Spirit do that?  Do we get a text message saying, “Don’t gossip.” or “Put more money in the plate.”?  That’s never happened to me, how about you?

Do you believe you have a conscience?  What is it?  How do you know you have one?  Would you agree that your conscience leads you or prompts you to do something?  I believe the conscience is our sixth sense and this is how we sense the conviction of the Holy Spirit.  I recommend that followers of Jesus spend time in prayer asking God to heighten their sense of the Spirit.  And I always point out this word from our Sponsor:
And [the Word of the Lord] said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”  (1 Kings 19:11-12)
… and the LORD was in the still small voice.  This passage is about a contrast in the levels of force and sound volume.  “A still small voice”… sounds like a whisper to me.  I think the point is that God does not prefer to yell and scream at us.  I don’t think God appreciates having to shout above the clutter of our world to communicate with us.  He wants to whisper to us as a Father comforting His child at nap time.  If you want to hear from the Spirit, you desperately need to find a time to slow down, settle down, and listen up.  Don’t make God shout at you.

Now where was I?  House… money pit… garage door… yes, garage door.  You know what was wrong with the door opener for the year (or more) that we lifted and closed it manually?  On top of the  wall-mounted opener pad is a little switch.  It seems this switch locks and unlocks the unit.  Someone sometime somehow pushed this switch to OFF.  I’d paid for two service calls and finally gave up – inconveniencing my family and myself (not to mention the safety issue) for a year because neither I nor the service folks ever noticed this still small switch in the wrong position.  The word “fool” comes to mind.

Follower of Jesus, are you missing something?  Are you inconvenienced or at risk spiritually because you are not sensing the Holy Spirit convicting you of sin, righteousness, judgment, and truth?  Maybe you need to slow down, turn off the noise, and tell God you’re ready to listen.  I can’t tell you what your perceptions will be.  If you realize that your conscience has a dynamic role in your life, I’d beg the Holy Spirit to speak through your conscience to help you follow Jesus even more closely.  And pay attention when you get even a still small whisper from your conscience.  Heeding it may save you a quakenado of trouble.

Clark H Smith

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Abusers of His Grace

Today, not only am I going to give you TWO illustrations, I’m going to follow up on the topic I discussed in my last post

“Grace” means we get the salvation that we don’t deserve – for free, we don’t have to do anything to get it.  A friend recently posed a thought to me, “Don’t you think God makes salvation too easy?”  In essence, if we had to work at it a little more, don’t you think followers of Jesus would take their salvation more seriously?  Let me illustrate this kind of grace by telling you about my cousin Gregory, whom I admire deeply.

In the late 1960s, Gregory walked into a barber shop and said to the barber, “Sir, I don’t have enough money to pay for a haircut right now, but if you’ll let me work in your shop, sweeping up hair or whatever, until I have earned enough to pay for a cut, I’d really appreciate it.”  The old barber looked at him and motioned for him to sit down in a chair.  “Any young man who actually wants a haircut these days can have one.  It’s on me.”

That’s grace.  Gregory didn’t ask for anything for free, but the one who in charge of haircuts offered it for free – no work to be done before or after.  All Gregory had to do was sit in the chair and receive what the barber offered him.  Easy Peasy.  Let’s catch a word from our Sponsor:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
For followers of Jesus, salvation is free.  Oh, it cost plenty!  A sinless Jesus, who was pronounced innocent by the highest legal authority, was crucified – an extraordinarily cruel, painful, and humiliating death between two pirates.  But it’s free to us and sometimes we treat free stuff (“you get what you pay for”) with disregard.  I once recommended a teenage Christian rocker rename his band “Abusers of His Grace” – because that’s what we do.  We abuse the free gift God gave us.  He saved us from the consequences of sin, but all too often, we take that salvation from sin as a license to sin.  Follower of Jesus, are you an Abuser of His Grace?

There’s no quick cure for this.  The Holy Spirit works in our lives (see John 16) to draw us away from sin and move us toward righteousness.  It’s a life-long process and it’s never complete.  (If you know a perfect person, please point them out to me.)  For me, a major step toward desiring not to abuse God’s grace was to see sin the way God sees it.  Every sin is a hammer-strike driving a nail into Jesus’ hands.  It’s a thorn digging into His brow.  It’s a rivulet of salty sweat running down into a back lashed open with 39 strikes from a metal-tipped whip.  Every sin – past, present, and future – caused a mother to watch her innocent son tortured and killed.  You think your white lie, your gossip, your moment of lust, your anger, your pride… you think it’s no big deal?  Follower of Jesus, stand by Mary at the cross and tell her, “No biggie, I’m saved.” 

Catch a load of this piece of junk pictured on the right.  I can call it junk, I’m not the insurance company that covered this “work of art” for $1,081,644 only to have it accidentally “cleaned up” by a janitor – ruining the art installation.  (Read the full story.)  You see, the artist intended the sculpture to look like a bucket that had caught rainwater which had leaked from the ceiling and subsequently dried in the black tub below.  Talk about “shabby chic”.  The janitor thought it was a mess that needed to be cleaned up – that was her job!

You know where I’m going with this, right?  God wanted to clean us up, He sent His Son to do the dirty work.  But we, followers of Jesus, often times find it fashionable, even preferable, to keep on looking like the trashy world we are supposed to be saved from.  Make sense to you?  Me neither, but it’s the story of my life.  Like I said, there’s no quick fix, but if you are serious about following Jesus, you will make progress.  Bookmark this post and the one from Feb 20.  Mull all this over for a while.  Make a note on your calendar to come back and read these two posts and see if you’re making progress on your own or if you need to cry out to God begging for help getting cleaned up.  He’s like a barber I know, He’s always eager to help someone who really wants help.

Clark H Smith

Monday, February 20, 2012

“No” Means “No”

Every family has its own unique style of humor.  I don’t think the Smiths and the Cowans (my mom’s family) are more unique than any other family, but we’ve been known to be pretty quirky.  Here, let me illustrate:

Carl and the gal he went a'courtin'.
My dad, Carl, met his future bride, Ruth at college in Texas in the ‘30s.  Love blossomed quickly.  One summer, Carl wanted to be around Ruth between semesters so he traveled down to the Texas Hill Country to be around the Cowans – one in particular.  He spent the summer cutting cedar trees for fence posts.  Word got around that Carl was going to ask Ernie, Ruth’s dad, for Ruth's hand in marriage.  Ernie was a sweet man with a wry sense of humor that permeated throughout his family.  Word found its way (through the feisty Cowan boys) back to Carl that “no matter what Carl said, the answer was going to be ‘NO’.”   You know I love a cliff-hanger so let’s break here for a word from our Sponsor:
For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. …  For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. (Romans 7:15, 19)
Followers of Jesus, it is expected, want to say “No” to temptations from Satan… and to the sin that follows if we do not resist temptation.  Followers of Jesus understand this tension between knowing what you should do and what you actually do.  Paul may well have been the most mature Christian who ever lived, but he did not experience perfection.  HOWEVER, Paul was never satisfied with imperfection.  He constantly strove to say “No” to Satan and “Yes” to the higher calling of Jesus’ perfection (see Philippians 3).  Followers of Jesus must never let the tension between good and evil overcome us.  Daily we pray for guidance and encouragement to just say “No” to temptation.  It’s not easy, but it is the only path to victory.

Well, back at the ranch, Carl knew what Ernie’s answer was going to be long before he ever asked the big question.  That turned out to be quite an advantage for the strapping young lad from the Panhandle.  As my dad liked to say, “I screwed my courage to the sticking-place” and met up with Papa Cowan – knowing full well, the answer was going to be a resolute and final “NO”. 

“Mr. Cowan, do you have any objection to me marrying your daughter?”

Papa Cowan and the daughter he "lost"
due to an unforeseen flip of the script.
(And your hosts tiny little forehead
in the foreground.) 
Half the Hill Country fell silent as Carl flipped the script.  But Ernie Cowan’s word was his bond, he surrendered, “No.”  That’s the kind of cleverness and humor that’s imprinted all Carl and Ruth’s kids and their kids.  Early on in my sons’ lives I told them that story and then tested to see what they’d learned.  Expectant young lads would enter the room and begin their plea, “Dad…”.  I’d cut them off at just the prologue.  “The answer is ‘No’.  What is your question?”  They new something was afoot.  Isaac, the oldest, figured out quickly how to flip the script.  Noah, the Cookie Monster, knew that he needed to reverse something, but couldn’t always work it out… “May you please not let me have any more cookies, please?”  They always got their permission, but they also received an ancient blessing of humor from the salt cedar groves of central Texas.

Follower of Jesus, the struggle against sin is difficult and life-long, but don’t give up.  I do not pretend to simplify a battle that has raged since the Garden of Eden, but I want to plant this in your mind as a starting point.  When Satan tempts you, “Wouldn’t you like some wealth / popularity / gratification / fill-in-your-particular-blank?”, is saying “No” the right answer? 

Personally, I’d love some wealth today, maybe some immediate gratification while I’m at it.  “No” is not the true answer.  “Yes” is what I want to say.  So let’s try this, “Yes, the temptation you put before me is exactly what my life-on-earth would like.  Nice selection.  But Satan, I’ve already said ‘Yes’ to the higher calling of following Jesus, so I’m going to continue pursuing that.”  Flip the script and call upon the Holy Spirit to remind you of your upward journey.  You said “Yes” to Jesus.  “Yes” means “Yes”.

By the way, Carl and Ruth, they lived happily ever after.  Amen.

Clark H Smith

Monday, February 13, 2012

“On Tilt”

Leonard Cohen wrote a song so powerful and beautiful that he’s found himself suggesting performers strike it from their audition lists for a while.  “Hallelujah” has become the go-to, “pull out all the stops” anthem for American Idol contestants (among others) to the extent that the author fears its becoming clich├ęd.

“I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

With a little Samson mixed in for good measure, Cohen speaks sympathetically of King David’s “minor fall” and “major lift.”  David was a songwriter, too, and sung his own version of Hallelujah in Psalm 51:10-12:
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
The story of David and Bathsheba is found in 2 Samuel 11.  It is surely one of the most read, discussed, and sermonized passages in the Bible.  But I’ll wager that not one of my readers have ever heard a sermon on 2 Samuel 10.  Note this word from our Sponsor about how the David and Bathsheba story begins:
Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle. (2 Samuel 11:1)
Do you know why March is named “March”?  In ancient times, the annual calendar began in the Spring.  You think tulips and bunnies; ancient kingdoms thought swords and battering rams.  With winter weather over and travel easier, “Spring Break” meant “Forward, March!” – March being named after Mars, the god of war.  Samuel chapter 11 takes place while the war is waging.  (Remember David sends Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, out to the battlefront, hoping he will die.)  But what caused the war in the first place – that is the more compelling story.

The prior chapter, 2 Samuel 10, is full of international diplomatic intrigue, deception, ego-driven posturing, and bluff-calling.  Please read the passage yourself very soon.  Basically, the Ammonites (in modern day Jordan, east of the Jordan River) humiliated two of Israel’s minor ambassadors.  An old-school Cuban Missle Crisis blew up only this time the two sides actually went to war.

Put aside any potential pious bias for a minute and ask, “was this war necessary?”.  It all began with a misunderstanding.  Two emissaries got humiliated – their pants taken off and beards shaved half off.  Is that worth 40,700 men dying?

Here’s my take, in Chapter 11 King David was “on tilt”.  In poker, when a player suffers a “bad beat” (an unexpected loss with the last card dealt), it is said that he plays the next few hands “on tilt” – or playing based on anger and humiliation rather than the shrewd tactics that had gotten him into the big game to begin with.  David swelled up and took grave offense at an immature act by the Ammonites and 40,700 sons, husbands, and fathers died.  Make that 40,700 + 1 – Uriah died, too. 

And while “all the kings men” were out waging war, David (accompanied by the unholy trio of wounded ego, jangled nerves, and guilty conscience) was pacing the roof tops of Jerusalem – he was on tilt.  Hardly anything good happens when you’re on tilt.  You’re irrational, irritable, and frequently self-destructive as well as reckless with and toward others.

When you're "on tilt", you feel like you're
right side up and it's the world that's
out of balance.  That's usually not the case.
Followers of Jesus are not immune to tilt.  Day after day the world gnaws at us.  Sometimes it seems that we lose big bites out of our back side.  When that happens we do stupid things.  We wound the ones closest to us and we lose our courage to face the conquerable challenges of life.  The entire trajectory of our life – take David’s for example – is thrown off-course because we failed to find balance.  Anything can cause tilt, but as David’s story reveals, it always starts with how you handle rejection – real or perceived.  You didn’t get a promotion, the trash didn’t get picked up, you suffer some gossip, your spouse is cranky with you, a product at the supermarket is priced wrong, nobody mentioned your birthday… maybe you had to go to the post office today – “going postal” is an extreme case of “on tilt”.  I have a relative who committed suicide when the toilet overflowed.  No foolin.  You don’t think he was “on tilt”, do ya?

The remedy is simple, isn’t it?  Our sponsor invites us to “cast all your cares upon Him because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).  I believe that is true, but this also calls to mind a child’s wisdom when he told he had a friend, Jesus, up in heaven, “I know, but right now I need Jesus with skin on.” 

From personal experience, I can tell you it is critically important for every follower of Jesus to have at least one friend, close as a brother/sister, who you can call out to when you’re on tilt.  When you find yourself on tilt, let a confidante know that you’re hurting and need someone to right your ship.  Men, especially, need to learn it’s better to be vulnerable and transparent than to live on an island.  As my friend, Nathan Jones, puts it so well,  "we all need someone to lean on."  (I believe he's remind us old-timers of a great song from our ill-spent youth!)

Listen to wisdom – create or nurture a relationship that may well save the world your version of 40,701 dead men.  Listen to wisdom.  If I can be that kind of friend to you, I promise, I will be.

Clark H Smith

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel so I learned to touch
I told the truth, I didn't come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord in song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Thursday, February 2, 2012

This LOL'd House

I’ve lived in my current home for 11 years.  Other than my childhood home where I lived for 12 years, this is the longest I’ve lived in one place.  The house was about 20 years old when we bought it – not very old in house-years.  But over the last decade, I’ve been surprised by the upkeep I’ve had to pour into the house.  

As soon as we moved in, the one-year-old roof started leaking.  Within a year, the exterior paint was screaming to be overhauled.  And the carpet throughout the house has ripples in it.  There are a few other annoyances around that house that show the place just hadn’t been maintained well before we bought it.  Every Saturday morning I wake up to a honey-do list of repairs.  I also wake up to the memory of a conversation I had with the seller after we’d closed the deal.  It went something like this:
Me:  So, Ed, you’re a lawyer.  What kind of legal work do you do?
Ed:  Oh, you know, divorces, DUIs, defense work for misdemeanors and small felonies – the kind of stuff [cases] you get sitting at bar.  I go to Johnny’s after work and just talk to people.
And then, connecting another passing conversation, it dawned on me – Ed’s clients were also his housing trades contractors.  All the work had been done with trade-out labor.  Ed represents old Bob on a DUI in exchange for laying some new carpet.  Dwayne and the Missus split up so Ed got a new roof out of it for just the cost of materials.  My entire house has been “kept in shape” by Johnson County’s criminal element.  Makes sense now.  Let’s grab a couple words from our Sponsor… look out, here come da’ Judge!
They were utterly astonished, saying, “He has done all things well; He makes even the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” (Mark 7:37)
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going. (Ecclesiates 9:10)
(This last one is kind of funny.  I know a pastor who brags about saying this to his son all the time.  It’s kind of weird because it actually says, “You’re going to die and be buried, might as well do a good job today.”  Encouraging words?)
Throughout scripture, followers of Jesus are called to excellence.  The way we live our lives is a testimony to our sense of self-worth and also the value we find in God loving us.  Long before Jesus was revealed to be our Savior by conquering Death, He lived excellently.  He didn’t feed five people, He fed 5000.  We didn’t wade in water, He walked on it.  He didn’t say “I’m sorry you feel bad”, He told the lame man, “pick up your bed”.  

Yes, many things Jesus did were miracles, but even more of His life was revealed in His speech and His daily activity.  He didn’t slack off or do things half-way.  I really think somewhere in Israel right now there are a couple kitchen chairs that are just over a couple thousand years old - built to last by the Carpenter of Nazareth.  Followers of Jesus are called to follow Jesus’ excellence as well.  People should be saying about you, “he/she does all things well.”

I’m going to stray off the reservation here to relate another personal story.  When I’m not writing illustrations about following Jesus, I yack about barbeque restaurants.  A few weeks ago, I had an experience that was not so great and I wrote a review that reflected as much.  I shared the review with the restaurant owner.  To my amazement, I got the sweetest email back from him.  In short, he re-committed himself to the claims he’d made about his joint.  We’ve dialogued several times since then.  I’ve discovered that he, too, is a follower of Jesus and he’s mentioned he wants to be excellent in all the areas of his life – consistent with his claims of being a follower, and a barbequer.  My heart soared when I heard that.  Philippians 4:8 (above) is one of his favorite passages.

Follower of Jesus, what does this illustration say to you.  Have you been giving God “trade-out” value – a get-it-done-and-get-it-over-with approach to following Jesus closely throughout the day?  Wouldn’t now, right now, be a good time to commit to staying right on Jesus’ heels and living a life that reveals the excellence He expects.  Let me hear from you.  I’d love to encourage you on your excellence adventure.

Clark H Smith