The Trail is Marked

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I am not a hiker by any means. But if I was, I would be concerned about the trails being properly marked. I did a little research. In the world of trail marking there is something called a “blaze.”

A blaze is a rectangle of paint in a prominent place along a trail. White-paint blazes two inches wide and six inches high mark the Appalachian Trail. (Which by the way is the nation’s longest marked trail – runs through 14 states and is over 2100 miles long.) Side trails and shelter trails use blue blazes; blazes of other colors and shapes mark other intersecting trails. 

Wow! Experienced hikers understand what all that means. There’s another trail that behooves us to know its’ markers, and that is the spiritual journey we are on.

I will soon be celebrating my 40 year anniversary of being a follower of Christ. Yes, I’ve been on some trails and learned some life lessons. All disciples are called to travel; no such thing as a “stay at home disciple.” 

I think one of the greatest secrets I’ve learned is found in the words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. “But after I have risen I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” (14:28)

The times when I most intensely seek the Lord’s guidance is when I can’t see the way and I need a breakthrough. Those 40 years of experience have not earned me a “cruise control” faith that never wavers; but they have taught me that Jesus has gone ahead to prepare the way.

Looking for trail markings? Need a breakthrough today? Peruse with me three insights from the Word…

“The Breaker [the Messiah] will go up before them. They will break through, pass in through the gate and go out through it, and their King will pass on before them, the Lord at their head.” (Micah 2:13) Need blazes on your trail? Gates not opening for you? Call on the Breaker!

“So [Israel] came up to Baal-perazim, and David smote [the Philistines] there. Then David said, God has broken my enemies by my hand, like the bursting forth of waters. Therefore they called the name of that place Baal-perazim [Lord of breaking through].” (1 Chronicles 14:11) I think it’s important to note here that we participate with the Lord in the breakthrough. He will break your enemies by your hand. 

“And when she was in labor, one baby put out his hand; and the midwife took his hand and bound upon it a scarlet thread, saying, This baby was born first. But he drew back his hand, and behold, his brother was born first. And she said, What a breaking forth you have made for yourself! Therefore his name was called Perez [breaking forth].” (Genesis 38:28-29)

I love the words of the midwife: What a breaking forth you have made for yourself! (Perez, the child by Judah and Tamar, is listed in the genealogy of Christ. Matthew 1:3)

Trust Him today to birth His promises in and through your life. Trust Him for the breakthrough.blaze_on_rock

Jesus always goes on ahead, leaving us a trail to follow.

The Other Four Stones

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“We will not sit down until he arrives.”  He knew there was a king amongst the sons of Jesse and there was only one that had not yet passed beneath his keen eye. Like Simeon to come, Samuel’s horn was filled with oil as he awaited the entrance of a future king. Prophets carry a sense of urgency within; the Holy Spirit beckoning through them: I’ve called this one; I’ve chosen that one. Raise them up; anoint them – to fulfill their calling.

The greatest prophet is Jesus Christ – the Bridegroom,  horn full of oil, sent to call out kings and priests into their assignments. Only a small fraction will be national figures like King David, but every one of us is called to be a giant slayer.

David was around 16 years old when he was anointed by Samuel. He would not actually rule as king till some 14 years later. In God’s training there is a selection process and there is a development process.

Even before he was called in from the field, he was learning valuable life lessons in his marketplace job. No doubt this included practice with the sling & stone. It took only one to slay the giant, but he had four others in his pouch.

Let’s look at the other four stonesfour principles, or life lessons, foundational to having breakthrough and being consistent in victory.

DAVID WAS FAITHFUL IN LITTLE BEFORE GOD GAVE HIM MUCH

Imagine yourself as a worship leader looking for a ministry assignment. A door opens up to serve at a church where the Holy Spirit has left the senior pastor and he is battling demonic oppression. What an opportunity!!

God leads him to function in the area of worship, serving this man who was no longer under God’s favor. I can only imagine Saul being a bit draining to be around. This would not be my choice of a man to serve under. Meanwhile, David’s part time job continues to be caring for the sheep.

DAVID OVERCAME A NON-SUPPORTIVE FAMILY STRUCTURE

One day, David was dispatched by his father to bring food to the troops. He made inquiry amongst the troops about what the reward would be for the one who killed the giant. His elder brother heard him and became angry: Why did you come down here? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your pride and the insolence of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle. (17:28)

Jesus had a similar experience with his own siblings. “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him. (John 7:3-5)

The giants to be overcome are not just “out there”; they can also be right in the midst of our families or lodged into the identity stream of our memories.

Everyone seems to be tested in two family arenas: family of origin and church family. These are institutions ordained by God. They carry great potential for healing and great potential for wounding.

To the natural mind, it makes sense to avoid relationships, if you’ve been hurt. David could have easily just focused on his regular job and kept his distance from the dysfunctional families. (I can worship God just as well out here in the fields and not have to deal with these people!)

We will all have to deal with pain at some level over the course of life. We are hurt in the context of relationships; we are healed in the context of relationships.

DAVID KNEW WHAT WAS RIGHT AND COMFORTABLE FOR HIMSELF

Others may have molded you in the past when you had no choice in the matter but now you do have a choice. Let God into every area of your life, so that he can guide you into honing your gifts, calling, and ministry style. (Note: David’s refusing Saul’s armor is not to be confused with passivity or refusing to learn new skills. In other words, God will at times call you out of your comfort zone into something brand new. I would not advise using “Saul’s armor” as a loophole response.)

DAVID DID NOT REMAIN IN A DEFENSIVE POSTURE. HE TOOK THE INITIATIVE

Your giants won’t fall unless you go out to meet them. Victories are not won standing still.

God is calling us to “enlargement.” He will even motivate us to run to the battle by making our places of retreat and false security, too miserable to remain in.

The other four stones: let’s review these principles of preparation.

THE STONE OF FAITHFULNESS

Apply what God has already shown you. Be faithful in the little. David ministered to a lousy boss that even God left. He took care of some sheep in no man’s land, risking his life against wild beasts.

THE STONE OF RECONCILIATION

Wounds from the family must be resolved not buried.

THE STONE OF UNIQUENESS

Don’t wear what others put on you. Be who you are in Christ.

THE STONE OF ACTION

Move towards the place where boundaries are enlarged. Don’t run from the battle. Don’t play “defense” all the time.

Do we have these stones in our pouch?

When your Goliath is not falling, there will be clues in one or more of these areas.

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Mystery Incarnate

Over the past forty years of following Christ, I find the path behind me strewn with clarity. God is faithful. How could I have ever doubted? Yet when I am hedged in by difficult circumstances and unanswered questions, not knowing the end of my current story can feel lethal.

Continue reading here

The Fruitful Vacancy

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We live a lifetime of transitions. “Things end, there is a time of fertile emptiness, and then things begin anew.” I love the pairing of these two: “fertile” & “empty” – a productive, fruitful season of being vacant. We must learn how to navigate these transitional waters in our marriage journey.

We often describe this launching pad to change as a trial or a wilderness season. In our humanness, we just want it to end so we can feel good again and have tranquility in our lives. God sees the deeper purpose, working the faith muscle to build strength. A friend of mine once said, “God doesn’t pull me out of what He can perfect me through.” I have discovered over and over again that what God prizes is the interaction with my heart. One sign of maturity is when we prize intimacy, our encounters with God, higher than the end of the test.

Transitions are predictable, planned, and welcomed. They are also unpredictable, not planned, and traumatic; which is what I experienced in year twelve of our marriage. We had been on pastoral staff of a church for ten years and felt fruitful, comfortable, and content. (Does the word “pruning” come to mind?) Our three children, ages 8, 10, and 11, were integrated into the church family, had good friends, and we lived in a very nice, upscale parsonage. None of us desired to move. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to be initiated into a new adventure.

We were chosen to take the reins of a small church in a nearby city, whose pastor was retiring. It was challenging, as the church had suffered a failed building program, leaving them saddled with debt. One night after a board meeting at the new church they took us to see our proposed new living quarters. We went from “upscale” to “no scale!” It was pretty bad. The house had an oil burning furnace; we could see black soot on the furniture. The carpet was old and soiled and the odor was less than fragrant.

We decided to rent an apartment for a year while the church had the house remodeled. It was a major downgrade from our last house but it was livable; kind of cute actually, like a little cottage. My boys had a bedroom with a slanted roof, which had been an add-on to the back of the house. As they grew taller, we had to move their beds to the “short side” of the room. My daughter’s bedroom was the former exterior shed that was adjacent to the house. It was small, but enough for the essentials – bed, dresser, and guinea pig cage.

I know other guys in ministry whose wives would not have settled for such a scenario. But my beloved helped me to embrace the ending, endure the in-between time, and start afresh. Our new pastorate had its ebbs and flows like all churches do. The chapter ended after ten years when we turned over the reins of the church and went back to working regular full time jobs for the next four years. We were facing another ending.

Anne and I grieved the loss as our identities underwent change. People didn’t call me “Pastor Mike” anymore; we were not leading worship every week, which we both loved to do. Waves of vacancy beat upon our shoreline and it felt many times like our purpose was gone. On the sweet side, we spent the next four years just being “normal” people; husband and wife at the dinner table, no ministry talk. The circumstances became a new frame for our marriage portrait; we rediscovered the painting, the treasure of our friendship.

Further transition ensued a few years later with the death of my Dad, the last living parent between us. New beginnings must come, and with them – endings. So I’ve resolved to face the fertile emptiness when it comes. This I know – the waves will recede but the fruit remains.

Father of Lights

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It gets complicated; I understand. Being fatherless hurts; being fathered wrongly hurts too. I respect the wounds endured by children. And though it’s very, very hard at times, we must learn how to trust when God makes a promise.

Much of life is learning to trust in the Father of Lights – provider of every good and perfect gift. Salvation is the chief gift and the one by which we were born again, becoming “first-fruits” of his transforming power. His is the light that will never be eclipsed; in Him there is no shadow of turning. (James 1:17-18)

Writing to encourage believers to endure trials and suffering, James assures them that God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. But we are tempted by our own evil desires, which give birth to sin and eventually to spiritual death. Do not be deceived is the warning; for the Father of Lights is full of nothing but, light. One chief component of Satan’s strategy is to wrestle us into a belief system where God cannot be relied upon.

The epic contest of light versus darkness requires the full participation of the army of God on earth. “Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues people under me.” (Psalm 144:1-2) Even to connect with our loving God at a deep level can be an intense battle in and of itself. He trains our hands for war, in the midst of war.

Today, we have the tangible foretaste of light and glory, which serves as a constant reinforcement in the battle: “God…made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:6-7)

Earthen vessels are fragile; jars break easily. Our weakness and life’s brevity serve as an aid to humility. “Lord, what are human beings that you care for them, mere mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a fleeting shadow.”  It is in this weakness that His strength is perfected. I am not invincible but God is.

One of the last promises in the New Testament assures us:  “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” (Revelation 21:4-5)

Thank God for the measure of transformation we’ve experienced; what a gift! But there’s more. Many other gifts, each good and perfect, are coming down from above, as the Father of Lights – Abba Father – showers us with redemption in this world of shadows.

 

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The Remnant is Grace-Filled

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See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled. (Hebrews 12:15)

As a young boy I can recall my dad weeding our front lawn. He had this tool that no dandelion was a match against. Our lawn went from spotted yellow to all green. (Yes, I also learned to mow the lawn with a push mower, as in no power to turn the blades, much less self propelled!) Weeds have a tendency to take over a lawn or garden, don’t they? Once they spring up, the surrounding growth is at risk, unless someone intentionally removes them.

Obtaining the grace of God is the tool we must use daily to combat bitterness.

The best “bang for your buck”, getting good results that is, will be to attack bitterness on the front end, in its’ seedling stage. Otherwise, the roots become entangled with other roots and we’ll soon have a conglomerate of soul inhibitors to deal with. Common partners in crime with bitterness are resentment, sarcasm, and anger.

A distinctive element about tools is they are most effective when diligently used. That’s the meaning of the Greek word translated “see to it” in the verse above. It means “looking diligently” and is only used one other time in the New Testament, in First Peter: Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight. (5:2)

What Peter is exhorting the elders to do for the flock, is what we need to do for ourselves – “self shepherding.” 

The destructive power of bitterness should never be taken lightly. It is one of the most difficult infections to heal in the body. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. (Deuteronomy 29:18-19)

Bitterness is: failing to obtain the grace of God; walking in stubbornness. The Hebrew word used for “safe” is “shalom.” A false peace is established when one feels justified to remain bitter. This so called “peace” or “safety” can only be sustained by remaining focused on ways that we were offended and hurt. Refusing to forgive is a common “on ramp” to bitterness and will hinder the flow of grace.

Paul exhorted Timothy to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:1) The Word made flesh, came full of grace of truth, and we have beheld His glory. John declares of Jesus: Of His fullness we have all received grace upon grace. (1:16) The literal meaning is grace taking the place of grace. Like the manna provided in the wilderness, we have new grace for each new day.

The testimony of the remnant will always be, “We have endured by obtaining the grace of God.”

Overcoming Weariness

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“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

In my last post, “Left Behind”, I introduced the subject of the remnant. In the natural realm it reflects a reduction in size while in the spiritual realm, the remnant and its companion of pruning, is unto enlargement, not however without testing. The ability to endure, to not grow weary, is a key to being fruitful in the kingdom; to stay steady when our natural senses are in negative reaction.

To overcome weariness we must face and conquer the following three foes:

Isolation: we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” These include the transcendent “church of the firstborn” (12:23) as well as our fellow pilgrims, those with whom we walk in present community. Herein is the key: stay surrounded – be intentional to be in community.

Weights: these are not necessarily sinful but they hinder personal growth. A word picture I like is that of wearing  construction type work books, heavy and bulky, to run the fifty yard dash. They are not illegal, but they will weigh you down for sure. In my experience, most of these come from two areas: lifestyle choices and brokenness.

Lifestyle choices containing very little spiritual sacrifice, that heavily lean towards recreation, hobbies, etc… may not be a transgression against God, but they can slow the pace of spiritual growth to where the enemy gains a leverage against you, and hence it can weigh you down.

Brokenness in my understanding, are the wounds we’ve sustained along the way, especially from our childhood. While containing threads of sin, it is predominantly untilled ground, filled with seeds of falsehood, which inhibit our reception of truth.

The wonderful promises of rebuilding the ruins, found in Ezekiel chapter 36, include this one: The desolate land shall be tilled instead of lying desolate…so they will say, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden.” (verses 34-35). Surrender of this heart ground to the Fathers’ plow will require the support of community, namely because we’ve worked hard to protect ourselves from facing the pain of our brokenness.

Sin: Being accountable in community, as well as lightening the load of desolation and brokenness, will strengthen us in our fight again sin, which has a “clinging” effect from habitual practice. We cannot win the victory in subjective aloneness or heavily laden with weights.

Weariness will take its’ toll on the heart. It leads to discouragement and eventual resistance to God’s training (discipline). We wonder: “Is it really worth it? After all, nothing is changing.”

The remnant however, will find a way to tap into the grace of God. Otherwise, a greater trouble lies ahead: the root of bitterness.

(To be continued)

 

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