Put Off the Old, Put On the New

trees with dead leavesIn late winter and early spring, before new plant growth occurs, there are still a few trees that are holding on to their brown and withered leaves. Through the entire winter season, the trees have clung tenaciously to those dry and dead appendages.

At some point, though, those leaves must fall. They cannot stay forever. Otherwise there would be no place for the new leaves to sprout and grow. The old must be gone to make room for the new.

That reminds me of something my friend, Paul, said. To both the Church at Ephesus and the one at Colossae, Paul wrote about “putting off the old self” and “putting on the new self.” (Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:9-10) Just like those leaves, there needs to be a putting off of one so the other can be put on.

Yet, there is a difference between us and those trees. It is a seemingly natural part of their existence to let go of those old leaves. We, on the other hand, need to make a conscious choice. To be sure, it is God Who empowers us to do it, but our will is still involved. He won’t force us to put off our old self. It is a cooperative effort. He will cause the new self to grow, but the old self has to go first.

May you, by His grace, put off the old.

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ice patchOn my recent prayer retreat, I walked through the woods. I often find this both relaxing and spiritually invigorating. Anyway, one day, on a downhill trek, I came upon a ravine. The pre-spring runoff from melted snow and the slight rain the day before was trickling down through the gully. But farther down the ravine I noticed a large chunk of ice on a rock. Despite the water running over it and the warmer temperatures for the last few days, it was still solid. Shaded from sunlight by the surrounding trees and aided by the cooler temperatures deep in the ravine, this ice had managed to remain frozen in place.

Immediately, I realized that there is a spiritual application. Despite receiving life-giving water from God, there are still parts of my heart that can remain frozen. Perhaps they are – intentionally or unintentionally – shielded from the warmth of God’s love. Maybe I have shut out the sunlight, allowing them to stay frozen.

Are there areas of your heart that need to be exposed more to the light and warmth of God?

(By the way, I went back the next day to take a picture. Guess what. The ice was gone. It had melted. I’ll let you draw your own analogy on that one. :-)  )

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walking in the woodsI just returned from a personal prayer retreat. One of my all-time favorite things is to walk and pray. This particular retreat area had lots of mowed paths as well as woods and open fields to trek through.

As I walked, it occurred to me that it’s pretty amazing how hiking on paths through fields and woods can resemble life.

  • Some paths may look inviting, but can end up being messy or even treacherous.
  • The steepest uphill climbs generally offer the best views.
  • It’s possible that a path that is winding and one that is straight will both get you to the same destination. Is one, therefore, emphatically better?
  • Paths that are difficult and overgrown will take you to places other people never see.
  • Some people won’t follow nicely mowed paths for very long. They prefer to blaze a trail. But that trail-blazing can make it easier for anyone who comes behind.
  • And having a guide – someone (or Someone) who knows the way – will always make the journey more bearable.

What’s your path look like today? I would enjoy hearing about it.

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Brand New?

butterflyOver the years, I have had the privilege of ministering in Eastern Europe on several occasions. I have come to cherish the people and the area. It is a fascinating part of the world with beautiful scenery and deep, rich traditions.

But there is an odd quirk there that always seems to leave me mystified.

Many in Eastern Europe were under communist oppression for as long as 70 years. As a result, they were extremely accustomed to the socialist government doing things for them. It became an ingrained part of life. So, now, more than 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, many people have still not fully come out from underneath that mindset. It was so much a part of their lives, that even though they are now part of a democratic society, they don’t act like it.

I think we Christians can have a tendency to do the same thing. 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” If we are born-again, we are not our old selves. We’re new. We’re brand new creatures.

Yet, we seem to have a tendency to forget that we’re not the same old people we once were. Too often, we act as though we’re no different than we were pre-Christ.

2 Peter 1:9 reminds us, “For whoever lacks these qualities (the godly characteristics mentioned in the previous verses) is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.”

If forgetting that we have been cleansed of our former sins is the reason we are not living differently – in other words, we’re not acting like new creatures – then the answer is remembering. Remembering that Jesus already paid the price and our sins are gone.

As we call to mind that Christ has cleansed us through His death and resurrection, it changes us on the inside, and that, in turn, changes the outside. Through His mercy, we begin to, more and more, act like the new creatures He has made us into.

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The Lord Is With You

He Is With YouThe Old Testament story of Joseph is fascinating. Think about it. He was removed from his family, sold into slavery, and sent to a foreign country far from home. If Joseph had ever given any thought to his future – and, if you read the story, he clearly had – I’m pretty sure this is not the future that he had imagined. This was the nightmare future, the dream that you wake up from sweating and panting and ecstatic to realize that it was just a dream.

But it wasn’t a dream for Joseph. It was reality. And a very harsh and potentially devastating reality.

But there is an interesting statement that is repeated.

The first time it occurs was back when Joseph had just come to the house of Potiphar, his new Egyptian master. In other words, Joseph had recently become the property of another human being. Let that sink in for a minute.

We know that Joseph apparently eventually had great freedom in the house of Potiphar, but that wouldn’t have been the case at first. A new slave would likely have been shackled. Until they got to know him, there was no chance they were going to give him the opportunity to run away.

Picture the scene in your mind. It began several days earlier when he was thrown into a pit by his brothers. They intended to kill him, but changed their minds. Instead they sold him into slavery. Now, here he was, the property of an Egyptian army officer. It is doubtful that Joseph spoke Egyptian at that point, so there is a serious language barrier with his new owner. And he is likely chained, maybe around his ankle, so he can’t run off.

Not the most pleasant of circumstances, is it? Would you be interested in swapping your current situation for Joseph’s?

And yet there is a phrase in Scripture while Joseph is in that very situation that is stunning to me. Genesis 39:2 tells us that, “The LORD was with Joseph.”

What?! With him? The Lord was with Joseph in his slavery? In his loneliness? In his being removed from his family?

Wait a minute! If the Lord was indeed with Joseph, why didn’t he change those circumstances? Why didn’t He rescue Joseph? Why didn’t He bring vindication to Joseph? After all, Joseph hadn’t done anything wrong.

Honestly, we don’t know the answer to those questions. What we do know is that God was with him.

Later, Joseph was thrown into prison – another step down in his life. Falsely accused, Joseph goes from having worked his way up to a nice job with a corner office, to being unceremoniously tossed into prison.

But, at that point, Scripture once again affirms “But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love” (Genesis 39:21)

He was just wrongfully put into prison. He was an innocent man. God knew he was innocent. The Lord could have rescued Joseph. But He didn’t. Instead, apparently God went into that prison with him.

“But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love…” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I know I’d rather be in prison with God than living in freedom without Him. I’d rather know His steadfast love in solitary confinement than to be in a crowd of people without His love.

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No Division

No DivisionNik Ripken has been described as the world’s leading expert on the persecuted church in Muslim contexts. For six years, he led a ministry in Somaliland, in Africa, that daily fed 50,000 people. During that time, Nik became frustrated by the evil perpetrated by the people there against one another. He couldn’t understand how people could be from the same clan, even the same family, and readily turn on one another. Then, one of the locals told him a traditional Somali saying he had heard all his life: “I and Somaliland against the world; I and my clan against Somaliland; I and my family against my clan; I and my brother against my family; and I against my brother.” [Nik Ripken, The Insanity of God, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN, 2013, pg 48]

That statement comes down to this: I will do whatever is necessary to be sure that, when everything is said and done, I win. I’ll stand with you, as long as it’s in my interest. But don’t cross me, or our relationship is done. In essence, it is saying that I am more important than everyone else.

When I first read that statement, I immediately thought of the implication for the Church. As Christians, we often are willing to stand together. Together, that is, unless you disagree with me about something. Then, rather than a member of the Body of Christ, now I am a Methodist or a Baptist or a Pentecostal or … whatever. I no longer see you as being on the same team. You have become my enemy.

The same thing happens in individual congregations. We stand together … until you don’t agree with me about something. When that happens, I vilify you. You have become my enemy.

I and the Church against the enemy; I and my denomination against the Church; I and my congregation against my denomination; I and by brother against my congregation; I against my brother.

It’s the same mindset that Nik Ripken found appalling in his work in Somaliland. And it’s apparent, from an honest look at Scripture, that God finds it appalling in His Church. We are not a bunch of individuals all just doing our own thing. We have been made one in Him “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” (1 Corinthians 12:25)

What would happen, do you suppose, if we all really saw ourselves as – and acted like – the Body of Christ?

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Andrew ThomasAre you ready? It could happen at any moment. You’re not exempt. Even if you’re the perfect specimen of health and you always eat your daily allotment of fruits and vegetables, there is still no guarantee. So, are you ready?

Andrew Thomas passed away yesterday. Although he lived four states away, and we generally only saw each other once a year, he was a dear friend. Don’t misunderstand. In many ways we were opposites. He was black, and I’m … not. He was originally from Great Britain; I stopped in the airport in London once on my way back from Eastern Europe. He was laid back, gentle and kind; I’m hard driving and too frequently far from gentle and kind.

And Andrew cared deeply. One evening I got stuck at the Harrisburg airport. Bad weather in other areas had radically altered flights that day. So, I faced the prospect of spending the night at the airport. Instead, Andrew came and picked me up, let me stay at his house, and took me back to the airport in the wee hours of the morning. I was clearly not an imposition in his mind. He enjoyed the opportunity to serve.

I don’t think I can recall all the people I have met who would say that Andrew had a major impact on their lives. This was especially true – although not exclusively – for worship leaders who he encouraged and mentored. There are many. Andrew was a friend to everyone. One of his Facebook friends said it well in a post on his wall this morning. “Souls that pour out the love of Jesus into everyone they meet are missed the most!”

Best of all, though, Andrew knew salvation through Jesus’ atoning work. He walked closely with his Redeemer. The words of Jesus were internalized in Andrew in a profound way. They came popping out at just the right moment, when they were most needed. And they were lived.

Praying for Andrew’s wife, Caron, and children, Kim and Stefan.

Andrew Thomas, my friend, I look forward to seeing you again, as we gather before the throne of grace.

So, back to my original question: Are you ready? “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) Ready? Andrew Thomas was.

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