Happiness Vs. Joy? Give Up

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TODAY’S VERSE TO PONDER: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. – Romans 12:12 (NIV)

In his letter to Rome, the Apostle Paul explores what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means to humankind. Twelve chapters into the epistle, Paul dispenses a checklist of actions expected of a Christ follower. He paints a clear picture of what it means to offer ourselves as a “living sacrifice” to God.

Into one verse alone, Romans 12:12, Paul interweaves six huge concepts: joy, hope, patience, pain and struggle, faithfulness and prayer. All are essential ingredients to living our lives as sold-out followers of Jesus Christ.

Over the next week, I’ll explore each day what one of these concepts means to me personally as a believer. Let’s start with JOY.

The word “joy” appears 155 times in the New International Version of the Old Testament and another 63 times in the New Testament NIV. Clearly, joy is an essential concept in God’s Word.

At a key moment in biblical history, as Jesus was gathering with His disciples for their final meal together, He said, “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11 NKJV) Jesus directed His followers to rest in the love that God demonstrated for them and to keep His commandments.

What was the source of the joy that Jesus called “My joy” that He imparted to the disciples? Noted theologian Oswald Chambers, in his landmark devotional My Utmost For His Highest, contends that “the joy of Jesus was His absolute self-surrender and self-sacrifice to His Father.” Jesus found joy in His mission to give His life on the cross to fulfill God’s promise to make a way to salvation for those of us who believe.

Jesus then told the disciples to love one another, to love others, and to go out into the world and “bear fruit” by sharing the good news of salvation. He said the world would hate Christ followers. He said that discipleship has a real price, and that living out faith in Jesus Christ could cost us relationships, earthly freedom, even our physical lives.

The reward for obedience to God’s call to love, serve and spread the story of the resurrected Christ will be “joy no one will take from you.” (John 16:22 NKJV).

How many times have you said to yourself, “I just want to be happy” without knowing the true definition of joy? Simple happiness pales in comparison to full and complete joy, and Jesus Christ demonstrated the pathway to unspeakable joy.

In our culture, we have been conditioned to believe that the source of happiness is getting exactly what we want exactly when we want it. Countless times, we have heard people say, “I would be happier if…” and then complete the sentence with some reference to money, property, beauty, health, life experiences, relationships or other earthly desires. That stuff might bring happiness for a brief season, but none of those will ever yield true, full and lasting joy.

Joy is available to us only when we take our personal cravings out of the equation and submit ourselves completely to the will of God. It is acceptable, of course, to ask certain blessings from God, but if He chooses not to grant those requests, we should thank Him nonetheless and accept that He knows what is best for our lives. Joy is absolutely accessible to us when we surrender our lives to God and live every day as a living sacrifice to Him.

Joy and humility walk hand-in-hand. We might go through every day believing that we alone know what would be best for our lives, but joy will remain elusive if all we see is what WE want out of life. When we humble ourselves before God and say, “Use me to YOUR will, God,” a whole universe of possibilities for joy open up before us.

If you’re searching fruitlessly for that one thing that will make you happy, or you’re generally happy but have the feeling that there must be something more to life than what you’re experiencing, give up.

Literally. Make the decision today to give up your life to Jesus Christ, surrender to the will of God, make that Christ-directed commitment to love and serve others, and the lasting reward will be joy.

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Investing In Togetherness

 

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TODAY’S VERSE TO PONDER: Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. – Ecclesiastes 4:9 (NIV)

For so many, Thanksgiving weekend is a time for taking time off from work and school, laying out a big spread of food and spending time with family and friends. In a lot of families, mine included, the holidays are the only times each year when getting together with loved ones takes priority over the myriad responsibilities of daily life.

On this Saturday following Thanksgiving Day, my immediate family – my 81-year-old mother, my brother and sisters, their children and grandchildren – gathered at a nearby state park for a huge meal and fellowship. The idyllic setting was a picnic shelter where for years, when my father and grandmother were still living, our extended family hosted a yearly reunion with dozens of uncles, aunts and cousins in attendance. Sadly, that family tradition long ago faded.

Today, while the turkey, ham and all the fixings were spread out across several picnic tables, the memories flowed liked wine. We reminisced about my father and his infectious personality. We laughed at really bad jokes. We solved the problems of the world with speculation and commentary served up over pecan pie.

At the end of the day, we all made plans to gather again next month a few days before Christmas to try to recapture the magic. Then, we all drifted away to our respective homes to watch college football.

Unfortunately, such beautiful scenes of love and fellowship among family sound like outlandish, overly sentimental fiction to folks who live their lives estranged from family. Countless families have been torn apart by conflict and even by petty disagreements that never should be as toxic as we humans, in our pride and arrogance, allow them to become.

In far too many families, forgiveness and compassion are long lost virtues. Too often, differences in opinions and offenses – major and minor – lay silently unaddressed and are allowed to fester into long-standing estrangement.

The Bible tells us that we human beings are better together. We are not designed by God to live our lives in isolation from others; we are created to love and serve others in the same way that Jesus Christ loved and served those He encountered while on earth.

In times of crisis and conflict, especially within families, true forgiveness is rooted in humility. True conflict resolution rests in being able to set aside our pride and arrogance, embrace humility, and open up our hearts to seeing conflict through the eyes of others. There is no offense so heinous that it cannot be forgiven, if we are willing to pray for God to take away our pain and choose to offer others the same grace that God offers us – with the overriding desire to love and live in peace.

This is not to say that people should endure inherently abusive relationships. There is a big difference between resolution and reconciliation. In some cases, making peace with estranged family cannot translate into reunion; the best that can be hoped for in some relationships is God-honoring lack of conflict, forgiveness and a mutual agreement to part ways.

However, true reconciliation in families – the kind of conflict resolution that evolves into joyful holidays shared, long stretches of love and laughter, lasting memories – is available to most of us if we are willing to be humble and take the high road. The question: Is there someone in your life to whom you need to reach out and make peace today?

Peace just might be as close as the phone. Pray earnestly, then dial.

It’s Thanksgiving; Have Another Peace

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TODAY’S VERSE TO PONDER: For if you listen to the Word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away and forget what you look like. – James 1:23-24 (NLT)

On this Thanksgiving Day, many of us sat down at the dining room table, surveyed the feast in front of us and started making choices.

How much roasted turkey would we take from the platter, and would it be white meat or dark? Would we dip one scoop or two of Grandma’s savory oyster dressing, and would we top it with gravy? For dessert, would it be pumpkin pie or sweet potato casserole?

At the end of the Thanksgiving feast, would we choose a nap on the sofa or a trek down to the big-box store to stand in that epic line for the 4 o’clock in the morning door-busters?

Human life is full of choices. We make decisions every day from the time our eyes open in the morning, all throughout our day at work or school, back at home before and after dinner, and even in the moments as we drift off to sleep. Some of these turn out to be pretty good choices that bring us happiness, satisfaction and ultimately a closer relationship with God. Other choices crash and burn spectacularly.

There was a song in the 1980s with the lyrics, “I’m only human, of flesh and blood I’m made. Human. Born to make mistakes.” (“Human.” The Human League, 1986) The lyrical storyline is about a man and woman reunited after some time apart and their confessions to each other that, while separated, they both were unfaithful.

Unlike most human failings, there was one good thing about The Human League’s techno-pop confessional: You could dance to it. Sadly, most real-life confessionals leave those of us telling the hard truth with very little pep in our step. We’re more likely to find ourselves curled up in a fetal position after a particularly egregious human error.

Traditionally, the biblical Book of James is considered to have been written by one of Jesus Christ’s younger brothers. The Scriptures tell us that as Jesus began his public ministry, his family was skeptical of his claim to be the Son of God. The Gospel of Mark says his family thought Jesus was crazy. (Mark 3:21)

After Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the risen Savior appeared to James and the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:7), which inspired James finally to join the chorus of believers. Doubting the divinity of Jesus Christ is probably one of the worst mistakes an imperfect human can make.

Of course, not every error we modern-day humans commit rises to the level of looking straight into the face of Jesus and saying “You’re nuts.” The most common human mistake we make in our relationship with God is routine, everyday disobedience. 

God has given us a pretty clear set of instructions for how He wants us to live. It’s called the Bible. When we try to build our lives without following His instructions, the end result is never quite right.

God’s very first instructions to us human beings came way back in the beginning, when He told the first humans not to eat from a certain tree. God even warned these folks what would happen if they didn’t follow His simple instructions: Death.

Of course, being human and prone to temptation by God’s archenemy, the first humans bungled that one and messed things up for the rest of us. The downward spiral of human disobedience just continued from there.

Finally, a good while later after we humans had let God down time and time again, He decided to send Jesus Christ – God in human flesh – down to earth to give us the most simple and surest way to clean up our own messes. Eternal life in three simple steps: Confess, ask forgiveness and believe in Jesus Christ.

Still, many of us remain reluctant to accept God’s offer. Sadly, even those of us who have heard the Word of God and accepted the beautiful gift of salvation occasionally decide that we know better than God and willfully disobey His crystal-clear instructions.

As the Book of James tells us, it is in those moments that we might walk away from the mirror God and the Holy Spirit hold up to our lives and simply forget how we are supposed to look as Christ followers. I know that I am guilty of that very human mistake far too often.

The good news is, God gives us countless opportunities to go back, own up to our mistakes, look at ourselves again and remember the face of a true Christ follower. To see ourselves as God wants us to be, we have to choose humility over arrogance. We have to choose to be obedient to His instructions and surrender to His will for our lives. We have to choose God’s desires above our own.

The rewards of obedience to God are peace, joy and life with Him forever. Choosing peace with God, served up with a side of peace with ourselves and others, is unspeakably more satisfying than even the heartiest of Thanksgiving feasts.

The fullness of obedience to God and what He has in store for us if we will simply follow His recipe for our lives lasts a whole lot longer than turkey dinner, too. So… what’s your choice today?

Turkey Is Good; God Is Better

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TODAY’S VERSE TO PONDER: The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. – Lamentations 3:25 (NKJV)

Here we are on the eve of Thanksgiving, a day set aside in our culture to celebrate the blessings we have received in the previous year.

Thanksgiving in America is rooted in the earliest days of European settlement here, tracing its origins to 1619 in the Virginia Colony. There, some 38 English settlers held a religious ceremony to commemorate the arrival of their ship, the Margaret, at Charles City on the northern bank of the James River.

Traditionally, the Thanksgiving holiday also has commemorated a harvest celebration held in 1621 by the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower in 1620 and settled present-day Massachusetts at Plymouth Colony.

Thanksgiving officially became a holiday in the United States in 1863 under a proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, but the Civil War and its aftermath delayed a widespread nationwide observance of the holiday until the 1870s following post-war Reconstruction. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt set the date we now observe as the national holiday, the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving also is an official holiday in Canada and in the Caribbean nations of Grenada and Saint Lucia, which all celebrate in October. The west-African republic of Liberia and remote Norfolk Island in Australia observe Thanksgiving, too. The Norfolk Island celebration is a legacy of American whalers who sailed the region in the 1960s, and festivities include worship services and feasts of island cooking featuring local produce.

Here at home, Thanksgiving celebrations traditionally are equated with dining room tables weighed down with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. In some cases, the menu also offers parades, backyard football games, and passing out in the recliner as the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys play on TV.

Lately, some big-box retailers also have seized on Thanksgiving afternoon as a time to kick off their “Black Friday” sales early to get a jump on the Christmas shopping season. What seems to be missing in so many of these so-called “traditions,” new and old, is the time to pause, reflect and thank God for those aforementioned blessings.

In reality, for so many people, Thanksgiving begins a long season of chaos, stress, conflict and abject loneliness that continues through Christmas and into the new year. Last year, Consumer Reports magazine released a poll gauging just how much people dread what the songs gleefully call “the most wonderful time of the year.” Only three percent of those surveyed said they dread nothing about the holiday season.

Millions of people feel more isolated during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. They are bombarded with idealistic, media-crafted visions of happy couples walking hand-in-hand, joyful families gathered around the Thanksgiving table and the Christmas tree, and a flood of movies, TV shows and songs that portray a Norman Rockwell-like perfection. Such boundless holiday joy seems unattainable to those who are mired in broken relationships with people they love.

For people diagnosed with clinical depression, the holidays can be a particularly dangerous time. These folks certainly need to consider the medical and psychological options available to help them cope with their anguish. There is no shame in acknowledging when you cannot handle the weight of your despair alone and reaching out for care.

Those of us who don’t have physiological and psychological causes for our pain and sorrow during the holidays, but instead are stressed-out by societal consumerism and self-imposed chaos, would do well to remember the words of Lamentations 3:25. There is hope even in pain, sorrow and conflict.

In the poems of Lamentations, traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the author is mourning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Much of the book is sorrowful, but in the third chapter, the author reinforces that even in tragedy, our God is a God of love and mercy.

When we are tossed around in the storms of life, God often can seem a million miles away, and we may feel lonely, isolated and hopeless. But if dig down deep, find our patience, wait for the Lord and cry out to Him, God is faithful in His grace and His mercy and His unwavering love for us.

If there is hope even in the destruction of a culture and its home city, surely God can help you and me get through Thanksgiving dinner with extra-grace-required relatives, the mile-long lines at 4 a.m. on Black Friday, and the seemingly endless commitments to Christmas gatherings at work and home.

Really, the tastiest treat and most perfect gift you can give yourself this holiday season won’t be found in Grandma’s kitchen or at any major retailer. It lives in authentic worship of and communication with our Heavenly Father.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

In Tune With The Lord

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TODAY’S VERSE TO PONDER: Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord. – Ephesians 5:19 (NIV)

On Sunday evening, the church where I attend, Cedar Creek Church On The Ridge in Batesburg, South Carolina, hosted its fall “New Life” baptism. Though celebrating one of the most sacred rituals in Christianity, the affair was anything but somber and formal.

The celebration began with a potluck dinner. Church members blanketed several long folding tables with numerous casseroles, fried and barbecued chicken, green beans and other vegetables, and of course, desserts of various shapes and flavors. A couple of members even brought a cooler of their signature home-churned ice cream.

After dinner, the worship team took to the stage and began a program of music that included both solemn, reflective melodies strummed on a single acoustic guitar and raucous praise-and-worship anthems from the full praise band. At each selection, the congregants in attendance rose to their feet, raised their hands high into the air, and sang out. The pastor even commented that the gathered celebrants sounded much like an old church choir.

The evening was capped by the baptism of three church members and still more singing and prayer.

Corporate worship has been part of the Christian church experience for centuries, and it has taken on many different forms, depending on the setting, faith traditions and cultural norms of each respective congregation.

My upbringing was in a small, very traditional United Methodist Church. In my youth, the only definition of “worship” that I knew involved standing up in place at our family’s chosen pew, taking the old Cokesbury hymnals into hand and singing along while the pianist and organist played and the choir – dressed in their long, flowing robes – raised their voices in equally flowing choral-style worship.

It was only after I had drifted and wandered in my faith walk for a while that I finally returned to the church, but this time to a setting where screaming guitars, dazzling finger-work on the keyboards, and thumping drums were integral pieces of the worship experience. While nostalgia for the old-time church choir still holds a place in my heart and memories, I find that now I much prefer a more contemporary style of praise-and-worship music during my normal weekly Sunday worship and at special events.

But that’s just me. My belief about worship is, to each his or her own. As Christ followers, each of us should seek out and embrace the worship experience that most completely satisfies our individual soul’s longing. In the end, it may or may not include music. That’s up to you.

Collective worship is vital to growing in a strong relationship with God, and while individual study and prayer are essential disciplines, all Christ followers should be part of a church family somewhere. However, just as God made each of us unique (though in His own image), we all must search our souls and determine where we are most comfortable in shared worship and where the Holy Spirit most fully speaks to us during the worship experience.

Personally, I love contemporary Christian music; the local praise-and-worship station is one of the most frequently punched presets on my car radio. However, this time of year especially, I make it a point to attend at least one traditional worship service.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is attending the late Christmas Eve service at a large United Methodist Church nearby. Its huge choir singing cherished carols, the pipe organ playing an old Christmas hymn, and of course, the solemn reading of the Nativity story from the Gospels as midnight approaches all transport me back in time to the innocence of my youth.

Still, God loves a joyful worshiper, and so each of us should seek out this week the brand of worship that most completely inspires joy. It might be an old church choir, or it might be a wailing guitar-fueled Christian rock band. It might be one or two voices singing a simple melody a capella, or it might be a 100-voice chorale invoking a complex Handel oratorio accompanied by a full orchestra.

Whatever and wherever it might be, one thing is certain: even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, God still loves to hear you sing along in praise of Him.