Are you afraid of the dark?

When was the last time you were afraid? And I don’t mean just concerned about something. I live in an old house that makes all sorts of fascinating noises that my imagination can run wild with, whether I’m imagining that there are strangers walking around downstairs or I’m imagining that my water heater has blown up and flooded the whole basement. I’m not really afraid of either of those things happening, but living where I live and how I live, it’s something that could happen.

But the last time I was really afraid?

I don’t really know. I honestly don’t scare very easily. Maybe it’s silly, but one of the times I remember being the most afraid was when I had been cast in a skit for church. It was a tiny, tiny part. All I had to do was talk on an I-phone and be snotty. It was a cute part. A funny part that made people laugh. It was short, and it was even something I wrote. But the idea of going out on stage in front of all those people absolutely petrified me. It scared me to the point of nausea.

The only other experience I can even compare it to is learning how to drive again after my wreck. Trying to remember how to handle a vehicle going 70 miles per hour on a road you can’t control. Even though it’s been years, if I get behind a truck or van that has a ladder strapped (or not strapped well enough) to it, I can’t get around it fast enough. Maybe that’s a rational reaction, but my getting around it is usually motivated more by fear than common sense.

This is what I thought about when I read the verse for today.

2 Timothy 1:7

7 For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.

Fear has nothing to do with God. At least, not this kind of fear. The kind of fear that this verse is talking about is the kind of fear I have experienced in many circumstances when I was afraid of what I couldn’t control. And that’s not of God.

When we become followers of Christ, God gives us power, whether it’s strength or patience or endurance or the ability to love people who don’t love us back. That’s what this verse says. He gives us all those things, but He does not give us a reason to be afraid.

So why do we still fear?

Well, we’re human. So I guess that’s the biggest reason why most of us still live small lives in terror of the unknown. And I guess there’s nothing wrong with that if we want to live that way. But is it really what God has called us to?

That’s the danger with fear. It paralyzes you. It keeps you from doing the things God has asked–sometimes even commanded–us to do.

I haven’t got it figured out yet, and I still struggle with this. But I can tell you that fear really used to control me in the two situations I mentioned above. The driving thing I have mostly gotten over. There are still times when I see something in the road or see a truck driving with too much stuff in it that I remember the sound of crunching metal and the feel of the world jarring to a halt or the burst of white with the airbags inflating. But most of the time, I’m good.

What definitely controlled me without question was my stagefright. And looking back now, I know it was a pride issue, because I wanted to control my performance and be absolutely perfect and never make mistakes and I always felt I could never be good enough. But I let that fear force me to turn down a lot of roles because I didn’t want to get up in front of people. I still don’t like getting up in front of people, but I made a decision after that first role with the I-phone. I decided that I was going to let go and stop worrying about what I looked like onstage and what I sounded like onstage or whether or not I delivered my lines with mechanical precision, and I was just going to do my best and let God take care of it. So the next role I ended up playing was quite a good deal larger than the second role, and it was a much more powerful script, and it was a pretty difficult part (I had to play a blind person). But the really funny thing was that even though I was nervous (I wanted to do a good job), I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t really afraid. And every time I started feeling afraid, I told myself to stop it, I asked God to help me not be afraid anymore, and then I went out and did what I was supposed to do. And I guess it went all right. I know God used it, and that was all I really cared about.

I think a lot of times we expect fear to go away just because we face it.

Well, that’s not always the case. Sometimes that fear will pop it’s ugly head back up and we’ll have to face it all over again. But that’s what real courage is — action in spite of fear. And that is the sort of power that God has given us because we have confidence that He will do what He has said He’ll do.

So the next time you’re afraid of something irrational (not something you really should be afraid of, mind you; fear of some things can be healthy), try to look at it from God’s perspective and see how small it really is. Then make your decision on whether to act or not.

What are you afraid of? And how is that stopping you from doing what God has called you to do? If God is big enough to create the universe, to create everything we can see and everything we can’t see, don’t you think He’s big enough to help you when you need Him? It’s something I forget all the time, but I know, for me, it’s time that I remembered. How about you?

Short and sweet

I’m keeping it brief this morning. But the verse is so amazing, there isn’t much else to add.

Philippians 3:1

1 Whatever happens, my dear brothers and sisters,[a] rejoice in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you these things, and I do it to safeguard your faith.

Whatever happens rejoice in the Lord.

Whatever means whatever. It means good times. It means bad times. It means times of plenty and times when there isn’t enough.

So if you have a good day, rejoice in the Lord.

If you have a bad day, rejoice in the Lord.

If something you were hoping would happen didn’t happen, rejoice in the Lord.

If you’ve had to work so much overtime you can’t concentrate on anything else and there doesn’t look like there’s any end in sight, rejoice in the Lord.

If you’re sick, rejoice in the Lord.

If you’re healthy, rejoice in the Lord.

If you’re in a job you love, rejoice in the Lord.

If you’re in a job you don’t like anymore, rejoice in the Lord.

And if you’re downhearted and sad for no apparent reason, rejoice in the Lord, even if you don’t feel like it. Because He is worthy of praise whether you feel like praising Him or not. And even if the stuff that’s going on in your life right now stinks, hold on becuase it won’t stay that way forever. Rejoice. Praise God for it. And once you can praise God for it, you’ll be able to get through it.

That’s faith. Believing that there’s light at the end of the tunnel even when you can’t see it. Believing that eventually someday you’ll get to the place where you can make a difference, where you can see your dreams come true, even though there’s no hope of it right now.

Rejoice in difficulty, no matter what your circumstances, and you’ll make it through.

Whatever happens, rejoice in the Lord.

I love it when a plan comes together.

Looks like the world is falling apart, doesn’t it? If it isn’t the unemployment here at home, it’s the rioting in the Middle East. It’s the danger on the Mexican border. It’s the threat of North Korea. Or it’s the earthquakes that kill so many people. Or the storms that leave people homeless. There is so much going on around us that it’s easy to focus only on the disaster quotiont of this broken world we live in.

War. Poverty. Bad things happening to good people. Somedays it’s enough to really depress me.

I know it definitely makes me wonder what God is up to. I don’t doubt that He’s doing something. He’s always doing something. But whatever this is that’s sweeping the world right now, whether it’s chaos or anarchy or liberty or apathy some weird combination of all of them, it’s unsettling. I believe we’re in the End Times, but we’ve been in the End Times for a long time, and I still feel like it’s going to get much worse before it gets better.

There are so many what if questions. What if the stock market crashes? What if the money system fails? What if there is another terrorist attack and we don’t retaliate and they just keep coming until there’s nothing left of this country? What if we all lose our jobs? What if the harvest goes south again and there’s not enough food for people to live on? What if, what if, what if, what if.

What if questions will be the death of me. So I’m trying not to ask them anymore. The only real answer to a What If question is that God knows what He’s doing and that He will never forsake His children.

The verse this morning truly encouraged me, and I hope it encourages everyone else too:

Jeremiah 29:11-13

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 In those days when you pray, I will listen. 13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.

 Isn’t God’s love amazing? You know He’s got to have other things that should rank higher than reassuring us that He’s got our backs, but He does it anyway.

I love the context of this verse too, because it was given to the nation of Israel when they were captives in Babylon. They were in captivity. Their homes had been destroyed. Their families were separated. It looked like the very end of everything they had ever dreamed of. But God told them that it wasn’t. He told them that He already had everything worked out and that even though they weren’t living the life they’d always dreamed of, He was still with them and He was still making plans for their future. And they weren’t just any plans — they were good plans.

It’s the same for us.

Things are pretty rough now for a lot of people. And even those of us who are still employed aren’t really safe. Anything could happen. But nothing surprises God. He’s got plans for us, and they’re good plans. And the fact that He promises to hear when we call out to Him shocks me. I mean, come on! This is God. He made everything from Jupiter to leptons and He’s even willing to entertain an audience with a goofy, screwed up wordsmith like me? How is that even possible? I know it’s not logical or rational, but it’s true. If I call to Him, He’ll listen; if I look for Him, I’ll find Him.

It’s the same for everyone else. Even if life is rough and you aren’t where you think you should be right now, just hang on because God’s got good plans for everyone.

Forgive me another crude pop culture analogy, but I adored the new remake of the A-Team. It had been a long time since I laughed that hard at the same time I was on the edge of my seat. The leader of the A-Team is Hannibal Smith, and this guy is pretty incredible (the character is amazing . . . . and Liam Neeson played him so that made him flippin’ awesome). But this character is known for his planning skills and strategies. He can make a plan so far in advance that he’s basically directing the actions of their enemies.

Now, I’m not saying that Hannibal Smith is like God or vice versa. But if you watch that movie (and probably the TV show), you’ll see that some of Hannibal’s plans have some pretty rough spots. Or they require the rest of the team to go through some pretty scary stuff before it all ends well. But those rough spots have to be there. They’re unavoidable. They’re uncomfortable but they’re necessary, and in the end it all works out.

In some ways, that’s how God’s plans work. He knows what’s happening. He’s got it all worked out. He knows our thoughts and our actions before we think or make them. But because the world is broken, there are some points in our lives that are going to be rough. They’ll be scary. We’ll be uncomfortable. But, it’s all part of the plan, and God knows what He’s doing. And in the end, when everything is over, it will all turn out all right because God is God, He never makes mistakes, and He always keeps His promises.

And I’m sure He loves it when a plan comes together too. =)

Evil has to start somewhere

Quickly, in your mind, make a list of the most evil things you’ve heard people do. I know I think of rape or of molestation. Of mothers who neglect their children, children who neglect their parents. Murder.

Have you ever wondered how someone — another living, breathing person like you — could do something so wrong? So evil? What leads a person to do evil in the first place?

When I was younger, I formed this idea that some people were just evil. They were just bad. The world was black and white. You have good people, and you have bad people. And those bad people become the villains of stories. But as I’ve gotten older, and as I’ve learned how to create really excellent villains for stories, I have learned that the world isn’t really black and white when it comes to people.

Some of the most powerful bad guys that have ever been written were good guys who fell and later returned. I mean, think about Darth Vader. Some of the most amazing good guys are heroes with dark, tragic pasts. Think about Batman. And that’s just in fiction, but fiction is a reflection of real life. Even if what happens in fiction (space ships flying around, traveling faster than light, etc) could never happen, the themes of every story usually already have.

People aren’t all good and all bad. They’re neither. They’re just people, and you can’t lump them into groups announcing that one is a good guy and the other is a bad guy.

But what causes someone to do evil? And I’m not just talking like stealing candy from a store or breaking curfew. I’m talking about evil.

I think the verse today might hold the answer to that.

 22 If you plan to do evil, you will be lost;
      if you plan to do good, you will receive unfailing love and faithfulness.

 So I know I have never planned to kill anyone. But I have planned how I could cheat on a math test and get away with it. I know others who have planned how to break rules and not be punished. People plan to do things that are wrong all the time, even if it’s just how to accomplish less at work and still look like you’re working hard.

It may not necessarily be evil, but it isn’t good.

But haven’t you ever wondered what planning to do things that are wrong does to your conscience? We human beings are very good at rationalizing. Personally, I’m very good at this. I know when I was planning how to cheat on my math assignments (yes, I actually did this, and I still feel really bad about it because I recognize now how foolish it was), I rationalized it telling myself that I would never use math and that I wasn’t learning it well enough to implement it since it never seemed to matter how much I studied. I took all the moral objections I had to doing what I knew was wrong, and I made up reasons to ensure that none of them mattered.

What about people who lie at work? Or people who steal from others? If you plan how you’re going to do it and how you’re going to get away with it, doesn’t it work the same way? If you’re a follower of Christ, you know it’s wrong. But the results of these actions will provide you with something that you want. So you make up reasons why it’s okay for you to do wrong.

How do we know that people like Timothy McVeigh didn’t start out the same way? Or Ted Bundy? Or Dennis Rader? These people did truly awful, evil things. But they weren’t born immediately planning how to kill people or blow people up. It had to start somewhere.

The Bible says that if you plan to do evil, you will be lost. But it also says in the same verse that planning to do good results in “unfailing love and faithfulness.”

I think I like those options better. Would you rather plan to do something that’s wrong and receive the temporary benefit of your ill-gotten rewards for a season (because the consequences will always catch up with you) or would you rather plan to do something that’s good and receive good things that will last in return?

Doing what’s wrong always seems easier, but if you figure the consequences of your actions into the mix, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. To me, it’s better to do what’s right, even if it seems harder, because the eventual rewards outweigh any sacrifice you think you’re making now. To me, it’s a no brainer.

I hate religion

Fear is a powerful motivator, but it’s not always as effective as it could be. When I think of fear as a motivator, I think of the times I’ve had to cover my tracks because I was afraid someone would discover something I did wrong. It’s not usually the best way to convince people to do things.

It’s not the best way to make friends, although I’ve met a number of people who use it to their advantage. They have a list of rules or standards that you have to meet as a friend or else they’ll disown you. It’s not the way to be a family, fearing excessive punishment for imperfection. It’s not even the best way to run a business. I guess there is some use in fearing for your job, but if your employees spend all their time afraid that their next day will be their last, the quality of their work will decrease.

Those are all examples of how fear doesn’t really work in relationships, and I thought about many of them when I read the verse for today.

1 John 4:18

 18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.

 But what I thought about first is the concept of religion. There is no love in religion. Have you ever thought about that? Religion is a set of do’s and don’t’s, ritual law with no real meaning behind it. It clings to traditions that it has forgotten the purpose of. And it holds its victims in check with fear.

If you don’t dress a certain way, you won’t be saved. If you don’t follow these rituals, you won’t be saved. If you don’t read the right translation of the Bible, you won’t be saved. If you don’t live the way you’re supposed to, your next life will be miserable. If you don’t control your anger, you’ll never reach Nirvana.

No matter what religion you’re talking about, they are all the same. They rule people with fear. And while fear can be a great motivator, it’s not effective because people want more than a God they’re scared of.

I always wondered about the people who sacrified their children in ancient times. It always seemed amazing to me that a mother could lack the maternal instincts enough to kill her own child. It still surprises me now in today’s world, but we’ve had generations of indoctrination telling women that babies aren’t really babies. So on one hand, I’m guess it’s not too unexpected that a mother could kill her child before it’s born. But in ancient times (and even today still in some parts of the world), infants were sacrificed after they were born healthy. How could a mother do that?

Could it have been fear? People do crazy things when they’re afraid. And prevailing religion at the time was to sacrifice your children or your soul would be lost.

Religion is the most dangerous weapon in the world because it enslaves people to either a distant, uncaring God or a tyrannical, bloodthirsty God who demands obediance but gives nothing in return.

That’s why I hate religion. Religion has destroyed so many lives and turned so many people against God, and that was never the way it was supposed to be. Religion is a tool of man used to control other people. Wear this. Sing that. Read this. Do that. Or else. And it’s not right.

Please don’t misunderstand me. God is a God of wrath and definitely worthy of our fear. Think of the person you respect the most. Would you approach that person with impudence? Would you treat them rudely or demand things of them or not give them the credit they deserve? Of course not! So how much more should you respect God when He’s the one Who created the Universe? No. God is a God who we should definitely be afraid of — but it’s not the same kind of fear.

Religion has told us that God punishes people. He doesn’t. We punish ourselves. We suffer punishment because we have sinned or because the world is just broken.

God is perfect, holy justice and that which is imperfect or unjust can’t be in His presence. But that’s why He sent Jesus. To make us perfect. To make us holy. To show us how much God loves us. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, we are able to approach God on a one-on-one basis (not face to face yet but someday soon). We don’t need anyone to talk to God for us. We don’t need anyone to explain the Bible to us. If Christ is your Savior, God is your Father. And He’s more than that. He’s your Dad.

God wants to have a relationship with us. That’s why He created us. He loves us so intensely that He was willing to give Himself to pay the penalty for our sin.

I’m sorry, folks, but that doesn’t sound like fear to me. That doesn’t sound like a relationship that demands exacting obediance and then returns nothing. That doesn’t sound like religion based on fear of damnation.

There is a choice. Believe or don’t believe. One will save you. The other one will condemn you. But Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world. The world was already condemned. He came to make a way for us to be saved. And He doesn’t force Himself on anyone. If you’re forced to take a gift, is it still a gift that you have accepted? There’s no point in that.

Perfect love expels all fear.

God’s love is perfect. So don’t be afraid.

Let me sum up.

So where did spring go? It was just here and now it’s gone again, and I let myself get used to warmer weather. Now I’m freezing . . . . Oh, well. I should have known. Kansas has the strangest weather on the planet. In one week last week we had a temperature differential of 95 degrees. We were around -20 on day and then seven days later we were at nearly 80. It’s ridiculous. But it’s not cold enough for my fingers to be numb, so I’m a happy camper.

I love the movie The Princess Bride, and I love the character Inigo Montoya (of “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” fame). And every time I have too much to say in too short a time, I always try to let loose the famous: “No, is too much. Let me sum up.”

I feel kind of like that’s what Paul is saying in the verse of the day this morning.

Romans 13:9-10

9 For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.”[a] These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 10 Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.

God gave us the Ten Commandments for a number of reasons, but it was mainly to prove to us that we were unable to keep them. That we needed Someone perfect to take our punishment in our place. Through the years, there have been people who say that they have kept all the Ten Commandments, but it’s not possible. It’s good to strive toward something, and they are good moral commandments to follow. But they don’t exist to make us perfect; they exist to show us our need of a Savior.

But since people are always asking for an easy way to understand things, I like how Paul (and before him, Jesus) sum up the Ten Commandments. Actually, why don’t I list the Ten Commandments so we’re all on the same page?  You can find them in Exodus 20 (and elsewhere, but Exodus 20 is generally the book used to refer to them).

Exodus 20:1-17

 1 Then God gave the people all these instructions[a]:

 2 “I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery.
 3 “You must not have any other god but me.
 4You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. 5 You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. 6 But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those[b] who love me and obey my commands.
 7You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.
 8Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 You have six days each week for your ordinary work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
 12Honor your father and mother. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
 13You must not murder.
 14You must not commit adultery.
 15You must not steal.
 16You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.
 17You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”

Ten commandments. Ten rules for living. They’re very specific, and even though some of them may be obvious, they are only obvious because most of us Americans have grown up in a culture shaped by Christian thought. Adultery, theft, lying and even murder in some cases is looked on favorably in other cultures.

But if you look at the Ten Commandments and really get down into what they mean, you can sum up the last six of them by what Paul said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love your parents. Love your spouse. Love your neighbors. Love your cooworkers. Love the people you go to school with. Love the people you go to church with.  Love them as much as you love yourself, and you will abide by the Ten Commandments automatically.

The first four commandments can be summed up by saying Love God, like Jesus did in Matthew 22:37-40.

 37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’[e] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[f] 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

Like I’ve said before, love God and love people. That’s how a Christian should live.