Rose outside Manna House, Bromley, London, England

Practice makes permanent

When I was in college, my speech instructor insisted that we all had to practice our speeches repeatedly if we were going to present them with any excellence. She had a little axiom she wanted us to remember: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect permanence.”

I’d never thought about it until that point, but she was right. Whatever you practice is generally what you’ll perform. How you practice a speech or a part in a play creates habits and expectations in you, and how you practice becomes how you perform. So if you practice without the right words or without the right actions to go with your words, you’ll have a hard time breaking those habits when you get on stage.

I don’t know if anyone else struggles with this, but practice is difficult for me. That’s why I eventually dropped music because I didn’t have the discipline to practice. I wanted to sit down at the piano or pick up my viola and be perfect straight out, but music doesn’t work like that. It’s a skill you have to develop over years and years and years of practice.

Practice doesn’t just work with music, though. It works with everything. Even living.

 

Rose outside Manna House, Bromley, London, England

Rose outside Manna House, Bromley, London, England

Today’s verse is Philippians 4:9.

Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

When Jesus lived on Earth, He lived the kind of life we should seek to imitate. I don’t get the people who claim to be Christians but refuse to live the way Christ did or doubt the things He said. That makes no sense to me.

Paul had patterned His life after Christ so he could be an example to everyone around him, but he didn’t become an example overnight. Paul had a miraculous conversion, yes, but just because his opinion changed, his lifestyle didn’t change at the same rate. Habits are hard to break. Paul had to practice the kind of life God says is right before he could be someone to look up to.

Just because you’ve accepted Christ doesn’t mean that the rest of your life will transform immediately. If anything, the only thing that will change in your life immediately is your perspective on it. You have to take steps to change the elements and the influences in your life that lead you to actions God says are wrong. You have to practice living the way God says, and that choice isn’t always easy.

Practice is hard. Practice feels like doing the same thing over and over again with the same results. And sometimes it feels like putting on a show in front of an empty theatre, with no one to appreciate how hard you’re working.

But perfect practice makes perfect permanence. If you practice following Christ in the good times, you won’t blink when the bad times come. Doing what God says to do will be habit to you.  And slowly your life will change. As God becomes the central focus of your life, everything will change.

So don’t be discouraged if your life is the same today as it was yesterday. And don’t get frustrated having to do the same thing over and over again in your faith.  If Paul had to keep putting what he learned into practice, so do we.

We know how to live. God revealed all we need to know in the Bible. Jesus gave us an example of how to love others. And the Holy Spirit whispers in our hearts. Take what you know, take what you’re learning, and actually use it.

 

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Masquerade

Does anyone know why Christians feel the need to maintain a facade of perfection when their lives are actually falling apart? I do this all the time. Even (and especially) if my life is crazy and feeling wildly out of control, I still keep my Good Little Christian Mask in place. And it’s the same when I sin. I sin just like everybody else, but I don’t like to talk about it. Because I don’t want people to think less of me.

Are those the same reasons every other Christian hides behind the mask of the Holier Than Thou? I don’t know. But it seems likely to me.

I don’t like people to know my weaknesses. I don’t like people to think that I’m a bad person. I don’t like people to know that I’m not perfect in every way. Of course, everyone knows all those things already, but there’s something in me that makes me want to put forth an image of perfection in spite of that. But it’s a lie.

So if every Christian is like this, wearing masks to cover up their failures and their flaws, what happens in a church? You end up with a bunch of people who are faking life. They’re fine. Their life is fine. Their family is fine. Everything is fine when it really isn’t. And I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with that . . . until someone who knows they’re not fine walks through the doors.

That’s something that has always fascinated me. Christians have this concept that we’re supposed to be “fine” all the time just because we know Jesus. But people who don’t know Jesus already understand the fact that they’re screwed up . . . and they don’t have a problem with it. Most of the time, they try to be better. Christians cover it up.

So that’s why people who don’t believe in Christ feel like they don’t belong in church. They know that they’re not perfect, and hanging around a bunch of people who are pretending to be perfect is frustrating.

The verse this morning is James 5:16.

16 Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.

We’re supposed to confess our sins to each other. Not to a priest for forgiveness. But to each other for accountability. It’s a lot harder to go back to your specific sin if someone is holding you to your word not to do it anymore.

Christians are people, and all people are flawed. It doesn’t matter what you believe, where you live, how you grew up or who you are; everyone sins. And trying to cover it up not only hurts you as a person, it alienates you from other people. Am I saying we should be proud of our sin? No. That’s kind of funny though. Taking pride in our sin. I know some people who do that, though, but I think those people just don’t understand how serious sin is.

How does covering up our sin help us? Just think about that. Jesus didn’t come to die for us so we can deny the fact that we’re sinners. He came to die for us to make a way for us to escape sin altogether. Covering up, denying the fact that we’re all imperfect, flawed failures, cheapens His sacrifice and it takes glory away from God.

When you get right down to it, denying your own sin is pride.

It’s so odd to me, personally. Because I have no trouble listening to other people confess their sins. I never think ill of them, and I always pray for people to help overcome whatever sin they struggle with. But when it comes to confessing my own sins to others? No. My pride takes over and I don’t want to admit to anyone that I struggle with the same things they do. I have this idea that I’m supposed to be better than everyone else and that everyone expects so much of me that I’m not free to admit any failure of any kind. And that’s wrong. Because I have failed. More times than I like to think about. And the beautiful part of my failure is that God has always been there to pick me up again. He’s never given up on me. Not once. And when I act like nothing’s wrong — when I act like I’m fine and everything is going perfectly in my life and in my relationship with Christ — I take all the credit for anything good in my life, and I don’t deserve it.

Masks are only appropriate in a place where you don’t want to show your face, where you don’t want to admit who you are or where you want to make people guess. People wear masks at masquerade balls with dresses covered in feathers and sequins and weird stuff like that. And while masquerades are fun to attend on special occasions, life was never meant to be like that. But that’s what we turn it into. We hide our faces — our real selves — from the world because we want people to like us, but all we accomplish is pushing the world away because we are hypocrites.

No one is perfect. Everyone has fallen short of the goal. It’s time we stop acting like we haven’t. And once we are free enough to let everyone in the world know that we have all failed, God will be able to show the world that He never has.

The rest of the story

I think a lot of Christians pick and choose what they want to read/believe out of the Bible. But if the Bible really is the Word of God, we should believe all of it. And if it isn’t, we should believe none of it. There’s no middle ground with Scripture. If even one part of it isn’t true, the whole thing goes down the drain.

There are so many people I know who read the Bible and only remember the verses they like, skimming over the verses (and the books) they don’t like. I was the same way when I was younger. You would have never caught me reading Habakkuk or any of the other Minor Prophet Books of the Old Testament; and you sure wouldn’t have seen me anywhere near Deuteronomy or Leviticus. They didn’t seem to make any sense.

But one day I guess I just got to thinking that avoiding those books was like picking and choosing what I believed about the Bible. And that’s not right. The Bible is whole and real and full and never lies, and the more you get to know it, the better you will get to know God and who He is and what He wants for your life.

And I will tell you that getting a modern translation (like the New Living Translation or the Message) helped immensely. The laws written in some of these books are peculiar enough to read without having to sort through 400-year-old English.

And while I love getting a daily Bible verse, sometimes I need to get deeper into a chapter or even a Book to understand the meaning of it. It’s never a good idea to pick a verse out of the Bible and think you can understand what it means without understanding its context.

The verse this morning is a good example:

Deuteronomy 7:9

9 Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands.

Yes! That’s an awesome verse about God’s faithfulness. And I can tell you right now I need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness. I’m kind of in a valley right now. I’m learning how to deal with the stuff going on in my life and to maintain my positive, joyful outlook on things. But most of the time I still feel like the time we went camping in Colorado and ended up in a valley, and we had to wait until nearly 10:00 am before we could see the sun over the tops of the mountains. I know God is out there and I know He’s working, but I can’t see Him yet. So remembering that God is faithful to me (and to everyone else) and loves me unfailingly is a great thing to remember.

But . . . is that ALL this verse is saying? Why is it there? What spurred the writer (Moses) to write this down? Well, obviously God told him to write it down, but what is the purpose for it?

This is one of those verses that I like to see and understand the context for the verse. Deuteronomy is especially important to make sure you have the right context for anything you take out.

So . . . . this is the whole paragraph:

Deuteronomy 7:7-11

 7 “The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! 8 Rather, it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the Lord rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. 9 Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands. 10 But he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him. 11 Therefore, you must obey all these commands, decrees, and regulations I am giving you today.

To really understand, you’d need to read the whole chapter (it’s a good read, actually; Deuteronomy is honestly a fun book), but God is warning the people of Israel not to marry the pagan people they are conquering on their journey to the Promised Land. God told them that He was going to deliver seven nations that were bigger and stronger than they were to the people of Israel, and He commanded them to destroy those nations entirely and not to intermarry with them. Because by intermarrying with them, the people who didn’t follow God would turn Israel’s heart away from God. (Sound familiar?)

This paragraph goes into why God is helping them. God didn’t save the people of Israel because they were so much better than everyone else. He saved the people of Israel because of the promise He made to Abraham, the Father of the Jewish Nation. Then, comes our single verse that we read above. However, it’s followed by a word that can mean something really great or something really scary: but.

God loves you, but . . .

Read Deuteronomy 7:9 and you get the idea that God is a God of faithful enduring love and nothing you can do would ever separate you from His love. And that’s true. Nothing will ever separate us from God’s love.

But

The verse next verse reminds us that, even though God loves us, He won’t hesitate “to punish and destroy those who reject Him.”

Why? He’s God. He is Sovereign. He has the right to punish and destroy whatever He wants because He made it all. We’re all blessed that He hasn’t punished and destroyed all of us simply for breathing, after everything that we’ve done to wreck the world He entrusted to us.

That’s something Christians like to forget about God. We want everyone to see that God is Love. And He is. God is synonymous with Love. But (there’s that word again) He is also a God of wrath. He is a God of justice. He is a God of perfection. And anyone who isn’t perfect (or that isn’t covered by the blood of His Perfect Son) can’t have anything to do with Him. And that person can’t say they are without excuse. Romans tells us that even nature itself screams that it was created by God. And those of us living in 21st Century America are inundated with the truth of Scripture; it’s just our pride that keeps us from accepting it.

God is indeed God.

He is faithful. He is loving. He is enduring. He will never give up on you or me. But He is constant and unshakable and He will not be anything less than He is, and that is a quality we all appreciate while it’s positive in our favor. Unshakably faithful. Unshakably loving. But what about Unshakable Perfection? Unshakable Justice? Unshakable Wrath? We don’t much care for that side of Him because when it’s aimed at us, we don’t feel like we deserve it.

See what I mean?

The Bible is an amazing Book, and we should never take it for granted. Don’t just take a verse someone gives you and assume they know what they’re talking about. Don’t just take a single verse out of Scripture and assume you can get everything you need to know from it. Read it. Read the whole chapter. Read the whole Book. It’s your responsibility to work out what you believe and why.

It’s worth it.

No ifs, ands, or buts.