Friday, December 31, 2010

Hearts to Heaven Introduction

This is the online version of Hearts to Heaven in 2011: 31 Devotions for Meditation and Worship in the Psalms. I plan to post each day's reading at 6:00 a.m. beginning January 1 through January 31. Thanks for following along.

"To You, O Lord, I lift my soul..." (Psalm 25:1)

For Ridgway First Baptist Church [and the extended online community], to the glory of God the Father...

Let me invite you to embark with me upon a 31-day journey through the first 31 chapters in the Psalms. I can’t think of a better way to start the New Year than by immersing ourselves in the Word of God. The psalms serve as good entry point, urging us to lift our hearts to heaven while we walk through the unknown, uncertain and often unsettling days on earth.

This guide is meant to assist you in reading the psalms each day. It’s not a replacement for reading the Bible! You will find some commentary, some application, some devotional stuff and some suggestions for further study.

I want to encourage you to really meditate upon the psalms. We often read the Bible just to “get through” a portion so that we can check the box that says, “I Read My Bible Today.” Slow down. Take time to absorb what you read. Realize that Almighty God reveals Himself in His Word and wants to conform you more into the image of His Son, Jesus. Talk honestly with God through each passage. Listen carefully. Let the Holy Spirit press home what needs pressing! Come humbly, hungry, willing to learn and willing to change.

And worship the Lord! Worship results as we trust God and put His Word into practice, as we praise Him and give Him thanks. Reading and knowing His truth is one thing. Responding rightly is another, and it’s called worship.

May the Lord lift our hearts to heaven in 2011!

Rob Gallion

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hearts to Heaven in 2011

Lord willing, by the first of the year I will have a 2011 devotions in the Psalms project printed and ready to give away. My intent is to encourage you to start the New Year by getting into the Word of God, or rather, by getting the Word of God into you!

I think about the story of Joshua taking on the leadership role in Israel upon Moses’ death. This would be for him a new venture, an overwhelming one, no doubt. After 40 years of suffering in the wilderness for their unbelief, the nation was now ready to move forward and claim the land God had promised Israel long ago.

It was a new day, a new opportunity. New challenges would arise, new problems to overcome, new decisions to make and new directions to take. The past was behind them, the future wide open. Much like the dawning of a New Year.

What new opportunities will 2011 bring? What new challenges will you face? What new decisions will you have to make? What new directions might you take? Year 2010 is nearly gone. For some, you bid it a fond farewell. For others, you’re glad to see it go. Who knows what 2011 will be?

One thing’s for sure: Joshua needed help. To face the new day, to face the unknown, and to face what would have seemed impossible, he would need divine help. Yes, the Lord had promised He would give them this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. It was indeed a beautiful land. Would you have expected anything less from a gracious and sovereign God?

But, there were nations occupying the territory. Some of the inhabitants were giants. Their cities were large and fortified. You don’t just walk in and tell the people to move because God said this land now belongs to you. “So, you see, all you need to do is sign on the dotted line, pack up your things and calmly leave the country, and we’ll take over from here, thank you very much.” No, conquering this land would not be easy, and would not be possible without the power of the Lord.

On a side note, the Canaanites living there at the time were notorious for their moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Records on stone tablets reveal practices of brutality, corruption, infant sacrifice, serpent worship and male and female prostitution. The Bible clearly states that God was using Israel as His instrument of divine judgment against the peoples of this land. Deuteronomy 9:5 makes this plain: “It is not because of your righteousness or integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you…”

So the Lord had a word for Joshua as he prepared to meet the new day. It was a message of promise and encouragement along with a challenge. The promise was that God would give him and the nation of Israel the land – every place where they would set their feet – and that God Himself would be with Joshua as He was with Moses, never leaving and never forsaking him.

The encouragement was to be strong and courageous. Three times in four verses (Joshua 1:6-9) the Lord tells Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.” There was no need to be afraid nor discouraged. God would be with him wherever he went.

The challenge was to obey the Word of God. The Lord told Joshua to be careful to obey all of it, and not turn to the right or to the left. He told him to meditate on the “Book of the Law” day and night, never letting its truth depart from his mouth, so that he would be careful to do everything written in it. Then, God said, when the Word of God got into him he would be prosperous and successful.

Friend, if you desire a prosperous and successful New Year (using God’s greater definitions of prosperous and successful), if you want to be ready to face whatever unknowns, whatever giants, whatever opportunities or problems may abound, then I would urge you to get into the Word of God. Meditate on it day and night, and be careful to obey it fully.

If you don’t have a clue where or how to start, then stop by and pick up a free copy of “Hearts To Heaven in 2011: 31 Devotions for Meditation and Worship in the Psalms.” I'll also try to post each day's reading right here on this blog throughout January. Hope you have a happy New Year in the Lord!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Greatest Story Ever Told

There are so many captivating storylines that go with the narrative surrounding Jesus’ birth. Some miraculous, some mysterious, some inspiring, some amusing. Some dramatic, some ironic, some delightful, some heart-breaking.

I find myself reading the story and wishing that the gospel writers would have provided a little more detail to clear up certain scenes. But then sometimes a little holy imagination can go a long way.

Think about the conversation that Mary would have had with Joseph, the one where she tells him that she’s pregnant. “Joseph, dear, are you sitting down? I have some news to share with you…” Obviously he knows it’s not his baby. An angel visit? A virgin conceiving? No way! Joseph watched the film about that stuff in 5th grade; he knew how these things work.

Then there’s the part about when Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Remember Elizabeth? She’s the mother of John the Baptist, whose pregnancy was also miraculous. She was way past her prime when the angel told her husband, Zechariah, that this couple would bear a son who would make ready for the Lord a people prepared.

Anyway, she’s in the last trimester of her pregnancy when Mary, who has just found out that she’s carrying the Savior of the world, comes to visit. Here’s the part I love: when Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaps for joy! Somehow there’s this supernatural spiritual connection between these unborn children in the wombs of their mothers, and the result is great joy.

And I think about the scene in which Joseph and Mary are preparing to travel to Bethlehem for this census. Mary’s just about to pop (I mean that in a delicate way) and now her husband-to-be wants to take her on this cross-country trip in the family mini-van? Wait, they didn’t even have vehicles back then. They’d be walking? Hiking up and down mountainous terrain? Maybe she’s riding on a donkey, but is that any better than walking?

And seriously, Mary’s father allows her to go? If I would have tried to take my wife on such a journey when she’s nine months along, my father-in-law would have politely suggested I not. On the other hand, perhaps Mary insisted on going with Joseph. Maybe she knew of Micah’s prophesy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and that this was all God’s providence to fulfill it.

You want to talk drama? Look at Herod, the drama king. These wise men roll into town causing no little commotion. They start asking people in Jerusalem where the King of the Jews was to be born. Herod hears of it and whines to himself, “Wait a minute! I’m the king around here!” But he obliges these strange visitors and directs them to Bethlehem.

The story continues with Herod telling the wise men to report back to him when they’ve found Him, so that he, too, may go and (wink, wink) “worship” Him. Of course the wise men are warned in a dream to avoid Herod like the plague, so they take the back roads home. Herod finds out he’s been had, gets furious and orders every baby boy under two years old in Bethlehem to be killed.

Meanwhile, an angel of the Lord has appeared to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take the baby and Mary on the next flight to Egypt.

So many sub-plots and twists and turns and adventures! I don’t have room to tell about Simeon or Anna or the shepherds or the people that argued with a mute Zechariah about what to name his baby. I wish I could tell you about the blindness of all the religious leaders in Jerusalem who figured out from the Scriptures where the Messiah would be born, but would only smile and wave as these foreigners went to worship the very One they were waiting for!

I don’t know all the details of all the stories, but of this I’m sure: every account points to the redemptive plan of God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son. We needed a Savior, and God made good on His promise to save us. He brought it all about perfectly, in His way, in His time, fulfilling every prophecy and thrilling the hearts of every man, woman, boy and girl who finds the true joy and peace and hope and love of Christmas not in presents nor eggnog nor tinsel nor lights, but in the Light of the world, Jesus our salvation, the greatest gift of all, Immanuel, God with us.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

There's Your Christmas Joy, Mr. Grinch

One of the Christmas favorites on TV my boys enjoy watching is, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” You’re probably familiar with the story. Maybe you’ve even seen the movie or experienced the musical. Perhaps you’ve even read Dr. Suess’ book!

The Grinch, of course, is an ugly green-bodied, red-eyed sort-of-cat creature who lives in a cave on the top of Mt. Crumpit. He’s bitter, hateful, jealous and lonely. From his humble dwelling place he can hear the happy sounds of Christmas from the residents far below in Whoville – and he’s not happy about it.

So The Grinch makes plans to steal their presents, their decorations and even their Christmas hams, and does so successfully under the guise of Santa himself, hoping to keep Christmas from coming. Indeed, “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.”

But no matter how mean he’s been or what evil he’s done, The Grinch can’t stop Christmas. He soon realizes that there’s more to Christmas than lights and presents. In the end, his heart which began “two sizes too small” grows three sizes, and he returns the stolen goods and is welcomed into the Whoville community warmly.

I know the Christmas season can very easily become a joyless burden for some. Maybe you wish you could hibernate all December and come back out when it’s over. Maybe the happy sounds of others just rubs you the wrong way. Perhaps the inglorious over-commercialization of Christmas and all the office parties and family get-togethers and crowded malls and over-done Christmas song remixes on the radio are nearly enough to make you wish that Christmas would just go away.

In some ways, I agree. Who can argue that our culture has certainly created a commercial event that greatly distracts from the very reason Christmas is celebrated?

My family and I went to Carmi last weekend to see “Bethlehem Revisited.” It’s a re-enactment of the village life of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. You see the Jewish people buying and selling goods at the market, baking bread, weaving blankets, building stuff, tending sheep and goats and otherwise engaged in their daily activities. The Romans, who controlled the region, enlist their soldiers to enforce the law and keep the peace. There’s quite a lot of “hustle and bustle” going on in this little village.

As you’re walking out, however, you pass by a small stable where the animals would be kept. On this night a young couple occupies the stall. It’s quiet. And you notice the woman holding a baby. He looks like a newborn child. No doctors, no bright lights, no crib except a manger. It feels reverent. Like a holy night. The young woman cradles her baby and seems to radiate with an inner joy. The young man stands silently nearby and marvels at this sight. It was a moment of worship. Our youngest son, Toby, said that was his favorite part. It was mine, too.

And there’s the Christmas joy you’re looking for, Mr. Grinch. His name is Jesus. He is called Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” He came as a gift of love to mankind from the Father above. “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son…” He came so that we who are sinners by nature and by choice might be forgiven and made clean in the sight of Almighty God. He came so that we who were hostile to God through our sinful natures might become His beloved adopted children. He came so that we who are unable to do anything to earn our own salvation from the wages of our sin (which is death and hell), might receive the mercy and grace of our God through faith in Christ Jesus His Son.

This baby, Jesus, who existed with God from the beginning, and indeed was God in the Trinity, became flesh and dwelt among us. He lived a perfectly obedient life to the Father on earth and became the perfect sinless atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world when He suffered and bled and died upon the cross of Calvary. And He became the victor over death by His resurrection victory on the third day, when He conquered sin and death forevermore. His appearing means peace with God, abundant and eternal life, and unspeakable joy to all who receive Him as Savior and Lord by faith.

If you’re feeling more Grinch-like than you’d care for this Christmas, take your focus off the hustle and bustle of the season and be captivated by the simple truth of Jesus. And come worship with us this Sunday, Dec. 19, at 10:40 a.m. for a special Christmas music worship celebration. We’d love to see you there.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Optional or Essential?

I guess it doesn’t really matter in the end whether or not my icicle lights are working. Christmas will still go on!

Yes, I realize I should have checked them out before I hung them across the front of the house. Before I spent half an hour untangling the lights out of the box. Before I spent another hour and a half attaching the stupid things to the house, in the blistering cold and bone-chilling wind.

My good neighbor, John, was kind enough to point out, as he observed me struggling to sort out the stringy mess, that I should have done this when it was still warm outside. He smiled, but didn’t offer to help.

By the way, what in the world happens in that box during the 11 months the lights sit in the attic? Do they become so disgruntled that they revolt by twisting themselves together? I am pretty sure that when I took them down last year I coiled them neatly before gently placing them in their storage. Were they so angry at not being used that they took revenge by making it nearly impossible to unravel them?

I really don’t understand. Nor do I get how it is that half of the lights decide to quit working. They were doing fine last year. They showed up to work on time, did their job well, filed no complaints. Did they form a union and go on strike? The ones that are working are like the scabs, scorned by the brotherhood, and will no doubt pay the price when they get tucked back inside the box after the holidays?

Anyway, you can’t just have some of the lights working and others not. It takes all of them to get the job done. So unless we get some warmer weather when I can go out and try to negotiate with the union boss, I guess there won’t be any decorative lights brightening up the house for Christmas. It’s all right, though, my neighbor, George, has enough going to cover for me. Maybe I need to ask him what kind of pay and benefits his workers are getting.

Either way, Christmas is not in danger. Hanging up the lights and enjoying their glow is optional.

Unfortunately, it seems many Christians view church attendance in the same way – as optional. “Yeah, it might be nice to go,” they say, “but, hey, it’s optional. If I feel like going, I will. But if there’s something else I’d rather do, then I’ll do that.”

I don’t understand this attitude. Consistent involvement in the church ought to be essential, not optional. The Bible spells it out clearly in Hebrews 10:25: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Friend, maybe you don’t realize that your absence from our worship assembly serves as a source of discouragement rather than encouragement to your fellow Christians.

Don’t get me wrong. There are sometimes legitimate reasons for not coming to church. You may be sick and contagious. You may be at the bedside of a dying loved one. You may be called in to work in an emergency. And please understand that I am very grateful and thrilled that so many do make it their priority to be in the house of the Lord every Sunday morning. But to schedule an event that causes you to miss church, to intentionally plan something else on Sunday morning instead of meeting together with fellow believers to worship God – this I don’t get.

Like a string of Christmas lights, it takes all of us to get the job done. We as Christians have a mission, an assignment from our Savior and Lord. If you’re not in fellowship and cooperation with the church, the work of Christ suffers. His Kingdom will still go on, but you’re missing out on the joy of sharing in the work, and the world is missing out on the beauty of the church’s glow.

Besides, you need the nourishment of the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. You need the fellowship of God’s people. You need the outlet to use your spiritual gifts to serve as you’re called to do.

I urge you to heed this message, to see your participation in church as essential – not optional – and join us this Sunday morning. Sunday School is at 9:30, and our worship service begins at 10:40.

This Sunday we have a special guest speaker coming, so you don’t even have to listen to me preach! That ought to be incentive enough for you to come! Personally, I’m excited to welcome Brad Vinyard from Harrisburg to be with us. Brad and his family are currently in process to becoming full-time international missionaries. You’ll want to hear his story. See you then!