20 January, 2015

The Joy of the Lord is Your Strength

I grew up around people that gave me the impression that being a Christian meant being "sticks in the mud." I literally remember a member of our church coming to the table in a steak house where some friends and I were having lunch after church and chewing us up and spitting us out because we were laughing in public on the day that a woman in the church has passed away. First of all, none of us even knew that she had died. But even if we did, does that mean that we could not still be happy and blessed people? The woman who had died was a precious saint of God who had suffered with cancer, and her death, while sad, also should have been a time of celebration because she had made it home. But this woman did not only chide us, she did in in a very loud way, so as to shame us in front of everyone in the restaurant. This is just one of many, many times over the years that the message was given loud and clear that God's people were supposed to be sour, mean spirited and sad looking people. This particular event had a profound impact on my life which scarred me and had a lot to do with my running from God as hard as I could for a lot of years. I wanted no part of a "religion" that meant I had to act like that. I recall coming out of a movie theater one time with my date and having three women from my church waiting by my car and screaming at me and telling me I would burn in hell for going to movies. (Horror of horrors, we had just watched Disney's "The Shaggy D.A.") That kind of stuff was the norm as I was growing up. There were so many that even now, some 35-40 years later I become angry as I recall being shamed and humiliated time after time for having fun and being told I was going to go to Hell. The image that had been formed in me by people telling me Christians did not laugh, did not have fun, did not enjoy life sank in deep and I finally got to the point that I figured I was going to Hell anyway, I might as well stop trying. And I did, turning away from God and running the opposite way as fast and hard as I could. 

For the next many years I ran the opposite way hitting every party, drinking everything I could, using various drugs, hanging in bars and discos almost every night. I'm not saying it was entirely their fault because it was obviously my choice. But I will say that the model of serving Christ that I had witnessed through such people played a huge part in shaping the decisions I made. As I saw it if you wanted to be a Christian, you had to be a miserable, bitter, hateful and judgmental person. I rejected that. Somehow I knew there had to be more. I still kept coming back to the church, but I always went back to that same church with the same influences around me. Ironically, it was not until years later when my life was in ruins and I was in prison that I discovered what I was looking for. The first week of January of 1982 I had an encounter with a man in a hospital room in prison who was a God send. This man saw the rage and hatred in me and as we talked he saw the confusion about God. He issued a challenge to me that totally transformed my life. He dared me to forget everything I had ever heard about God and to open the Bible and read it for myself. But he added that I should pray before I read every day and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus Christ to me as He would have me to see Himself. Over the next two weeks I read that Bible from cover to cover and something happened. I let go of religion and I discovered a relationship with Christ. I found things I'd never heard before and discovered that much of the man made "stuff" I had had pounded into my head over the years was not of God at all. I found out that God had so much more than a dry, lifeless religion to give us, he wanted to give us peace, joy, and love that was not only in us but flowed out of us to others. I discovered that God was not really so much interested in the mask I wore, but He wanted to change me on the inside until those inner changes reflected on the outside. I found that serving God was not meant to be a heavy burden... it was supposed to be freedom. Not freedom to live any way I wanted, but freedom from the curse of sin and freedom to pursue righteousness. I discovered Christ the advocate... not the judge.

To some of you reading this, you are thinking, "Duh?" because you already know this. But I am sure that there are thousands of others out there who have only known the religion of chains, burden and hardship. The religion of being stuffed shirt, stoic shell of a person. To those people... I challenge you with the same challenge that was offered to me. I dare you to forget everything you have ever heard about God, the Bible and the church. Let go of it all and then pick up the Bible for yourself and simply pray and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus Christ to you. The Bible says of the Holy Spirit that He will lead you into all truth. He will not lead you astray. Are you up to the challenge? I promise you that you will make some amazing discoveries! You will find that there is so much joy in serving Christ, and that "the joy of the Lord is your strength." 

To everyone who may read this, let me make one final statement to you all, young or old, new Christian or "veteran of Christ"...If you're not enjoying Salvation, you're not doing it right!

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