Friday, December 18, 2009

Is JOY optional this Christmas?

This month's theme is JOY.  Joy is central to Christmas, yet can be one of the first things to disappear from our lives when difficult times come.  We're going to talk about how to give ourselves permission to have joy without fear of negating the losses we've experienced, and how to put on joy even when we don't feel joy.

1 Chronicles 16:27  Joy is in His dwelling place.  We are called to be in His place.  If we are in a joyless place, we can be sure we're not dwelling with God.

Joy and happiness are not synonyms.  They cannot accurately be used interchangeably.  True joy can only be experienced by Christians, as joy is a fruit of the Spirit and a gift from God.  Happiness is determined by the happenings in our lives, and can change at a moment's notice.  We can be unhappy, disappointed, etc, yet still have joy from God.

Galatians 5:22  Joy is a fruit of th Spirit. Just as we were given love, peace, patience...self control, we were given joy at the time of accepting Christ as our Lord and Savior.  We are promised to have joy.  But as with the other eight characteristics, we must choose to daily put on that joy, choose to exercise it.  For example, we've been given self control, but often choose to eat one more cookie, say the mean thing on the tip of our tongue, etc.  Self control must be exercised.  Joy also must be exercised.  It is a decision whether or not to practice having joy.  It's ok that it doesn't feel natural!  That's why it is a fruit of the SPIRIT and not a fruit of the flesh.

Ezra 6:22  The Lord filled the people with joy.  It reminds me of an example I used at a Bible study years ago.  Picture a huge bowl of popcorn, pretzels, nuts, raisins, m&ms, granola, butterscotch chips, etc.  If you were handed the bowl, you'd likely pick out your favorite pieces and eat them.  But if you were required to finish off the bowl, you'd probably not enjoy the last several handfuls.  Imagine that God has a similar bowl containing everything He has chosen and ordained for your life.  Each day He carefully and thoughtfully scoops one serving from your bowl and gives it to you.  If you could choose what would go in that scoop each day you'd avoid the hard situations, the losses, the disappointment.  But then the latter part of your life would be completely miserable and void of any good things!  We must trust that God gives us exactly the right mix each day.  One thing we can be certain is in our scoop each day is joy.  He fills us with joy each day.  Is your life reflecting that joy?  Is it simmering in your heart, permeating every area of your life?

Nehemiah 12:43  God gave the people great joy.  He gave it.  It is not a natural human response to have joy. It only comes from God.  The desires of our heart won't bring us joy.  It's normal to think that having a baby or another baby, or _____ will bring joy - and there would undoubtedly be joy within those experiences.  But true joy only comes from God - not from circumstances.

Esther 9:20-22  Mordecai encouraged the people to not forget what God had done (delivered them from Haman's evil plan), when their "sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration."  Joy and pain go hand in hand.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Without pain, we won't recognize the joy that comes.  And when joy comes we only appreciate it by also remembering the pain.  The are inseparable.  God will flip the coin for you and show you the joy...but the pain side will always be right there.  That's not a depressing thought!  It goes along with October's theme of remembering.

Psalm 66  We are told to shout with joy, sing with praise.  Sometimes we become so short-sighted and can't see all God has done that is worthy of praise - and really, everything He has done is worthy of praise!  We must choose to shout for joy in spite of, and in the middle of our pain.  Some of the losses you've experienced are very big. They're life changing.  But in light of your entire life, in light of this century, in light of all time since Adam and Eve, and in light of eternity, right now is really short.

Psalm 71:20-24  Hard times have come, but God will bring blessings.  We must hang on to these promises and trust that He has a good future for us.  This psalmist is trusting God even before seeing the provision or the deliverance.  Even before he feels like praising, trusting, or living with joy.

Psalm 126  Those who sow in tears will reap joy.  Another promise to hang on to!  There are layers of joy.  First is the joy given us at salvation by the Holy Spirit.  Second is the joy God fills us with each day.  Third is the joy given to us in times of sorrow.

Proverbs 15:30  A cheerful look brings joy to the face.  Good news brings health to the bones.  Are we seeking good news or dwelling on bad news?  Are we giving cheerful looks and good news to others?  Even if the good news is small and seems insignificant - share it!  This too is a habit worth developing.  Focusing on the good things in life increase physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

John 15:9-11  " that your joy may be complete."  When we remain in Christ, it is His joy in us that we experience.  He makes our joy complete - wouldn't you love to have complete joy?  Our job is to obey His commands and to remain in Him.  This is a daily task.

Romans 12:12  "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer."  The commentary in my Bible said that "the certainty of the Christian's hope is a cause for joy."  We are certain of our eternal destination.  That alone brings hope, and joy.  If God did nothing for us besides save us from eternity apart from Him, we would have more than enough reason to have joy.  Yet we've been abundantly blessed.  This doesn't negate the losses you've experienced.  But it's important to hang onto a Godly perspective.

Romans 15:13  My job is to hope and trust.  God's job is to bring the joy.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18  "Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.  For this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."  You want to know God's will?  Do these three things. Sure, we'd like it to be more clear, more descriptive of our actual life happenings.  But this is what God chooses to tell us.

Hebrews 12:1-3  Jesus...for the joy before Him...endured the Cross.  This really stood out to me.  Jesus found joy even in the terrible suffering of the cross because of joy - the joy of bringing eternal life to all of us.  His eternal perspective was so firmly intact that He chose to endure the pain.  His joy did not take away the pain, but made it worthwhile.  Surely if Jesus could do that for us, we can choose to have joy in the midst of our trials.

Christmas is often a time that many find it hard to express joy, especially when also suffering a loss.  It can be very difficult to rejoice with those who are sharing good things happening in their lives when you feel the good things have passed right over you.  But others are called to find joy just as we are, so we must not rain on their parade.  Yes, they are called to mourn with those who mourn.  But we're all called to joy.  And there is joy present in each situation for the Christian.  It is promised.  We can choose to practice it and reap its benefits.

Merry Christmas!  Each one of you are a cherished treasure.  While we would rather have met under different circumstances, we are so thankful and full of joy that you are in our lives!

November gathering - Give Thanks in Everything?

Thanksgiving is just around the corner...a time of mixed emotions for many people.  We're commanded to give thanks in all circumstances.  Was He serious when He said that?  Surely He didn't overlook some of the enormously difficult situations some of you have faced or are facing, right?  Yet hidden within each of God's commands are precious blessings and promises, and a way to obey we might not realize at first glance.  Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you to gush with thanksgiving over a loss.  That's not what it means. :)

Jesus ‘did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,’ and chose always to make Himself ‘nothing,’ to be perfectly obedient and submissive to His Father, even unto death – death on the Cross (Phil 2:6-8).  
*have I chosen utter dependence upon God?  If I depend on Him for everything, being thankful is all but automatic

In John 5, when Jesus healed the man at Bethesda, He required the man to pick up him mat and walk.  The man had to take responsibility and take action or he never would have realized the healing that had taken place.  
*until we reach the end of ourselves, we cannot fully realize His promise to sustain us, to provide for us, to meet all of our needs, or to be strength when we are weak.  As long as we continue striving to take care of these things ourselves, we’ll be in the way and cannot see God work.

            *Philiippians 4:19  And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
            *That’s a promise – He WILL meet ALL your needs.  Will you believe this even when your circumstances seem to indicate otherwise?
             *We don’t get to choose our trials, only our responses.

When God calls you to a seemingly impossible task, your job is to give Him what you have.  He’ll do the rest.  (Example of feeding the 5000 from 5 loaves and 2 fish).  We’re called to be thankful in everything.  That seems impossible, right?  But because God called us to do it, with Him it IS possible.

Do we ask for strength to be thankful? Or strength to have our dreams fulfilled?  If we can separate from our deepest desires for a moment, we’ll realize that if our dreams are fulfilled but we are not growing spiritually, we will not find the true fulfillment we seek.  The things in our lives are only rich and awesome and full of joy when they accompany God’s presence.  His presence is the common factor in peace-filled lives.  Fulfillment of our dreams does not guarantee peace or joy or even happiness.

1 Thessalonian 5:18 says “Give thanks in all circimstances…” It does not say to give thanks for the circumstances. We are not expected to give thanks for the loss of a much wanted baby.  If God commands us to find something worthy of being thankful for in the midst of that loss, He will enable us.

Psalm 107:1
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.

*It is a command to give thanks.  Why?  Because He is good.

Psalm 107:15
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love

*Here's another reason: His love is unfailing.  You won't find better than that anywhere.

Mark 8:7
They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them.

*Jesus gave us this example to follow.  He gave thanks for the little He had, and trusted God with the result.  He didn't grumble or insist that the disciples find more food.  He just gave thanks for what He had and went from there.  If we're not thankful for little, what makes us think we'll be thankful for much?

Ephesians 5:19-21
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
*ALWAYS giving thanks.  If you look hard enough, or look outside of your own situation, you will find plenty of reasons to give thanks.  This is a command, and you can be certain that God's blessings follow obedience in this command as with all others.

Philippians 4:6
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

*Command: do not be anxious.  About ANYTHING!  What to do when you're anxious - pray, give thanks, ask God.  Amy shared her "formula" for applying this verse.  Have you prayed?  Have you really talked to God about this?  Have you given thanksgiving?  For what things?  And have you specifically asked God to intervene?

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18  Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.
*This is not an easy verse to flesh out. But whenever God calls, He equips.  He has called us to obey, to be joyful, to pray, to give thanks.  So we are guaranteed that He will help us do these things.  It's not a natural human response.  It's supernatural.   

When we look at the Psalms we see that the psalmists were honest. They are dramatic and transparent in their laments. But inevitably, the vast majority of the psalms turn a corner. When we cry out to God, He hears us then reminds us of what is worthy of praise. (Note: the circumstances do not change in the psalms. The person writing the psalm changes.)  If we were to write a psalm of our current struggles, what would the second half of your psalm read like?  Go ahead and try it!  Write down or cry out your first half.  List everything that is hard, disappointing, crushing, wrong, unfair and unjust.  Then...take a deep breath and choose to remember God's promises, His faithfulness, His past provision, and the blessings you can count on that are coming.  The first half of your psalm is still there, but now it is in perspective of the truth of the second half.  

In these holidays when you are pressured to put on a ‘happy face’ it is best to be honest with God and ask Him to strengthen you with the truth of the Bible.  There is much to be thankful for – while being transparent in our pain.

October gathering notes

In October our theme was on remembering.  Many parents mention being afraid that their babies will be forgotten as time goes on.  Sometimes they almost make themselves stay in grief to honor their babies.  Yet we have been promised abundant life, so it has to be possible to remember and move on at the same time.

"Remember" is used 233 times in the Bible (NIV).  Remembering is obviously very important to God!

Genesis 9:15-16  God will remember His covenant not to flood the entire earth.  His sign - the rainbow.  God made a covenant with Noah, and later with Moses.  The covenant with Moses was broken by the people repeatedly, yet God did not forget His part.  He remembered and stayed true to His word.

Exodus 17:8-16  The Amalekites were defeated by Joshua.  Joshua was told to write it down so he would not forget.  Isn't it easy to forget how God delivered us in the past when a new difficulty comes up in our lives?  Write it down, tell you friends, figure out a way to remember.  Seeing a pattern of His provision and deliverance will help next time you wonder if He's able to take care of a situation.

Leviticus 26:40-45  God WILL remember His covenant with Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, etc.  Again, the people forget, disobey, etc., but God does not, will not, and cannot change.  He will keep His covenant.  He remembers.

Deuteronomy 5:15  We are told to remember the Sabbath - a day set apart.  We are to remember how God delivered His people from Egypt.  Reread that story...if it was not in the Bible I'd doubt if it was even true!  God's ways are so far above our ways.  If He can deliver slaves from a powerful king, surely He can deliver us from our situations of despair.

Esther 9:26-28  The people were told to celebrate two days every year, to remember how God, through Esther, saved the Jews from destruction.

Psalm 77  Affliction...pain...but I will (choose to) remember God's miracles, mighty deeds, etc.  In the midst of hard times we are called to remember His goodness.  After all, He doesn't change, so we can count on His goodness to reign right now...even if we can't see past the pain yet.

Psalm 105:5  "Remember the wonders He has done, His miracles, and the judgments He has pronounced."

Psalm 111:4-5  He causes us to remember His goodness; He remembers His covenant forever.  If you're struggling to remember His goodness, ask Him - He'll help you remember.

Ezekiel 16:22-61  Even when we forget, and don't honor our promises to God, even then He will remember His promises to us.

Gospels  Jesus often says to remember - remember miracles, promises, provision, etc.

Remembering God's goodness, provision, mercy, and deliverance is a great weapon against Satan's attacks.  Find blessings in the midst of pain - it doesn't make you glad for the loss, just helps you gain a Godly perspective, and ultimately gives God the glory instead of the enemy.