Thursday, June 8, 2017

Unimaginable Darkness



            Recently, a confluence of circumstances came together at once to create some rather dark days.  Last week, an explosion at a local corn mill killed four people and injured many more.  Spending time with employees, family members of maimed and lost loved ones, and a shocked community has caused me more than once see that I am staring in the face of unimaginable darkness.  Post-traumatic stress and survivor guilt are just a few of the more mild responses I’ve encountered.

            In addition, my seven-year old grandson is looking at a brain surgery within the next month.  His literally hundreds of seizures a day with generalized epilepsy has caught up with him.  In the last six months he has digressed in several capacities.  Radical intervention is now required.  Spending time with my daughter and family is at times gut-wrenching with the decisions she must make.  Although she is a wonderful Mom, the unimaginable darkness she must stare into every day I believe would crumple most parents to lifeless mush.  Not to mention that her husband was an employee of the business that exploded – and now he has no work.

            If you throw into the mix that there has been an above normal strain of ministry wear-and-tear in the past few months with church matters, and now you have a volatile mix of faith-testing.  That is, at least, what I choose to label it.  Way back in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, God tested Abraham’s faith.  He told Abraham to take his only son, go to a certain mountain, and there sacrifice him as a burnt offering.  If you read the story for the first time, and don’t know the ending, you might wonder if Abraham heard God right.  “Huh, God, you want me to what!?”  But we don’t get any reticence on Abraham’s part.  In fact, we get the opposite.  Early the very next day, Abraham is up and at it.  Even a three-day journey to the mountain doesn’t dissuade him from resolutely following through with God’s instructions (Genesis 22).

            When real genuine faith is put into action, it oftentimes just seems like sheer stupidity to others.  Abraham’s incomprehensible submission to God in this matter of sacrificing his son is unthinkable to most people.  The fact that Abraham has to do the deed himself shows the utterly extreme nature of what was being asked of him by God.  But I believe Abraham understood something that so many people nowadays cannot possibly comprehend unless they have endured extreme spiritual testing:  God can be trusted even in unimaginable darkness.

            Yes, the story concludes with Abraham being called upon at the last minute to withdraw his hand.  A ram caught in a thicket becomes the burnt offering instead of Abraham’s son Isaac.  But Abraham had no idea this was coming.  He simply plodded forward with his mind set on doing exactly what God had for him to do.  To have faith in God, to authentically worship Him as Abraham did, means to trust God totally and to put oneself and all of one’s life into God’s hands completely, even when we don’t know what the outcome will be.

            Even the Lord Jesus himself once cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Whether we like it or not, the Holy Scripture reflects an important life-truth that there must be suffering before glory.  Jesus himself became the substitute, the ram in the thicket.  He is our sacrifice, the once-for-all offering to end all offerings. 


            Unimaginable darkness exists – but so does crazy unthinkable unimaginable grace.  Unfathomable and bottomless mercy from God is available for every situation and each hard circumstance we face.  We are not always promised the outcomes we desire; yet, we are promised that God is with us, and that the Lord will provide.  “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…. The LORD Almighty is with us” (Psalm 46).  May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit be with you, today and always.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Pray for Your Pastor



 "Obey your leaders and do what they say. They are watching over you, and they must answer to God. So don’t make them sad as they do their work. Make them happy. Otherwise, they won’t be able to help you at all” (Hebrews 13:17, Contemporary English Version).

“Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit” (Hebrews 13:17, New Living Translation).

“Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?” (Hebrews 13:17, The Message)

A survey on American clergy by the Schaeffer Institute found some of the following information:
·         90% of pastors report working between 55-75 hours per week.
·         70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
·         50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they had another job lined-up right away.
·         80% of pastors believe church ministry has negatively affected their families.
·         80% of pastoral spouses feel lonely and underappreciated by church members.
·         40% of pastors report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
·         50% of pastors starting out will not last five years.
·         Only 10% of pastors will actually retire as pastors.
·         Over 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month in the United States; 1,300 of them are fired by their churches.
·         The number one reason pastors leave the ministry is that church people are not willing to go the same direction and support the goal of the pastor; pastors believe God wants them to go in one direction but the people are not willing to follow.

Speaking as a pastor, the one thing I want every single church member to know about me is this:  Your prayer support is my life support.  Without regular, earnest, sustained, fervent, and constant prayers sent for me and my family, no matter how hard I labor or how much I work the ministry will go nowhere.  But with habitual and spirited prayer, even the most anemic weaknesses can be transcended and the church can grow with thriving health and joy.

Lift up prayers for your pastor today and every day, appealing to God concerning these things:
            P rotection from the enemy
            R est
            A nointing of the Spirit
            Y ielded heart to God
            E ffectiveness in ministry

            R ighteous life of integrity

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Theological Thespian



           Every one of us has experienced the awkward times of sitting through a boring preacher, a monotone teacher, and/or a pasty looking person leading a ministry with about as much life in him as a bowling ball.  Yes, God’s Word is always relevant no matter how it is presented.  But that doesn’t mean it has to always feel like eating rice cakes and brussel sprouts.  The Word of God ought to be presented in the life and power of the Holy Spirit and with a great deal of flavor!  Ministry done with some attention to the ministered will have a winsome and gracious tone about it that is attractive. 

This is where we could take a lesson or two from the world of actors.  The ability to connect well with an audience; showing emotion and empathy; and, exhibiting confidence are just a few ways where church leaders and ministers can take the sacred Scripture text and communicate it with all the gusto of an actor – to be a kind of theological thespian who is concerned not just to know the Bible, but to communicate it in a riveting manner that displays all of its timeless message.  For the Word of God is really a divine drama, an unfolding production of redemption.  And we are to be the divine dramatists who proclaim the creation, fall, redemption, and new creation of God’s tremendous work in the world.

We are, therefore, to be mindful and present both to the text of Scripture and the congregation who we serve.  The ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others in order to demonstrate a resonance with God’s Word and Christ’s ways needs to be established so that parishioners can walk away taught and inspired toward a more biblical path to live their daily lives.  But sometimes fear can get in the way, keeping us from being confident in what we are doing – fear of failure; fear of what others might think; fear of being hurt emotionally; fear of not being good enough.  Yet, if we focus more on our identity and security in Christ and less on our abilities or lack thereof, then we can step boldly into ministry to others using various means at our disposal to express ourselves dynamically as we present God’s Word.

Maybe this all sounds a bit contrived.  But consider the Old Testament prophets.  They were filled with pathos.  They did anything but simply say God’s message – they proclaimed with incredible passion and sometimes even with arresting object lessons and shocking word pictures.  Whether it was Ezekiel lying on his side for 390 days to symbolize the upcoming siege of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4); Jeremiah putting a linen belt around his waist to communicate the worthless pride of the people (Jeremiah 13:1-11); or, Elijah on Mount Carmel taking on the prophets of Baal with physical altars and speeches of sarcasm (1 Kings 18:16-39); God’s messengers have always communicated their given message with the same tools used by actors in order to bring that vital Word to people in the power and pathos of the Holy Spirit so that it is believed and obeyed.

There are a few simple ways we can develop this ability to communicate a bit further.  If you have children or grandchildren, read to them.  Take on a unique voice for each character.  Read the story with emotion and enthusiasm – even if it does not feel natural to you.  Picture immersing yourself in the characters of the book as if you were them, and let the words flow through that grid.  If there are no kids around your house, volunteer to read in a church Sunday School class, or even at the local elementary school (which, I guarantee, are always on the lookout for those who will come to a class and read).

Another way, similar to reading to kids, is to begin always reading Scripture aloud with the same attention to character, voice, and situation.  Read a particular text over several times in different translations, playing with different tones of voice and various emphases on words.  After a few weeks of doing this, it will begin to become part of you.


Other suggestions are:  taking an improvisation class; reading a biography or, better, an autobiography of a favorite actor; and/or actually re-creating some of the object lessons in the prophetic books of the Bible for your ministry.  Whatever it is you choose to do, be intentional about the development of connecting the biblical text to people.  It is an endeavor you will be glad you invested in, with eternal results.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

God - The Jilted Lover



Throughout the Bible, God likens his relationship to his people much like a lover – as if he were married to them.  God’s covenant relationship with his people is at the heart of understanding the whole of Scripture.  Whenever they stray from his promises, God is offended and hurt. 

            Yes, God feels pain.  God is an emotional Being, which is why we have emotions as people created in his image.  One way to look at the Bible is that it is a book primarily about a jilted lover – and that lover is God.  He has set his affection and his love upon people, but, for the most part, people have spurned their lover’s advance.  And it pains God.  When the original man and woman decided to find satisfaction outside of God, he was jilted and hurt.  When people went on to have children and raise them, they did so largely apart from the God who loved them.  People strayed so far from God that it hurt. “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.  The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:5-6).

            But God was still gracious, sparing Noah and his family.  He took a group of Noah’s descendants, Abraham’s family, and set his covenant affection on them.  Through the Israelites God hoped to lead the entire world to himself.  Yet, they, too, came to fail God and set their affections on others.  So, we have a large chunk of the Old Testament devoted to communicating God’s hurt and disappointment.  Like a jilted lover, God longed for Israel to remain faithful, and, at the same time, was hurt and angry.  So, then, we have prophecies like Hosea.  Hosea had an unfaithful wife, and throughout the book of Hosea the relationship between him and Gomer mirrored the relationship between God and Israel.  Just as Hosea did not give up on his wife, even though she was brazenly unfaithful, so God looked at Israel as his wife and could not bear to give her up.

            But Israel still did not seek God’s love and grace.  And it aroused within God pain and anger because not only did they spurn God’s affectionate advances, they actively sought other lovers, as the prophet Ezekiel communicated in language not suitable for children:
25 At every street corner you built your lofty shrines and degraded your beauty, spreading your legs with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by. 26 You engaged in prostitution with the Egyptians, your neighbors with large genitals, and aroused my anger with your increasing promiscuity. 27 So I stretched out my hand against you and reduced your territory; I gave you over to the greed of your enemies, the daughters of the Philistines, who were shocked by your lewd conduct. 28 You engaged in prostitution with the Assyrians too, because you were insatiable; and even after that, you still were not satisfied. 29 Then you increased your promiscuity to include Babylonia, a land of merchants, but even with this you were not satisfied.
30 “‘I am filled with fury against you, declares the Sovereign Lord, when you do all these things, acting like a brazen prostitute! 31 When you built your mounds at every street corner and made your lofty shrines in every public square, you were unlike a prostitute, because you scorned payment.
32 “‘You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband! 33 All prostitutes receive gifts, but you give gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from everywhere for your illicit favors. 34 So in your prostitution you are the opposite of others; no one runs after you for your favors. You are the very opposite, for you give payment and none is given to you (Ezekiel 16:25-34).

            Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God could not help but be gracious to his beloved wife (Isaiah 54:5-10):
For your Maker is your husband—
    the Lord Almighty is his name—
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;
    he is called the God of all the earth.
The Lord will call you back
    as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—
a wife who married young,
    only to be rejected,” says your God.
“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
    but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
    I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
    I will have compassion on you,”
    says the Lord your Redeemer.
“To me this is like the days of Noah,
    when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
    never to rebuke you again.
10 Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

            As the Old Testament comes to a close, God was still longing for his beloved to return.  “This is what the LORD Almighty says:  ‘I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her.’” (Zechariah 8:2).  All of this was in the heart of the Apostle James when he wrote to the church about their spiritual adultery (James 4:4-6).  He knew that she was flirting with the world, and he wanted them to stop and return to the God who loved them and longed to show them grace, if they only would but humble themselves.  The Apostle John put it this way: Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.  For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17).

            Here is the bottom line, my friends:  God does not want us to go somewhere else to have our needs met.  God yearns, passionately, for us to find our pleasure and enjoyment in him.  If and when we adulterate ourselves with the world, it hurts God deeply, like it would any jilted lover.  God waits with loving patience to show his grace and compassion.  But we have to be in an attitude of humility in order to receive grace.  Pride prevents us from receiving God’s good gift. 


            Seek the Lord while he may be found.  It is through the Lord Jesus Christ that all of God’s good promises and love find their ultimate fulfillment.  Come to Christ.  Receive the forgiveness he offers.  Walk his path of discipleship.  Follow Jesus.  Forsake all to obtain Christ.  He longs to show his affection and love to you.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Remember That You Are Dust



            Today is Ash Wednesday.  This is the first of forty days in the season of Lent.  It is a time of reflection, contemplation, spiritual discipline, and especially repentance as Christians anticipate and prepare themselves for the redemptive events of Christ’s passion. 

            Last night I took the dried palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration, broke them all up, and put them over a hot fire.  Over the course of the next forty-five minutes, I watched the dried branches slowly wither and turn to dust and ash.  By the time it was all done, no one could ever recognize that the dust was ever palm branches.  It could have been just about anything.  And there we have the sign and the meaning behind Ash Wednesday:  In the end, we are all dust.  All of our mortal striving, worrying, and pride to get ahead, posture ourselves for good positions, and preening to look better than we really are will eventually result in absolute diddly-squat.  The richest person on earth, as well as the poorest, will both look exactly the same in the end.  We all will be dust and ashes.

            Today I will take that unrecognizable palm branch dust and apply it to the foreheads of my parishioners in the sign of the cross – a tangible reminder that this is to be a season of repentance.  To be mortal means that we will all die someday.  But, for the follower of God, death will not be the end.  Something will arise out of the dust and ashes.  New life, a life unrecognizable from the first, shall come out of it all.

            The words I will utter when putting the ash to the forehead will be:  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  Yes, it is both an ancient and a very solemn saying.  But there is much more than solemnity and tradition here – there is the hope of something different, of observing something sacred in the ashes, of knowing Christ.  If you think about it, there cannot be ashes unless there is fire.  When something comes close and exposed to fire, it is changed and becomes dust and ash.  It is no longer distinguishable as to its original form.  It will not and cannot ever be the same again.

            When Moses came into contact with the burning fiery bush, he was never the same again.  All that Moses was before became broken down and unrecognizable.  When Isaiah came into contact with God’s burning coal in the temple as he worshiped, he would never be the same again.  Isaiah was a new person, filled with a mission as God’s emissary.  He became completely unrecognizable from his former existence.  When the early church encountered the Day of Pentecost and the Spirit came upon them like fire, they were completely changed.  The believers became dust and from the ashes there arose a church that went on to impact the entire world.  They were never and could never ever be the same again.

            We all share the same fate in the end.  We will all eventually die.  And we will all eventually face fire; it is just a matter of which fire we will encounter.  Either it will be the fire of God’s purifying grace which humbly reduces us to ashes so that we can be renewed and fitted for a life with Jesus Christ forever.  Or we will face the consuming fire at the end of the age that will burn in eternal torment, separated forever from the life giving grace of God.


            So, today remember that you are dust.  Lay aside all that now seems so important, and humbly allow Jesus to remake you and fashion you after his image.  Go to that Ash Wednesday service and receive a sign of mortality, even death.  For only through dying can we live.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Purity



“The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure” (James 3:17).

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” –Jesus (Matthew 5:8)

            All of the New Testament epistles are letters written by Apostles to particular problems and situations within certain churches.  When the Apostle James sat down to pen a letter to the Jewish Christian churches in Gentile dominated countries, it was to address the state of their fellowship, their Christian lives, and the unhealthy church dynamic that was taking place.  The believers faced a great deal of adverse circumstances as Christians.  Sometimes they responded well, and sometimes they did not.  The problem was that they wavered between having faith in Jesus and relying on other things besides God to deal with their problems.  James labeled this kind of thinking that worked itself out in not-so-good behavior as “double-minded” (James 1:8).  The term I would use that reflects what James was getting at is “fence-sitter” or “fence-rider.”

            The church was vacillating back and forth between knowing that God loves them and wondering where he was in all their trouble.  They would look into God’s Word, but then would walk away and not do what it says.  They would claim faith in Jesus Christ, and then turn around and scheme about ways to cozy-up to the wealthy so that they could have a healthy church budget.  They would claim to have faith, but then sit on the fence and do nothing.  The church was straddling between the two worlds of God and Satan, the church and the world, heavenly wisdom and worldly wisdom.



            James sought to knock them off the fence, to cause them to quit being in two worlds at the same time with one foot in each.  He wanted to set them on a path of real faith and true wisdom to live their Christian lives in a difficult world.  Whenever a church or body of believers settles for fence-riding or fence-sitting, they are in need of attaining some solid wisdom for living.  Perhaps you are not a fence-rider, but we all deal with them – people whom claim faith in Jesus, but it is only marginal to their lives.  How do we navigate this world and exhibit real faith in all circumstances, whether good or bad?  James tells us that the foundation to living a wise and godly life in purity.

Godly wisdom is first of all pure.

            James was making reference to moral and ethical purity.  The pure person is one who has a singular devotion to Jesus Christ – he/she pursues God’s will and seeks to do it in God’s way in everything without exception.  Purity means there are no mixed motives, no hidden agendas, no secret desires that are self-serving. 

            Those who are pure have received and experienced the cleansing of Christ’s blood.  The pure have come to the point in their lives of seeing that they have one foot in the world, or their entire self is immersed in the world.  They come to understand that this is a foolish world to live in and that it will only result in relational problems expressed in the false wisdom of envy and selfish ambition.  Only chaos and evil exist in this world.  By contrast, the pure have become so through receiving Holy Spirit power to jump the fence into God’s big world of grace, love, and compassion.  They joyously roll in the green grass of forgiveness.  Without this purification that comes through repentance of the old world and embrace of the new pasture through the cross of Jesus, no wisdom could be possible.  Only through being graced with turning away from the world and its unrighteous ways, and committing oneself to redemption through Jesus can true wisdom become possible both individually and as a church.




            “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10) is to be the cry of every person.  As we draw ever nearer to the season of Lent, such a prayer can prepare and shape us for receiving God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  Oh, that the church might embrace this work of the Spirit!  Amen.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Who Ought to Change?



            Murray Bowen was one of the most influential psychiatrists of the 20th century.  His family systems theory, also known as Bowen theory, has largely replaced a great deal of Freudian psychology in the West.  The basic concept of Bowen’s therapeutic approach is that the family (as well as any group of persons) is an emotional unit.  As a unit, a change in any one of the members results in the others members compensating for the emotional functioning that has been altered.  Like touching one part of the spider web, the entire thing shakes.  The contribution, importance, and focus of Bowen’s theory was that rather than trying to change the other person, one can change him/herself without becoming part of the problem.  The theory states that if any family member can change his or her emotional functioning within the system, the whole family will improve its corporate functioning in response to that change.  In other words, we must learn to function in a healthy way within the family system.  Personal transformation becomes the best approach to handling family crises and problems.

            Bowen was not thinking of churches when working with his clients, but applying family systems theory to the church is not a stretch.  It almost sounds like Dr. Bowen was fresh off a congregational meeting when he said:  “The human is a narcissistic creature who lives in the present and who is more interested in his own square inch of real estate, and more devoted to fighting for his rights than in the multigenerational meaning of life itself.  As the human throng becomes more violent and unruly, there will be those who survive it all….  I think the differentiation of self (remaining connected to others, yet separate from their problems) may well be one concept that lives into the future.”

            In a crisis or presenting problem in society or the church, just as in a family, mounting anxiety moves intensely around unhealthy ways of relating.  Polarized factions take the spotlight and think only of their emotionally based interpretations of the facts.  They fail to see the big picture or look at the welfare of the common good.  All they can see is their angle on the unpleasant situation or person.  Thinking becomes reductionist, and hearts harden.  Everyone ends up looking like a stooge.



            Whatever you think of Bowen’s theory, it is not hard to discern that anxiety plays a major role in many individuals, families, and even churches.  When worry and anxiety take over a person or group of people, things become emotionally charged.  Hence, the church is an emotional unit.  Typically, the response to anything we don’t like is to try and change the other person who is rocking the boat or upsetting the status quo web of relationships.  But maybe the Apostle Paul was onto all this emotional stuff well before the 20th century:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer an petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

            Learning to manage our own anxiety and deal with the incessant worry within ourselves is imperative to coping with relational problems in the church.  It is the peace of God, and not the peace of others that makes the difference.  We are people that are all for change – that is, we want others to change so that we do not have to.  But the Christian is to conform to Jesus, and not the other way around.  Because the Lord is near to us, we have a consistent and continual presence to anchor ourselves, no matter whether the circumstances are to my liking, or not.  So, prayer becomes the means of casting anxiety away so that peace can take its place.  Sounds easy – it is anything but.

            It is human to want everything and everyone to change when there are problems, adversity, or challenge.  But the change most needed is quite personal, and it is only ourselves that we can change.  Therefore, our focus must be on finding ways to remain connected to God and others without resorting to passive-aggressive tactics, cutting-off relationships altogether, or bullying others into changing with our violent or manipulative words.

            When faced with unwanted change and/or difficult circumstances, rather than looking for an alteration from others, try asking yourself one of these questions: 

·         What is a small step that I can take to improve my situation?
·         If I were guaranteed not to make the situation worse, what would I be doing differently?
·         Is there a person in my life whose voice and input I haven’t heard in a long time?  What small question could I ask them to help me in my situation?
·         What is one good thing about this situation I find myself in?
·         What is one positive trait I possess that can serve me well in this situation?


Are there other questions you could ask that would be helpful?  A journey that seems like a thousand miles must begin with one step.  What will that step be?