Wednesday, October 12, 2016

America's Untimely Descent and Ultimate Hope

Not many months from now we will be listening to another presidential inaugural address. Unless something unprecedented and unforeseeable occurs it will likely be delivered by either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Frankly, I can't even begin to imagine what might be said to the American people (and the world) by either individual, that will be received as remotely credible.

Contrast John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, which has all but faded into the distant corridors of history:

"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

"My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. 

"Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."
(John F. Kennedy: "Inaugural Address," January 20, 1961. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

Fifty-five years later we find ourselves embroiled in a societal conflict neither our founding fathers nor, more recently, those few left from "The Greatest Generation" could have ever conceived in their darkest dreams. We face a threat infinitely more dire than that of communism of the 60's and 70's or the terrorism of the 21st Century. It is the unraveling of the American Dream. Simply put, the word 'freedom' no longer stands for what most Americans understood for more than 200 years: the obligation to uphold moral responsibility while pursuing life, liberty and happiness. Today 'freedom' means the complete casting off of all restraint, as has been so aptly demonstrated by our current presidential candidates.

Our founding fathers understood this danger all too well:
John Adams in a speech to the military in 1798 warned his fellow countrymen stating, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration of Independence said. “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be aid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.  Without religion, I believe that learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind.”
Noah Webster, author of the first American Speller and the first Dictionary said,   “The Christian religion, in its purity, is the basis, or rather the source of all genuine freedom in government. . . . and I am persuaded that no civil government of a republican form can exist and be durable in which the principles of that religion have not a controlling influence.”
Benjamin Franklin, Signer of the Declaration of Independence “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
John JayOriginal Chief-Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court ,  “The Bible is the best of all books, for it is the word of God and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and in the next. Continue therefore to read it and to regulate your life by its precepts.”

We are fools for not heeding their warning.

We have become a nation of adulterers, infatuated with and celebrating all kind of sexual perversion. We are lawless, pursuers of wealth and self-gratification at all cost. We have chosen to ignore the lessons of history, having postured ourselves dangerously close to what is described in Psalm 2, "The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, 'Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.' The One enthroned in heaven laughs the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, 'I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” In our blindness we have become the poster child for Revelation 3:17, "You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

 It seems the great Question of the hour is “Clinton or Trump?” I stand aghast  wondering how I can vote for either one of these individuals who have betrayed the principles good American men and women have given their lives to uphold. In the midst of the fracas I listen desperately for the voices of  any individuals thrust into national leadership who, like JFK, have been entrusted with carrying on America's great legacy. They seem ominously silent.

Dear friends we stand, I believe, on the threshold of judgement. Divine judgement certainly, but judgement as well from the millions of Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice with their very blood and lives in order that we might carry on the great Dream our founding fathers envisioned. Their voices cry out from the grave for justice. Justice that may well come in the form of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

As the great Christian advocate C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” (Lewis, C.S.; The Great Divorce).

Sadly, we seem to have chosen. The question is, will we humble ourselves, admit our sinful behavior and return to the godly, Biblical principles on which this nation was founded; or will we be driven there, broken by calamity?

Perhaps there is still time.

Edmund Burke, the great 18th Century political activist and American advocate is credited with saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I believe this is the greatest temptation we face in America today.

No doubt many will be tempted to abstain from their constitutional right to vote on November 8. I admit I’m fighting this inclination myself. It would be a grave mistake to do so, however. Instead I choose to look beyond the rhetoric and media circus and will do everything I can to discover where the candidates stand on real issues. I will identify the candidate I believe most closely agrees with the course charted by our founding fathers - a course I happen to wholly embrace - and I will vote accordingly. If no such person becomes apparent, I will ask for Divine wisdom and guidance at the moment of decision.

will also continue to pray and plead for God's mercy on our land. It is our ultimate hope.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How, then, do we live?

“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”

-Jesus of Nazareth

“So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

-Paul (Formerly Saul of Tarsus)

Last year the sports/entertainment industry was rocked by yet another individual who had the doors of his private life opened wide for all to see. After the shocking revelation of multiple mistresses, this sports icon retreated from the public eye to undergo therapy and counseling. A year later he was back in the game doing what he has always done best, and the crowds continue to follow him enthusiastically, his misconduct seemingly forgotten. Four years ago an influential spiritual leader with international acclaim confessed to having visited a gay massage therapist numerous times and engaged in sexual immorality. Amid heartbreak and turmoil, this brother stepped down from his roles as senior pastor of a large mega-church and president of a well-known interdenominational evangelical organization. Today he is in the pastoral ministry once again. He leads a church he began in his barn last spring after admitting publicly to ‘over-confessing’ his behavior of four years ago. From all accounts the church is packed every Sunday and continues to grow. I make no judgment on either of these men. I relate these stories because they – and scores like them – dangerously erode our faith in the law of reaping and sowing. This ‘erosion’ has a profound effect on who we are and how we live as disciples of Jesus Christ and function as His Church.

When we observe those we admire – including religious leaders and organizations – ignoring (and even at times promoting) ungodliness, we are tempted to feel no burden of responsibility to live our lives any differently. Our natural, human tendency is to conclude, ‘if those we trust as leaders fall and still thrive with no apparent consequences, why should we attempt to live any differently?’ This is a dangerous undercurrent in our thoughts we must learn to guard against. Men fail. They always have and always will. Moses, in anger, murdered an Egyptian soldier. King David had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba. There are always consequences, even if it appears on the surface to be otherwise.

In Galatians 6, Paul writes, “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct. Those who are taught the word of God should provide for their teachers, sharing all good things with them. Don’t be misled – you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always reap what you sow. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone – especially to those in the family of faith.” There are five directives in this passage we will explore this week which, if we carry them out, we will reap the benefit, rather than the negative consequences from the law of sowing and reaping; appropriately helping those overcome by sin’, ‘sharing one another’s burdens’, ‘paying careful attention to our own work’, ‘sharing all good things with each other’, and ‘persevering in doing what is good!’

“If another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself.” Are we at times guilty of the opposite? Do we judge, gossip, criticize and throw stones? Do we compare our own righteousness with that of others and smugly, in our hearts, adopt the very attitude of the Pharisee Jesus warned about, who prayed, “I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery?” There are a number of possible causes for this wholly carnal attitude: another person’s failure elevates our own sense of ‘righteousness’; we don’t want to trouble ourselves with the effort it sometimes takes to restore a brother or sister; we simply don’t know how to approach someone who has fallen into sin, etc. These are poor excuses! Perhaps the biggest reason we often fail to help a struggling brother or sister is that it takes a great investment of time and energy to become involved in the lives of others in a way that directs them to Christ. We are usually so consumed with own affairs, we take little time to give heartfelt, prayerful thought to what others might be going through.

The antidote for our lack of involvement and self-absorption is compassion and mercy. These two words occur over seventy times in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, the words of the prophet Micah ring out, “O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Jesus came into this world because of the Father’s love for us. Oswald Chamber’s writes, “When we are born again we are brought into the realization of God’s great purpose for the human race, namely, that He created us for Himself. This realization of our election by God is the most joyful on earth, and we must learn to rely on this tremendous creative purpose of God. The first thing God will do is force the interests of the whole world through the channel of our hearts. The love of God, and even His very nature, is introduced into us. And we see the nature of Almighty God purely focused in John 3:16 – ‘For God so loved the world…’” (My Utmost For His Highest) In order to cultivate compassion and mercy, we must turn our gaze from ourselves and focus upward and outward. As Pastor Gordon so often states, “Love God, love others.” Let’s not allow the evil one to keep us from this important part of sowing into the lives of others!

“Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.” One of the characteristics of unconditional love is the willingness to share someone else’s burden. When we begin to identify with another person’s pain and struggles, we can then be mightily used of the Father to bring encouragement, relief and healing to that individual. In doing so, however, we must never abuse our knowledge of a situation by speaking careless words. Wikipedia defines gossip as, “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. It forms one of the oldest and most common means of sharing (unproven) facts and views, but also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and other variations into the information transmitted. The term also carries implications that the news so transmitted (usually) has a personal or trivial nature, as opposed to normal conversation.” Gossip is perhaps one of the most devastating forces in the Body of Christ. It destroys relationship, distorts truth, distracts from our mission, and brings reproach to the name of Jesus. Gossip elevates our own sense of self-importance and worth, and we inevitably become a stumbling block to the very ones we were trying to ‘help’. When we bear each others burdens, there is only One with Whom we ever need discuss it…in the prayer closet!

“Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct.” It’s interesting to me that this directive follows on the heels of “share each others burdens” because it seems contradictory. However, I believe this speaks to another important aspect of the law of sowing and reaping. Two of the evil one’s greatest weapons against us are distraction and enticement. In the Garden, he drew Eve’s attention away from fellowship with her Creator by enticing her to consider something other than what God intended for her. He still works in the same way today. The great ‘failsafe’ in this directive is “For we are responsible for our own conduct.” Oh, that we could remember this simple truth at all times! One of the things I remember my mom saying to my brother and me quite frequently when we were young was “mind your own business!” Thinking back to the opening paragraph of this devotional, if the sports icon and the pastor had stuck to their work and ‘minded their own business’ they might not have gotten sidetracked. They were distracted and enticed. The tragedy of David and Bathsheba began similarly. Pause briefly and read I Samuel 11:1-12:13. While there’s not enough room to recount the whole story here, we can certainly read the outcome: “Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are that man! The Lord, the God of Israel, says: I anointed you king of Israel and saved you from the power of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and his wives and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And if that had not been enough, I would have given you much, much more. Why, then, have you despised the word of the Lord and done this horrible deed? For you have murdered Uriah the Hittite with the sword of the Ammonites and stolen his wife. From this time on, your family will live by the sword because you have despised me by taking Uriah’s wife to be your own.’” Instead of doing what kings were supposed to do (“now spring was the time when kings normally go out to war”), David remained at the palace and was distracted and enticed. What he reaped as a result of his sin was turmoil within his family until the day he died, including the loss of his oldest son, Absalom. “Don’t be misled – you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always reap what you sow.”

“Those who are taught the word of God should provide for their teachers, sharing all good things with them.” I like the paraphrase of this verse found in The Message, “Be very sure now, you who have been trained to a self-sufficient maturity, that you enter into a generous common life with those who have trained you, sharing all the good things that you have and experience.” There is an important principle here which is understood: learning is lifelong – for both the learner and the teacher. This is one of the wonderful benefits of sowing and reaping! Prior to entering the full-time ministry, I was a high school choral director. Over the years I had many students. One of these was a young man who, after graduating college, was hired to my previous position at Southeast High School – where he was once the student and I the teacher. Over the years we have remained close. Tommy also is a worship pastor part-time in a local church. We speak regularly, encouraging each other in the common work we share, work the Lord established for us. I ‘sowed’ into Tommy nearly 20 years ago when he was a rambunctious freshman; he now ‘sows’ into others. He also shares with me what the Lord is teaching him, and we reap the benefit from each other! This scenario is one that should happen frequently within the church. It is one of the ways koinonia (fellowship in the Holy Spirit) is designed to work. If you are not in a mentoring relationship, I encourage you to seek the Lord and allow Him to lead you into one, either as ‘mentor’ or ‘mentored.’ It will yield positive results from the law of sowing and reaping into your life!

“So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone – especially to those in the family of faith.” This is where our will, partnered with the power of the Holy Spirit, is essential in our day-to-day lives! When we ‘tire of doing what is good’ we are prime candidates for distraction and enticement. In fact, both of these can most certainly lead to ‘weariness in well-doing.’ But we are encouraged to not give up! Imagine what would happen if a farmer, after tilling the soil and sowing the seed, became discouraged after a couple of weeks, gave up, and walked away from his fields. He wouldn’t be much of a farmer! A real farmer understands the ways of his labor: tilling, sowing, fertilizing, and weeding, while all the time watching the progress of the crops until harvest-time. There will be times when doing the right thing simply won’t be easy or feel good. It will require real patience, endurance and even sacrifice on your part. During these times we are encouraged to not give up…the harvest of blessing will come. The Apostle Paul also presents us with an afterthought: do good to everyone whenever you have the opportunity, especially those of the household of faith – brothers and sister in Christ. The church in Thessalonica must have had a good grasp on this directive. Look at what Paul writes to them in I Thessalonians 1: “We know, dear brothers and sisters, that God loves you and has chosen you to be his own people. For when we brought you the Good News, it was not only with words but also with power, for the Holy Spirit gave you full assurance that what we said was true. And you know of our concern for you from the way we lived when we were with you. So you received the message with joy from the Holy Spirit in spite of the severe suffering it brought you. In this way, you imitated both us and the Lord. As a result, you have become an example to all the believers in Greece—throughout both Macedonia and Achaia.” What a tribute for a church congregation!

The law of sowing and reaping serves as ‘guardrails’ to keep us ‘on track’ as we pursue Christ. It is a law we should always keep in the forefront of our minds. You will always reap what you sow. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. Our ‘sinful nature’ will always seek to influence us. The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to empower us to live our lives above the demands of the flesh. The Father delights in empowering His children to sow in such a way that we reap His blessings in our lives!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Choosing the One Best Thing

“By prayer we enter into God’s holy temple, and penetrate at once to the throne of grace. Prayer is not only the shortest distance to God’s mighty throne; it is the only way in…. The veil of sense and space that hides Him within His temple-universe is suddenly removed as we pray…. We enter silently into His temple, and lo, suddenly we are before His throne…. Only there do we discover the wonder of worship, that worship is before work, and that all His works are done in a spirit of worship.”

-Armin Gesswein

Prayer is perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of our relationship with God. One cannot be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ and not have a living, active prayer life. Prayer – like any form of communication – takes time and discipline to incorporate it into daily living. Yet it is utterly simple! This week we will take a ‘heart-survey’ that will help us determine our status as disciples of Jesus Christ: are you progressing into spiritual maturity, or are you still a ‘babe’, able to stomach only the ‘milk’ of the Word (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). Prayer – not intellect – is what brings us to that place where we are able to digest ‘solid food:’ the undiluted Truth of God’s Word which has the power to transform our souls and “transform us into the image of the Creator” (Colossians 3). Each day this week we’ll ask ourselves a question designed to help us evaluate how we live. At the end of the week we’ll reflect on the results.

What consumes my thoughts and my time? Jesus had three good friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (siblings), who lived in the little hamlet of Bethany, not far from Jerusalem. Luke chapter 10 tells the story: “Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said. But Martha was distracted with all the preparations she had to make, so she came up to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work alone? Tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her.” A few weeks ago we learned that the Father is seeking those who would worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4). This story sheds some light on what Jesus meant and is a wonderful example of two hearts in contrast. The truth is, Martha’s preparations were not irrelevant or meaningless. She was working to do what was ‘culturally expected;’ that is, when guests come into your home, you provide for them! To the casual observer, it probably does seem somewhat unfair that she was doing all the work while her sister sat idly by. But remember another truth we have learned: man looks at the externals, but God looks at the heart. Mary was entirely focused on Jesus, the Living Word of God, and what He was teaching. It never occurred to her to think of anything else! Martha was focused on all the externals, the things that, from the perspective of Eternity, simply don’t matter. Mary was caught up into Eternity.

In his short booklet, The Seven Wonders of Prayer, Armin Gesswein writes, “All of God’s works are wrought in prayer. Prayer works, ‘changes things,’ because through it God works. By prayer we enter into His works. Prayer not only works, but it is work, real work – both for Him in heaven and for us on earth. If we do not learn how to pray, we shall not amount to a thing for God. For it is the one work where we behold God doing His work. There we become workers together with God. Like Christ, and with Him, it is in prayer that we must put in the real man-hours of labor. All else is easy, when we learn to labor in prayer. Christ labored in prayer to the point of sweat, tears and agony.” In it’s most simple form, prayer is communication with the Father. But the manner of prayer referred to above is a specific type of communication, more resembling a ‘business meeting around the conference table’ than ‘casual conversation around the dinner table.’ Conversation around the conference table is risky. Views and opinions are shared, respect for each other can be lost or gained, action plans are laid, work is evaluated. Walking away from the conference table, a life can be greatly altered. Conversation around the dinner table is usually light, filled with laughter and banter (at least in a healthy home). You walk away full, satisfied, but seldom giving a second thought to the discussion (unless devotions happen to be a part of the meal). Rarely does one’s life change as a result of sitting around the dinner table.

When we pray, does it feel more like the conference table or the dinner table? Do we communicate with God with intimate knowledge of who He is, expecting great, life-changing decisions will be made? Do we see ourselves as a partner with Him, a co-worker? Or is our communication with God more like the list we used to send to Santa when we were children? In Hebrews 11 we find the words, “And those who come to God must believe that He exists, and rewards those who diligently seek Him.”

If one reads enough books on prayer, one discovers a common theme among the writers: prayer changes things; to pray is to change. Throughout my life I have prayed one thing consistently: “Lord, please never let me be satisfied with anything but Your best for my life”. This makes it pretty intense just to be around me, sometimes, as those who know me well will surely testify. But I’ve learned that to expect God’s best for my life, I have to be willing to change, to be continually transformed from the inside out. The transformation process is not an easy one. Many times, just when I think I have made some significant progress, the Lord shows me just how far I have yet to go. And yet there’s hope! Jesus said, “No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Since I live, you also will live. When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And because they love me, my Father will love them. And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them.” (John 14:18-21) Has Jesus revealed Himself to you…lately? Don’t make the mistake of thinking this was a one-time experience that took place when you accepted Him as Savior. That would be like attending a seven-course meal, but getting up and leaving after the appetizer!

“Then only do we engage the enemy – Satan and his forces – when we pray. There it is the battle is fought, and the real victory won. Christian work only succumbs to the enemy, [and] does not engage him or overcome his power unless we pray. It is really only in the place of prayer that we wrestle against powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and against spiritual wickedness in high places. Unless we learn to pray, we never do battle for God, or become Christ’s soldiers. The entire armor is shaped for prayer. That is the real battleground. Unless we learn to pray and wrestle there, we shall get into the wrong battle and lose – the hot battle of words and clash of personalities.” (Armen Gesswein, The Seven Wonders of Prayer). We face a real enemy whose goal is to destroy all of God’s works – especially mankind, and most especially, the Church of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look back over 2000 years of church history, including our own generation, and realize how fierce the battle rages. What amazes me is how quickly we forget who our enemy is! He uses our sin-nature to his advantage, preying on our weaknesses and our failures. He is a master at drawing our focus everywhere except where it should be: on the Lord Jesus Christ. There’s an easy test to determine who controls our attention: if ours minds and hearts focus on sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these, then the evil one is exerting a strong influence in our life; if, on the other hand, our minds and hearts are drawn to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Christ is most certainly our center of attention. (Galatians 5)

In his classic book, Teach Us To Pray: Learning A Little About God, Andre Louf writes, “Is Praying Difficult? A fourteenth-century Byzantine monk, who for a short time was Patriarch of Constantinople with the name Callixtus II, answers this question with the illustration of [a] lute-player. ‘The lute player bends over his instrument and listens attentively to the tune, while his fingers manipulate the plectrum (bow) and make the strings vibrate in full-toned harmony. The lute has turned into music; and the man who strums upon it is taken out of himself, for the music is soft and entrancing. Anyone who prays must set about it in the same way. He has a lute and a plectrum (bow) at his disposal. The lute is his heart, the strings of which are the inward senses. To get the strings vibrating and the lute playing he needs a plectrum (bow), in this case: the recollection of God, the Name of Jesus, the Word. Like the lute-player, [we] must listen attentively and vigilantly to [our] heart and pluck its strings (inward senses) with the Name of Jesus; until the senses open up and [our] heart becomes alert. The person who strums incessantly upon his heart with the Name of Jesus sets his heart a-singing, ‘an ineffable happiness flows into his soul, the recollection of Jesus purifies his Spirit and makes it sparkle with Divine Light.” This is powerful imagery! Think of the acquired skill and discipline it takes to learn a musical instrument, the hours of dedication to the craft before music can be truly made. That’s why so many people never get beyond the most rudimentary lessons on the piano! But for the disciple of Jesus Christ, the rigorous discipline of prayer is not an option.

By now you may have noticed that I frequently use the term ‘disciple’ or ‘disciple of Jesus Christ’ instead of the term ‘Christian’. There’s a simple explanation for this. This term ‘Christian,’ which was first used in the early church to describe Christ’s followers, has today become more of a cultural label. Many who consider themselves ‘Christians’ have never made a public profession of faith, much less engaged in a living, vital relationship with the risen Savior! But to use the term ‘disciple’ implies a life that is fully committed to follow the one who is master – in our case, Jesus. In this sense, I write to those who truly consider themselves ‘disciples’. The term ‘discipleship’ we so frequently use is not a program, but a way of life. Disciple…discipline. Both words share the same root. We cannot hope to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ unless we are willing to submit ourselves to the disciplines required of His disciples, obedience to His word, pursuit of knowledge of the Father, denial of selfish desires and ambitions, willingness to display charity – unconditional love – toward others.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Where Life and Lips Join

"Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become “unity” conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified. The Body becomes stronger as its members become healthier. The whole church of God gains when themembers that compose it begin to seek a better and higher life."
-A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God

Do we understand what A.W. Tozer is saying? Christian ‘community,’ as described in Scripture, cannot exist outside the context of our own personal relationship with God. Christian gatherings cannot be a substitute for our own individual time spent with the Father. In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless we are willing to commit earnestly to spending significant time (in quality, not necessarily quantity) in Bible study, reflection and prayer every day, then we are not going to be much use to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and Christian community isn’t going to be much use to us. Our ability to love and walk with each other in true Christian fellowship hinges upon the degree to which we have learned to love and trust God. At the end of the same chapter of the book quoted above, Tozer sates, “When the habit of inwardly gazing Godward becomes fixed within us, we shall be ushered onto a new spiritual level of spiritual life more in keeping with the promises of God and the mood of the New Testament.

Let’s explore a little more of what I call Tozer’s ‘corporate worship theology,’ “It is true that order in nature depends upon right relationships; to achieve harmony each thing must be in its proper position relative to each other thing. In human life it is not otherwise...the cause of all our human miseries is a radical moral dislocation, an upset in our relationship to God and to each other. For whatever else the Fall may have been, it was certainly a sharp change in man’s relation to his Creator. He adopted toward God an altered attitude, and by so doing destroyed the proper Creator-creature relation in which, unknown to him, his true happiness lay.” (A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God) In this statement, the reason we need to be completely fixed upon the Father is clear: only when we are in right relationship with Him can we be in right relationship with each other and ourselves. Let’s not be naïve. Our adversary, Satan, knows and understands this all too well. It is the reason why he puts all of his effort into making us self-focused, or self-centered. Frankly, he knows that he cannot win with a frontal attack in most cases, because to the child of God, these are far too obvious. So he studies us carefully to determine which “back-door” approach might work best. His resources are not unlimited, nor is his power. He is neither omnipresent nor omniscient (everywhere all the time, all-powerful). In fact, he was stripped of his authority on this planet in the wake of Christ’s resurrection. Because of this, he wages war carefully, and assigns his ‘troops’ (demonic entities, fallen angelic beings like himself) strategically.

A body of believers that is wrapped up in itself for the sake of simply ‘doing church’ is of little threat to Satan. A body of believers, however, that is striving to live, each person as a true disciple of Jesus Christ, is His biggest fear. It is upon these types of congregations upon which he deftly, strategically wages war. In all our 'doing,' let’s remember Satan’s primary strategy: to keep us focused on ourselves - our wants, our desires, our opinions, our preferences. When we allow ourselves to become distracted by these things, we lose ground quickly, and are in danger of discrediting the Name of the Lord and losing credibility in the sight of those around us!

“All the graces that are produced in a Christian grow out of the death of self. Unlimited patience is necessary to bear not only with yourself, but with others whose personalities and moods are not compatible with your own. Bear these offenses in silence and submit them to the spirit of grace. As you seek to honor the true cross (the affliction that God allows for us), remember that all the disagreeable situations that fall in your daily path are part of that true acceptance of the cross. Do not insult the work of the cross in your life by complaining about your problems. All things, including things that appear evil, are great blessings when they unite us to the One who is our All in All.” (Madam Jeanne Guyon , Intimacy With Christ) Psalm 16:8 states, “I have set the LORD always before me. Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” The Church serves as the vehicle through which the Redeemed are brought into close proximity with one another. This ‘closeness’ is the stuff of the cross. Our human weakness and selfish nature drives the ‘nails’ of suffering into ourselves and others. Many times we bear the ‘cross’ of own selfishness as it’s mixed with relationship or Koinonia (fellowship in the Spirit). In this sense, “organizations” become irrelevant, “missions statements” and “purpose statements” become irrelevant, “success” and “failure” (measured by human standards) becomes irrelevant. Only our identification with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is relevant. All else is superficial.

In the well-known devotional book My Utmost For His Highest Oswald Chambers states, “Always measure your life solely by the standards of Jesus. Submit yourself to His yoke alone; and always be careful to never place a yoke on others that is not of Jesus Christ. It takes God a long time to get us to stop thinking that unless everyone sees things exactly as we do, they must be wrong. That is never God’s view. There is only one true liberty—the liberty of Jesus at work in our conscience to do what is right. Jesus said, ‘go...and make disciples…’ (Matthew 28:19), not ‘make converts to your own thoughts and opinions.’ ” Jesus commands us to love each other. (John 15:17) This means we ‘bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things’ (I Corinthians 13:7). If we, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, are faithful to ‘bear, believe, hope and endure,’ then we cannot fail! However, we must remember that God will bring us into difficult circumstances that are designed to test the measure of our surrender and faith. Discipleship cannot be proven by words or even actions. Discipleship is the process through which our hearts are refined, many times through suffering, to display the character and attributes of Jesus Christ. The ‘nails’ hurt, but eventually become some of our most cherished possessions. Remember His nail-scarred hands!

“No man is fit to enjoy heaven unless he has resigned himself to suffer hardship for Christ. Nothing is more acceptable to God, nothing more helpful for you on this earth than to suffer willingly for Christ. If you had to make a choice, you ought to wish rather to suffer for Christ than to enjoy many consolations, for thus you would be more like Christ and more like all the saints. Our merit and progress consist not in many pleasures and comforts but rather in enduring great afflictions and sufferings.” “If, indeed, there were anything better or more useful for man's salvation than suffering, Christ would have shown it by word and example. But He clearly exhorts the disciples who follow Him and all who wish to follow Him to carry the cross, saying: "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Thomas á Kempis; The Imitation of Christ) “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Luke 14:27, John 13:35) Exactly what is the nature of our relationship with God? Do we treat Him like some kind of cosmic “blessing bank”, thinking that if we hit upon just the right combination of actions and attitudes, He will perform for us the way we want Him to? Do we fail to see the way we think about, and treat our Heavenly Father is usually the way we think about, and treat those around us? The answer to these questions lies, believe it or not, in the way we view suffering!

In "The Problem of Pain," C.S. Lewis writes, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” Let’s ‘unpack’ this statement. Free-will (the right to be a free moral agent and choose between right and wrong) is what separates us from all other created things. The very nature and essence of God’s unconditional love demands that the object of His love—you and I— be free to choose whether or not to love Him in return. This freedom was exploited by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when they chose to disobey the one directive from the Father that was to prove their faithfulness (they ate fruit from the tree of knowledge). This disobedience created a dilemma: God’s unconditional love collided with His uncompromising justice. Man’s disobedience required justice to be satisfied. Yet man, as the object of God’s unconditional love, wanted redemption and forgiveness. This ‘collision’ between love and justice could only end in one way: suffering.

Man’s selfishness reduced God’s original perfect plan for His creation to a nightmare existence filled with
violence, disgrace, and corruption. Something had to be done, so God’s solution was to send the Son (the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the very Word of Life made flesh) to walk on the soil He himself created, among those He so infinitely loved. From the beginning God knew that this journey was going to be full of suffering and pain. Ultimately, the price Justice would exact required God to reject the Son (Matthew 27:46). The Son, being sinless and perfect, could rightfully take upon himself the punishment for Adam’s disobedience (remember Jesus, born of a virgin, was outside of Adam’s lineage) for all who choose to believe and accept His sacrifice. For this reason the Apostle Paul writes in II Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

For the disciple of Jesus Christ, there is no loftier goal—and no greater source of suffering—than dying to selfish desires. And our discipleship is proven in how we treat others. This is where community begins, in understanding that when we truly set ourselves to be Christ’s disciples, we will join with others in community, in relationship—living the way Jesus lived, by His commands and precepts, the foremost of which is “love each other [unconditionally].” We MUST accept that no conditions may be attached to our love for others. This is how our unconditional love for God is demonstrated! And it’s here that the Church gets sidetracked into becoming nothing more than a ‘religious organization’ (by the way, these angered Jesus). In his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard states, “For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of becoming a Christian. [In Western churches] one is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress towards discipleship. Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Christ in His example, spirit and teachings as a condition of membership...most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Jesus.”

This indictment is not new. We have seen the same unfaithfulness characterize God’s people since the children of Israel were delivered from the hands of the Egyptians. Yet God, in His passionate, endless, unconditional love for us continues to pursue us relentlessly. He desires for us to be healed from our spiritual blindness. His wish is for us to step out of darkness into His light. As you give serious consideration to your relationship with the Father, be reminded that we cannot enter into any kind of relationship with Him on our own terms. We cannot claim to love God and be Jesus’ disciples while holding grudges against each other (conditional love). We cannot claim to follow Christ and be driven by our own selfish desires and ambitions. Dallas Willard states, “ cannot be a disciple of Christ without forfeiting things normally sought in human life. And if we intend to become like Christ, that will be obvious to every thoughtful person around us, as well as to ourselves...discipleship can be made concrete by loving our enemies, blessing those who curse us, walking the second mile with an oppressor—in general, living out the gracious inward transformation of faith, hope, and love. Such acts—carried out by the disciplined person with manifest grace, peace and joy—make discipleship no less tangible and shocking today than...long ago. Anyone who will enter The Way can verify this, and he or she will prove that discipleship is far from dreadful.” (The Spirit of the Disciplines).

Let’s take a look at one more of A.W. Tozer’s thoughts. “Much of our difficulty as seeking Christians stems from our unwillingness to take God as He is and adjust our lives accordingly. We insist upon trying to modify Him and to bring Him nearer to our own image. The flesh [our human nature] whimpers against the rigor of God’s inexorable sentence and begs like Agag [see 1 Samuel 15] for a little mercy, a little indulgence of its carnal ways It is no use. We can get a right start only by accepting God as He is and learning to love Him for what He is.” (The Pursuit of God) This is huge! Remember what I restated earlier: our ability to love and walk with each other in true Christian fellowship hinges upon the degree to which we have learned to love and trust God! When we begin to truly take God as He is, and submit ourselves to Him, only then will we be able to love each other for who we are and submit to one another, as the Apostle Paul commands us to in Ephesians 5. When we get to the point where we are so focused on Him that we trust Him completely no matter what life’s circumstances might bring our way, only then will we begin to live in a manner that draws us nearer to Him and to each other.

It is important for us to get a hold of this truth. It is my hope that the Church will engage in a new way in corporate worship and Community Groups. But we must guard ourselves against coming to our times together with the typical worldly attitude of “what am I going to get out of this.” Instead we must challenge ourselves to ask our Lord the question, “What can I bring to the gathering of believers, no matter what it might cost me?” You see, dear friend, this is the essence of Christian fellowship. Decades ago, one of our presidents spoke of this principle of truth accurately when he said, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”* If the world recognizes this principle of selflessness, then how much more should we, the Church?

I encourage you if you have not already done so, to not let one day go by that you do not spend personal, alone, intentional time with the Father. Understand right away that this will be the hardest thing that you will ever strive to undertake, because we have an adversary who, as we have said, is cunning, brilliant, and understands our weaknesses all too well. The last thing he wants us to do is be in a position where we are exposed to the truth of God’s Word and the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives!

*President John F. Kennedy’s entire speech can be found at:

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Intimacy With God

"Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him.”
-The Apostle Paul (Formerly Saul of Tarsus)

When was the last time you were desperate for something? How far have you gone to get something you really wanted? Last Sunday we sang a song which contained the words “And I, I’m desperate for You; and I, I’m lost without You” (Marie Barnett; Breathe; 1995 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing). One day a young man came to Jesus. He was quite wealthy by worldly standards. Yet in spite of his wealth, he was dissatisfied. He wanted more. He found Jesus and asked Him what he could do to obtain eternal life. Scripture records Jesus loved him, so much so that He invited the young man to follow Him in His journey. The only prerequisite was to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. The young man went away sad for he had many possessions. Could it be that he missed the point completely? Is it possible he saw ‘eternal life’ as one more accomplishment, one more trophy to add to his apparently substantial collection? Did he not realize Who Jesus was, and what He was saying to him?

Our relationship with God isn’t a ‘free pass’ into heaven or a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card. It is a holy, sacred commitment to follow with all our hearts the One who has pursued us with all of His. Christian singer/songwriter Jon Foreman asks “We were meant to live for something more…have we lost ourselves?” (Jonathan Foreman, Tim Foreman; Meant To Live; 2002 Meadowgreen Music Company; Sugar Pete Songs) The ‘something more’ Jon speaks of is exactly what this week’s Living Worship is about. It is the neglected, risky, difficult information about what our relationship with God looks like.

I consider myself an evangelical. This means I take seriously Christ’s directive found in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything He has commanded.” I grew up in evangelical churches. The message I continually heard growing up was ‘believe in Jesus – be saved – avoid hell – go to heaven.’ Period. There was lots of talk about having a relationship with Christ, but little, if any, discussion about what that relationship should look like. It was easy! Talk to the pastor, get baptized, and attend church and Sunday school. It wasn’t until much later I understood what Jesus actually said: “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” Umm…this sounds to me like Jesus meant our relationship with the Father to go beyond the ‘get-saved-and-go-to-church’ routine. Let’s look at it another way. What kind of marriage would a couple have, if the only reason they wed was for the self-gratification of sexual intimacy? (All one has to do is take a close look at our society to answer that one.) The marriage would most likely fail over time. All successful marriages have one thing in common: the great personal sacrifice that accompanies unconditional love. In fact, those who have long-lasting, healthy, vibrant, marriages understand how to experience the joy of the sacrifice. This, my friend, is the “something more” we were “meant to live for”.

Decades ago I heard a message on being “God-Inside-Minded”. This was a novel concept to me at the time. It seemed the speaker was stating it was possible to walk through my day in constant fellowship with the Father. This completely redefined my understanding – and expectations – of my relationship with God. I began, for the first time in my life, to really study men and women in the Bible who seemed to walk closely with the Father; not their actions and accomplishments, mind you, but how they thought and lived. I discovered something. They seemed to know God...enough to talk back to Him and even argue with Him, to wrestle with Him and even prepare a meal for Him. At least a couple of individuals, it seems, were so close to God that God simply ‘took them’. They went from this world to the next without even tasting death! This almost makes me ashamed to sing, “I am a friend of God, He calls me friend.” (Israel Houghton, Michael Gungor; Friend of God; (Integrity's Praise! Music; Vertical Worship Songs) Since then I have been on a quest to know God. Honestly, there have been some distractions. I’ve had to come to grips with many aspects of my character that are less than admirable. I have failed, sinned, fallen short and fallen down. But I have never given up. I, like the Apostle Paul,“…want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” Paul goes on to write, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” You see, the ‘prize’ Paul speaks of is knowing God; not knowing about Him, but knowing Him, and, believe me, there’s a huge difference! Knowing about Him involves little risk. The same is true of earthly relationships. It’s easy to get to know a lot about somebody. It’s a different thing completely to get to know them. And yet that is our message to the world! The whole point of discipleship is to know God!

Do you remember when you were in your early teens and suddenly one day you saw her (or him!)? Your heart started to beat a little faster, and you soon found you couldn’t think about anything or anyone else? The great romance had begun! You wanted to know everything about them…where they lived, what they liked to do, who their family was. You were consumed! Finally the day came when, joy of joys, you actually began to talk to, and get to know the person. In reality, the relationship couldn’t begin until that moment. And of course, there couldn’t be any real romance until the relationship began and you know what the other person’s feelings were! I think the progression holds true for any relationship. We gain knowledge of the person’s existence, learn something about them, then get to know them. Just knowing about them isn’t enough to create and maintain relationship! True relationship takes time and effort – sometimes a lot of effort.

Earthly romance is merely a dim reflection of the Great Romance (to coin Ted Dekker’s term). I love the story of how Jesus called Nathanael. Philip told Nathanael about Jesus, who was from Nazareth. Nathanael wasn’t impressed. That is, until he met Jesus, and it became evident to him that Jesus knew him (what was Nathanael doing under that fig tree, anyway, I wonder?). Then he believed. You can read the account for yourself in John 1. If you read the Gospels like a storybook you will soon see that, with Jesus, it was all about relationship! Jesus loved being with these men. There was something about them that drew Jesus to them. The relationships weren’t perfect. Peter denied Him. James and John competed for first and second place. Judas betrayed Him. When He was finally arrested they all scattered. But Jesus loved them unconditionally. He suffered through their inconsistencies and drew their attention to the Father. He loved them unconditionally. Jesus experienced the joy of sacrifice with His disciples. Funny isn’t it? That sounds like what we’re supposed to do with each other…without resentment and without complaining.

You might be thinking, “What does intimacy with God have to do with loving each other?”Everything! John writes, “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hateshis brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” The Greek word for love in this passage in 1 John 4 is, of course, agape; love with no conditions attached. And this is where the ‘neglected, difficult, risky information’ I spoke of earlier comes into play. If we are going to experience intimacy with God, then we are going to have to learn how to love each other. No ‘ifs, ands, or buts’. “Pastor Mark”, you might say, “Surely you can’t mean I am supposed to love everyone.” Yep. That’s exactly what I mean. If you’re wondering just how on earth you’re supposed to do that, let me assure you that you can’t; at least not through your own human strength of will. It’s just not natural for us to love without getting something back in return. Such is the condition of our fallen human nature. But that’s the beauty of what Jesus did by suffering and dying for us on the cross, atoning for our sin once and for all. That’s why Paul wanted to “know Christ in the power of His resurrection.” I can’t say enough about this, really. We are broken in our thinking, contaminated by our fallen condition. We are so accustomed to ‘reciprocal love’ (we love someone because of what we get from them or how they make us feel), we can hardly grasp what ‘unconditional love’ looks like – much less how to give it! But the fact remains: we will not be able to engage in intimate relationship with the Father until we learn how to love each other unconditionally. This is particularly challenging
when it comes to Christian fellowship. So much evil has gone on in the ‘name of Jesus’ and His
‘cause’. Wars have been fought, lives have been devastated, and it still goes on today in churches all over America…even in Bismarck/Mandan, ND. All because, somewhere along the way, we never got beyond the ‘believe in Jesus – be saved – avoid hell – go to heaven’ message. It’s time we realize, dear brothers and sisters, there is a lost and dying world all around us who Jesus said would “know we are His disciples by the (unconditional) love we have for one another.”

“Love is a verb!” my oldest daughter, Rebekah, informed me one day when she was a Senior in High School. She’s right. Our actions define who we are – not the other way around. How, then, do we love God? We pursue Him. We spend time with Him, in His word, in prayer. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It involves all our heart, soul, mind and strength. At some point in the process we encounter Him, His person, His power, His infiniteness, and we are changed forever. We learn to love Him, and He teaches and empowers us to love one another. But make no mistake: we must take that first step beyond the ‘altar call’, beyond ‘baptism’, beyond ‘Sunday school’ and most certainly beyond the ‘worship service’. We must be willing to go to that solitary, quite place, where it’s just ‘me and the Lord,’ where we come to grips with Who He is, which forces us to grapple with who we are. All those who have truly come to know Him share this experience. When we begin to experience intimacy with the Father, we soon realize how much ofourselves we must surrender. This is a good thing, though many times painful: the things we must surrender are the things that ultimately hinder our relationship with Him. This is true, as well, of relationship with one another. As we learn how to surrender to the Father, we learn how to give ourselves to each other. We finally begin to love unconditionally and experience the joy of suffering. It’s really only then that the journey, the Great Romance, has truly begun!