Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Praying and Seeing Answers

For a while now I have been using prayer cards in a system I borrowed from Paul Miller's book, A Praying Life. That is a book I'd recommend to anyone by the way. I have a card for every member of my family, a number of cards for missionaries, cards for friends, cards for extended family, a card for the elders, and so on. I don't pray for every card every day, but some I do, and all the others are in a short rotation. On each card, I usually have a scripture or two that I pray for that person or persons, and any time there is a special need, I write it down with the date. And when the prayer is answered, I write that down, and how, and the date.

This may seem small, but the more I keep track of how God is answering prayer, the more I want to pray, and the more I want to be specific. My cards record specific answers that give me hope and courage to pray. They also record times when God's answer came but it wasn't what I wanted. Even so, I don't feel as if my prayers were not heard--they were, but God gave a better answer according to his perfect understanding.

I think that many of us may have a pretty weak prayer life because we cannot point to specific ways that God has answered prayers, even if the answer is "No," or "not now." And I think many of us expect that God ought to give us an answer (preferably the one we want) rather quickly, after all, we feel as if we would be wasting our time if we keep asking.

Recently I was looking at my "Special Needs" card, which is full to overflowing and needs replacing (I save the old ones so that I'll remember what I prayed about). I saw the place where I wrote down Mike Kane's name, as he had been diagnosed with liver cancer. And then I have the date he came to the elders for healing prayer. Then I have the date when he was getting his transplant (the answer we thought was going to extend his life). And finally, I have the date he left this life and was "fully healed" in God's presence. Some might look at that and say, "but God didn't answer our prayers." Oh, but he did. I will never forget Mike's response after we had prayed over him and he talked about the Lord's presence in that moment, and the strong encouragement he received from the Lord. I want to always remember those months of waiting and seeing Mike's confidence in God and his comfort that God was working. I'm so grateful to remember that he had no real pain in the illness, and even when the transplant went badly and he was taken home to be with Christ, we could know that this was God's answer and was great for Mike, even though Alisa, the family, and the rest of us had lost him here. We learned so much.

And that same night we prayed for Brian Nester, and God has seen fit to keep him with us. And then there's the name of the wonderful young bride who weathered a year of treatment for leukemia--I have dates written down for her, too. 

The elders have joined together to pray for all our members (yet another reason to join the church), and we've divided the congregation into a list where one third of you are prayed for by one third of us each month, and then we shift. We've had reports of how God has used that prayer time, and I can tell you that as I have prayed for some of you, God has either given me a chance to talk to you and hear how God is working, or I've prayed and then found out God has done something in your life--and it's not that he needs my prayers, but he chooses to work in and through them, and I get to hear about it and see it! 

The elders also have been meeting on Monday mornings for special prayer for wisdom to lead this church, and I cannot tell you what a blessing it has been to do so, even though it's at 5 am! God continues to guide us, and to protect us from our own foolishness! I try to bring my notebook to keep track of how we pray, and how God may answer. 

Could I encourage you to consider doing more to keep track of your prayers, and their answers? As you do, and you review them, you will be reminded that God is still hearing and answering prayer, and that may be just the nudge you need to pray even more. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

How to Vote!

More than one person has asked me how I think we ought to vote in tomorrow’s presidential election. I am not answering that question publicly for a number of reasons, one being that I can make a good case for more than one answer. Another is that I have people I love and respect on every side of the issue, and while I may not agree with their thinking and would engage them privately, I don’t want to create any unnecessary open division among us as Christians. And finally, while I have serious concerns as to whether our tax exempt status in our nation will continue, I don't want to jeopardize it in a church-related blog by making a political endorsement!
However, I do think that there are some things that I can say that might be of help to those still trying to figure out what to do. Actually, I have a lot of things I could say, but let me offer these five.
1. Vote Prayerfully—if you have not made your own need for wisdom (as well as everyone else’s need for the same) a matter of prayer, you have already failed in a basic call—to ask God for wisdom (James 1:5). Failure to pray for wisdom says to God, “I don’t trust you to give what you promise, so I’ll figure this out on my own.” You can be sure God won’t give you what you won’t ask for. If you are voting based solely on your gut, your political preferences, or your feelings, and not based upon prayerful dependence on God for wisdom, and reasoned consideration of biblical priorities and principles, then you are not voting as a Christian, but as an independent actor/reactor, and that does not help a nation full of people who think they are all personally the arbiters of what is right and good.
2. Vote Consistently—if a candidate and/or their party is defined by positions you believe to be opposed to God, the Bible, and the freedom for Christians (and others) to live and act in their public as well as private lives in accord with their conscience, then wisdom would instruct you not to vote for such a person. Christians may well face persecution, but we are not called upon to seek it. Rather, we are to pray for our leadership, and by extension seek to select those who would enable us to live peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim 2:2). The four "Christian" issues I prioritize for our society are life (including the pro-life cause), marriage and family, religious liberty, and justice (not "fairness") under law.
3. Vote Realistically—we are under no illusions about the candidates running for President this year for the major parties, the minor parties, or as write ins. We are also aware that an election is held with the stated purpose of yielding a winner who becomes our leader. Your vote is a piece of that process, and so you should vote in whatever way you believe and are convinced will yield the best possible winner out of the options before us. Voting, as Ohio’s governor did, by writing in a name that would not even count as a write in vote in our state, was a symbolic act, but it was not truly a vote. He could have voted for any candidate on the ballot or on the write in list, but he chose to throw away his part of the decision to be made and have no part in the outcome of the election.
4. Vote Humbly—you may choose your preferred candidate because you believe it will provide the best option, or in many cases you may do so because you do not want the other candidate to win. That is a valid way to think, but you need to realize you cannot predict accurately what will happen if any candidate wins. I thought Ronald Reagan would transform our nation and Bill Clinton would destroy it. I was wrong on both counts. You can guess, but you cannot know what will happen. So don’t tell someone else who may have reached a different conclusion that that are sinning by not doing what you think should be done, or that by voting as they did, they guaranteed some awful consequence. There are no such guarantees, and often things happen that only God could bring about. One staunchly conservative person I know is voting for a write in candidate, knowing that it may help a candidate he abhors win. “Then,” he says, “ we can fight against them using all the political means at our disposal—because we didn’t help put them there.” I’m not agreeing, but I see the principle involved, and perhaps that is putting more faith in God than those who are planning to vote for a “lesser evil.” In any case, I will not tell him he is wrong to do so. 
5. Vote Confidently—not in your candidate, but in God. As one of my favorite new sayings goes, “God is in control of who is in control.” Whatever the outcome, God still rules, still judges, and still saves. His kingdom will not be defeated, and His purposes for His people will not be thwarted.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Into the Wilderness

When you and I think of a wilderness, we usually have in mind a place of rugged mountains, trees, terrain with few if any paths, let alone roads, wild and possibly dangerous animals, and someplace we wouldn’t normally choose to spend the night alone.

When we hear the term “desert,” we probably think of sand dunes for miles, sand flies, mirages, maybe camels, with only an occasional oasis.

In the Bible these terms are often interchangeable, and the land that is spoken of as either desert or wilderness is chiefly known by its lack of people, not just its untamed condition or missing vegetation. It is a place where life, especially the easy life of settled towns and villages, cannot be maintained. Often in biblical lands, it was due to scarcity of water.

In Christian circles, we apply these terms to hard times when things seem desolate and we feel “lost.” When we speak of being in a “wilderness experience,” it usually carries with it the idea of aimless wandering, uncertainty, and usually a level of oppression like that of the children of Israel—a time when we feel God is not near.

But I was challenged recently to consider a study on how the Scripture references the wilderness, or the desert, when it comes to the experiences of God’s people. The Bible presents us with a very different picture. The qualities we assume may be there, but so are many others. Consider the following.

Moses, raised as a prince of Egypt, takes the deliverance of his people into his own hands, fails, and has to flee to the desert. Was he not supposed to deliver Israel? Well, we know that he was, but at this point, he had decided to on his own, having never yet been called by God for the purpose. Although he was used to power and luxury in the palace of Egypt, he found himself fleeing Egypt and heading to the anonymity of the wilderness. We find him residing with a shepherd’s family, marrying a shepherdess, and having a son in the wilderness of Midian (see Exodus 2). But, think about it. The prince, by age 40, was powerful but self-willed. He had a sense of justice, but an uncontrolled temper (he did murder someone, after all). And while important, he was alone. In God’s providence, it was in the wilderness where he found a wife and had a family. He spent 40 years learning “desert living” (which would, providentially be quite important as Israel's leader). And most important, he met God and heard His call (Exodus 3).

Israel, delivered from slavery, crossed through the Red Sea on dry land, and went into the wilderness where they also met God and heard his voice. They received their “constitution.” Because they failed to believe God when told to conquer the land of promise, they wandered for a generation in the wilderness. Was that wasted time? I would argue that, in addition to the removal of an unbelieving generation, the wilderness experience made these former slaves a nation who saw God provide miraculously for 40 years—manna, quail, clothes that didn’t wear out, pillar of fire and cloud, miracles, deliverances, and more. He led them out of slavery, and prepared them to come into the land of promise in the wilderness.

Where did David flee when Saul was after him and found God close at hand—even guiding his almost daily escapes? The wilderness of Judah.

Where did Elijah go and hear God’s “still, small voice?” The wilderness/desert of Sinai.

Where did John the Baptist go to preach (strange choice!) and find people coming to hear the message of repentance? The Judean wilderness.

Where did Saul go after his conversion to be instructed by the Lord  in preparation for his apostolic ministry—Arabia, which is as “desert” as it gets.

And where was Jesus when he passed the test that Adam and Eve failed when he successfully resisted Satan’s temptation? He was on a 40 day wilderness excursion, led there by the Spirit--see Mark 1.

One more thing: Moses, Israel, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, Saul/Paul, all were led by God to the wilderness and met God there.

Perhaps rather than shun our “wilderness” moments or “desert” experiences, we should instead ask ourselves if, since God has brought us to this place, are we ready to meet God there? And in each of these cases, meeting God in the wilderness led to empowerment and effectiveness, and was the path to receiving God’s promises. Isn't that what we all want?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The One Time I Get Jealous of the Freshmen

"Oh to be 18 again."
Someone recently referenced a song with that line in it, and when I heard it, my first thought was "not me!" As a 6'2", 135 pounder, I finished high school knowing I'd miss my friends terribly since we were not only graduating but my family was moving. I was going to school in far away Ohio, and a host of unknowns were in front of me. I spent that summer as a camp counselor at the most conservative Christian camp in Michigan, which was both fun and a little weird as I look back on it, and made $30 a week--I think that's what lots of camps still pay, by the way. Being smart was not considered an asset by my peers, and my lack of any notable (or even noticeable) athletic skills was definitely a deficit. Until I got contact lenses, my rather thick glasses were the perfect finishing touch! I look back now and see what amazing things were ahead, but I'm happy not to relive it.

The notion of going back in time does not appeal to me at all, even though I loved (and own) the "Back to the Future" movies. I can occasionally get nostalgic for aspects of the past that I'd consider superior to today, but we didn't have those good things in a vacuum--there were plenty of limitations and problems in those "good old days." Advances in medicines and treatments have improved the lives of many, and as the beneficiary of such advances in eye care (good glasses, then contact lenses, and then Lasik eye surgery), I am grateful to God for such advances.
Neither do I long for "do overs" in my life--although I have certainly got quite a list of mistakes under my belt that would be worth doing differently. Like most of you, I don't like thinking about my mistakes and past sins, and a few of them have had the kinds of negative consequences that linger or meant lost opportunities. But, I can appreciate the lessons I have learned through my failures, as God graciously forgives and brings beauty out of ashes, and I know that I wouldn't be the person I am now without those lessons under my belt. By the way, that doesn't mean those lessons could not have been learned in ways that were not mistakes or sins--I never want to say (or hear anyone say) that I had to sin to receive any lesson or benefit, since that is perilously close to what Paul forbids when he rebukes saying "let us sin so that grace may abound!" What I mean is that God, in his grace, does not leave us in sin and failure, but brings us out of them by his grace and can even redeem the results in our lives.

Now, I pastor a church in a college town. We see hundreds of 18 year olds show up, and frankly most of them (or you if you are reading this) look 12 to me. Some carry all the bravado you can muster as you try to figure out life away from home for the first time. Others simply have a "deer in the headlights" expression and won't snap out of it for a month or two yet. And your life seems like such a mystery.
No, I don't want to go back to that. I look back with much gratitude, but I'll stay where I am happily. But there is one sense in which I am jealous of you young ones among us (OK, two if you count not being stiff when I stand after sitting a while, or  hurting myself and not knowing how).
I am jealous of you because you are getting ready to embark into life during this amazing day of opportunity to serve the Lord. Yes, I know that we've ruined the ozone layer and the earth is doomed to get warmer (actually that's biblical since Peter says all will be judged by fire and the elements will melt--see 2 Peter 3). America isn't what it was (even if it never was what some people think it was, and it has always been very different for those not in the majority). The world has lots of new dangers from strange new diseases (Zika today) to haters of Christians (ISIS and other extremists). By any measure, the last days are living up to their scriptural billing.

In short, it's never been a better time to live for Jesus and make a difference. Here are some reasons.

1. You don't have to deal with the cultural "of course I'm a Christian, I live in America" thinking that used to keep many away from the gospel. The rise of the "nones" in America (those who say they have no religion) means people are finally seeing that they aren't Christian, that the "civil religion" of the United States is no longer some shade of Christian heritage, and so the contrast is clear. No better place for even a small light to shine than in growing darkness.

2. You have churches (including ours) that are striving to build biblical community and engage with one another in spiritual growth. The "Lone Ranger" approach to growth where everybody worked on their devotions alone, their witnessing alone, and their repentance and spiritual disciplines alone is being replaced by thinking that says we need each other in order to grow.

3. You have tools at your disposal that make biblical knowledge more accessible and shareable than ever. And you have more platforms from which to gain and share such truth than my 18 year old self could have dreamed of. Podcasts, e-books, webinars, conferences, and other resources mean that you can have more quality biblical input than any generation in history.

4. There are more opportunities to get to places in the world that need the gospel with fewer barriers and lower cost than ever before. While a missionary can't go to a number of places as a missionary, tourism and jobs overseas provide easy access to people who have been far from the gospel.

5. We live in a time of unprecedented growth in the global church. God is on the move in much of the world, and through prayer, giving, and going, you can be a part of this work in more places (and know about them through available media) than ever before. Creative means of connection and access already have people here discipling new believers in Muslim countries online in chats and messages.

6. Training opportunities and resources are at record levels of availability. You can have the equivalent of my entire study library available to you on a tablet for a fraction of the cost I paid, and access courses on just about any subject related to scripture and faith. Ministries abound that want to give you resources. Online and in person seminars, education, and training tools are available.

7. It's going to get more challenging to be a Christian in the U.S., and after decades (centuries) of having preferential treatment, the true church of Jesus now finds itself facing into the wind rather than having it at our backs. Real faith will be strengthened, even as false believers will be exposed and weak faith forced to grow. But these are the moments when, as believers, we are able to see life more clearly, and Jesus becomes more precious.

Why am I jealous when I'm in the midst of all this, too? Because, unless I live to be 120, most of my time is past. and my ability to grasp so many of the new opportunities is more limited (though certainly not gone). I don't learn new things as quickly as you who are younger, and the energy and strength of youth isn't mine, it's yours.

So, what shall I do? I hope that these words will excite some of you who are younger to grab hold of the days of opportunity that are in front of you. Even recounting these things makes me recommitted to doing all I can for as long as I can with whatever resources I can. And I also want to do all I can to help all of us at any age to see the amazing days in which we live and how we might grab hold of opportunities God has put before us to really live with excitement, hope, and confidence in these great days.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Do What You Did At First"

Reviving one's first love, zeal, or even organization may require the same correctives 

I've always needed structures in my life to help me do certain things well. Part of that has been structure in my schedule, and I've used various tools to help me do that well. For a number of years I used a written "diary" of my days, not to recount them but to order them. From the old "Five Star" Diary to a Day Timer for years, and then eventually to the Franklin Covey Day Planner, I had a calendar, notes, and daily "to do" lists, along with a tool to visibly remind me every day to do certain things. Then came technology, and I was given a Palm Pilot. Anybody remember back that far? It was small, it was clever, and the stylus was fun (if you didn't keep losing it). From there it was on to Microsoft Outlook's calendar, which was great on my computer, but in the pre-tablet and smartphone days still meant carrying something written. Then came those two other devices, along with cross platform calendars like Google. I've learned how to use them all, and do. My diary was put away, and I've now got an Outlook calendar, a couple different Google calendars, and I've also found a few programs with reminders.

I was thinking about all this recently, in terms of how I feel about my productivity, and I came to a startling conclusion. I'm less organized than I used to be. Oh, I still make and (usually) keep appointments. I have lots of addresses stored in my phone. And that same phone dings and vibrates at all sorts of times during the day. I've linked my calendars and can access them on various devices. But where are the regular times of sitting down with my calendar/diary and looking at what is going on and asking "what's really important here?" Where are the intentional reminders to build things like scripture memory into my day and week? Oh, I know that I can put it in a program, but I don't see it until it dings! 

This is not a rant about technology--some of you are doing all these things so well. It's a confession about me. Somewhere along the way, my shifting to new ways of doing things has cost me some hard earned ground in becoming a more organized (and I think in some cases) better follower of Jesus. 

So, I got my diary out again. I am transferring (by means of pen, not USB cable) my calendars, notes, etc. to it. I'm recreating my list of roles to fulfill and goals I want to fulfill. You see, I've discovered that some things I didn't want to slip have done so, and the best way I can find to deal with that is to go back to what I know helped me gain that ground in the first place. 

That is a biblical principle, by the way. When Ephesian Christians had lots of good going on in their church, there were some important things--especially one--that had been left behind in all sorts of progress they had made. They had left their "first love" behind. It's the love, the zeal, the passion for Christ and his people that had once been present, and until Jesus stopped them in their tracks and pointed it out, they hadn't realized it. Yet, in my mind, I wonder if there had been indicators in their lives, or longings for some of the joys of days gone by. The answer was to "repent"--change their mind and their direction--and do the things that they used to do at first. Maybe it was to sing together more, or memorize God's word together, or more regular times of prayer alone and together--I don't know. Maybe someone would mention an event from ten years ago and it would make someone feel a pang that "things aren't like that anymore." Perhaps the solution was to remember the things they were doing when that love was so strong and seek to walk in those familiar ways once again--not because they are old, but because they were good.

Is there anything about your life right now that might have you saying, "What happened to the progress I'd made?" If there is, perhaps a return to the things that helped you make that progress might be a good start toward gaining back that ground. If you ask me, I'll pray for you and with you about that. I'll write it in my diary. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Strong Convictions; Soft Words

Learning when to seek to win an argument winsomely, and when to pass

In the world of social media, polarized politics, and a society that seems hell-bent on drawing lines between people, I find myself being smacked in the face (metaphorically) by all sorts of arguments and assertions by people of varying degrees of thoughtfulness, demanding that I pay attention to what they say, or arguing for a point with such woefully weak logic or Scriptural support that it almost makes my eyes or ears bleed. I see it on Facebook, hear it on the news, and read it in the paper (probably an electronic version). 

I understand the passion that people feel over the issues they make such pronouncements about. In fact, my own passions make me want to take up my pen, keyboard, or microphone, and answer with just as much passion. I can just imagine how my slashing, incisive counterarguments would leave the original writer repenting in dust and ashes. But, usually, I don't do it. In fact, more and more I am checking my impulse to show these people just how flawed, unbiblical, or just plain wrong their reasoning is. Often when asked directly for a comment, I will encourage the writer/speaker that such passion or concern about an issue is good, and perhaps she/he should examine certain conclusions or reasons on one particular aspect of what was said. I have found that if a person responds defensively to a small inquiry, challenge, or question, spending more time trying to engage will probably be one of those "giving pearls to pigs" activities that Jesus discouraged. That's not to say all my thinking is "pearl-ish" because it isn't. But engagement on an issue requires a willingness to listen, to allow one's ideas to be challenged, and to be willing to change if one is convinced by an appeal to higher authority (not me, but Scripture, or logic, or history, depending on the subject discussed).

However, I fear that some people may think that because I don't respond, especially with passion, when such things are posted and the authors know I must see it, let me offer these general disclaimers.

First, my failure to comment on your statements does not imply agreement or disagreement. I may have not even read them. And I may have read them and concluded that this is not a case where dialogue is being sought, but a diatribe being made. I have no interest in engaging in the social media equivalent of standing toe to toe yelling "oh yeah?"

And you can be pretty sure I'm not going to willfully be drawn in to a social media argument, especially one between commenters on one of my or another person's posts. I've sometimes written something and had a commenter go off on what he perceived was an error or mistake, and then someone else joins in attacking the comment, and pretty soon I have 185 comments, none of which are really about what I wrote. 

I would encourage us all to develop strong convictions--but convictions that are not an emotional response to a moment, but rather the thoughtful consideration of truth revealed in Scripture as it then applies to life. Yes, I must insist that convictions must be anchored in a biblical worldview and by the truth claims of the Bible. Those that are not will not carry weight with me, and they shouldn't with believers. That doesn't mean that any of us perfectly reflect all biblical truth in our thoughts or writings. But I work hard to do so, and I hope that those I would engage would do so as well, or be open to an apologetic as to why biblical truth can and should be heard.

If you know me, you know I have strong convictions and opinions. I am also willing to share them, but less and less in an accusatory or angry, argumentative venue (which social media has increasingly become). Yes, as a pastor I do have to warn, and sometimes with great energy and indignation against damnable heresies such as the prosperity gospel. Such soul endangering lies do not deserve courtesy. But sometimes people who hold such views do not know they are in error, and while I can condemn the heresy, I might first wish to speak more engagingly to that person and help them see that Scripture nowhere supports what they are thinking. 

I've shared one of the more puzzling parts of Proverbs with you before. In Proverbs 26:4 we read "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself." In the very next verse, it says, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes."


How can I follow both of these wise pieces of advice? I do it by realizing that there are degrees or types of foolishness according to Scripture. There are those who say silly things because that is what they were taught and they don't know any better, or they have reacted to a situation based on their feelings or what their foolish peers have encouraged, but they haven't really examined their thinking. Many in cults and false religions are here. 

Then there are those who have a measure of intellectual ability but reject God's truth as revealed in creation and Scripture (think Romans 1-3), and assert what is false, and sometimes ridiculous, as true. For example, those who argue passionately that gender is a "construct" divorced from biological and physiological realities, is fluid, and is "choosable" are demonstrating a willful foolishness. 

I am happy to engage the former (a verse 5 kind of fool) in order to keep them from full embrace of error. My approach to the latter (a verse 4 kind of fool) will only come if I see an opening to try to break through error or to protect others from the error being espoused.

In either case, one further principle comes into play. It is that other proverb, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1). I don't want to promote anger but understanding. And it is here that social media is so dangerous, because "soft" is as much a tone as it is word choice. How does someone hear my inflection or see a compassionate look as I write? This is why I will often invite a person into a personal conversation if they want to talk about something rather than an exchange of posts. Writing can certainly accomplish the task, but the discipline of writing well, and with an irenic spirit, is not one that Facebook encourages or models for us. 

So, don't be surprised if you don't see me engaging your latest #neverTrump or #neverHillary rants. I have strong opinions (hopefully formed and governed by Scripture) on gender identity and gender roles, but I'll probably not weigh in on your latest rants or reposts of the latest hot blogger on the subject. But I'll like the pictures of your children and grandkids, and your insights into your life as it unfolds.

Oh, and when you post something that begins, "I want to see how many of you will post this..." you can be sure I won't. I won't be cowed by social media shaming!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Vacuums, Hoes, and Striving for Godliness

Giant Tasks, and the Small Steps Needed to Accomplish Them

The other day I was waling the track in the CU field house when I noticed a worker doing what seemed ridiculous. The field house had been used for weeks by various youth groups and conferences, and the residue of these groups still remained on the floor. The red, rubbery track section had all sorts of dirt, small pebbles, wrappers, etc., all over. And as I began to walk I saw, ahead of me, a girl with one of those portable vacuum cleaners you wear like a backpack used to clean in hallways and rooms. There she was, vacuuming the track--all six lanes, plus the surrounding red surfaces. Back and forth the vacuum stroked the track, again and again as she worked from the outer wall inward to the blue infield, and then back out. It was a massive job, and here was this one girl and one vacuum. It seemed overwhelming to think that she would be doing this. Imagine showing up for work, picking up a vacuum and heading to a cavernous building to start--you and your "wand." And yet, as I completed lap after lap, I noticed that she would be a little further along each time--not a lot, but still noticeable. As I was finishing I was passing her and looked back--she had covered nearly a quarter of the track! It was still a long way to go, but look how far she had made it!

This reminded me of a time I'd faced a similar task--actually a number of them. For two summers, I worked for my uncle in eastern Washington on his farm. He had grape vineyards, but also pasture for his cow and a grassy field for his horses. One day I was given the challenge of grabbing my hoe and going out to the nearly 20 acre section of the vineyard with immature grape vines. My job was to hoe out the weeds--getting below the surface to try to pull at the roots. And of course I was to miss the grape vines! I was to start on the first row, work my way all the way down, and then back up the next row. I don't know if you have an idea of how big a 20 acre vineyard looks, but I couldn't believe what I had to do. But I started, and I hoed, and hoed, and hoed. I can't even remember how long it took (more than a day or two, I believe), but I remember when I finished the last row and couldn't believe it.

Another time my uncle decided to have my cousin and me fence a large area for his horses--again the size of the field was daunting, and each post for the fence had to be dug using (what else) a post hole digger that was heavy, hard on the hands, and tedious work. Each post seemed like a personal challenge. And there were hundreds of them. But, post by post, we progressed until one day, we were done. At various times I remember looking and thinking, "we'll never finish this," but we did (and I got paid $2.00 an hour, before taxes, too--woo hoo!).

That is how I think about godliness. It is such a giant goal to reach, and even after all these years of walking with Christ, I feel like my obedience and efforts are so small, so feeble, and really don't seem to be accomplishing much. And yet, if I take to heart God's encouragement that he will complete what he has begun in us, and I believe that grace is at work in every step of progress I make, I can think of my progress as being like those back and forth strokes of the vacuum, those swings of the hoe, and the holes dug and posts placed. They add up. They move you forward. And while there are plenty of moments when you might look ahead and think, "I'll never get there," one day, by God's grace, you will.

Keep at it. Don't give up. Be faithful. Don't quit. Remember the old joke--"How do you eat an elephant?" Answer: "One bite at a time." 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Inadequate Words for Insensible Times

I sat with my computer at various times Thursday, trying to figure out how to write about what I have been reading and seeing in the news about the shootings of two black men by police officers this week, on top of other recent shootings. These recent cases seemed to be especially bad because they began with a broken tail light and selling CDs in front of a convenience store.

As one commentator echoed my dilemma in trying to write sensitively and correctly, he wrote about not knowing how to enter fully into the pain of African Americans while wearing his "protective layer of white skin." He is right. I've spoken to one of our African American members who has had the police called--in our community--when he was seen by someone walking one of our streets wearing a sweatshirt. That doesn't happen to me. Other black friends have told me of how they must warn their sons about special dangers they may face due to the color of their skin. That doesn't happen to my son. How can I say, "I get it" when clearly I don't?

I gave up, and finally went to bed. 

Then I got up Friday morning and read about police officers shot in Dallas--at this moment five officers are reported dead and seven more people wounded (some critically) after a peaceful protest against police violence (especially these last two shootings) turned violent. One shooter--who is dead--claimed he was acting alone in this ambush. His stated reason was that he wanted to kill "white people," and especially white police officers, because of anger over the recent shootings. Three other suspects are in custody and not cooperating.  All of the officers were working to protect the protesters and others.

As a father in law to one police officer, and friend to quite a number of others, I don't know what to say that would enter in to what they must be feeling--I don't wear a badge and choose to protect a public that I don't know other than as citizens of my community. That is a level of sacrifice embraced in a career that most of us don't choose to undertake.

There is no "equivalence" to be found here, nor elevating one devastation over another. To families, friends, and community of a man shot in his car by a police officer, there is only grief and loss--and anger. The same is true for the families, friends, and fellow officers--grief, loss, and anger.

I was already feeling heaviness of heart for the families of these shooting victims in Minnesota and Louisiana, and for the black communities for whom this appears to be too common. My seven years of service in a minority community during my time in an inner city church doesn't make me an expert on this, only one who knows that such communities can have a very different experience of the presence of law enforcement than mine. The witness of my black brothers and sisters in Christ to this difference confirms it. That doesn't mean there aren't reasons, or history, or anything else. It is simply what is true. Far too many of my black brothers and sisters (as well as my Hispanic ones in other places) can tell me stories of those who are supposed to protect instead becoming a threat or danger. That is the day  we live in.

My police friends and family feel under attack, and this morning's evidence is only another confirmation of the elevated dangers they face doing their job. Police and fire officers, along with our military personnel, choose to place themselves in harm's way for others. No one can be prepared for the day when the protectors become the targets of those they are seeking to protect. Heaviness of heart just continues to compound. That is the day we live in. 

I've already written (just last week!) about other tragedies around the world, and this week it was an ISIS-planned suicide bombing in Iraq that killed over 400 people in a marketplace--more victims than any other bombing by this terrorist group. Smaller bombings in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia hardly made the news. That is the day we live in.

As an American, I grieve for the evils perpetrated in our nation, as well as against her. The injustices experienced by minorities are what they are, and none of us who are not a part of those minorities can say it isn't so. 

As a Christian, I have the precious truths of God's Word that become my only source of insight and hope, and they also guide me to know how to lament and interpret the times. They remind me that God's evaluation just before the Flood in Genesis would be true today--the thoughts and intentions of men's hearts are "only evil continually." We are not less evil than those that perished, only those who have received God's covenant that he wouldn't wipe us out with a Flood. Rather, God's great mercies have led to his redemptive purposes being fulfilled in Jesus Christ, where sinners can be changed into saints. It also means that another judgment will come on those who reject God's redemption. God allows the world to continue from bad to worse, but he will, one day, judge the earth in righteousness. The wicked will be punished forever, and the righteous vindicated.

I know this. But how can I, in this moment, be one who brings some sort of grace and comfort to bear?

First, I can pray with a broken heart for the broken hearted. I can ask God to bring comfort that I can't.

Second, I can reach out. I can speak to my black brothers and sisters and say, "I can't 'identify' with what these shootings may mean in your heart, but I ache over this, and I grieve over however much this may resonate in your experience. I'm so sorry. When you are wronged, you should be able to tell that to me without me trying to explain why that isn't really what is going on. I want to be an understanding and faithful brother, and I need you to help me know how to do that."

I can also reach out to my police friends and tell them, "I can't comprehend both the risks you have embraced and the dangers you face and how that must feel some days, but I am thankful for you, and I grieve with you as you mourn the loss of others who, just like you, have chosen to protect others. I want to be a support to you and encourage those I know to honor your courage and sacrifice, and to pray for God's protection and wisdom for you."

Third, I can humble myself before God in these sorrowful times, when the marvels of our technology and media alert us to terrible events in "real time" and barely give us time to contemplate them, let alone grieve over them. I can ask him to do what I cannot in ministry to the broken hearted. I can also ask him to open my eyes to ways that, in my world, I can bring a small measure of grace and comfort to those who may need it. And I also can ask him to help me see ways that I can work in my own setting to address injustices and wrongs to which I may be insensitive or just colorblind.

Finally, I (and all of us) can pray the two word prayer (in Aramaic) that the church has prayed as it faced its evil days throughout history, and looked for the fulfillment of our hope--"Marana-tha": "O Lord, come!"

Friday, June 10, 2016

Deepening Your Delight in the Word of God

This past Sunday we kicked off our Summer in the Psalms with a look at the first one, and there we discovered that the "blessed man"--that man or woman who is experiencing the favor of God--finds delight in the law of the Lord, meditating in it day and night. I drew the rather plain implication from the text that if you don't delight in God's Word, you may well not be a blessed person at all. The one who does not love God's Word cannot claim assurance of salvation, since it is the Word that gives us the promise of salvation, not to mention the gospel, the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the story behind our need of him.

But I would readily admit that our delight in God's Word can and should grow and deepen. How might we see that happen?

I would suggest that the passage itself gives us one clear way--the action that follows the description of this truth is "in this (God's) law he meditates day and night." The simple truth is that there is no substitute for regular, consistent exposure to the Word. Here are some things that may or may not be a part of your life, but should be.

1. Bible reading. You have the tremendous privilege of having a Bible. Use it. The vast majority of church goers in the USA do not read their Bible regularly with any significance. The satirical site "The Babylon Bee" had this "story:" Local Man Still on Track to Finish Reading Entire Bible By End of This Century. How I wish that weren't actually the common practice--read a few verses when you feel like it. You would never read a letter or a novel in dribs and drabs. And you wouldn't read a letter by choosing random sentences. Choose a book and work through it. Make it a goal to cover the entire Bible--you don't want to miss the riches you might find in a book you've ignored.

2. Bible reflection. You must take time to think about what you are reading. What is it saying? Why? Can I understand why this is here? You should also think about the riches you may be reading. Are there promises or provisions from God that you are taking for granted? Are there sins to be avoided? Are there reminders of great things that are ahead or deliverances received in the past?

3. Bible memorization. Find passages of Scripture that speak to your heart, or address a particular sin you battle, or encourage you with a truth you need to remember. Learn it by heart. It can be a verse or two, or it can be a paragraph, chapter, or more. The Bible tells us that hiding God's Word in our heart keeps us from sinning (Ps. 119:9, 11).

4. Bible listening. You can use the "YouVersion" Bible app to follow any number of plans through the Bible where you hear it read. This is how most people learned the Word of God for generations, along with listening to sermons and learning scriptures set to music. That's another form of Bible listening that is helpful, too.

5. Bible study. You may discover that your reading and your reflection don't give you confidence that you know what the text means. Learn how to study the Bible. One method you can learn is Inductive Bible Study, used by both Bible Study Fellowship (available in our area) and Precept Ministries (there are Precept classes taught here at Grace). There are other methods, too, that teach you how to understand the text, how to use Bible study tools that are easily available, and how to come to a point where you can be confident that you have learned the basic meaning of the Scriptures. A book that has been helpful to many is Dig Deeper. It teaches you the basic principles of study that guarantee you don't go off into accidental heresy!

This coming Sunday, Chris Miller is going to give you an example of a psalm that shows what the writer thinks about the blessings of the Word of God, and how it changes your life. Listen, and then ask yourself, do I want those experiences, those comforts, and those riches? Be ready to be encouraged as you hear about Psalm 19.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An Example You Wouldn't Know

Six years ago this week, I helped conduct the funeral of a man in our church that many people even then would not have known—Carl Zerges. He was usually seen on his own, looking maybe just a little disheveled (it was his look). I’m sure that younger, newer families here probably didn’t notice him much, and he wasn’t one to draw attention to himself. He wasn’t your stereotypical kindly-looking older gentleman. And sometimes, if you wound up in conversation with him, it might take a little longer than you had planned. Carl’s story would not be one that would make a great book, and his life’s ups and downs were the kind that sometimes made you smile or wince, sometimes both at once.
Carl's years of more visible involvement were before my tenure (he served as an usher/greeter).  Even so, many people knew him—as there were more at the funeral than I would have guessed, and those who had known him best over the 20 plus years he was in our village knew he was special in a number of ways.  Sadly, it is often as people are preparing for their own or others’ funerals that I learn so much more about a person’s life and testimony, and that was the case here. Many of us heard the story of Carl's conversion for the first time, as well as stories about the change that faith brought into his life. 
He had been on the road regularly for business, traveling from his home in Cincinnati to Columbus or Cleveland, and often he passed through Cedarville. His life, by his own admission, was not happy and he knew he needed help, so during one of those drives through town he actually stopped here at the church—a landmark you can’t miss as you make the U.S. 42 jog through town. Through the witness of the staff, he came to know Jesus, and decided the best thing he could do was move here to learn more. So he did, and lived here until he died.
He became passionate to let other people know about Jesus, and he loved to find ways to help and give to others.  He welcomed me to town when I moved here with one of his favorite passions and gifts--good coffee beans!  He repeated that gift a few times, too. One story about Carl, though, stands out in my mind most clearly.
One of our missionaries returned home for a year of furlough.  Reporting to the church, the missionary shared a prayer request that the Lord might provide a vehicle for the family to use for the year.  Carl responded after the service, telling the missionary that because he recently purchased a new car and had two vehicles, he could give the missionary one to use.  Indeed Carl had a brand new Chrysler that was to replace an old clunker he had driven for years.  The next day, the missionary came to Carl's home to get the car, and was surprised when Carl handed him the keys--to the new Chrysler.  Carl kept driving the old car for the year. 
As I spoke to other people, I discovered that this was not out of character for him--it was normal.  The few who knew about this at the time were profoundly affected by his example.  I was, too, when I heard it. While I’ve known many who’ve been able to pass on their used items when they get new ones (including me), this sacrifice of the new for those in need is rare.
I’ve been privileged to know many godly people in my life who loved Jesus, knew the Scriptures, lived according to the truth, and set good examples. But I wonder if sometimes we have many more such examples around us (perhaps even in our own church) that might enrich us greatly, if we only knew. That’s why I try to engage people whose stories I’m not familiar with in conversations. It’s amazing what I can learn or be encouraged by.
So now, you all know about Carl. And maybe knowing about him will encourage you to seek out such examples, and maybe even emulate them!

Friday, May 20, 2016

What Happens When We Die?

There is lots of confusion about what happens when a Christian dies. Are we in "Heaven" then? Do we have bodies? Are we asleep in the grave until the end? 

Recently, I was sent this question that I’ve seen before, and thought it might be one that some of you deal with, too. Someone who was in a Bible study on the Book of Revelation asked me the following:

“There have been some passages in the New Testament that we've read that have me confused. We also just discussed Rev. 20 and talked about the first resurrection which made me think about what happens between death and that first resurrection of believers. Anyway, I feel like I've been taught my whole life that when we die we go to heaven...immediately. It wasn't until this year that I even heard or thought otherwise. What are your thoughts? From these passages in Revelation as well as some other New Testament passages it makes it seem like we won't be with Christ until He returns for his 1000 year reign.” 

Here’s the heart of my response:

The Bible clearly states in Philippians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 that at death we are “at home with the Lord” or “with Christ,” which Paul says is “far better” than being here. Obviously our bodies aren’t with Christ, since we’ve died and our bodies have been (typically) buried. But we, in a real sense, are there. We call that “heaven” sometimes, and that is appropriate, since it is where God lives.

However, as I understand it, it is not us as we will always be, but still waiting for something more. Our spirit is there, and we are rejoicing with the Lord and those we love, but we are also awaiting the resurrection, because we still need bodies, and ours is in the grave. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes that we are currently in an earthly “home” or “tent,” and are longing for a “heavenly dwelling” (a new, resurrection body). Putting off this earthly tent for our heavenly dwelling seems to involve an interim that Paul references as being “naked” and “unclothed”—a state that is not what we finally want. It’s not embarrassing, like being naked here, but rather unadorned, lacking the beautiful exterior that is to come. It may be in that happy but incomplete state that we find ourselves when we are with Christ, waiting for the resurrection.

So, after our death while we wait for this future event, our existence would be similar to angels—spirits that have no permanent body. Some suggest that we will have a temporary or intermediate body, but we don’t have any evidence for that. We will be known and “seen” by God, angels, and I assume one another, but how that “works” isn’t clear. I’ll trust God to take care of that for us!

At the resurrection, we are united with a new, glorious body (the last half of 1 Corinthians 15 talks about this at length) that is perfect and will last forever. After the judgments of Rev. 20, we then move into the New Heaven and Earth—the recreated place where the heavenly Jerusalem will be. It’s a perfect world (the new earth) and God chooses to make his presences abide there as the Son is there, too (and I’m assuming the Spirit).  

The unredeemed, whose spirits have been “residing” in Hades (a place of conscious torment) are also raised in bodies that will last forever, but only to be judged and cast into the Lake of Fire—even worse than Hades, since Hades is emotional, mental, spiritual torment, but the Lake of Fire may also then include physical torment as well. 

I hope that gives you some help, or at least some things to think about when we consider our future, and those we love being with Christ. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"The Center Cannot Hold"

Reading an article about the deteriorating conditions of our public culture and discourse, I noted a reference to a famous poem called “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, one of the great Irish poets of the 20th century. The line cited was, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”

That despairing comment needed a context, so I looked up the poem (I think I’d heard it before, but I’m of the age where I’m learning all sorts of things I once knew). Yeats had just lived through World War I, and had experienced other conflicts as well and saw his civilization seeming to fall apart. The first stanza of this reflection on the various wars he had lived through says,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The “center” not holding is from that picture of a falconer spinning and his falcon on a tether moving so fast the man can no longer hold on—and that’s what Yeats thought was happening as the 20th century hit the 20-year mark. It is a powerful image of events of his day—World War I had left Europe in shambles, his beloved Ireland was in a state of rebellion, the societal stability of the Victorian era was gone, and Yeats was not optimistic! I see why the writer of the article I was reading used this line to reference contemporary conditions, where, as culture shifts dramatically toward chaos, doublespeak (thank Orwell for that term), and moral oblivion, all seems out of control.

But I think the most telling lines are the last 2 of the stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Is that true today? For all the handwringing over genderless bathrooms in stores and schools, and bakers and photographers losing businesses, the people who are most intense about their positions and their actions are those who are, in my view, the “worst.” Their hatred of God’s created order and authority to declare something good (or not) leaves them, literally, “hell bent” on making every change they can. They have momentum, and they want to add to it. We are less than one year into the era of same sex marriage, and public discourse has turned to general support of the conclusion that people are “born” transgender (the illogic of that phrase is stunning). On the other side, only a paltry few voices are raised in opposition and urging meaningful action, and some of their actions are more reactionary than thoughtful and compelling. They labor against the tide, and are either derisively laughed at, scorned, or given no platform to be heard.

And the rest? Most of those who consider themselves “good” and “reasonable” and are not supportive of this new direction may feel personally uncomfortable—maybe even unhappy--but refuse to take any action lest they be seen as opposed to the “right side of history” as it marches forward. They don't want to be targets. What they don't realize is that they already are. Respectful dissent from the new consensus doesn't seem to be an option if you want to be a part of public life.

What shall Christians do? In the days of the final antichrist, that evil leader will seek to turn everything toward evil, but there is a wonderful phrase in Daniel 11:32-33 about those who face this challenge: “…but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action. And the wise among the people shall make many understand, though for some days they shall stumble by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder.” It won’t be easy in those days to stand firm and take action—in fact it will be harder than today. And some will pay a price. But isn’t that what makes it evident who knows their God and who does not?

I'm not announcing a boycott of anything, or telling you what to do--in many ways I'm still trying to figure that out. But passivity is one option that the godly must rule out, especially as we seek to influence those closest to us (where we can do the most good) what the truth is and why it is important.

Yeats’ poem is called “The Second Coming” and later he says that people in his day looked at the circumstances and cried out that it must be time for the Lord to return. He thought that was foolishness and that such a hope was futile. Actually, his title was much more profound than he knew. We know that the Lord will come, and this may be the time. But we also know that, until He comes, He will empower His people to stand against evil and for the truth of the gospel, even if they do have to pay a price. Knowing who is really on the right side of history makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Eve of Pentecost

It’s seven weeks past Passover, in A.D. 33, and its also the same time past the crucifixion and the resurrection the following Sunday. Ten days ago, Jesus has ascended into the sky from the Mount of Olives in a display of God’s glory that was awe inspiring. The glory of God’s “shekinah” had enveloped the bodily rising Savior and the last of him the disciples had seen was as he disappeared into the blindingly brilliant glory of that cloud. The angels who appeared next were not nearly as impressive after that, but their message was—“this same Jesus” would one day return in the same way he left—with the glory of God shining.

Jesus had already told them to be witnesses to him, throughout the world, but to wait in Jerusalem until power came to them. He had spoken to them in the upper room of the Holy Spirit that the Father would send in Jesus’ name as that power. They certainly would need that power; after all, how would such a ragtag bunch be able to carry off something that was to be worldwide in scope?

They had some idea of what was going to come, and they didn’t doubt Jesus, but how would they know?

And while they’d done some praying and worhsiping, and they’d selected a replacement for the accursed Judas, there was, no doubt, a sense of anticipation mixed with uncertainty and just a little impatience. Jesus had said it would be a “few days from now” just before he left, and that was over a week ago. By most of their measures, they were at the most generous understanding of “a few days.”

So, when would the Spirit come, and how would they know? What kind of power would it be?

Today is Pentecost Eve.  And perhaps, like the disciples in the upper room, you are waiting just a bit impatiently for the promised power of God to show up in a time of great need. You can’t do what you know is God’s will in your own strength (perhaps a consistent record of failure in that regard has cemented that message in your mind). You know he has promised you power, but when?

The answer, as it was for the disciples in the upper room, is “a few days from now.” God often builds waiting into his provision so that we will learn faith and patience.

The answer is also “tomorrow.” It will come at the most needed opportune moment. For the disciples it was Pentecost, the great Jewish feast where in one day they could start their mission to the world with an audience from the known world all gathered in one place. For you, it will be the moment when you most need his power, and when you can use it most effectively. By the way, while we tend to think of the tongues of fire, the mighty wind, and being supernaturally empowered to speak the languages of their hearers, the point of the power was witness to Jesus. And that has been its “point” ever since.”
And, because we live after Pentecost, the answer is “today.” While the disciples did not have the indwelling Advocate/Comforter, we do, and his powerful presence is always available to convict you when you sin, to enlighten you when you read the Word and ask for understanding, and empower you to tell the world about Jesus.

Let this Pentecost Eve remind you of the power that changed everything the very next day is the same Holy Spirit that is present in you and around you, to enable you to live a life and speak the words that will make much of Jesus, as the Hero of your story (and everyone else’s).
Visiting the traditional site of the Upper Room