Monday, June 27, 2011

A Shift in our Perspective on Blessings

This song, by Laura Story, was sung by two of our praise team members yesterday at church as the musical special. It is one that I've heard many times on the radio but hearing it and seeing the lyrics yesterday morning really brought it home to me. Then as I was reading the Bible this morning I was struck by Psalm 78:25 which reads;

Man did eat the bread of angels; He sent them food in abundance.

This is a Psalm that is recounting Israel's time in the wilderness and how, even though God was so faithful to take care of them at every turn they still managed to turn their backs on Him. Even in the midst of the wilderness He was providing for their needs and was gracious enough to feed them with "the bread of angels." How often are we fed with the bread of angels and fail to see it as provision but instead find it in ourselves to complain? It is so easy to look at the Israelites and think, "What was the matter with these people, didn't they understand?" Well, no they didn't and the reality is we don't either. With the Bible we have been granted the privilege of seeing the big picture when it comes to the Old Testament. We are given a sort of "bird's eye view" of God's redemptive plan that carries on through the New Testament and the coming of Messiah. What I fail to understand many times is that we are part of God's continuing plan of redemption and while there isn't going to be another testament added to what we have, one day we will see the whole thing in its entirety. One day, we will be able to look back on what has transpired in our lives and say, "What was the matter with me, didn't I understand what was going on?"

I wonder how often we are given blessings that we mistake for curses? How often does God give us the bread of angels and after a while of eating it we begin to ask for something better? As God provided this bread "in abundance" so He offers us blessings in abundance but they may be different from what we desire or expect.

What if the problem is our perception? We have a set of desires and expectations for blessing that have been formed, not by the Word of God, but by society and personal pleasure. Just think about it for a moment. By our standards in America God's blessings and favor are seen in material wealth and well-being. How do people quantify God's blessings? Do we have lots of money? Do we have lots of real estate? Are we healthy? And the list goes on.  It could very well be that our desires are for the second rate and mediocre when all along God has the best in mind even though it is unexpected. What if, as the song says, "His blessings come through raindrops?" The question is, for us, are we prepared to see those raindrops as the "bread of angels?" I have to believe that those blessings are meant to prepare us for something far greater than life on this earth. If this life is but the introduction to the book that will be written throughout eternity then it only follows that God would be far more concerned with preparing us for that. Listen to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17;

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison. 

Whatever God gives us and puts us through in this life is but preparation so that we will be as prepared as possible for the unfathomable glory of eternity with Him. When I was in basic training at Ft. Benning, GA the drill instructors put us through all kinds of hades. At the time it was far easier to complain about the pain and discomfort than it was to be grateful for it. However, when I got to Iraq a few years later I was eternally thankful for the training that I had received while in the safety of the United States. In all reality, what we went through in boot camp turned into a blessing later on.

While we were at the beach a few weeks ago with my wife's family we spent a fair amount of time playing "Mario Brothers Wii." During one of our gaming sessions her brother jokingly said, "This isn't a game. Its training for life!" Sadly, shooting fireballs and warping through various pipes is NOT training for life. However, I think we gain a new perspective on our time on earth if we understand it as "training for eternity" rather than the goal in and of itself. It is with that perspective that we can rightly see God's action in our lives for what it is, a blessing.

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

We pray for wisdom
Your voice to hear
And we cry in anger when we cannot feel You near
We doubt Your goodness, we doubt Your love
As if every promise from Your Word is not enough
All the while, You hear each desperate plea
And long that we'd have faith to believe

Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
And what if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

When friends betray us
When darkness seems to win
We know the pain reminds this heart
That this is not, this is not our home
It's not our home

Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
And what if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if my greatest disappointments
Or the achings of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy
And what if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise
What blessings are you missing today because of the wrong perspective? Where has God provided the "bread of angels" in your life and you counted it a curse? 

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Put me in coach!"

I am indebted to my brother Jeff Drake for the inspiration for this post that came during a conversation we had Wednesday night after church.

Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, 1975. From Wikipedia.
One of the great sports movies of all time is Rudy. If you're unfamiliar with the story it is about a young man from a blue-collar family with dreams of playing football for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. The problem is, Rudy is not exactly the desired size of a top level football player and he doesn't exactly have the talent that most coaches are looking for. There is one thing that Rudy has that few of his peers possess, a huge heart and unquenchable desire to play for Notre Dame. Finally after a couple of years of junior college and a couple of more years being beat up on the practice squad he is allowed to dress out for the final game of his college career. Not only that, but in the final moments of the game the coach puts him in. The crowd is ecstatic, Rudy is ecstatic, the team is ecstatic and for a few seconds of gameplay he goes absolutely bananas. When his dream of being put in the game is finally realized, he earns it.

I wonder how many of us, in whatever realm of ministry, find ourselves looking to God and begging, "Hey coach, put me in the game. Coach, I'm ready, I've been practicing, put me in!" You see, when we know God has placed a call on our lives and has set a desire deep within our hearts to be about His business there can often be a great degree of anticipation and, in fact, impatience to be used. I mean, have you ever sat on the sidelines of life and watched your peers get opportunity after opportunity while you're still being used as a tackling dummy on the practice field? I know I have.

The beauty of God's plan is that it is perfect. He never delays one millisecond longer than is absolutely necessary and He never jumps the gun. His timing is always spot-on. Many people will look at the long history of Israel and wonder why God waited several thousand years to send the Messiah or why He has waited so long to return for His Church. I have often found myself pondering the same questions. I mean why wait for Israel to suffer and ride the rollercoaster of freedom and captivity when He could have just sent Jesus and offered redemption sooner? Think about all of those Christians who anxiously awaited Christ's return in their lifetime as well. The only answer that make any sense at all is that God had, and has, the timing all figured out and it will work out perfectly for His plan for the world.

Now it may be easy to understand God's timing as it relates to the history of the world and major events like sending the Redeemer but it may be altogether more difficult to grasp it when it comes to our own lives. Yet, the same God who has had His hand in world events since the Creation also cares infinitely about the minute events of our lives. If we look at history we will see that the major events were a result of a series of smaller events that led up to something greater. Take the apostle Paul for example. Here was a man who was born into a Jewish family but one that also gave him Roman citizenship. He was trained as a Pharisee by Gamaliel and witnessed the stoning of Stephen. On the road to Damascus one day he was struck down by an encounter with the resurrected Christ. Then after a time of healing and learning with Ananias and some of the disciples he went away for three years to be trained by God Himself. Subsequently, we know that Paul went on to found churches, and write letters that would become the majority of the New Testament. Now, I ask you, what Christian has not been influenced by the writings of Paul? Hopefully none! Paul did not become a great apostle and author of God's word overnight. All the events of his life were orchestrated to take place at just the right time to have the maximum effect for God's kingdom.

The challenge for us is to see our lives, not as a mad rush to a certain goal, but as a series of events put in place by God to get us to a goal He has for us, and it may be one that we don't even see. When Billy Graham was called to preach as a young man I seriously doubt he could have even dreamed that he would preach all over the world to millions of people and various US presidents. Am I saying we are all going to be Billy Grahams and Pauls? Heavens no! One of the hardest things for me to get my mind around is the fact that in God's economy the ones who reach millions and the ones who reach two are just as important. Look at the Old Testament and see this in action. The books of Isaiah and Jeremiah are some of the longest in the Bible. Yet Amos and Obadiah, such short books, are just as crucial to the message. In the New Testament Romans is perhaps the greatest exposition of theology we have and one of the longest letters Paul wrote. However, where would we be without the exhortations of love found in 1,2 and 3 John? 

Many times God does not give us more than one step at a time. He may not give us the privilege of seeing the big picture and all the little stepping stones that lead to the goal He has for us. However, we must put our trust in Him and His plan. What I find myself guilty of far too often is trusting God for my salvation but not my tomorrow. From where I'm sitting I want to beg God to "put me in the game." I think I'm ready and I think its time, however God may have different designs.

In Mark 5 there is the famous story of the Gerasene demoniac. After Jesus casts out legion into the herd of pigs and the man regains his composure Jesus is asked to leave the region because the people fear what has happened. At this point the former demoniac asks Jesus if he can go with Him. Jesus replies;

Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you (Mark 5:19).

The man wanted to go in the game with Jesus. In fact, the Bible says he "was imploring" Jesus. To "implore" someone was to do more than just ask them, it has a meaning more akin to earnestly beg. This man was ready to follow Jesus and be a part of His work in the world, but Jesus said, "You need to be in game in a different place at this time." Has Jesus told you the same thing? I'm sure this man was disappointed at some level and, dear friends, when Jesus tells us "not yet" or "not here" we can get discouraged. The thing we must do is, not look to the bigger picture because we can't see the bigger picture, we must look at the artist of it. If you've ever watched Bob Ross paint on TV you will know that when he starts out and begins putting brush to canvas it doesn't necessarily look like anything. However, after watching him a few times I would never doubt that the finished product was going to be a beautiful picture.

We may feel like we want to get in the game right here, right now. However, God may have different designs for our life. There may be more to learn, more growth to take place, more to experience to prepare us for where He wants us, when He wants us.

One final thing. Rudy Ruettiger trained, practiced and fought so that he could, one day, play football for the Fighting Irish. I can't say this for sure but I have to think that he practiced everyday as if he was going to be put in the game that week. Do we prepare ourselves to be used by God each and every day even if we see no playing time on the horizon? Or, do we sit around hoping that one day we will get word that we're going in, waiting to prepare then? Yes, each day could be our last and we should live like it, but don't forget tomorrow could be the day the Coach puts us in the game. Will we be ready?



Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Thessalonian Reputation

In today's world the news media, social media and whatever you call something like TMZ, do a wonderful job at furthering people's reputation. We have to look no further than the recent reputation boost that Rep. Anthony Weiner has received due to his severe miscalculation. Then you look at someone like Lindsey Lohan who is going to have a long road to recovering her reputation after what she has done to herself and what the media has done to her. On the flip side you have people like Joe Gibbs and Billy Graham who have reputations as being stand-up, godly people. Whatever the case may be it is clear that our reputations are important because a good one is easy to loose and a bad one is hard to get away from.

In the Bible we see this point vividly in the story of the conversion of Saul in Acts 9. After Jesus appears to Saul, blinds him and sends him to find Ananias the Lord then speaks to Ananias. He tells him that he is to go to the house of Judas on a street called Straight where he will find Saul praying. Listen to Ananias' response;

"Lord, I have heard from many about his man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name " (Acts 9:13-14).

Saul had a bad reputation among the believers because he had been persecuting them heavily and they had no reason to believe anything was going to change. We see later on in the chapter that after Saul began preaching people were still in a state of shock. To use the old adage, his reputation had preceded him and it wasn't good. We do know from reading the rest of the New Testament that Saul's reputation came around and many churches were planted and watered through his ministry. One of the those churches was the church in Thessolonica to whom he wrote at least two letters. This church had such a powerful reputation that it spread on its own.

For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report about us what kind of reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God (1 Thess. 1:8-9).

What Paul, Silvanus and Timothy are saying here is that they got to other places and would start to tell about what God was doing in Thessonica and the people would say, "Oh yeah, we heard all about the great things going on there." Their reputation preceded them. In verse 7 Paul tells them that they became an example to the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. Why? How? The answer lies in verse 5;

for our Gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; 

Just like Christ stepped in and made a radical difference in the life of Saul, so He did in the life of the church in Thessonica. God got a hold of them and released His power through the Holy Spirit into them and word of what He had done there spread like wildfire throughout the surrounding regions. This is no small feat considering that Achaia is far south and east of Thessonica beyond Athens. This became the ultimate example of "lifestyle evangelism." I mean Paul plainly says, "Hey, we didn't even have to say anything, they already knew what God was doing."

I think the challenge for us today is to have a Thessalonian reputation. There are so many ways...easy ways for us to ruin our reputation with the world. It takes a split second, depending on your internet connection of course, to train-wreck your life on something like Facebook or YouTube. As soon as you click "submit" or "upload" or "post" its out there and many times there is no taking it back. The thing is, when we call ourselves Christians we are not only hurting our own reputation when our sultry video goes viral, we are bringing shame on Christ and our brothers and sisters. Our goal in this life should not be to have as many Facebook friends as possible or a million followers on Twitter. Our goal should always be to honor God, glorify His name and spread His fame. This is what we see happening in the Thessalonian church; the Word came to them, they received it and then they spread it.

What are we spreading today? Is our reputation one that honors God, or are we known for a bad one? Remember this though, your reputation is not the end goal. Mine and your reputation is only important as it relates to how people see Christ. It isn't important what people think of Christian Herring. What is important is what people think about Jesus because of Christian Herring. Do you see the subtle difference there? If not, let me put it plainly, IT IS NOT ABOUT US! It is about King Jesus. The Thessalonians knew we? 


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

If we Throw a Spiritual Tantrum we may get a Spiritual Spanking.

Photo courtesy of Atsoram
Then these three men ceased answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. Job 32:1

If you read the story of Job you find many things. Of course, there is the matter of Satan taking everything from him except his life. You will also find that in the beginning of his trial Job stands firm in his conviction and devotion to God. However, as the narrative moves on we see that Job begins to slip, he begins to question God and His justice. Ultimately, Job falls into the sin of self-righteousness (see the above verse) and must stand and endure a barrage of questions from God Himself.

Yesterday I found myself having a Job moment. Have I been afflicted like Job was? Not even close. Has everything been taken from me? Nope, sure hasn't. In short, like the little child that sometimes shows up in all of us, things just weren't going the way I wanted. In fact, for some time now things have not gone the way I had envisioned or desired and it may be that today follows in that pattern. I'm sure many of you have experienced the same thing. That is, the best laid plans, that you have worked so hard on and put so much into, disintegrating before your very eyes leaving you with a handful of ashes. The bad news is that it is likely that something like this will happen in all of our lives. However, it is how we handle it that makes all the difference.

I discovered, through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, that my attitude towards the situation was a) unhealthy and b) dead wrong. The way I described it to my wife was, I was sitting in the corner with my arms crossed showing God how pitiful I was in hopes that He would through me a bone. I was acting like a child. We've all seen young children who want something, I don't know, a cookie. When Mom or Dad says "no" what happens? Pouting and evil looks. My subconscious plan was similar. I would spiritually stomp around and shake my fist at God say, "Fine, you got me. I don't know what to do and I don't care anymore...wwwwaaaaaaa." Then God, like a soft-hearted grandparent, would lean down and say, "There, there Christian. I didn't mean to make you sad. What can I do to make it feel better?" You see God is loving but He is also perfect and just and sometimes...many times, His love is tough because it is for our betterment. So, after my spiritual stomping I didn't get a spiritual cookie, I got a spiritual spanking.

Between chapters 38 and 41of Job I have counted sixty-three questions that God asks Job after telling him, in our parlance, to "pull up your britches and take it like a man." In essence God is telling Job, "Fine, you have it all figured out. How about you answer these questions from me." This is not a position to be envied. I was fortunate that God did not level me the way He did Job. Rather than sixty-three questions I just got a few that basically add up to God looking at me and saying, "Seriously?" I was simply flooded with the understanding that I know people who are truly suffering in this life and yet they are able to look to the heavens and praise God and thank Him. I remembered the Apostle Paul who was in and out of jail and experienced all kinds of physical and spiritual hardships. I realized that I have no right or reason to even come close to claiming that I am "suffering," and even if I was, what does the Bible tell us?

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Or what about this one;

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance (James 1:2-3).

I'm so glad that Job doesn't end with the barrage of questions that God gave him. In chapter 42 we have these words from Job that I believe act as a wonderful model for when we find ourselves in similar situation.

I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:5-6). 

I realized yesterday that I have no right to shake my fist at God and throw a pity party in His presence in hopes of manipulating a blessing out of Him. To speak plainly, it is foolishness and dangerous. No matter what our situation is we get to choose how we are going to react to it. Will we react in a way that the world would react? That is, with anger, frustration and an "I don't deserve this" kind of attitude. Or will we react in a way that brings honor and glory to God? Will we react with grace, patience, peace, patience, trust and patience? You see, this is part of what separates us from the world, the way we handle adversity. To be perfectly honest, the way I was handling adversity yesterday did not show evidence that I have put my trust in God. The onlookers of the world see how we act when times get tough and the question is, in those times do we show them that there is value in trusting God? Do we show them that we have been given a peace that passes all understanding?

I am thankful that the Lord did not smite me yesterday afternoon when He had every reason to. I am thankful that He was willing to teach me and speak to me even though I don't deserve it. I know that there will likely come a time when I slip back into my spiritual temper tantrum mode but I pray I am growing beyond that. We serve a great God with a perfect plan and the power to carry it out. He deserves all of our trust even when things look bleak, even when we don't know what is going to happen and even when we feel like not caring.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Unity Among the Church.

Photo courtesy of ilco
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them (Acts 4:32).

In the world today some have estimated that there are approximately 2 billion Christians. That works out to be roughly 33% of the world's population and by all accounts that is a huge number of people who say they believe in Christ. Now, I am not going to nitpick the numbers and argue about whether many of those people are only nominally Christian or any of that. What I do want to point out is that among those 2 billion people who claim the name of Jesus Christ there are also an estimated 38,000 denominations. This number comes to us from former British aircraft engineer turned Anglican priest, David B. Barrett who used his extensive technical know-how to systematize information about the Church. Now, I'm not going to work these numbers to come up with any spectacular figure that tells us how many people are in each denomination because we all know that it doesn't work that way. What I do want to point out is that there is incredible variation among what we call The Church.

I will freely admit that I fluctuate like the ocean's tide when it comes to the idea of denominations and before I go any further I want to give you a little bit of my own background to shed a little bit of light on why that is. When I was born my family attended a Presbyterian church and it was in this tradition that I was Christened. After my parents separated there was a brief period where I wasn't attending any church but I was only four or five and have little memory of that time. Soon I found myself going to either a Moravian church with some friends or a Baptist church with my new step-grandparents. If I was visiting my mother we would often go to a Lutheran church. In middle school I began going to a Wesleyan Church where I remained through high school. In college I was a member of Methodist Church and continued in that tradition until about a year ago when I came on staff at a Baptist church. Finally, throughout my life I would go to a non-denominational, outdoor worship center at Badin Lake, NC with my mother and grandparents. If you can sort all of that out you are a better person than I. My point is, I've been around the denominational block once or twice and I have loved them all. I have seen the value of the various traditions. More importantly, I have seen that the message is typically very similar among these protestant groups.

Some days I find myself thankful for the variety of traditions that we have in the Protestant church. It does allow for people of various tastes to find a spiritual home that suits them. However, more often than not I find myself crying out with Rodney King, "Why can't we all just get along?!" In seeing the inner workings of some of the denominations there is always, at some level, a few things.

1) A desire to grow the particular denomination. This, I believe, stems from the second thing.

2) A belief that one denomination has it all right while the others are wrong to varying degrees.

The truth of the matter is that no one denomination has it 100% correct. Of course, I am shooting myself in the foot because that assumes that I have it 100% correct which I also know is not true. The funny thing is most people will admit that their denomination doesn't get it right all the time. There are those, particularly in leadership positions, that would not agree with that but I think the majority of lay people would.

Here is the rub that I have with all of this. The New Testament church, particularly the Apostolic church in Acts was marked by its unity. Look again at the first part of Acts 4:32;

And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul.

It goes on to say that they claimed nothing as their own...nothing. They were unified in the truth of Jesus Christ and His resurrection and that unity led to an amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit. There are many tactics that the enemy uses to make the Church ineffective but one of the greatest ones is the infighting among believers and the disunity of the denominations. We must regard our mission with a Kingdom mindset rather than a denominational one. It doesn't matter if the Methodists are growing and the Baptists are shrinking. It shouldn't bother us one bit if the Presbyterian church down the road is packed while the Assembly of God is not. The important thing is that the Kingdom is increasing. I have often said that some people are going to be very surprised when they reach the eternal city and find there are believers from other denominations there as well.

The test for our allegiance should not be what name is on the sign out front but what sign is on the hearts of the people inside the church. We should be less concerned as to whether or not a congregation is adhering to a man-made document and more concerned over their faithfulness to God's Word. Look at the example that Jesus gives us for determining who is part of the family;

Answering them, He said, "Who are My mother and My brothers?" Looking about at those who were sitting around Him, He said, "Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother." Mark 3:33-35.

There is the test! Jesus didn't say that if we follow the Book of Discipline or the Baptist Faith and Message then we are in the family. He said, if we do the will of the Father we are in the family. We only have to look as far as the book of Acts to see that unity among believers was a powerful force in the world. Further in chapter 4 we find that there was no need among them that was not met. We see what happens when God's people unify in prayer when Peter is miraculously freed from prison and the list goes on. All too often we look around and try to find answers to our growth problems and devise strategies to make our denominations flourish. The problem, well one of the problems, is such disunity and clinging to our particular tradition rather than clinging to the great Unifier, Jesus Christ.

In American politics one of the catch phrases is that certain officials are willing to "reach across the aisle" to the members of the other political parties. The idea is that they are willing to work with, rather than against, people of different persuasions. When are we, as believers, going to reach across the denomination aisle? The sad part is, there isn't really much of an aisle to reach across. Yes, there are some doctrinal issues that are game-breakers but most of the stuff we draw attention to are not.

Rather than pointing out the problems without offering any solutions let me offer a few steps that we can take as believers.

1) This may be the most important one. Start looking at things with a Kingdom point of view. We have to ask ourselves, "Is the Kingdom of God being increased?" If it is then we should support whatever is going on. If people are coming to know Christ as their Savior and Lord then we should have very little negative to say.

2) Look to the Word of God as the authority and measuring stick. The word "canon" that we use for the Bible comes from a word that means "measuring stick" and that is exactly what it should be. This can be applied to point #1 because if something, or someone, seems to be increasing the Kingdom but is straying from the revelation of God then we know it is false. On the flip side, if a Pentecostal is preaching in concert with the Word of God then all the Baptists and Methodists should agree.

3) We need to stop breaking fellowship over things that are secondary in importance. If a church is meeting points 1 and 2 then it doesn't matter if they are contemporary or traditional. It doesn't matter if they have a formal liturgy or are more free flowing.

4) Seek and embrace unity. The early Church was unified in heart and soul and because of that God poured out His power through it to reach the world.

If we truly desire to see the world changed for Jesus Christ we, as believers and His followers, must be united. During the National Conversation on Revival John Armstrong pointed out that this is exactly what Jesus prayed for His followers. Listen to what Jesus says in John 17:21,

that they may be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in you, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.

This is a huge indictment against the Church today. We wonder why more people aren't coming to Christ and it isn't just because of our lack of evangelism, it is because we are not one. Do you see that in the prayer? Jesus wants us to be unified because through that people will see that we are His and that He is God. 


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Baby Steps with God.

photo courtesy of simmbarb
Have you ever seen the movie "What About Bob?" starring Bill Murray and Richard Dryfus? Bob, played by Murray, has some kind of dramatic phobia that will not allow him to leave his own apartment with ease. His psychiatrist, played by Dryfus, encourages him to take "baby steps" to overcome his fears. Throughout the rest of the movie "baby steps" is repeated over and over and becomes Bob's mantra for success in overcoming his phobia. I remember that after seeing this movie as a kid, "baby steps" became a catch phrase around our own household. Whenever some grand task had to be accomplished it was always with "baby steps." If one of us kids were dragging after being roused from sleep it was with "baby steps" that we made it to the bathroom to brush our teeth. Over the years I have always remembered that saying and sometimes would pull it out to use in situations and, sadly, I was the only one who got it (Don't laugh, you've all been there too). Then this morning God pulled that saying out of my memory bank and used it for His purposes in my life.

Let me give you a little background to put this into context. This morning I was praying through Dick Eastman's The Hour that Changes the World, something that I am ashamed to say I do far less often than I need to. In short, an hour is broken down into five minute segments and for each of those five minute time periods you focus your prayers in different areas. For instance, the first five minutes is dedicated to praise and worship. The second to waiting on the Lord. The third is focused on confession of guilt and sin, and on it goes for one hour. Incidentally, you would be shocked at how fast an hour goes by when spent in this kind of prayer, it is absolutely amazing and I highly recommend it. Well, one of the last segments during the hour is set aside for listening and one of the things Eastman encourages you to do during this time is ask God, "What is your will for me today?" Dutifully, I wrote the question down in my prayer journal so that I would be prepared to take notes when the answer came. What I was not prepared for was the answer that I got:

To be able to ask that question honestly and without reserve.

And my response to God's response; "WHAT?! Lord, I'm asking for a revelation and your guidance here and you give me this. This is...ohhhhhhhhh, baby steps." To which God replied, "That's right my child, baby steps."

Sometimes God reveals things to us in large chunks. There are times when we are having our quiet time and are struck with a revelation so big we almost want to shout, or maybe we do shout. Then there are times when our Father gives us just enough to take a small step in the right direction. Even after we've been in the faith for many years there can come times, and I will admit to having been here, when we need to relearn some of the old lessons. Today was one of those days for me.

You see, before God goes any further with me He wants my total trust and abandonment. That's what the answer to this question was all about. Can I ask God what His will is for me and honestly want His answer no matter what it is? I hope you understand the real magnitude of this question. This is the "not my will but Thy will be done" kind of thing. When we ask God what His will is for our lives we are opening ourselves up for any number of things. I don't know about you but my mind begins to be filled with a swarm of "what if" thoughts. "What if He calls me to Africa? What if He calls me to pastoral ministry? What if He calls me to go next door and share with my neighbor?" Perhaps the scariest of all, "What if He calls me to suffering or death?"

I cannot tell you what God will or will not call you to do. However, this assurance I can give; His will is perfect and His plan is perfect. Deuteronomy 32:4 tells us;

The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He.

The next thing I felt the Lord speak to me in His answer was, "Release yourself to Me." In the end that is what it is all about, total trust in God. Oswald Chambers would call it "reckless abandon." It is the kind of trust that almost stupidly throws itself on the object at the first word or request. In the realm of this world it would be called foolishness but in God's economy it is called a necessity because the more we hang on to, the less God can use us. The more I want to control my destiny and my circumstances, the less God will. This may sound good to some but to me it is a fearful place to be. In my heart I know that God's will is the best and that He cares for me and will take care of me. The trouble comes in getting the rest of myself to line up with that. That is why God must tell me to take baby steps. It is why He is gracious to show us, bit by bit, what His will is and how to have a relationship with Him.

I don't know where you are today in your journey with God. If what God spoke to me this morning resonated with you I would encourage you to join me in taking some "baby steps" in God's direction. Do you find yourself being able to honestly ask God what His will is for your life? Is it more than just lip service? If not, maybe we can work on that together. There is no shame is taking baby steps with our Heavenly Father. He loves us and cares for us and will do whatever it takes to bring us along. That doesn't mean it will be easy but it does mean we will find ourselves in the loving hands of the Almighty God of the universe.

Lord Heavenly Father,

I admit that I have not abandoned myself to you as I should. I admit that sometimes I ask you what your will is and then completely ignore it. God, this is shameful and I ask for your forgiveness. Today, Father, I just ask you to help me ask that question with honesty and without reserve or hesitation. Help me to release myself to you and abandon myself recklessly to your will knowing that being swept up in the current of your love and plan is the only place to be. Thank you for your patience with me, Lord God. Thank you for not turning your back on me, you are the Mighty King and Lord of Lords and your are gracious beyond compare. Thank you for your mercy. In Jesus' name,



Friday, June 17, 2011

"What if a church grew..."

Photo courtesy of Ryas
More thoughts from the National Conversation on Revival.

On the evening of the first day of this conference Erwin Lutzer, pastor of the Moody Church, gave a talk entitled "The Eclipse of Christ in the World and His Church." Without going into too much detail about his talk I will summarize it by saying; throughout history, and particularly today, Christ has been shoved into a secondary role in the Church. He used Gnosticism, Sacramentalism, Rationalism, Historicism and Liberalism as examples of ways that Christ was removed from His throne and put in the back seat in favor of some fad of human wisdom. While Liberalism may be one philosophy that effects the Church today there is another that is, perhaps, a more sinister invader and it is one the evangelical community has embraced many times. What I'm talking about is the "Church growth" models. I'm sure many of us have heard of the Saddleback church, the Willowcreek Community and I'm sure each of you could name one or two in your own area.

Now before you quit reading because I've just maligned your favorite place of worship let me explain what my beef is. I'm not saying these churches or the pastors thereof are sinister people out to supplant the name of Christ. In fact, I think overall they are probably trying to exalt the name of Jesus through their ministries. Here is what happens though, everyone sees what is going on in those churches so they try to emulate their method believing that it is the method that brings growth. Re-enter pastor Lutzer. In his talk on the eclipse of Christ he made this statement which received a hardy round of "ooohhhhs" from the audience;

What if a church grew because Jesus made it grow and there was no other reason or book to write?

Take a moment and just let that sink in. What if a church grew because Jesus made it grow and there was no other reason or book to write?  Can you imagine a church that, rather than toning down their Christianity so as not to offend anyone, boldly and unapologetically made much of Jesus Christ and His life, death and resurrection? What if we looked to the book of Acts for our church growth model. I just read in Acts 2 this morning about Peter's post-Pentecost sermon and he did not hold anything back, nor did he water down the facts surrounding the crucifixion of Christ. He says to the men of Israel;

this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and Him to death (Acts 2:23).

After continuing for another twelve verses the Bible tells us;

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37)

Then down in verse 47 we are told;

And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

I understand that we should find creative ways to address culture in church and with our message. I understand that there are those who have been hurt by the Church and this is an indictment against us. However, I can find no Biblical basis for compromising, or hiding the truth in the interest of getting people into church. In fact, the real issue may not be "How do we get people into church?" but rather, "How do we get the church to the people?" I don't mean that we "dumb-down" church in order to take it to their level. I mean how do we actually, physically go to the people? That may be the challenge to the Church in America today.

I digressed ever so slightly but please allow me to return to the topic at hand. The point Pastor Lutzer was making was this. Why can't we see a church grow simply because Christ has ordained that it grow? There would be no book to write and sell to all the other pastors who want a growing congregation. There would be no special formula to follow or model to imitate, it would just be Christ giving the growth. We can see that Paul as dealing with a similar issue in the church in Corinth. Evidently, both he and Apollos had a hand in founding and establishing the church there and people, naturally, became divided between the two (It is so refreshing to see that churches don't get divided over the like or dislike of certain pastors these days...oh wait). Anyway, Paul nips this controversy in the bud with these word of reprimand;

For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos," are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:4-7).

He goes on to say in verse 11;

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

If we begin to lay a foundation for our church that is based on the wisdom and models of men it may grow magnificently at the outset and that may continue for years to come. However, there will come a time when that foundation begins to crumble and when the foundation that has been laid in people's lives begins to fail. However, if a church is founded on the unshakeable bedrock of Jesus Christ; if a church sets out to make much of Jesus and magnify His name for His glory, the growth may not be as rapid or as flashy as another church but it will be genuine and it will come from Christ alone. No, there won't be another book to write about this model for church growth because it has already been written and guess's already a best seller. 

The question for us in America is this, Will we place Christ at the head of our Church? Will we allow Him to be King of King and Lord or Lords? Will be allow Him to bring the growth to our churches as we faithfully proclaim His gospel and the whole council of God? I believe the problem we have with this is that we must relinquish control. When we buy into a model for growth we are in control because the method is supposed to work by following some steps that worked for another church in another town. If we trust Christ to cause the increase we are completely and utterly out of control. This, I believe, has at least two important benefits. 1)It strengthens our faith in Christ and 2) it means we can't take any credit for it. God gets the glory and honor. We stand in awe of Him when amazing things happen in our congregation rather than in awe of the guy who wrote the book that we followed. Here is the equation, Christ brings the growth = Christ gets the glory, and that is ultimately what matters the most.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Day 1 at the National Conversation on Revival: Encountering Christ.

Photo courtesy of barbara v
Today was the first of two days I will spend at the Moody Church attending the National Conversation on Revival. It would be impossible for me to give all the details in one post and I'm pretty sure I will end up writing a series of posts about some of the things addressed at this conference. The group that put this conversation together is the National Revival Network. In short, this is a group of ministers and leaders from denominations across the evangelical landscape that yearn for and have a heart for real revival in America. This movement, we'll call it, began in 2002 with the constructing of An Urgent Appeal (click to read the entire document) which is a kind of thesis on what revival is and how it happens. The theme for this particular gathering is "The Church Alive to the Glory of Christ." The underlying belief is that Christ, and His supremacy, must be at the very center of revival or renewal.

The first thing I would like to share about this conference was actually one of the first things that was addressed this morning. Naturally, I can only speak on my own behalf but something had a profound impact on me this morning as we began our conversation. David Bryant, one of the leaders of the National Revival Network, spoke on the topic of "A Christ Awakening: The Hallmark of True Revival." His overall message was that having an encounter with the living Christ is a necessity for revival. This may seem like a "duh" statement but bear with me. As he closed his message he asked us all to, literally, get on our faces before God, on the floor. Once we were all prostrate before the Lord he read the first seventeen and a half verses of Revelation 1. The focal point of this passage was verse 12-17a;

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in its strength. When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man.

After reading this passage he stopped and there were three full minutes of silence. During this time I took the opportunity to imagine in my own mind this vision of Christ that John saw. Two things struck me. 1) John did the very best he could to describe the indescribable. I tried with all my mental might to envision the sun in all its radiance. Then I tried to see in my mind's eye the feet that shown like bronze and the hair and robe that were brilliantly white. I did this knowing that my feeble mental image was nothing compared to the reality of the glory of the risen Christ. 2) This was not the Jesus that John knew on earth. He was no longer the meek and lowly son of a carpenter. He was the glorified King of Kings and Lord of Lords. John finally was seeing Him for who He really was.

As the tears began to well up in my eyes over this small encounter with Christ I could only repeat over and over the words of Thomas in John 20:28;

My Lord, my God.

After the three minutes were over, and I was beginning to wish they never would end, Bryant read the rest of verse 17 and 18;

And He placed His right hand on me, saying, "Do not be afraid, I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades."

As I rose to my feet we began to sing Angus Dei and at the realization of who I am in comparison to who He is my words turned to those of Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5;

Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.

Soon the room was filled with the passionate singing of these words;

Holy, Holy, are you Lord God Almighty.
Worthy is the Lamb
Worthy is the Lamb
You are Holy

The worship was deep and real. I believe that more than one person had caught just a glimpse of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even that brief moment of reflection had led to a new understanding of how holy and righteous Christ is. I, for one, was almost too overcome to continue singing but as I pressed on through the tears I began to feel the pure worship that comes after meeting Christ. It was as if there were no one else in the room and I was singing these words to Christ alone. In that moment I felt I had tasted, if only a bit, the beauty of praising our God in eternity and not just some divine being that I was thankful to for the blessings, but a God who I am in desperate awe of.

If we want to see revival come to our congregation, communities and land it must begin with an encounter with the risen Christ. This encounter will ultimately lead to joy because of those words from Revelation 1:17-18, but we cannot forget that it will lead somewhere else first. The Apostle Paul was knocked to the ground by the risen Christ. Isaiah fell to his face after the realization of his state before an almighty and perfect God. John found himself prostrate before Christ when he saw Him in all His glory.

Revival is not about greater numbers in our meetings. It is not about some emotional extraveganza. It is about one Person, Jesus Christ. To get there we must see Him for who He is, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, glorified by the Father and reigning forever at His right hand.

I really wish this experience was reproducible but I'm not sure it is. The Spirit moves when the Spirit wills and upon whom He wills. I do know this, it is worth a shot. We can never encounter Him too much and I pray that we will never become used to His presence. I was humbled this morning in our meeting with Christ and I pray that you will find a time and a place to be humbled by Him as well. No matter what we do, or what programs we concoct, encountering Christ, the risen and reigning Christ, will always be a necessity.


Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Review: The Fight of Our Lives

The Fight of Our Lives by William Bennett and Seth Leibsohn is not only a reflection on our country’s failures in the war on terror but also an attempt to formulate some strategies for victory.  The opening chapter is focused on the Fort Hood massacre that happened in 2009. The use of this incident, and other terrorist attacks, as case studies becomes the framework for the rest of the book. What happened? How did American respond? Why did we respond in that way? How should we have responded? These are some of the questions that Bennett and Leibsohn seek to answer in this book.

As a reader I typically don’t pick up political books but I am very glad I gave this one a shot. This book is well written and it doesn’t lose the reader in complicated political jargon or policy. Bennett and Leibsohn also make an effort to be as even-handed as possible in their critique of American policy makers. It seems that the modus operandi of many conservative writers today is to simply take aim at President Obama and cast as much blame on him as possible. The Fight of Our Lives is not one of those books. There is a fair amount of criticism of the current administration but Bennett and Leibsohn are more than willing to critique past ones as well, Republican or Democrat. 

Perhaps the one thing that I would point out about this book, over and above anything else, is that it was quite eye-opening for me. For instance, there is a partial transcript of Attorney General, Eric Holder’s testimony before congress regarding the attempted bombing of Times Square by Faisal Shahzad. In it he refused to use the term “radical Islam” to describe one of the potential motivations behind the bombing. This just goes to illustrate the lengths to which we will go in America to appease our enemies.

The book is well researched and documented, and Bennett and Leibsohn are careful to backup any claim they make. Overall, The Fight of Our Lives is less an attack on radical Islam and more of a call for Americans to stand up against the watering down of our own philosophy and, what the authors call, our “political religion.” 

So, even if you are like me and not a political book reader, I would recommend The Fight of Our Lives. This is no “hate-mongering” diatribe. It is a well researched, level-headed and an easy to read and comprehend book on a very important subject.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Lord's Sample

Photo courtesy of nkzs
I want you to take just a moment right now and remember what you had for supper last night. Go ahead, really think about it. Remember the meal you ate and how you ate it. Did you get in a line of people and wait to get a stale scrap of some bread-like substance and a swig of grape juice? I sure hope not.

Now let me assure you that all that I am about to say IS NOT directed at any one church because every church I've ever been to does this the same way. What I am trying to do in this post is bring to light something that I think is a tragedy in the church. "What is that tragedy?" you ask. Well, you may have already guessed it...communion, a.k.a "The Lord's Supper."

I just can't help but wonder, at what point in history did The Lord's Supper turn into a mass sampling of really bad food. Typically, the modern version of Communion is some variation on the following theme. The pastor, or deacon, or elder, or whoever, reminds the congregation of the story of the Last Supper and how the bread and wine (or juice) represents the body and blood of Christ. The congregation is invited to either come forward and receive the elements at the front of the church, or stay in their seats as they are passed around. Some churches take the elements in a manner called "intinction," which is a fancy way of saying "you sop up the juice with the bread." (I used to like this form better but now that I really think about it the only reason was because it made the bread taste better. Furthermore, the only instance in the Bible where I can find someone dipping something into something else, at least in regards to the Lord's Supper, was Judas! I can't help but wonder if some new born believer has ever thought, "Why are we simulating what Judas did during the Last Supper?") After you take communion you shuffle back to your seat and wait for the rest of the brethren to finish the process. My question is, is this what Jesus meant when He told us to do this in remembrance of Me ?

Here's the rub for me. Most churches, or denominations, try to do things in accordance with the Scriptures. For instance, in the Baptist Church we baptize people by immersion because the idea is that it is the most biblical mode of baptism. The reasoning is, John baptized Jesus by immersion and therefore we should follow suit. I, being the good baptist that I am, agree that immersion is the best possible mode of baptism, if for no other reason than because it symbolizes the death and rebirth in a way that sprinkling or pouring cannot. The problem is, we don't apply the same logic to the Lord's Supper. In fact, few do. Baptism and communion are the two sacraments that we protestants hold in highest regard. One we do as our initiation into the community of God and the other we do to remember the sacrifice of our Lord and the covenant He has made with us. However, it seems communion has taken a back seat to baptism and I can't figure out why because both were instituted by Christ.

To get to the root of the meaning of communion we have to look into the Bible. What we see is that the Last Supper was part of the Passover celebration. To understand that we must go back to the Jewish heritage that we, as Christians, have been grafted into (see Romans 11). The Passover meal was not some three minute event, it was a mealtime that lasted for hours and included the retelling of the exodus from Egypt. It was a time to remember and be aware of the freedom that God had given His people. If we read the accounts of the Last Supper we get the sense that it was an intimate time of dining and fellowship between the Lord and His servants, the apostles. What I fear is that we have stripped the meaning away from the Lord's Supper because it has very little in common with the biblical record of the Last Supper.

In 1 Corinthians 11:18-34 Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for the way they were handling the Lord's Supper. In our parlance, they were "hangin' out, piggin' out and gettin' drunk." His point was that the church was no longer honoring Christ with their version of communion. Listen to what Charles Stanley says about these verses in the Life Principles Study Bible;

When the church observed the Lord's Supper, it was in remembrance of the last Passover Jesus celebrated with His disciples. Regrettably, the Corinthian observance no longer reflected the spirit of the Lord's Supper. Instead of honoring the Lord in fellowship with other believers, many brought their own meals, while others got drunk, and some had nothing to eat at all. 

Let me ask you this; the last time you had communion did you really feel like you were in fellowship with your brothers and sisters? I know I didn't. I felt like I needed to "grab it n' go" so I wouldn't hold up the line. When the Lord looks down on our version of communion I wonder if He thinks the same thing Paul did in 1 Corinthians 11:22a, What!

Now, before anyone goes and starts writing nasty comments about my lack of regard let me offer some solutions that I think would better reflect the meaning and character of the Lord's Supper. No, I am not some communion guru or mighty fortress of spirituality but I do have some ideas.

First, what if we observed the Lord's Supper in smaller groups. Some congregations are so large that it makes intimacy during communion virtually impossible. I can't think of too many people who are comfortable before the Lord when there are 75 people standing in line behind them. What if we did communion in our small groups? What if, watch out I'm about to be ultra-radical, we did communion is people's homes? At the Lord's Supper there were, plus or minus, thirteen people. What if we gathered together in our Sunday School classes and had a  time of reflection on the Lord's deliverance, sacrifice, covenant and salvation before we took communion? What if we had some of our brothers and sisters over for a "pot-luck" supper in our homes, enjoyed intimate fellowship around the table and then took communion? There are so many things that we must share with the world. We should not separate ourselves from the lost world in everything that we do because we are called to reach out to them. However, communion is not one of those things. It is something that is unique to the Body of Christ and is rightly limited to believers.

Secondly, one of the marks of the Passover meal was a retelling of the exodus story. As I mentioned earlier, this was to remind the Jews of the great deliverance God had given them from Egypt. What if we took the time to retell the narrative of Christ's passion so that we will, once again, be reminded of His sacrifice on our behalf? In 1 Corinthians 11:26 Paul says;

For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.

Oftentimes we recount the story of Jesus instituting the Lord's Supper but we don't go deeper into the reason behind it which is the cross. We talk about the covenant but we don't get into the torture and suffering that allowed for it. Have we grown so used to the cross that the hearing of it has lost its power?

Finally, we need to understand that the Lord's Supper is an event, it is something we do, that spans the entire history of salvation. We do it in remembrance of what Christ did for us on the cross. We do it to celebrate the New Covenant of grace that we live under and we do it in anticipation of the return of Christ.

Let me close by saying this. I understand that most churches try to do the best they can to have communion in a way that is both meaningful and efficient. I've never been in a service where an explanation of the Lord's Supper was not given and where people were not encouraged to take a moment and reflect on Christ. Also, I know there is no way to judge the experience and heart of each person that takes communion so it may be meaningful to many, many people.  However, I just believe that if we want to abide by the biblical model we are missing something. I think we've turned communion into a box that we have to check off once a quarter instead of the time of reflection and intimacy it was designed to be. There are many people who will disagree with me for a number of different reasons, and some of them may be very valid, but I believe returning to the root of communion is a challenge worth taking up in the Church today.