Friday, December 20, 2013

The Christian's Diet: Feast Upon the Word.

Note: Today's post is from one of my dear brothers in Christ, Ryan Burris. He has been called to the ministry and is currently pursuing his Master's of Divinity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a youth minister, a gifted preacher and, as you will read, a wonderful writer and expositor of God's Word. I hope you enjoy his thoughts on this important subject and are blessed and challenged by his message.

Christian

Ezekiel 3:1 He said to me: “Son of man, eat what you find here.  Eat this scroll, then go and speak to the house of Israel.”

A new year is just around the corner, and with that comes resolutions.  Consistently, one of the top New Year’s resolutions is going on a diet or losing weight (which typically includes dieting).  Our culture is crying out for new, more successful diets with quicker results, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.  While I am not a dieter myself, it seems as though most diets that I have heard of are based around 1 primary principle.  It may be a low or no-carb diet, perhaps a no sugar or low fat diet, maybe, like me it is a “seefood” diet.  When I see food that looks good, I eat it.  I believe in taking care of oneself physically, hence the reason why I do workout and for the most part eat a healthy diet.  I believe also that the Christian should have some concern for taking care of his body.  Scripture explains that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20), therefore, I believe we should take care of them.  Further, Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 4 that training the body does have some benefit, though it is limited.
However, he does not stop here, but continues on to say that training for godliness and being godly is of far greater value.  Paul is emphasizing the fact that as Christians we should be much more concerned with our spiritual health than we should our physical physique.  This should lead to the Christian being on a spiritual diet and having a routine of spiritual exercise in order to make sure that he is healthy and in peak shape.  Paul compares the Christian to being an athlete, and not a mediocre one at that, but rather an athlete who is competing for the prize.  We must be striving in our Christian walk each and every day to grow as a Christian, just as the professional athletes “strike a blow” to their bodies each and every day to get better, faster, and stronger. 
                So what is this spiritual diet??? As I mentioned earlier, most diets are built upon one basic principle.  The same is true for the follower of Christ.  We must feast upon the Word of God. 
                I have been amazed recently at how this idea of eating the Word of God floods the text of Scripture.  I don’t think any Christian would disagree that the Bible is important to Christians, but I want to propose that we have allowed it to subtly become far less important than what it ought to be.  It has become a self-help book when it should be our lifeline.
Littered throughout the pages of the Bible are verses that speak to this very idea.  At the beginning of this post, I quoted Ezekiel 3:1.  God had Ezekiel do some very interesting things to say the least, most of which were unique to Ezekiel himself.  However, one interesting thing that is commanded to more people than just Ezekiel is this command for him to literally eat the scroll that God had presented him.  At this command Ezekiel goes on to say, “So I opened my mouth, and He fed me the scroll. ‘Son of man,’ He said to me, ‘eat and fill your stomach with this scroll I am giving you.’ So I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth” (Ezk. 3:2-3).  Wow!  I wish I had the zeal of Ezekiel to just do whatever God asked me, no matter how crazy it sounded, without hesitation or question.
The psalmist had a very similar experience to Ezekiel as he too ate the Word of God.  He writes, “How sweet your word is to my taste – sweeter than honey in my mouth” (Ps. 119:103).
 The feast continues for the prophet Jeremiah who says, “Your words were found, and I ate them.  Your words became a delight to me and the joy of my heart…” (Jer. 15:16).
 Job also speaks to this idea as he says, “I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my daily food” (Job 23:12b). 
When Jesus was facing temptation He reprimanded Satan, and reminds readers, of Deuteronomy 8:3, that “Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).  Then in John 4 when His disciples beg Him to eat He explains that He has a food that they do not understand, which is to do the will of the Father (Jn. 4:32-34).  Further, in John 7 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn. 7:53).  Flipping a few pages back to John 1, the reader will remember that Jesus is the Word of God, which has become flesh. 
Then In John’s Revelation, he was given a very similar command to Ezekiel: “Now the voice that I heard from heaven spoke to me again and said, ‘Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.’  So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll.  He said to me, ‘Take and eat it; it will be bitter in your stomach, but it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.’  Then I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it.  It was as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I ate it, my stomach became bitter” (Rev. 10:9-10).  While this scroll is likely filled with more revelation of God’s wrath than what we are actually given in the book of Revelation, it is still a clear command for John to eat the scroll, which illustrates the idea being discussed in this post. 
While I do believe in some of the above instances that these men probably did physically consume the scroll, in contemporary application it’s what eating the scroll or the Word of God implies that we should understand.  As I mentioned before, the weight of the Holy Scripture seems to be far heavier and far more important than what many seem to give it.  The benefits that come along with eating are far beyond the mere reading of words on a page.

The Benefits of Eating

                Go back with me to Ms. Ferguson’s Anatomy and Physiology class my senior year of high school.  As we began the section on nutrition, I remember her making the statement “We eat to live, we do not live to eat.”  This statement rings in my ears as I think of the importance of the Word for the Christian life.  The Word is what gives us life, after all the Word became flesh. 
                The majority of people who will read this do not know what hunger is like.  We eat merely because we want to.  However, even for us who have plenty, we understand that without food we would die.  We eat food in order to gain essential nutrients that keep us alive and healthy and give us energy.  If we decided that we would never eat again for the rest of our lives, we would surely not have very long.  In the same way, for a Christian to continue in the ways of the Lord, He must know and believe God’s Word.  He must chew through the Word, savoring the flavors, digesting it and absorbing the life from the Word of God.
More to the point, he must make a routine of reading through the Bible carefully, understanding the truth of the Gospel on every page.  He must spend time praying through the Word asking God to reveal Himself and His truth.  He must memorize the Word so that when faced with a temptation he can do as Jesus did and say “it is written.” 
I believe that when we do this, we will understand in a greater way the story throughout the Bible, the Gospel: Creation, Fall, Rescue, and Restoration.  The Gospel is what allows us to understand where we can find life! 

Eating the Word leads to sharing the Gospel

                As we mull over the Scriptures, it will not be long until we see the urgency with which God told all of those who had eaten the Word to go and proclaim the message! (refer back to Ezekiel 3:1 at the beginning of this post)  We all know the cliché “you are what you eat,” and such is true with the Bible.  If we feast upon the Word of God, while we will not become God’s Word, we will begin to go out and proclaim it.  It will leave us with a burden for those who have no access to it or have not heard it.  As it gives us life we will want to share it with others so that they too may have life.  This message is far to important for us to keep to ourselves.

                So, to wrap this up, I think Scripture is pretty clear that we must consume the Word of God.  We must ask ourselves if we are making the Word a staple in our diet as Christians.  We must also ask if we are allowing it to transform us.  Are we digesting it?  Are we truly allowing the words of the Almighty Himself to shape our life?  Are we relying on it to give us life, or are we looking for satisfaction and understanding in other places? 
                Friends, I pray that we will no longer take lightly the Word of God.  I pray that we will read and re-read the Scriptures so that we may grow stronger in our faith and become more committed followers of Christ.  I pray that you will make a commitment today to feast upon the Word of God.


In Christ,

Ryan Burris

Monday, December 16, 2013

Ninety-nine Percent isn't Good Enough For God.

What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which was lost until he finds it? Luke 15:4.

Have you ever lost something?

Naturally that is a rhetorical question because we've all lost things in our lives. Whether it is the TV remote, our car keys or even something less mundane, we often misplace things that are important to us. What ensues is usually a frustrating series of events to include tossing the couch and living room, rummaging through pockets and disgorging the contents of closets until the lost item is found.

In Luke 15 Jesus tells a series of parables to show that God is no less dedicated to the search for lost things than we are. In fact, His search goes over and above the effort we would put forth for all but the most valuable of things. For now, I want to focus on the first two parables in this chapter because they are very, very similar and the third is the parable of the Prodigal Son and requires it's own post.

At the opening of the chapter we find that Jesus is being surrounded by, not only curious Pharisees and scribes, but also tax collectors and "sinners." I do find it somewhat humorous that tax collectors often fell into the same category as "sinners." Oh how the same sentiment lives today!

The religious elite were, as always, flabbergasted that Jesus would associate with the dregs of society but their grumbling would only lead to another teachable moment for the entire crowd. Both the Pharisees and the sinners were in desperate need of the message that Christ was about to bring through two, easily accessible parables.

The two parables are that of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. Both carry the same core message but with slightly different details. In the parable of the lost sheep the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine which are safe and goes after the one which is lost. In the parable of the lost coin the woman lights a lamp and sweeps the entire house to find the one lost coin out of ten. The divine application would have been clear and earth-shattering to the hearers that day.

Why would such an obvious statement to us be so revolutionary to the people in Christ's day? The answer lies in the Pharisees' understanding of God. To them there was no question that God would welcome people to come to Him, so long as they cleaned up their act first. Naturally, the Pharisees would have considered themselves righteous in their own eyes and in the eyes of God. They had done a stellar job of following the law so they believed God would eagerly welcome them into His Kingdom. However, there would be no way that God would want to have anything to do with an unrighteous sinner. In their mind mankind had to seek after God.

What Jesus is teaching here is that their concept of God was completely backwards in this area. Not only, He teaches us, does God seek after the lost sinner but, there is no man who truly does seek after God. Romans 3:9-12 makes this truth abundantly clear.

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, "There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, not even one." 

This is, of course, a reaffirmation of the truth God already spoke in Psalm 14 but clearly someone needed a refresher course. The really intriguing thing to me is thinking that Paul wrote his words to a Christian church in Rome. Perhaps the early Christians there had already fallen into the same trap as the Pharisees prior to them. Just as the Pharisees believed they were seeking after God because of their adherence to the Law, so these early Christians may have started thinking more highly of themselves than they should have.

The point that Jesus is making to both the Pharisees and the sinners is that God, in His love, actively seeks those who are lost. Let us not forget that He has been doing this from the very beginning of time. After Adam and Eve sinned and decided it would be good to make some clothes for themselves God came looking for them in the garden for their evening stroll. "Where are you?" he asked them. Now, God has never once lost us in the sense that He doesn't know where we are.

The word translated "lost" in both of these parables comes from an ancient word that carries the meaning of "destroyed" or "perish." We can understand this because if we lose our car keys they may as well be dead to us because they are of absolutely no use in their lost state. This helps us understand the sense in which we are lost to God. He knows where we are but because of sin our relationship with Him has been severed. Ephesians 2 puts it this way;

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins...but God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).

To be lost is to be dead. To be lost is to have a broken relationship with God. However, He loves us so much that He refuses to let us continue in our lostness without offering us a chance at being found. These two parables show us to what lengths He is willing to go to in order to find us.

1. The parable of the lost sheep tells us that God is willing to put Himself in danger in order to find us. The shepherd had no idea what kind of mess the lost sheep had gotten itself into. It could have fallen in a ditch, made its way into a terrible bramble patch or even attacked by wild animals (remember what David had to fight off when he was a shepherd). The shepherd was willing to face whatever may come in order to save the sheep. Likewise, God sent His Son into danger to rescue us. Philippians 2 tells us that Christ was obedient to the Father to the point of death, even death on a cross.

2. The woman who lost her precious coin tore her house apart until she found the lost coin. In the same way, God will move heaven and earth to get an invitation to His feast into our hands. What we do with the invitation is completely up to us but He'll do His part in getting it to us. Also, nine out of ten coins wasn't good enough for this woman just as ninety-nine sheep out of one hundred weren't good enough for the shepherd. God never thinks to Himself, "Well I've got 99% and that ain't so bad. I'll forget about the 1%."

The final thing that I want to point out about these parables is the reaction of God to finding that which was lost. In both instances the person rejoices greatly when they have successfully found what they were looking for. Friends, know this, God wants to find people and when He does there is rejoicing like we can hardly imagine. In the first parable the rejoicing is described as "in heaven." This tells us that the entirety of the heavenly host throws a party when one person gets saved. Their rejoicing is so great because the angels of heaven know far better than we do what we are being saved from and what we are being saved to. In the second parable the rejoicing is said to take place in the "presence of the angels of God." This tells us that someone else is involved in the party and that someone is God Himself. Nothing makes God happier than seeing the people He loves so dearly accept the invitation to His great feast (salvation). He does not begrudgingly welcome people into His Kingdom, He does so with joy unimaginable. Why? Because His love for us is so vast and limitless.

As we continue headlong into this Christmas season let us take time to consider the love that God has for us. So great a love that it would drive Him to actively search for the lost and rejoice when you and I have been found.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Love - Hate Relationship

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Luke 14:26

There are times when I read the Gospels and wonder if Jesus didn't just get fed up with people misunderstanding Him, following Him for the wrong reasons, and just plain being silly. The verse above represents one of those times for me. Looking at those words one can only wonder if Jesus had simply had enough and laid into the people who were following Him just to see the next cool miracle. In the previous verse it says that "large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, if anyone comes to me..." you know the rest. Clearly Jesus wasn't up to speed on the current trends in mass evangelism and church growth strategies. That's right folks, Jesus used the word "hate" and He said if we don't we can't follow Him. It almost sounds like Jesus didn't want all those people following Him. Hmmmmmm, I wonder.

The fact is, large crowds of shallow followers who just wanted to see the next amazing thing or get the next blessing was never Jesus' goal. He was, and is, after people who will count the cost of following Him, buckle down and go with Him wherever He may lead. After He lays down that track about hating everyone who you're supposed to love the Lord goes on to explain that if we're going to follow Him we had better count the cost and be willing to give up everything for Him. This is a difficult teaching indeed.

To fully understand and better appreciate what Christ is teaching here we have to go back to the verse referenced at the beginning. Jesus is not telling us that we should literally hate our family. That would be utterly contrary to so many things He has already taught us, and will reveal to us through the New Testament. How are we to love God and love our neighbor (the two greatest commandments) and, at the same time, hate our family. That would be ludicrous and that gives us a pretty good idea that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole in Luke 14:26.

The kind of hatred that Jesus is speaking of here is a relative hatred. I understand that I may be making that term up but hear me out. What He is trying to get across to us is that if our love for Him isn't so great and overwhelming that every other love in our life seems like hatred in comparison, we don't love Him enough. Let me see if I can make this more clear. We use the word "love" for many things in our culture; food, games, sports teams, people, etc., etc. If you read one of my recent posts you know that, as far as cars goes, I love Corvettes. Now, if I compared my "love" for Corvettes with the love I have for my wife, my love for Corvettes would pale in comparison to the point that it would look like hatred. This is what Christ is teaching us.

Christ demands to be our first love. He will not accept second place, or even first place by a narrow margin. He wants to win the race for our hearts by a mile. Revelation 2:2-7 paints a clear picture of this truth. In this passage we have the letter John was to write to the church in Ephesus. In first bit of it God is commending the Ephesian church for their perseverance and discernment. He is basically giving them a divine pat on the back and praising them for the things they have gotten very right. However, He says this in verse 4;

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

Then He goes on to say that if they do not repent, and return to their first love He will remove their lampstand. In essence, "All those good things don't mean a hill of beans if you don't love Me above all else." Individually, or as churches, we can have all the right doctrine, theology, programs, good works and all of that but if our love of Christ is not the defining characteristic of our identity then it is all for naught.

Our love for the Lord is not something that is expressed only on Sunday morning, or Wednesday evening, or when we are doing a church sponsored service project; it is to be expressed in every part of our life. As with so many other things Christ Himself acts as our example for this kind of love. In Philippians 2 Paul give us some insight into the love of Christ that we are to embody.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a bond-servant... Philippians 2:5-7.

I would be willing to bet that Christ was quite comfortable seated at the right hand of God being the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. However, His love for us was so complete that He was willing to empty Himself, lay aside all of those royal privileges and become a man for our sake. A good leader does not merely order those underneath him or her to do difficult things, they lead by doing the difficult things before their followers. If Christ demands our ultimate love then we can rest assured that He has paved the way, by example, in what that love is supposed to look like. If this incredible example of total love does not motivate us to return it, then I do not know what will.

Friends, Christ will not settle for partial love. He doesn't want to work out a visitation deal in a custody battle. He wants our heart, soul, and mind, our total being. If we are only willing to offer a portion of ourselves to Him we are not willing to follow Him at all. As we draw near to the celebration of the first coming of Christ let us remember the total and complete love that He showed us by becoming one of us and let us strive to return that love to Him.

Godspeed,
Christian

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

No More Excuses

But they all alike began to make excuses. Luke 14:18a.

As human history has advanced over thousands of years we have made great strides of advancement in many areas. From the advent of fire we have now come to a place where we have harnessed that power for all types of helpful, and destructive, things. Since we first left the confines of terra firma using powered flight just over one hundred years ago, we can now travel all over the world in a matter of hours on the wings of jetliners. There are some areas, however, where our growth has been...stunted. One such area is our ability and willingness to make excuses. Who among us has not been invited to a function we do not want to go to and subsequently made an excuse?

This all began very early in our history. After eating the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve were faced with an inquiring God and Adam provided the first excuse; "That woman YOU made for me made me do it." Adam says raising his arm with an outstretched finger towards his wife. Wide-eyed at her husband's lack of hesitation in throwing her under the bus of divine inquiry Eve makes the second excuse, one that will be used for the remainder of human history, "The devil made me do it."

Moses, the greatest leader in Israelite history, is also famous for his excuse making. When confronted with a burning bush and the holy commission to lead God's people out of the land of Egypt he was quick to make his excuses. "They won't believe me and besides I'm not a good public speaker." Neither of these would satisfy God and guess what Moses did? He lead the people out of Egypt.

Perhaps one of the most flamboyant excuses of all time happened in the wilderness after Moses came down from the mountain of God. Finding the people worshiping a golden calf Moses confronted his brother Aaron for some answers. "Well," Aaron began, "We tossed all of this gold into the fire and...and...this golden calf just came out!" Sure it did Aaron and I suppose your dog ate your homework as well.

In Luke 14 Jesus offers a parable in which three people who had been invited to a celebration make excuses why they couldn't come. The first one claimed to have just bought some land and needed to go check it out. The second one, similarly, claimed he needed to go test some newly purchased oxen. The third begged that his recent marriage would offer a suitable excuse for his absence. To be sure, there are certain unavoidable circumstances that truly do keep us from an obligation. Unfortunately, neither of these three excuses fell into that category.

As I studied this passage one great question took up residence in my mind;

"What excuses are we making before God?" 

First and foremost, what excuses are we making to God for not accepting His offer of salvation? Do we claim that there is not enough "evidence." Romans chapter 1 sends a torpedo deeply below the waterline of that one. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Perhaps you tell yourself, and God, that there are some things that you want to do in your life before you turn it over to Him. Friend, our lives are like vapors and there is precious little time to waiver on the issue of salvation. The saddest excuse that has ever been made goes something like this, "I need to get my life straightened out before I go to God/church," or even sadder, "God wouldn't want to have anything to do with me." I cannot think of a more sinister deception foisted on humans by the enemy. The truth is 1) you can't straighten you life out without Christ and 2) it is not the healthy that need the physician but the broken. God desperately wants your brokenness so that He can make you whole again. It was the sinners and outcasts that Jesus spent His time with. Know this, Jesus knew how limited His time was on this earth and He chose to spend it with the ones who society didn't want to have anything to do with. He wants sinners to come to Him so bad that He came and died for us!

Those of us who are redeemed also have a nasty habit of making excuses. What kind of excuses are you making for not obeying the call of God? Every so often we are bold enough to tell the truth and just say, "I don't want to do what God has told me to do." However, usually we do what? Make an excuse. I'm not skilled enough, I don't have the talent it would take, I don't have the resources it would take, I don't have time, I'm not worthy and on and on it goes. If God has called you to do something rest assured that He has the details of it all figured out. He didn't accidentally call you. "Sorry, I dialed the wrong number" is not in God's vocabulary.

Jesus makes the consequences of excuse making very clear at the end of the parable.

For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.

The consequences of not responding to the invitation into God's kingdom are severe. No matter how we try to explain it away Jesus said it in no uncertain terms. If you're invited to come to the King's feast and you turn Him down, there will be no supper for you. For those of us who have become a part of God's eternal family there are still consequences to rejecting His call on our lives. Those consequences are going to vary from person to person but there are real none the less. In Ezekiel chapter 3 God gives the prophet his instructions and tells him that if he decides not to warn someone who God has told him to warn, their blood will be on his hands. The most basic calling that all Christians share is the call to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. If we are not doing that then there may be people that God intended to warn through us that will perish and not taste His dinner. Our personal salvation may not be at stake but we will have to answer for our disobedience.

I can scarcely imagine what the world would look like if people would stop making phony excuses. Many more people would be joining the Kingdom of God, of that I am sure. Friend, what excuses are you making for not coming to Christ? Christian, what excuses are you making for not following the call of God in your life? Put them away and let there be no more excuses.

In Christ,
Christian

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Unbinding the Prophets

This morning I was continuing my study of the book of Amos and found myself in the second chapter of this prophet's writing. Some of you may be familiar with this passage because this is where God declares His judgment on Moab, Judah and Israel. The long and short of the message is that there will be no stopping God's wrath upon these people and the prophet explains exactly why in each case. One thing stood out to me among the rest of the indictments and it is found in verse 12;

And you commanded the prophets saying, "You shall not prophesy!"

Before we get into why I think this is interesting and applicable to us today I want to lay a little bit of ground work on the role of the prophet.

Typically when we think of prophecy or the prophetic writings we automatically go to telling of future events, or foretelling. This was certainly one of the major functions of the prophet in the Old Testament. Without the foretelling of the prophets of God we would be missing many of the amazing Messianic prophecies and, in their own time, the people of God would have missed out on the hope of the coming Redeemer. To ignore this aspect of the prophetic ministry would be to shortchange a large portion of God's message to His people. However, this was not the only mission that God had for His prophets. You see, the lion's share of the prophet's message was not foretelling but forthtelling. That is, their primary function was to exhort the people of God to warn them and bring them back into a right relationship with Him. The number one reason that God sent prophets to His people was because they had strayed from His will and His ways and He wasn't going to bring judgment on them until He had given them fair warning. While there are many, many examples of people in the Bible who God used to speak prophetically the books that we label "major" and "minor" prophets were written by men who were sent to Israel once they had turned away from YHWH.

Now, I believe knowing these things sheds new light on the statement in Amos 2:12. The likelihood that the nation would reject a prophet because he was telling about the coming Messiah seem rather minuscule to me. I mean, in the midst of tough times who wouldn't want to hear about the future hope? What seems more likely is that the nation was rejecting the other, more unpleasant, aspect of the prophets' message, the forthtelling. I mean just look at what Jeremiah suffered during his ministry. He was tried, threatened, put in stocks and thrown in a pit. I find it hard to believe that the people did this to him because he was brining a message of hope and victory. Jesus even laments the fate of the prophets in Luke 13:34;

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!

Jesus and Amos agree that there was something about the message of the prophets that the people did not want to hear. What could it have been? The answer to me seems quite clear, they didn't want to hear that they had done something displeasing in the eyes of the Lord. My question for us today is this, do we still say to the prophets, "You shall not prophesy"? I would submit that the answer is "yes."

More and more we warmly welcome a message of hope, victory and peace but when a person begins to express the more difficult truths of God's Word they are, sometimes, not-so-politely asked to be quiet. What we have done is created a body of messages that are acceptable for the preacher or teacher to proclaim and anything outside of that is strictly forbidden.

Here in the United States, a country I am extraordinarily blessed to live in, we often drag God out of His box when it comes to time for patriotic functions and boldly petition Him for His blessing on our nation. We want God to bless us but we don't want God to speak to us in any way that might upset our way of life. We believe that because of country was founded on Biblical principles, which is was, then we must be good to go even as we depart from them.

A perfect example of what I'm talking about here is what happened earlier this year leading up to the second term of our president. Apparently Louis Giglio, a pastor and well known Christian speaker, was asked to pray at the inauguration. Once it was discovered that Pastor Giglio had a higher view of Scripture and God's standard of sin he was "disinvited." The underlying statement from the administration was "You shall not prophesy."

One of America's favorite preachers is Joel Osteen who rarely, if ever, deals with the issue of sin. His message is one that falls neatly in line with the American dream; health, wealth and prosperity. Meanwhile, preachers like Franklin Graham, who take a firm stand on God's Word, are oftentimes ridiculed, sidelined, and told that their message has no place in our culture of tolerance. "You shall not prophesy."

What we must come to realize is that God's purpose in sending prophets had nothing to do with Him wanting to hurt people's feelings and upset them. His purpose was to proclaim a message through them because He judgment was about to fall on the people He cares so deeply about. It was out of love and concern that God sent prophets because He wanted to give the people one last chance to repent and turn back to Him. Sadly, the nation did not want to have any of it and they found themselves in the divine hurt box.

Let me make this very clear, America is not to be equated with the nation of Israel. We are not God's new chosen people, nor are we God's new chosen nation. However, the principles have not changed and can be applied to us today. If we continue to reject God's message to us, and the people He sends to deliver that message, His wrath will be poured out on our nation.

What then are we to do? The answer is obvious.

1. We must unbind the "prophet" and allow the people God has sent to speak to us say "Thus says the Lord."
2. We must unbind our ears and be open to hear what God has to say.
3. We must unbind our hearts so that God can change us from who we are into who He wants us to be.

Whether or not God has begun to send judgment upon our nation there is always a chance to turn back. Though Israel was sent into captivity God still sent them home and He still sent His Messiah through them. Even if we have to experience the judgment of God there is still hope for a victory that can be had on the other side. At this point it is totally up to us. What will we do with the message and messengers of God?

Godspeed,
Christian

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Corvette I Didn't Get

Last week we had the privilege of holding our annual services for revival at our church. I try not to call them "revival services" because that is making a huge assumption...that we will experience God-sent revival. I believe all we can do is show up with the right attitude and humbly ask God to show up as well. All that being said, during our service on Monday night our preacher for these services, Scott Williams, spoke on the necessity of prayer. His theme for the three nights was, what can we do to create an atmosphere where God will send revival to us. Obviously, a integral part of that atmosphere has to be communication with God. Throughout the message Scott shared with us examples and stories of what can happen when God's people pray. Some were from Scripture (Peter being freed from prison, the room where the disciples were meeting being shaken, etc.) and some were more recent.

One of the things that Scott encouraged us to do in prayer is to pray specifically. That is, we need to stop beating around the bush and just tell God, in plain language what we're asking of Him. This struck a nerve in me and I want to expand on this idea here.

As a pastor, and someone who prays with people often, I find myself slipping into prayers that are less-than-specific. Countless times I have found myself praying with people who are in the hospital or in their homes battling with some kind of illness. Typically what I do is pray some generic prayer about how I wish God would bring them strength and comfort in their time of distress. Now, there is nothing in  the world wrong with asking God to do those sorts of things. However, does it show a lack of faith when we couch our prayers in vague terminology? Look at what Jesus says about prayer in Matthew 21:22;

And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive. 

In what knowledge I do have about the Scripture, I can't think of many, if any, places that speak about unanswered prayer. That is not to say that prayer is some magical lamp that we rub to get our wishes, but what we can be sure of is that God does hear our prayers and He will answer them in accordance with His will. If it is not God's will that someone be healed of a certain disease or that we not get something we ask from Him then we can rest assured that it won't happen. The question is, should that keep us from asking in faith.

Here is the way I can conceptualize this. When I was a teenager the one thing I wanted in the world was a Corvette. Whenever Christmas rolled around, or my birthday, people would ask me what I wanted. My answer...a Corvette. The likelihood that I was going to get a Corvette was phenomenally slim but I still asked because, hey, you never know. Does that mean that my parents didn't love me or didn't hear my request? Heavens no! At the time it may have seemed like it but I know that my parents loved me, cared for me and wanted me to have nice things.

Why is it then, that we feel like we need to be vague in our requests to God, even if what we're asking for is not in His will? It seems that we are afraid of not getting what we ask for. If we want God to heal someone of cancer then we should ask Him very specifically. There is absolutely no reason to give God a list of options to choose from because the truth is, He is going to do His will no matter what. When I was asking for a Corvette and it came to my birthday I always, without fail, believed that I would turn onto our street and see a Corvette sitting in front of our house. I never ceased to believe that it could happen. Did it ever happen? Nope, not until I went out and bought one with my own money. Did I ever hold that against my parents? Not a chance.

The Bible, and Christian history, is filled with examples of people praying, believing, and God doing a miracle in their lives. Has God changed, not as far as I can tell. What's the problem then? I believe it is our prayers. We don't give God a chance to do something extraordinary in our midst because we pray weak prayers. Praying that God would do His will is wonderful, Jesus set that example for us, but praying that God would do something amazing is a rare commodity in the world today. Here's the really wonderful thing. When we pray a specific prayer that only God can answer, and He does so in a miraculous way, it becomes a testimony of Him in our lives. He gets the glory and more people are able to stand in awe of Him! So, as Scott challenged us, let us prayer big prayers, specific prayers, and let God show Himself to us and in our lives.

Godspeed,
Christian

Monday, September 23, 2013

Fiction: "The Lone Rider"

Below you will find a short story I thought up while driving to Florida last week. I don't normally write fiction but I find that I do enjoy it so maybe I'll do it more in the future.

Christian.


The Lone Rider

                The forest was far quieter than one would expect of a forest. Nearly silent, it was, save for the occasional crack of a dry, dead tree trunk which, like all the others, was a deep brown bordering on black. The air felt thick as if something were hanging over the land trying to squeeze the life out of it. To the casual onlooker it had been successful. Even in the short springtime the leaves that did sprout from the branches emerged brown and crispy hanging on to their parent tree for a few short days. Even the dawn of new life seemed to be hopeless. Despite the midday hour the land was dark. It seemed as if the sun had not pierced through the thick layer of steel grey clouds in many lifetimes.
                The silence of the afternoon was broken abruptly as a lone rider flashed through the forest on his speckled white horse. He tore through the woods dodging trees and limbs that seemed to be reaching to knock him from his mount or block his path. Passing through the woods at great speed he left in his wake fluttering flocks of the dead leaves that eternally covered the forest floor, their pale browns and blonds contrasting with the near blackness of the trees from which they fell. The brittle branches that reached for him were snapped and broken but many tried desperately to cling to his mottled brown cloak while others scratched the skin of his exposed face.
                Following the rider, at not so great a distance, were six other riders clad in shimmering copper colored armor. For every cruel branch that attempted to disrupt the lone rider’s path there were an equal number that parted to allow the passage of the six. Even the dark woods seemed to be aiding them in their pursuit. Each time the six would catch a new glimpse of the lone rider he would turn sharply behind a hill or veer to the left or the right past a dense stand of trees never allowing them more than a moment’s sight of him, yet they pushed on undeterred.
                After some time the lone rider found himself passing over a flat stretch of ground atop a short cliff barely more than a man’s height. At the end of the cliff, before the narrow trail turned back to the west he urged his horse to the left as it slid down the embankment on its hind legs. Without a pause he doubled back and found the small cave he was searching for.
                Standing in the cave comforting a large ebony horse was an older man whose weathered features had seen untold years.
                “Did you get her?” The older man asked hurriedly.
                “Yes, she is safe, but what of the others? There are so many more.” The rider said revealing a small child from beneath his cloak and handing her to the older man.
                As the two spoke the thunder of the six riders’ horses was beginning to fill their ears and shake the ground. The older man silently looked into the frightened eyes of the child and put his finger to his lips. Without an order the six passed over the small cave and came to a halt. The heavy breathing of their horses overpowered every other sound in the forest less the sound of the pounding heartbeats of the lone rider and the older man in their own ears.
                “You go and take the child.” The lone rider said with unshakeable determination to the older man.
                “What of you?” The older man replied.
                “I will make sure you make it with her. You lead and I will follow.”
                With no further talk the older man mounted his horse with the child and the two erupted from the cave in the opposite direction from the six riders. They had scarcely breeched the mouth of the cave when the six reacted and took up the pursuit once more. Though the sixes horses were weary there was a fire in their eyes and they were driven forward by some unseen force. After a league they were only a few paces behind the lone rider and were beginning to draw their wicked looking blades from their sheaths. With one final push the lone rider drew near to the old man and with the same determination as before looked into his eyes.
                “Keep going.” He said, “Do not stop.” With that he reached to his side and grasped the ivory hilt of his sword. Drawing out the thin, curved blade there seemed to be a new light surrounding them as he pulled back on the reigns bringing his mount up on his two back legs. The six riders slid to a halt before the lone rider.
                “If you want them, you will have to pass through me.” The lone rider said defiantly.
                “If that is your wish, so be it. We will have you and the child.” Replied one of the riders wickedly.

                The old man continued to charge through the dark woods with the child seated in front of him clasped to his chest with one arm. As he rode on tears began to well up in the corners of his eyes and descend slowly down his cheeks. After a short while he breathed a sigh of great relief as he saw the bridge leading over a broad river to his homeland. The sun was setting over the bridge and the sky was clear, burning with the last rays of sunlight. As he crossed the bridge the air became crisper and the heaviness disappeared. Even the clouds that blanketed the forest ceased at the river. Coming to the peak of the bridge the old man stopped and turned his horse to look back to where he had come from. As he turned he saw that the dark clouds were darker still in one small circle above the woods. Just then one flash of lightning split the sky over the wood and a crash of thunder jolted the man and the child.
                “It has happened.” The old man said as he looked down with tears streaming down his face and kissing the child on the top of the head he said quietly, “You are safe now…and free.”

                The next morning the old man returned to the bridge. Strangely, the clouds that were darker the day before had turned into a small patch that was, ever so slightly, lighter. With a slight squeeze of his legs he told his horse to continue forward and he descended the bridge into the dark wood. At first the forest was as dark and dead as ever before but as he traveled onward toward the place where he last saw the lone rider there were hints of life. Some of the once dry and lifeless trees had one or two green leaves on them and the once sinister crack of the trees had turned to a groan as if they were growing again.
                Reaching the clearing where the two had parted the day before the old man’s throat became tight and his lip quivered as he saw the bloodstained cloak of the lone rider. His sword was driven deeply into the ground and the ivory hilt was charred as if by fire. Without the slightest pause he continued on, his horse padding quietly through the forest.
                As he passed through the forest the old man heard the quiet song of birds and the rustle of other woodland creatures and as he drew closer to the cave there were more and more. When he arrived at the clearing around the cave the old man was greeted by a beam of sunlight cutting through the thick cover of clouds. The air that had once been so oppressive was filled with the scent of green leaves and was carried on the softest of breezes. Nearly every tree in the clearing was bursting with new life and the branches were shaking off their deadness. The old man stretched his arms out to his sides and turning his head skyward he took a deep breath saying, “This is wonderful!”
                “Sir…what is wonderful?” came a small voice. The old man immediately looked down to see a small child emerging from behind one of the larger trees nearby.
                “Oh, my child, this is wonderful.” The old man said dismounting his horse and motioning to all around him. “Tell me, where did you come from?”
                “Well, we were in the mines and yesterday, all of a sudden, our bonds were loosed. None of us understood what was happening until a man came and told us we were free and that we should come and meet him here.” The young man said motioning to several other children of all sorts that were coming into the clearing.
                “Yes, yes, it is true. Oh how wonderful.” The old man said kneeling down in front of the child and taking the small hands his tears of sadness were turning to tears of joy. The old man was gathering more and more of the children in his arms in the most loving embrace when a blinding light shone from the cave. It only lasted for a moment, longer than the blink of an eye but less than two. Then the lone rider came forth and as he did a strong wind blew through the trees like a cheering crowd before their king. He was dressed in the finest and purest linen and his emerald green eyes were as deep and clear as the tropical sea. There was no visible mark on his skin which was as smooth as hand spun silk.
                “My son!” The old man exclaimed overwhelmed by joy. He took the first child by the hand and rushed over to the lone rider and took him into his arms with all the love that the world had to offer.
                “Children, this is my son. Is he the man that you saw yesterday?” The old man asked. They all nodded their heads in affirmation.
                “Yes it is, but he did not look exactly like this.” One of the young girls added, her brow crinkling with confusion. “He was much dirtier. His shirt was torn almost from his body and he had an awful wound in his side.”
                “Was it like this?” The lone rider asked lifting his linen tunic to reveal a scar that ran from the bottom of his ribs across the front of his stomach. All of the children’s eyes grew wide with wonder as they began to understand bits and pieces of all that was happening. The one young girl who looked so confused reached her hand out timidly and touched the scar.
                “It is alright.” The lone rider said. With her hand still on his wound she looked up into his welcoming eyes and threw her arms around his waist and began to weep.
                “Thank you sir!” The young girl said through her tears. The lone rider placed his hands around the girl’s back embracing her in a warm, indescribably peaceful hug. He looked into his father’s eyes and when they met they both nodded their heads in unspoken understanding.
                “There is so much to do!” The old man said breaking the silence and wiping the tears from his cheeks with his sleeve. “We must get going.” He looked around the clearing taking in each and every one of the children in his mind. Finally, his eyes stopped on two young boys that were seated on the forest floor leaning up against a tree. Both of them had legs that were badly broken and had only been crudely bandaged. One’s face was terribly bruised and the other’s nose looked as if it had been broken several times and he carried a purple ring around his right eye. One of the other children noticed the old man staring at the two boys.
                “Sir, it was all we could do to get them here this morning. Both of them have broken legs and have been beaten terribly.”
                “Thank you for bringing them here. I know it wasn’t easy for you and they will come with us today.” The old man said never taking his gaze off of the two boys.
                “Where are you going? Can’t we come too?” One of the girls asked.
                “Not today child, but soon. They will come with us to their new home in our land, the land from which you all came, but I need the rest of you to stay for now.” The old man said.
                “But…but, we want to go with you. This place is awful and we may wind up back in the mines.” One of the girls said with tears beginning to well up in her eyes.
                “I know, I know and you will come to us at the right time. For now, there is work to do. You have to go and tell the others that they are free. My son only came to a few of you yesterday so think of all the others who are free but they do not know it yet. You will have to go back to the mines but, understand this; you will never have to be a slave again the way you were before.” The old man said.
                “Do we have to bring them here?” Another child asked.
                “Not any longer.” The lone rider said. “From this day forward you will take life with you into this dead land. What you see here in this clearing is only the beginning.”
                With that the lone rider and his father went to the two broken boys and helped them to their feet. Both winced in pain as they tried to put their weight on their feet. The old man helped one of the boys onto his faithful horse while the other one looked around wondering how all four of them were going to ride the one horse. The lone rider let out a quick whistle and from the cave emerged his own horse, no longer speckled but pure white. He pranced over to his master and without a command knelt before the boy who looked up, with mouth agape, at the lone rider who was smiling back at him.

                “Remember my children, go and tell the others about their freedom. Take life into this dark and dead land, and look for the lone rider on the white horse to return for you.” The old man instructed turning his horse to leave the clearing. “Never fear, you will not be abandoned, he will come…he will come.”

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Truth about the Church

Photo courtesy of kingcarp
Adapted from a sermon given 7/28/2013

Recently the Lord has been emphasizing some things in my heart about the church. A few weeks ago this thought struck me;

If "church" is a place we go, then it is also a place we can leave.

Let me restate that for clarity and emphasis. If "church" is a place we can visit, or a location we can go then it is also a place we can leave after a prescribed amount of time. This has some very serious implications, one of which we will look at a little later.

The other thing that the Lord struck me with recently was this thought;

Jesus didn't come to this earth, live, die a torturous death, go into the grave and rise again on the third day for two or three hours of our week.

These two thoughts go hand in hand because the latter informs the former. In Acts 20:28 the Bible tells us,

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

Further along in the New Testament Paul writes these words to the Ephesian church,

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Jesus Christ did not die and "give Himself up" for a building or a piece of property upon which sits a place we call "church." He gave Himself up for a people and not only that, but He gave Himself up for all of us. Not just "all" as in every one of us, but "all" as in every bit of every one of us.

In 1 Timothy 3:14-15 Paul tells his spiritual son;

I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.

Now, Paul is instructing Timothy on how people ought to behave in the household of God. Does he mean this is how we act when we come to "church"? That is, when we are on church grounds, doing church things this is how we act and then when we leave we can act another way? I seriously doubt it. This is one of the gravest problems that comes with the idea that church is just a place we go. We think we can act one way in it and another way when we leave. This is certainly not the message of the Bible.

When Joshua issued the challenge to the Israelites to choose whom they would serve he gave them an option. He said, "You choose today who you're going to serve. You can choose to serve the gods of the people of this land and God will let you do that." We have a choice as to whether we are going to serve and worship a building or a concept of what church is and God will allow us to do that. That is freewill. However, Joshua then said, "but as for me and my house...we will serve the Lord." Did Joshua mean that he and the structure that he lived in would worship God? Probably not. That would be ludicrous.

The household of God and the house of Joshua had nothing to do with the building and everything to do with the people. The word that we translate "church" is "ecclesia" in the Greek. This simply means the "gathering" or the "assembly." Church was never meant to be limited to, or defined as, a building or a place but a people, the people of God. This is who Christ died for, this is what Christ instituted among men. He didn't die and rise again so He could come pressure wash the siding to make it clean. He didn't die and rise again so He could make sure we had the appropriate carpet color or shingles on the steeple. The truth about church is that it is the people in the building and when they leave the building they take church with them wherever they go. Furthermore, how we are to conduct ourselves in the church applies to every moment of our lives because we don't come and go from the Body of Christ.

If that is what the church is, then what are we supposed to do? I can think of three very specific things that we, as the church, are supposed to be doing.

1. Worship. When we come together as the "gathering" we need to be worshiping God in spirit and in truth. I long to see the church worship with total disregard to the people around them and pour out their souls in pure praise to God Almighty because He is worth it and He has earned it. Not only that but we should be worshiping God whether or not we are in a building labeled "church." It should not be limited to a place. If we are not doing this, we are not acting like the church.

2. Sharing the Good News. This is the commandment of Jesus to His followers, "Go therefore into all the world and make disciples of every nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you." We don't have mediocre news to share, we have GREAT news of God's unending mercy, love and salvation. If we are not doing this, we are not acting like the church.

3. Serving. Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, wrapped a towel around His waist and washed the dirty, nasty feet of His disciples. He set and example of service for us and James 1:27 tells us that pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God is visiting orphans and widows in the their distress. The church, the true church, is to be about the business of serving the least of these and the ones who are in the most need.  If we are not doing this, we are not acting like the church.

So, how do we do all of that? I confess that I don't have a specific answer to that. The truth is, it is going to look different for each of us. That is why the Body of Christ is made up of so many different parts, so God can use us in as many different ways to carry out these three objectives. This I do know, Christ didn't come to die for a place or a building or a piece of property. He came to die for a people and among those people I can say that as for me and my house, we will be serving and worshiping the Lord.

Godspeed,
Christian


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Truth About Racism

Right off the bat I want to admit that I did not live through the times of great racial tension in the 1950's and 60's. However, it appears to me that the times we are living in now are some of the most racially charged of my lifetime (1981-present). For that reason I want to approach this topic carefully, yet honestly. Even some of the highest officials in our government claim that we need to have an open and honest discussion about race in our land. Well, here is my open honesty. Please take it with the love and care in which it is intended.

From my point of view, as an evangelical Christian, there is absolutely NO room for racism of any shade in the Gospel of Jesus Christ or His followers. I could very easily stop right there because that just about sums up the truth of the matter. However, I think some further words are necessary. The clearest statement from Scripture on this subject is Galatians 3:28;

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 

To find a greater understanding of this verse we need to add a little bit of historical context. In Paul's day it was perfectly acceptable for Jews to despise Gentiles (Greeks). Slavery was another acceptable part of life as was looking down on women. Yet, in this one powerful statement Paul casts all of that aside in order to give us a God's-eye view of reality. Christ was sent to die for one and all no matter their race, gender or social status. That alone should convince us of the God given value that we all have. The real question for the Christian is this; if God can see past skin color, etc. why can't we?

The obvious comeback is that "we aren't God." Indeed, we are not and thank goodness! However, in Matthew 5:48 Jesus tells His disciples, Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Now, clearly this is a virtual impossibility in this life. However, that is what sanctification is all about. We admit our weaknesses and allow the Holy Spirit to form us more and more into God's image with each passing day. The fact that we are sinful by nature has never been a satisfactory excuse for continuing in sin. Friends, racism is sin.

Why is racism sin? Simply put it is you saying you are better than someone else simply because of how you were born. Or, on the flip side, someone else is worse than you are simply because of the way they were born. It is a value judgment that we have no right to make. "But Christian, you don't know what so-and-so did to me and they are a such-and-such." You are absolutely correct, I don't know what someone of a particular race as done to you. What I do know is what we, as humans, did to God and His Son Jesus Christ. Yet, He still looks upon us and loves us regardless. Remember, For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). There is no room, not even an iota, for racism within Christianity...none.

One of the other truths about racism is that it is not an isolated problem. It is not just white people who are racist towards black people. It is not just southern people who are racist against Hispanics. It is not just Jews who are racist against Greeks. It can work in any direction. Sadly, in our nation today it appears to me that we are regressing in the efforts made between whites and blacks. Much like my previous post on love it seems that in order to be found innocent of the charge of racism one is required to simply let a person do whatever they want to do if they are of a certain skin color or national origin. If we don't then we are labeled racist without further exploration into our true character.

I ran into some difficulty with this when I was in seminary. It was said, outright, that all white people are racist to some degree, no matter what they think. This was certainly an interesting revelation to me. Can the same be said for African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Europeans, etc? I believe that in order to truly move forward and away from racism we must not assume racism is present in a person. If their character and actions show that they are racist, then cast judgment but not before. Furthermore, the solution to the problem is not preferential treatment based on ethnicity but equal treatment based on the equality that we share before God. Consider the words of our Founding Fathers,

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal...

Again, I point you to Galatians 3:28. When God looks upon us He looks beyond skin color or ethnicity because He is the one who created us all in a variety of ways. Humanity stands as the crowning achievement of God's creation. There is no hierarchy of race. We are all of the human race.

Racism is one of the most heart-breaking problems I see in the world. It hurts because when I look across the landscape of humanity I see billions of people that Christ came to save. He even told us so in the Great Commission. We are to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, not a select few that look like us. The reality is this, heaven will be populated with all kinds of people. When we get there we are not all going to turn into one homogeneous people, there will be the same variety that God created on earth. So I will close with this thought. If we cannot figure out how to get along with people of various colors and ethnicity on earth, we are going to be severely disappointed in the Kingdom. If you think there will not be black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Arab, and so on in heaven you are tragically mistaken. We need to get it right now so we will have had good practice for eternity.

Godspeed,
Christian

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Truth about Love

Photo courtesy of kaniths
It should be no surprise to any of us that love is, perhaps, the most oft quoted attribute of God. This is for good reason. 1 John 4:8 tells us as much, "for God is love." Indeed, one cannot conceive of any other attribute of God without first considering His unending, unconditional love for His creation. God loved enough to create us. He loved enough to give us free will and when we used that free will to disobey Him, He sent His Son, whom He loved, to die in our stead. The Gospels and the message of Jesus are replete with the command to love, not only those who love us, but even those who do not. To try and comprehend God or His Word without looking through the lens of love is the acme of foolishness. However, it has come to my attention that God's love, and our concept of the godly love we are to display, has been tragically perverted over the years.

Recently, I have seen the transformation of godly, biblical love into a love that would never tell someone that which they do not want to hear. That is, if I truly love someone I would never confront them about sin or wrong doing because that, in short, "isn't very nice." Also, if I am to preach and act in love it would never cause division between myself and someone else, or a group of people. My dear friends, if we only take the Gospels into consideration we find that such is not always the case. Furthermore, I believe that if we strip true love of its ability to address sin and transgression we are, at the same time, stripping both the Old and New Testaments of the basis of their power and robbing the good from the news.

Here is the way I see it. Jesus Christ always acted in a loving way. He could do no other. While He was on this earth He ministered to a wide variety of people and showed them the love of the Father one-hundred percent of the time. However, His love was not always received as such. His love for the religious elite of the time required that He address the sin in their lives and the bankruptcy of their religion. This, in the end, led to them calling for His execution. By nature, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is going to be divisive because it meets the sin in our lives head-on. Never will it leave us their hopelessly dangling over the chasm of hell though. As the Gospel hurts us as it cuts away the deep seated patterns and habits in our lives it also heals as it transforms us into new men and women in Christ Jesus.

The Apostle Paul is very clear, along with the rest of the Bible, on what love really is. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 defines it in this way;

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account wrong suffered, does not rejoice is unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Most of us are familiar with that passage and it is often the subject of the homily in a wedding service. The commonly held beliefs about love are certainly present in this definition; kindness, humility, forgiveness, patience, endurance, etc. However, what many people want to pass over are the more unpleasant aspects of this cornerstone attribute. Notice that love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. Love, true love, does not gloss over sin and wrongdoing. It forgives it, but it does not pretend it does not exist. The brand of love that is being sold by the world, and a great number of Christians, is a cheap kind of love. It is cheap because it is more akin to kindness and it is far easier to carry out than godly love. Sometimes the most difficult thing for us to do is tell someone they're wrong. Yet, at the same time it is also one of the most loving things we can do.

Imagine for a moment that we are granted the opportunity that the rich man and Lazarus were given. That is, to see through the great divide between heaven and hell. I wonder how many people will be in hell wishing that someone they knew had not been so "nice" to them by withholding the truth about sin and salvation, and instead had loved them enough to tell it.

I suppose the root of this problem is that there are basically two camps within Christianity. Those who believe the Bible is God's Word and accept it as authoritative, and those who do not. If we say that the Bible is the truth then it is clear that God's love for His people has not always been pleasant. You see, it was because of God's love that He sent Israel into exile so that they could learn to follow and worship Him alone. It was because of God's love for humanity that He offered to withhold His wrath from Sodom and Gomorrah should just a few righteous people be found. God loved Saul so much that He was willing to put him on his back and blind him for three days in order to prove Himself to the future missionary. The ultimate example is, of course, God sending His Son to suffer the punishment that was due to all of us. Needless to say, I doubt Jesus felt very loved as He hung on the cross that day.

I understand that many may disagree with my assessment here. They may say that I preach the love of Christ and then do not show it with my actions because I am willing to make the claim that God calls certain behaviors sin. I say that it is because of my love that I make such claims.

Now I must turn my attention to those who do agree with my definition of love but use it as a weapon of torment and torture rather than a surgeon's scalpel. Just as there are those who cheapen the definition of love by ignoring the truth, there are also those who ignore the compassionate aspects as well. We have seen far too many so-called Christians waving signs with slurs and terms of hatred towards those who are blatantly sinful. While some of what they say may be true the manner in which they say it is far from the grace of Christ. True love understands that we are all sinful and has compassion on those who have not yet experienced the grace, mercy and forgiveness of Christ. True love recognizes that I am only able to love because God first loved me. He does not love me as a result of my personal righteousness or that fact that I am not _____________ (fill in your favorite type of sinner). He loves me because 1) He created me, and 2) because of the Christ in me. Godly love admits that none of us are "lovable" on our own and we are all susceptible to sins of various strains. Knowing that we reach out with the honest, tender love of our Savior.

There are a great number of people who would still call me hateful even after this explanation of my position. For those, I have nothing further because it is not true love that you are after. Why? I believe it is because it is easier and more expedient for you to say that I do not have love than it is for you to deal with truth about it. If you want to fill churches to capacity then that is fine. Continue to tell everyone that God loves them (true) and has no moral standards (false). People will feel soothed and, to them, religion will be serving its purpose as a warm blanket when one is ill. Yes, churches may be filled and public opinion may rise but heaven will be gaining no new citizens and the road to hell will be paved with your good intentions. Finally, you may not think I am very loving, and that is your right. However, I am going to continue to seek the affirmation and guidance of God Almighty and if I can, in some small way, show His brand of love to the world then I will be satisfied.

Godspeed,
Christian

Monday, June 24, 2013

Obsessed with Treasure

Adapted from a sermon given on 23 June 2013.

But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you...For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Luke 12:31,34.

One of the series of movies that I get a great deal of enjoyment out of watching is the Pirates of the Caribbean series. They are fun and, for the most part, family friendly. If you are unfamiliar with the series, it follows the exploits of one Captain Jack Sparrow and his band of misfit pirates as they seek various kinds of treasure and wind up in all sorts of trouble. In the first installment of the series, The Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack Sparrow encounters young Will Turner. Will is a blacksmith's apprentice and has a healthy disdain for all things pirate. What he doesn't realize is that his father was a pirate extraordinaire who sailed with Sparrow on the Black Pearl. It doesn't take long for Jack to realize that this young man is more than meets the eye and finally he confronts Will about his unknown past. During this exchange Jack is listing reasons why he is convinced that Will does, indeed, have pirate blood in him. He had commandeered a ship, sailed with a buccaneer crew and, he says, you're completely obsessed with treasure.

It seems that in the pirate world there is a common bond shared among these rapscallions...they all love treasure of all sorts. The conversation between the two continues;

Will: That's not true. I'm not obsessed with treasure.
Jack: Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate.

Let me tell you, me hearties, this little insight into the minds of pirates has some very deep spiritual implications. In Luke chapter 12 Jesus addresses the issue of greed and the way in which we view material, or earthly, things...possessions. After showing the crowd the wrong kind of treasure to seek and some of the terrible side effects of seeking it, He goes on to share with them the right kind of treasure. In the verse above we see it clear and bold terms, seek His kingdom. This is the treasure we are to seek after with all the obsession of a pirate after gold.

What does it mean to seek His kingdom? Well, the answer is more beautiful than you may realize. In the context of Jesus' ministry on earth, and even up to today, the "kingdom" that is in view is rightly understood as salvation. Now, before you stop reading that think I've gone completely overboard hear me out. In just the past few chapters of the Gospel of Luke Jesus repeatedly spoke about the kingdom of God. In 9:2 and 9:60 Jesus told people to go and proclaim the kingdom of God. In 10:9-11 He told the disciples to tell the people in the towns and villages that they entered that the kingdom of God had come near. In all of these instances the literal kingdom of God (new heaven, new earth, real, physical kingdom) had not actually come to them. What had appeared? The Messiah who offers us salvation and citizenship in the kingdom. John MacArthur helps us out at this point when he says that this;

refers to the sphere of God's dominion over those who belong to Him. The kingdom is now manifest in heaven's spiritual rule over the hearts of believers; and one day it will be established in a literal earthly kingdom. 

You see, first and foremost, the treasure that we are to be seeking is the salvation that Christ offers us. No other treasure could be more appealing. In the verses that follow this directive Jesus lays out for us things that we can do that will become outward evidence that we have found the treasure of salvation.

Sell you possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys.

Here's the kicker. If we have not first sought, and found salvation, then doing these things will ultimately be meaningless. Why? Because you cannot buy, volunteer or work your way into heaven. No matter how much you give to charity, no matter how much time you spend helping those who need help, you cannot earn your place in heaven. It only comes through accepting the free gift of salvation. Seeking the spiritual kingdom of God now (salvation) will ensure that you see the literal kingdom of God later on. You see, as Jack Sparrow points out, not all treasure is silver and gold, mate. 

Now for the real gut-checker question. Are you obsessed with the treasure of God? Can people around you tell that you are a follower of Christ because of your obsession with His treasure? Let me ask this another way. Is it obvious that Christ's salvation and the will and ways of God are at the top of your priority list? One of the saddest perversions of Christianity in our culture is the idea that salvation is something that is completely inward. That is, only God can see the cleansing power of Christ's blood in your life. We have come to believe that God saves us for eternity and not for right now. There is no life change involved in our faith anymore. It is as if we think we have some kind of spiritual retirement account that is only cashed in once we die. This witness of Scripture is clear, when we accept salvation our lives are completely transformed and that takes on some very outward proofs. Suddenly, we begin to invest our time, resources and money in eternal things rather than earthly things. We are no longer self-centered but selfless in our behavior.

Finally, and this is where the analogy between pirates and Christians begins to break down, the treasure of the kingdom of God is not meant to be hoarded. Pirates were famous for finding treasure and then...burying it, right? Such is not the case with the kingdom of God. Once we find it, then we are to share it and when we share it we do so generously because we know that we'll never reach the end of it.

Jesus wraps up His teaching on the treasures by stating,

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This becomes a question for us to consider. Where is your treasure? Is it only on this earth because if it is, that is where your heart is and you are going to miss out on heaven. On the other hand, if we are seeking God's treasure we are told that we will be made heir and co-heirs with Christ in His kingdom. We get eternity with Him but, Jesus also tells us that He will give us life, and life abundantly. Where is your treasure? Where is your heart? Are you obsessed with the kingdom of God, and can people tell?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Great Division

Well, here it is. After a couple of hundred posts I'm finally going to tackle one of the most touchy issues in the Church today...worship styles. Being that this is a blog and it is my blog what you are about to read is my opinion so you are welcome to disagree with it. It seems to me that this debate has been raging for at least ten or fifteen years and it doesn't look like we're in for any relief which is a real shame for God's people. There's the first part of my opinion, as Christians would should be ashamed of ourselves for being so divisive on the issue of worship. In the Gospel of John Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is recorded and one of the things He prays for His followers is unity. Oh that there were unity among the Church!

Though this is an opinion piece I will make every effort to be as even-handed as possible in the discussion and please know that offense is not my goal, truth is. With that in mind I will try to lay out some of the pros and cons of each side of the discussion and some of the arguments made on behalf of both. With no further adieu let's dive in.

Contemporary worship:

I think at the outset it would be wise to offer some kind of definition of "contemporary worship" before going any further. In my mind contemporary worship (we'll call it CW to save some key strokes) is characterized by music that has been written in the past 20 years or so. Typically there are a variety of instruments used from guitars (electric and acoustic) to drums, horns, stringed instruments, etc. Overall the feel is more akin to "pop" music than hymns. Generally speaking, and that is dangerous, this style of music appeals to the younger generations and in that we find one of the primary arguments for it's use. It is no news that the Church has been declining and we are losing a huge number of students during or after high school. It follows that something needs to be done to retain them as viable members of the Body of Christ. Enter CW styles.

The arguments has been made that younger people simply don't get much out of the more traditional forms of worship. It is seen as dry, emotionless and just plain old-fashioned. Thus, if CW appeals to them then that is what should be implemented to retain their interest and involvement in the worship of Christ. This, to me, is a perfectly valid argument. I would also say that many times worshipers get the feeling that the Holy Spirit is more free to move in a contemporary setting, there is no set number of verses and the participants are not required to focus on holding a hymnal in order to follow the flow of the music. However, this could also be the case with traditional hymns.

In searching through some of the Psalms it is clear that making music to the Lord was meant to be a multi-instrument affair. Psalm 33:2-3 says this;

Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; Sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings. Sing to Him and new song; play skillfully with a shout of joy.

It is important to note that David, who wrote many of the Psalms, was primarily concerned with making a joyful noise to the Lord. Remember, this is the same guy who case aside all his pride and danced before the Lord as the ark of the covenant entered Jerusalem. Obviously David was not a Baptist! The argument could be made that a piano is nothing more than a harp turned on it's side and hammered rather than plucked therefore it is the more biblical instrument. However, I think that would be an unfortunate interpretation of Scripture. When I see a contemporary praise team using all manner of instruments to make music to the Lord I see a group of people with diverse talent using it to praise the Almighty. If we truly believe that God grants people skills, talents and gifts then to deny their deployment in worship would be tragic and borderline sinful.

Traditional worship:

Again, a definition is in order here. I would say that traditional worship (TW for our purposes today) is characterized by hymns and the use of a minimum of instruments, usually a piano and/or an organ. Generally speaking these hymns were written no sooner than, say, fifty years ago. These are the songs "we all grew up with." Though these appeal to older generations I have to number myself as one who loves the traditional hymns (I'm a Millennial).

The positive aspects of TW need not be minimized. If we found ourselves in a position where Bibles were outlawed but we still had access to good hymnals we would have a large portion of the Scriptures at our disposal. The important theological doctrines of sin, salvation, the might and power of God, grace, community and so many more are all expressed through the great, old hymns. Let me offer the example of one of the most popular and powerful hymns of the past two centuries, "It is Well With My Soul."

The overarching theme of this hymn is contentment in Christ, "whatever my lot." The attacks of the enemy are discussed in the second verse along with the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Verse three deals with sin further and assures us that all of it has been "nailed to the cross and I bear it no more." Finally, we have the crescendo of verse four in which we take supreme joy knowing that the day will arrive when "the faith shall be sight, the clouds will be rolled back as a scroll, the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend." In four simple verses we have a nearly complete picture of the Christian life and God's plan of redemption taking us from the cross to the glorious return of Christ. No doubt, this is theology put to music.

In so many of the older, more traditional hymns the majestic beauty of God and His plan are reflected in the words and phrases of the song. There is no doubt in my mind that should these incredible songs be lost forever, we would be in a sad state. Though it is beginning to change, ten years ago it was hard to find this kind of deep theological truth in CW songs.

Some conclusions:

If we really tear the argument over contemporary versus traditional down to brass tacks most of the time preference is the leading cause for disagreement. The reality is that the average pew-warmer doesn't give a rat's behind about the lyrics or how correct they are. What they want is the music that suits their taste. Again, this is an overly general statement because I've spoken with a few proponents of TW that honestly think that the theology of CW is not as strong. That's the kind of argument I like, one that is meaningful. However, in my experience these people are few and far between. Lest you think I'm harping on traditionalists unfairly, the same can be said for those who favor CW. "Well, I just don't like the way hymns sound. They're boring." Well, have you taken the time to consider the message because that is really the core of worship anyway?

It is my belief that God, being God, can move through any style of music as long as two things are present.

1. Lyrics that express His truth. There is no way God is going to honor bad doctrine in song. He doesn't honor it any other place so putting a catchy tune to bad theology isn't going to bring Him glory and honor.

2. The heart of a worshiper that is prepared to exalt God. We're not dealing with witchcraft here. You can sing "How Great Thou Art" and not mean it just as much as you can sing "Our God is Greater" and not mean it. The words and music don't make worship happen, a heart pouring itself out to God does.

Listen to what Jesus tells His followers in John 4:23-24, But and hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.  The two aforementioned prerequisites for worship are clearly seen in these verses; His truth and a willing spirit.

The thing we must consider for ourselves is this, what brings us real joy in worship? If it is the tune or rhythm that we love we may as well be listening to, and singing secular songs. However, if it is the truth of God we are after and finding words to express our deepest feelings of worship then the tune shouldn't make that much of a difference. Now, I freely admit that style does play a role in how we feel the Spirit move. That is just a fact. However, what I long to see is people who are freed to worship God with all of their heart. It would bring me great joy to hear people say, "I don't really like the sound of the contemporary music but the message sure is great and it is reaching many people." I'd also love to hear someone say, "Those old hymns aren't exactly my style but they sure do have some great truth in them and I can appreciate that."

The bottom line:

The sad reality is that the bulk of the argument over contemporary and traditional worship has nothing to do with one being right and one being wrong. I think if the Church began to see that what we're really talking about is preference then we might be able to move forward and reach people for Christ. Furthermore, there was a day when what we now call "traditional" was contemporary. These songs were not handed down to mankind from God. They were written in time and space. I don't know for sure, but I often wonder if Isaac Watts caught a bunch of flack for writing contemporary songs. Likewise, there will come a day when the contemporary songs of today will be traditional and we'll be right back at square one.

Finally, I truly believe that there is a place for both TW and CW styles of worship. The fact is, they do speak to different groups of people in special ways and we need to recognize and honor that. However, the debate needs to stop. It is unhealthy and is doing nothing but hamstringing the Church from being about the real business of reaching people for Christ. We must ask ourselves every day; "What is more important to me, hearing something I like, or seeing someone come in contact with Jesus Christ.?"

Godspeed,
Christian

*Photo courtesy of "arte ram." Downloaded from stock.xchng.com