Three Reasons to Pray…

We all pray. Admittedly, it may only be in times of crisis when we have no other option, or even before we realize that’s what we’ve done, but we all still pray. Carrie Underwood sang a song that illustrates the point—Jesus Take the Wheel. The song is about a women driving on Christmas Eve when she loses control and she cries out, “Jesus take the wheel.” She is spared a horrible accident and thanks the Lord. She then tells Jesus to take the wheel of her life. It is a powerful song, and it illustrates that we are more prone to praying than not. There is, however, a great difference in that momentary crisis prayer, and the prayer that changes the world. That’s the type of prayer Jesus prayed, and that’s the type of prayer the disciples wanted to pray when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Jesus prayed earth-shattering, life-changing prayers, and we can, too.

That raises the question, “Why pray?” Why should we, as disciples of Jesus, make prayer a regular part of our lives? If I see prayer as another duty to add to an already overcommitted schedule, then I won’t pray? If I see prayer as a waste of time because we see so few answers to prayer, then I won’t pray? If I see prayer as something for other, more religious people, then I will never pray. If I see prayer as something to be done only in emergencies, then I’ll only pray in emergencies, and I’ll never know the power of life-changing prayer. Prayer is more than a duty. Prayer is more than looking for answers to problems and struggles, and prayer is more than being religious.

I know of three reasons (there are many more, but in the interest of time…). I see the three reasons exemplified in the life of Jesus in an encounter recorded in Luke’s Gospel called the “transfiguration:”

28 About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. 31 They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and the others had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 34 But even as he was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them as the cloud covered them. 35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” 36 When the voice finished, Jesus was there alone. They didn’t tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

Jesus is on Mt. Hermon with his inner circle of Peter, James and John, and there on the smoke-covered mountain, they entered the presence of God. This encounter reminds us of the time in the Old Testament when a prophet named Moses (who appeared here with Jesus) went up to the mountain to see a bush that was not consumed and there he discovered he was on holy ground in the presence of God.

Elijah, likewise, was whisked away into heaven on a whirlwind by a flaming chariot to stand in the presence of God. We could get lost in the symbolism of God and the mountain. It is rich symbolism, indeed. Lost in the symbolism would be the detail that is so important in understanding why we pray. The first reason why we pray is because prayer brings us into the presence of God.

Into God’s Presence

God wants an intimate relationship with us. God wants with us the type of relationship he shared with Jesus—a parent/child relationship. He wants to watch us grow, and he wants to give us the best that he has to offer, but we have to embrace that relationship, and we can only do that as we enter into his presence, and prayer brings us into his presence.

God invites us deeper in and higher up. Like our relationship with our children, we love it when they ask us for things. The very fact that our children ask us for things enhances and deepens our relationship with them because it shows their trust in us and their dependence on us. P. T. Forsythe said it this way, “Love loves to be told what it already knows…it wants to be asked for what it longs to give.” Prayer takes us deeper in and higher up in our relationship with the Father.

Prayer places us on the mountain of God’s presence even in the midst of the daily, ordinary circumstances of our lives. The discovery of God lies in the daily and the ordinary because that is where we live most of our lives. We don’t live on the mountain, and though Jesus went to the mountain, and was on the mountain when he entered God’s presence, it was Jesus’ prayer that brought him into God’s presence, not his position. Our prayer brings us into God’s presence. Our prayer takes us to the mountain in the midst of daily and ordinary struggles.

Jacqueline was an elderly woman who lived to take care of her daughter, who was wheelchair bound. When her daughter died, Jacqueline lost her purpose in life and her living companion. Most of her time was spent in oppressive solitude because all her friends were also dead, and her own health was failing, too.

One day, Jaqueline opened her bible to Philippians 4:5, and four words stuck in her mind: “The Lord is near.” Jaqueline thought, “If that is true, then I should be more aware of it.”

“Lord,” she prayed, “I’m going to pretend you’re here all the time. No, forgive me. There is no pretending to be done. I’m going to visualize you really are here. Help me remind myself of the reality of your presence.”

Jaqueline began to pray that very night. “Lord, I’m going to bed now. Will you watch over me as I sleep?” When she would sit down for a cup of tea, she would read through Philippians 4 again, underlining verse 5, and she would pray. At noon, she said, “Lord, let’s watch the news so you can show me what to pray for. They watched the news and she prayed for flood victims, and a new African president, and a man sentenced to life in prison. At supper, she prayed and thanked the Lord for her food, but she wasn’t praying to someone distant. She was talking to someone sitting across the table from her. Little by little, her attitude was transformed. The loneliness lessened, her joy increased, her fears diminished, and she never again felt she was alone in the house. Her prayers kept her in the presence of God. 

Why pray? Because prayer brings us into the presence of God.

A Change in Us

A second reason we pray? Prayer changes us. As Jesus prayed, his countenance was changed. He was transfigured in the presence of God the Father, and in the sight of Peter, James and John (even though they almost slept through it). The glory of God shone all around him and was reflected in him as he prayed. Now, I’m not suggesting that our prayers will reveal the divine nature within us the way it did Jesus that day, but in prayer we catch a glimpse of God’s glory, and God’s glory will be reflected through us to the lives of those around us.

One reason we don’t pray like we should is because we’re simply not prepared to change. How does prayer change us? First, prayer changes us in our relationship to God. We view God in different ways. Sometimes we have no relationship with God. God is just someone or something out there somewhere, but that knowledge has no impact on how we live our lives. God is simply the philosophical first cause, but little more. Yeah, He’s God, but so what?

Others may see God in a relationship of fear. We project our understanding of humanity onto God. Like, God is the big score-keeper in the sky, or judge on the bench. We are limited in our ability to be in a relationship with God because we’re afraid of Him. Who dares confess to the judge? He might condemn us. Or, who would tell the score-keeper we committed an error? That might cost us a run, or a basket, and we’d lose the game. Prayer allows God, through His Word and Holy Spirit to bring us into a deeper understanding of His true nature. Prayer confirms that God is love, and that God really does love us.

But, prayer also changes us in relation to ourselves. Like Carrie Underwood’s song reminds us, there are times we learn to depend on God, and we can do nothing else. Here are the words:

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can’t do this on my own
I’m letting go
So give me one more chance
Save me from this road I’m on…

We learn our true nature in prayer. We learn of our need for forgiveness. We learn self-denial. We learn God’s will, and we are able, through the Holy Spirit, to adjust our lives to God’s truth. Prayer changes us in relation to ourselves, and sometimes that’s just not a change we’re willing to make.

We also see that prayer changes us in relation to others. Prayer brings an awareness of the great need for salvation and redemption throughout God’s creation. If we don’t see the needs around us, it might be because we’re not praying. We pray because prayer changes us.

Blessed Assurance

Finally, a third reason we should pray? Prayer brings assurance. Jesus was beginning the final leg on a long journey toward the cross. This time of prayer confirmed for Jesus that he was in the Father’s will, and brought assurance that God was with him on the journey.

You and I need assurance, too. We face the uncertainty of life, and we all know that life can pose questions that are unanswerable, but in prayer, we hear God say to us that hope is not found in the temporal circumstances that overwhelm us, but in the eternal love and grace of God.

The reasons we should pray are as limitless as God’s love and grace, and with these three reasons to pray we have only scratched the surface of the benefits and joys that come through prayer, so it leads to the question, “Why don’t we pray?”

Evangelist John Rice tells a dream he once had. He said, “I once imagined I was in heaven. Walking along with the Angel Gabriel, I said, ‘Gabe, what is the big building over there?’”

“You’ll be disappointed,” he answered. “I don’t think you want to see it.”

Rice said he was insistent until Gabriel relented, and proceeded to show him floor after floor of beautiful gifts, all wrapped and ready to be sent.

“Gabriel,” Rice asked, “What are all these gifts?”

Gabriel replied, “We wrapped all the beautiful gifts for people, but they were never delivered because they were never requested.”

We don’t live in God’s presence because we don’t ask. We don’t change because we don’t ask. We don’t have assurance of hope and life because we don’t ask.

God’s presence, transformation and assurance. I can’t think of three better reasons to pray.

If you’d like to watch the message from which this blog was taken, you can do so by clicking here.

Until next time, keep looking up…

First Things First…

One great thing about celebrating the new year (other than the fact that it’s no longer 2020) is that every new year provides the opportunity to reassess and reprioritize those things in life that matter most. A new year provides a new opportunity to get right that which may not have been so right in the past. Every new year I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5: 17– “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

Hoping not to squander the opportunity the new year affords to begin again, it is helpful for me to reflect on the priorities of my life. When I think about priorities I can help but consider what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6: 25 – 34, NIV)

I am reminded that life is not so much about priorities, but about a priority, and that priority is to know God in all His fulness. Every other element of life will reorder itself around that priority and enable us to determine what is important.

Person

Because THE priority in life is to know God in all His fulness, it reminds me that I am first a person. I am a person made in the image of God, and if I am to experience the best that life has to offer, I must first and foremost nurture my relationship with Christ. My relationship to Christ is the most important relationship in my life. My personhood, my sanity, my success at any other endeavor depends upon how faithfully that relationship is maintained and allowed to grow.

It was Blaise Pascal, who in his seminal work Pensees, wrote, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

One of the ways I seek to fill this “infinite abyss” with God Himself is through the practice of writing a blog. It used to be called journaling back in the pre-internet days. Oh, I still journal. There are some things that are much too intimate to share on the internet, and there are moments that it’s as if I hear the Lord say, “Let’s keep this between you and me.” Journaling/blogging is one of the ways I pray, and prayer is the essential discipline by which we may know Christ and are known by Him.

Journaling as an exercise in prayer doesn’t work for everyone, but everyone must pray. I encourage you to find the way that best fits your personality so that you might nurture your relationship with Jesus. In this tech world in which we live, rather than allowing our smartphone to be a distraction, why not use it to help us learn to pray? Try loading a prayer app (here are twelve suggestions) on your phone as the new year begins.

You and I will never be our best without first deepening our relationship with the Lord. Seeking the Kingdom begins there, or it begins not at all.

Partner

Following closely behind my own personhood is the priority I define in being a partner in life with Vanessa. 2021 will mark 40 years of marriage for she and I, and behind my relationship with Jesus, this is the most important relationship of my life. This is as it should be since it is the relationship of a husband and wife that the Lord has chosen to demonstrate the relationship He has with His Church (Ephesians 5: 21 – 33). If the world will know how much Christ loves the Church, it will be because husbands and wives exhibit sacrificial, serving love toward one another. Might I suggest the world hasn’t seen quite enough of that in a long, long time.

That’s certainly not meant as a pat on the back to Vanessa and me. The Lord knows she’s endured a lot being married to me, for you see, I’ve not been the perfect husband, but we have been intentional in having date nights and sharing afternoon coffee together and praying together daily. Each of those activities nurture intimacy that allows the relationship to grow.

For the married folks among us, I challenge you to define ways in which you might give yourself more fully to deepening your relationship with your spouse. Plan a monthly date night. Plan a romantic weekend getaway once a year. Here’s a suggestion that will test the mettle of your relationship–do a family budget together (if you don’t already). More divorces occur because of fights about money than any other issue, but by planning a family budget together, you’ll open lines of communication that may not have been opened in years.

For the single folks who may be reading, may I encourage you to offer yourself and your time in service to the Lord and His church? That might be the very gift you have to give that brings you the most joy in life, and until such time as you feel led to marry (if ever), you can consider that Christ is your spouse.

Parent

Behind the relationship I have with Vanessa as a partner is my relationship with my children as a parent (and now a grandparent). May I encourage you to take a lesson from an old man who didn’t do things quite correctly the first time? I was a second-career pastor, and as such, always felt like I was behind my peers in the pursuit of ministry (and education and position), so that feeling only stoked my competitive nature to “catch up” on all that I was behind on. I needed to “get ahead” and be “successful” in ministry. That mentality led me to a season of pastoral burnout, and it also led me to neglect my children in the process. Those are years I can’t get back. I can only be intentional now in deepening those all too important relationships.

Oh, and grandchildren! If I had known grandchildren were going to be so much fun, I would have skipped the children and went straight to grandchildren. Okay, not really! But, if I had known grandchildren were this much fun, I’d have been nicer to their parents!

Seriously, though, these relationships are so vitally important because they are the means whereby we pass on the faith once entrusted to us. Seeking first the Kingdom of God is to nurture our children (and grandchildren) in the fear and the admonition of the Lord. When we, as Wesleyans, bring our children forward for baptism, we vow that by our teaching and example we will guide our children to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly and to lead a Christian life. We cannot expect the Church to do for our children (and grandchildren) what we are not doing for them at home.

Pastor

Finally, I order my life around my relationship as pastor to many. I am blessed to pastor a wonderful small group of people in The House Church Movement. We are a small group of folks who are intentionally seeking to live as deeper disciples of Jesus Christ, exploring a model that is rooted deeply in the New Testament and the early church.

The truth I have discovered over 30 years of vocational ministry is that I cannot be an effective pastor if I have neglected the other primary relationships in my life. I can’t be with them until I’ve been with Him. I can’t effectively share with a congregation what I have not personally experienced myself, and if those in a congregation are to know the love and power of God, it will be because I have experienced it in my own life, and am sharing out of an overflowing cup.

Congregations, give your pastors time away to be with the Lord. You’ll be the better for it. Give your pastors time away to be with their families. You’ll be the better for it. Insist your pastor takes his/her day off. Insist your pastor takes his/her vacation. Budget spiritual growth opportunities in the pastoral compensation package of the pastor. You’ll be the better for it. Give the pastor a love offering to take his/her family on vacation. You’ll be the better for it, AND you’ll be seeking the Kingdom of God first.

Author Stephen Covey wrote a fantastic book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #3 is “Put first things first.” In essence, this habit is about taking all the abstract beliefs and ideas we say we have and making them practical by ordering our lives around them. Saying that we seek the Kingdom of God first is an abstract. How we order our lives makes seeking the Kingdom concrete.

Covey would flesh out habit #3 in a follow up book entitled First Things First. In that book, Covey introduced the analogy of the rocks and jars (click here to watch the video) in which a person has a pile of sand and small rocks, a pile of big rocks, and a jar into which you must put both piles. The person filled the jar first with the sand/small rocks and discovered that they took up so much space that they ultimately didn’t have room for the big rocks. They discovered instead to first fill the jar with big rocks, and then put in the sand and small rocks; the sediment will settle in the cracks of the big rocks, allowing everything to fit in from both piles.

To seek the Kingdom of God first means we put that big, big rock in the jar first, and then everything else will fit in around it. As a person, as a partner, as a parent and as a pastor, my life must be ordered around the priority of the Kingdom.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other important parts of life. In the first century agrarian economy in which Jesus spoke the words above in the Sermon on the Mount, his listeners were deeply concerned with having their daily needs met. It (literally) was a matter of life and death. They didn’t have the Wal-Mart to run down to everyday to get dinner. Yet, Jesus could tell them, just as he tells us that our first priority in a Kingdom economy is to seek Him, and He will insure all of life’s needs are met.

So, that leaves only one question: How will you order your lives? Let me encourage you to put first things first.

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Different Kind of Christmas…

This Christmas promises to be different than any other in our memories. We can thank COVID-19 for that. For many people, there were no office Christmas parties (although some probably celebrated that!), and for others there will be no family gatherings for the first time…well, in forever. For so many churches, there will be no in-person Christmas Eve service, no Christmas Eve candlelight, no Silent Night, no lighting of the Christ candle. Sure, there will be on-line attempts, but those on-line attempts won’t capture the beauty or the atmosphere of God’s people gathered to worship on a high, holy occasion. It will just be a different kind of Christmas this year. I suppose that’s the very reason we need Christmas now more than ever!

We need Christmas now more than ever because this has just been such a year…such a few years, I should say. Let’s see…in 2020…there’s been a pandemic, and because of it, lots of death–physical death, to be sure, but also the death of businesses, jobs, livelihoods and families. Oh, and don’t forget the 2020 hurricane season was a record breaker, too. Here in Louisiana, we took the brunt of five named storms (a record), and damage from two of those storms were felt in parts of the state rarely impacted by hurricanes (yep, my house took a tree). We also can’t forget the 2020 election cycle, can we? Whether you like the outcome or not, you do have to like the fact that it’s finally behind us. As I reflect on both the pandemic and the election season, I’m reminded of the joke that Santa said he was no longer making a naughty and nice list because he can no longer tell the difference. Yeah, we need Christmas now more than ever!

An Old Testament Christmas

We need Christmas now more than ever because we need hope now more than ever. What is Christmas but hope? It was the hope of Christmas that the prophet Isaiah captured some 700 years before the birth of Jesus in a manger. The passage from his prophecy has become a classic Christmas passage:

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
    a light will shine.
You will enlarge the nation of Israel,
    and its people will rejoice.
They will rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest
    and like warriors dividing the plunder.
For you will break the yoke of their slavery
    and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders.
You will break the oppressor’s rod,
    just as you did when you destroyed the army of Midian.
The boots of the warrior
    and the uniforms bloodstained by war
will all be burned.
    They will be fuel for the fire.

For a child is born to us,
    a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
    And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
    will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
    for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    will make this happen!
(Isaiah 9: 2 – 7 NLT)

Writing most likely from Jerusalem, Isaiah looked around at the nation and saw a world in darkness. He saw government and religious corruption. Sound familiar? He saw the poor and widows and orphans mistreated. Hmm? Sound familiar? He saw a general lack of respect of the people for one another. Sound really familiar? In short, Isaiah saw people who had turned their backs on God and were without hope, and that caused darkness. It was not a literal darkness, but a spiritual one. His promise (and hope) was that a light would shine, and all who lived in darkness would see it. The light would bring hope…the hope of God’s salvation.

I am reminded by the prophet’s words, and by Christmas itself, that my hope is not in the movers and shakers of this world, but in the promised Savior that is announced at Christmas…our Lord, Jesus Christ. We need Christmas because we need the light of Christ shining among us. Yes, it will be a different kind of Christmas, but a different kind of Christmas can’t diminish the light that comes because it is still Christmas.

The Light of the World

The Light will always be here. The Light will never go away. But people who are in sin or despair sit in darkness, and cannot see the Light. That’s why we need Christmas now more than ever, and that’s why we must be people of hope now more than ever.

John, in his gospel, tells us Jesus is the Light, and even Jesus said He was the light of the world (John 8:12). But, I remind us that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus told His disciples, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus is the true Light from heaven, but John reminds us that we are witnesses of the Light. And, we are, aren’t we? Even if we can’t gather as the body of Christ, we are still the light of the world, unless of course, we simply gathered because we wanted to feel good about ourselves. No, we gathered because we’re witnesses to the Light. The worst thing in the world (and for the world) that can happen is for us to not live in the hope of Christmas even though it will be a different kind of Christmas this year. This year of all years, we must carry the testimony of Christmas into a dark, hurting world.

The world is longing for light, like we long for that candle on a dark, stormy night. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8:

19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. 22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. 24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. (Romans 8: 19-24 NLT)

Paul’s words remind us that we, too, are longing for the light. Yes, we’ve caught the glimpse…we’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel…but, our bones ache in different ways the older we get, and they remind us that all is not right just yet. We are reminded that we, too, struggle with sin and that darkness threatens us on a daily basis. Especially, this time of year, when we think everything should be perfect, and we strive for perfection, that something is bound to go wrong, and we are tempted to lose hope ourselves. But, the world needs us to live in hope because it’s still Christmas.

There was a youth group at a church that was performing a living nativity. Joseph and Mary and all the other characters were ready and in their places. They did their parts with seriousness and commitment, looking as pious as they possibly could. It came time for the shepherds to enter. Dressed in flannel bathrobes with towels for turbans, the shepherds proceeded to the altar steps where Mary and Joseph looked earnestly at the straw, which contained a single naked light bulb that played the part of the glowing newborn Jesus.

With his back to the congregation, one of the shepherds said to the little boy playing Joseph (in a very loud whisper for all the cast to hear), “Well, Joe, when are you gonna’ pass out cigars?”

The solemn moment was not simply broken by his remark, it exploded. Mary and Joseph’s cover was completely destroyed as it became impossible to hold back the bursts of laughter. The chief angel, standing on a chair behind them shook so hard in laughter that she fell off her chair and took the curtain back drop and all the rest of the props down with her. She just kept rolling around on the floor holding her stomach because she was laughing so hard. The whole set was in shambles.

Amazingly, the only thing that did not go to pieces was the light bulb in the manger. It never stopped shining. Friends, that baby in the manger is the light of our world, even when our world is in shambles, for in that light the divine and the human cross paths. Jesus is our living, breathing sign of hope, and the immeasurable love that God has had for all of us from the very beginning. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16 KJV).

Yes, it will be a different kind of Christmas…but, it’s still Christmas!

Until next time, keep looking up…

“Joy” to the World…

You can’t have Christmas without lights AND you can’t have Christmas without music. The two go together, as Forrest Gump would say, “Like peas and carrots.” Some homeowners these days are even investing in the electronics necessary to make the lights on their homes dance to the music of the season (Clark Griswold would be so jealous).

Songs of the Season

The songs of the season (at least the religious ones) share a common theme. We sing “Joy to the World, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King.” The words of Psalm 96 and its companion Psalm 98 are reflected in Isaac Watts masterful creation that remains the most published Christian hymn in North America. Joy to the World is not the only song that carries the same theme. Listen to Charles Wesley’s great hymn:

  • Hark the herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!
    Peace on earth and mercy mild
    God and sinners reconciled”
    Joyful, all ye nations rise
    Join the triumph of the skies
    With the angelic host proclaim:
    “Christ is born in Bethlehem”
    Hark! The herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!”
  • And, the refrain from O Come, O Come Emmanuel proclaims: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
  • Can we forget O Come All Ye Faithful? Doesn’t it say how we’re supposed to come? “Joyful and triumphant.”
  • And, of course, there is the magnificent Angels from the Realms of Glory:

Angels we have on heard high, Sweetly singing ore the plains, And the mountains in reply, Echoing their joyous strains

Each of the songs of the season echo exactly what the Psalmist sang in Psalm 96:11 – 13…

11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
    Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
12 Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
    Let the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he is coming!

This is the “joyous” season, but there is a bit of a hollow ring each year at Christmas when we speak of joy. Christmas is, for many, the saddest time of the year. Many people find the stress of the holiday season overwhelming. Others battle depression, social isolation and loneliness. Still others are grieving the loss of a loved one. And, in this year of Covid-19, songs of joy, and smiling faces, and parties and gifts and such don’t really mean that much when no one really knows what Christmas gatherings will look like, or you’re living on the street in a cardboard box, or in a shelter with just the clothes on your back.

Chippie

There are, in fact, many people having a “Chippie” moment right now. You know who “Chippie” is, right? Max Lucado, in his book In the Eye of the Storm tells Chippie’s story. It all began when Chippie’s owner decided to clean out his cage with a vacuum. She stuck the nozzle into the cage to clean up the bottom of the cage. Suddenly the phone rang. She reached for the phone with her free hand and not realizing it, her hand holding the nozzle rose slowly upward and sucked Chippie into the vacuum cleaner. Realizing what she had done, she dropped the phone and turned off the vacuum. 

With her heart in her mouth, she opened the vacuum bag to rescue poor Chippie. Chippie was stunned and covered head to foot with gray dust, but thankfully he was still alive. She grabbed him and rushed him to the bathtub, turned on the cold water full blast and held him under the water giving him a power washing. Then it dawned on her that Chippie was soaking wet and shivering, so she did what any compassionate pet-owner would do. She snatched up the blow dryer and blasted him with hot air.

You may be wondering if Chippie survived all this. Yes, he did, but Lucado says, Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore. He mostly just sits there in his cage eyeing the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept. Being sucked up, washed out, and blown over has stolen the joy from his heart.

There are a lot of people in the world living their “Chippie” moment this Christmas—maybe even a few reading this today. My prayer for you is that you will find joy this season.

Joy vs. Happiness

Don’t confuse joy with happiness, though. The two are not the same. Yes, joy can bring happiness, but happiness is too dependent upon what happens to us, and what happens to us is not always bright and wonderful. Sometimes, life happens to us, and life can be unkind. Joy abides in spite of what happens because joy is a gift, and the gift is Jesus Christ. He is our joy!

See, it works like this. While the happenings of life may not be “good news,” word of a Savior is “good news.” As a matter of fact, it’s the Gospel. There is One who came to deliver us from the brokenness of this world. There is One who came to give us strength. There is One who came to offer hope, to bring peace, and to show us love. That One is Jesus Christ, and to a person living the chippie moments of life, the realization that life will not always be like this brings its own joy. 

When we encounter Jesus, either in a manger, or on the cross, or risen in victory over death, joy captures us, and it causes us to worship. We get a glimpse of the glory and greatness of God, and joy captures us. Joy captures us when we see God’s promises fulfilled. Joy captures us when we experience God’s presence in new and life-changing ways. Oh, no, my friends! We can’t find joy! Joy finds us in the gift that is Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul knew that joy finds us because it found him. Paul was a “chippie.” He had been stripped of everything, locked in a cold, dark, and wet prison cell, and had even been sentenced to die. And he sits down to write his friends in Philippi. “Yep, I’m in prison, again. This time sentenced to die, and oh, by the way, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again rejoice!” From a cold, dark prison cell Paul writes a brief letter and mentions joy ten times! TEN TIMES!

How can Paul do that? He doesn’t have anything to be joyful about. His life is on the line, he is cold, wet, and tired, he has no freedom, has no shiny car with a bright red ribbon waiting for him in the driveway, no limited time diamond earring and necklace sale to take advantage of, no latest computer game or smartphone to occupy his time. He is parted from family and friends, and can’t take a single bit of joy from a job well done because well, being in prison has put his flourishing church-planting career on hold.

Yet over and over again, Paul brings up joy. Somehow he got it into his head, that you don’t need all that stuff to have joy. Even his earthly life being in jeopardy could not part him from joy. For Paul, joy doesn’t come from the world. It comes from God. God is the giver of true joy. God is the giver of a peace that passes all understanding. And, it doesn’t come from something we buy. It comes from something freely given—a person, Jesus Christ. Paul’s great joy was his assurance from God. He knew that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is through Christ Jesus our Lord. We, too, have this great joy.

This truth is, of course, summed up in a song. My favorite, and I believe the song that captures the heart of Christmas as well as any other is O Holy Night. Take a listen:

Oh holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!


Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

The light of joy is Jesus Christ. Lights and music. They are peas and carrots, indeed!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Sometimes, I Just Need Reminding…

The holidays are upon us yet again, and for that I am grateful. Not only is it the best time of the year, but this year, it indicates that 2020 is almost over! If there’s ever been a time when I couldn’t wait for a year to be over it’s this year. Of course, there is no way I’m going to say 2021 has to be a better year. That will jinx it for sure, so I’ll just stick with “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over!”

The holidays usually have their own unique stressors, but 2020 (as with everything else) will be unique in that the usual stress will be compounded by the added stress of Covid-19. Rather than the stress of parties and plans, it will be the stress (depression?) of canceled plans. If we follow the “guidelines,” we’ll all have a Zoom Christmas this year. I must confess that I’m grateful to not have the stress of making decisions about Christmas Eve services. I pray for my colleagues who are!

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on Pexels.com

So, I’m taking a little time this morning to remind myself of advice I’ve offered believers almost every year for the past twenty years. I find the advice in Paul’s love letter to the Church at Philippi. The encouragement he offers the Church there is encouragement to me as we head into the holiday season, and it actually works pretty well the rest of the year, too.

THINK TO THANK

Paul begins his letter to Philippi with gratitude: “Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God” (Phil. 1:3). Gratitude seems like an appropriate place to begin the holiday season. If you’ve been in the local stores, you would think that Thanksgiving has been skipped this year. Hey? We’re doing it at home, too. People put up their Christmas trees and lights in October in an effort to hasten the year’s end. Trust me! It didn’t get here any quicker.

Let’s not forget to be thankful…even for the year 2020. Gratitude can set the tone (change the tone?) for all that is happening in our lives. Even in the midst of a pandemic there is much for which to be grateful. What can we be grateful fo? I’m glad you asked. We can look to Paul for an answer.

First, we can be grateful that we are not alone (even though “officials” are encouraging limited gatherings). Paul called the Philippians “partners in spreading the Good News” (v. 5). We need to acknowledge and express our gratitude for those who share the life of Christian faith with us. We, indeed, are not alone.

One of the buzz phrases of the pandemic (although we don’t hear it as much lately) has been “We’re all in this together” (though an argument could be made that we’re not “together” [see here]). We all do share the same stress of the pandemic, that much is true, so in that regard we are not alone. But, as believers in Jesus Christ, our faith journey is shared with other believers, and there is hope in that for us, and we should be grateful.

Ironically, the holidays are the loneliest time of the year for many people. Whether the death of a loved one, a divorce or the empty nest syndrome, a first holiday season with changed circumstances can create its own type of loneliness (and it will be made worse by the pandemic). We are the body of Christ, and we have the body of Christ (even in a pandemic) to share life with. We are not alone!

Of course, that means we shouldn’t let others be alone either. We should look for ways to reach out to those who may be experiencing loneliness this holiday season. Perhaps it’s the neighbor who lost a spouse this year. Perhaps it’s a friend who has gone through a divorce, or a parent who lost a child. Whoever it may be, discover ways (yes, even in a pandemic) to reach out to share hope and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Another thing for which I can be grateful is that God is still working on me. Paul writes to the Philippians, “And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again” (v. 6). That’s Good News! I can’t read this verse and not consider a Wesleyan understanding of “sanctifying” grace. It simply means “God is still working on me!” (Some would say He’s got a lot of work to do, but that’s another blog!)

Here’s something I consider, too. If God is not done with me yet, then there’s a better than even chance that He’s not done with whomever I encounter this holiday season. When I’m impatient with a cashier, I need remember that they are in need of grace, too. Why shouldn’t it be me who will extend them that grace, and in the process the Lord may teach us both something?

Yes, I need to think to thank…

LIVE TO LOVE

Paul’s love for the Philippian Church was evident in his letter. He writes:  God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus. I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding (v. 8-9).

I am reminded of the Christmas hymn Love Came Down at Christmas. It was love that came down so that Jesus could give his disciples a new commandment–love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12). The point is made vividly in a prayer I came across some time ago:

Heavenly  Father, Help us remember that the jerk who cut  us off in traffic last night is a single mother who worked nine hours that day and is rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the  laundry and spend a few precious moments with  her children.

Help  us to remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young man who can’t make change  correctly is a worried 19-year-old college student, balancing his apprehension over final exams with his fear of not getting his student loans for next semester.

Remind us, Lord, that the scary looking bum, begging  for money in the same spot every day (who really ought to get a job!) is a slave to addiction that we can only imagine in our worst  nightmares.

Help  us to remember that the old couple walking  annoyingly slow through the store aisles and  blocking our shopping progress are savoring this moment, knowing that, based on the biopsy report she got back last week, this will be the last  year that they go shopping together.

Heavenly  Father, remind us each day that, of all the  gifts you give us, the greatest gift is love. It is not enough to share that love with those we hold dear. Open our hearts not to just those who are close to us, but to all humanity. Let us be slow to judge and quick to forgive, show patience, empathy and love.

May I live to love this holiday season.

COMMIT TO CHRIST-LIKENESS

For the believer in Jesus Christ, character matters. Paul reminds the Philippians (and us) “what really matters, so that we may live pure and blameless lives” (v. 10). Lord knows, we are not perfect, but that should not preclude our continuing pursuit of perfection as we grow in Christ-likeness. I remind us that Paul was writing to a young church that had few examples. We have over 2,000 years of church history and faithful saints. We are without excuse in pursuing holiness–not always attaining, yet always pursuing.

Paul says we should “filled with the fruit” (v. 10) of our salvation. We know that fruit, right? Love, joy, peach, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). We should bear the characteristics of a Christ-like life. Otherwise, the world will never know the grace of salvation that comes in Jesus Christ.

Our commitment to live the Christ-like life comes before we enter the fray. Commitment comes before engagement. We begin every day with the end of the day in sight. Jesus came, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Long before that first Christmas, the commitment to the cross had been made. Long before the cross, God the Father made the commitment to forgive the sins of the world through His Son, Jesus Christ.

If we are not committed to Christ-likeness before the holidays begin, it is not likely we will live in Christ-likeness through the holidays. If we were not committed to the Christ-like life before the pandemic, it is not likely that we’ve exhibited much Christ-like behavior during the pandemic. I must commit to live like Christ this morning if I expect to model Christ this afternoon.

One way I can do that is to focus on the person who is behind any behavior I encounter throughout each and every day. Focus on people over behavior–not that behavior doesn’t matter, but it is the person Christ died to save, and by grace behaviors can change. I must know what’s important and I must value love, mercy and grace over impatience and inconvenience.

We are called to gratitude, love and grace. I need that reminder heading into the holiday season. Perhaps you do, too.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Lessons in the Walmart…

Y’all! I’ve got to tell you a story. Prayer works. It really does!

Anyone who knows me knows how little I care for going to the Walmart and it’s only gotten worse since Covid (actually, I’ve not cared for going into any retail establishment since Covid, but that’s another blog). But, I had to go to the Walmart the other day, so…

Hurricanes have a way of changing a person’s plans. Mind you, I’m not comparing the damage done by Hurricane Delta to our home to the destruction she caused many in southwest Louisiana, but they can sure be challenging to all of us.

In the days following the storm, my honey decides that she wants to change up the room we recently renovated (let’s call it a re-renovation–forced, but still…). She decides to take out a wall and make a large den in that part of the house, which basically means we no longer need the new television, so having never even opened the box, we decide to return it.

So, I take off a couple of days last week just to catch my breath after a big project at work. It seems to be an opportune time to return the television that, yes, we should have returned much sooner, but you know how those things go, right? I load the television (in its original, unopened box), get the receipt from my honey and head to Walmart.

I pull into the parking lot and my anxiety level increases just from that simple exercise. I utter this prayer: “Lord, by Your Spirit, give me peace and patience so that I don’t say or do something that both you and I will regret.” Now, I’ve discovered that when I pray for patience, He never grants me patience, but gives me opportunity to practice patience. Well, the Lord answers prayer!

I walk into Walmart holding this bulky 52″ television and the lady at the door looks at my receipt and directs me toward the customer service counter. “No problem,” I say to myself, “that’s what I expected.” Of course, making my way to the customer service counter I discover six people in line ahead of me and one customer service rep (ever try social distancing with a 52″ TV in your arms across the front aisle in Walmart?). So, here comes the frustration.

One by one, the customers make their way up to the counter. Every time one completes a transaction, I pick up the TV and move six feet forward. Twenty minutes later and a change in customer service reps (must have been break time) I make it to the counter. I tell the lady that I’d like to return the TV, to which she looks at me and says, “You’ll have to return this in electronics. We can’t take it here.”

What? Before I know it, these words slip out of my mouth–“Why couldn’t someone have told me that twenty minutes ago? And, why didn’t the lady a the front door tell me to head to electronics?” And, no, the expression on my face was not my usual angelic self.

The patient lady simply said, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to go to electronics.” Not her fault, I know, but now I’m frustrated. All the way back to the electronics counter I feel the frustration rising and my mind is constructing ten different scenarios that have me waiting another twenty minutes to return the TV. Finally, I stop and remember the prayer I prayed before I walked into the store. My heart is at peace once again.

I make my way to the electronics counter and I see two customers. “Not too bad,” I think. One customer finishes her transaction as I arrive, and the other customer (with a basketful of groceries) pulls up to the counter, and I think, “Oh, no! Here’s the twenty minutes I was afraid of.” But, the lady only wanted to ask a question, so she was soon on her way.

I approach the counter, tell the cashier I’d like to return the TV, and she asks for the receipt. I give her the receipt. She looks at it and says, “We can’t take this back. We have a 30 day return policy on electronics.” (I suppose I should check the fine print on those long receipts, but really…I missed it by 10 days!)

Yes, my jaw dropped and the redness in my face grew. I remembered the prayer I just prayed a few minutes ago, and with all the sincerity I could muster, said, “But, ma’am, I haven’t even opened the box!”

“Why do you need to return it?” she asked.

“Because the wall we were going to hang it on was crushed by a tree, and we don’t need it anymore,” came my response.

She inspected the box all over to confirm that we hadn’t opened it. She looks at me and says, “A manager will have to make this decision.” Ah! So, here’s the twenty minutes I was afraid of. She calls the manager. A mere five minutes later a manager shows up, looks at the TV and says, “Take it back.”

Whew! I breath a sigh of relief. During those five minutes I envisioned having to sell a brand new, still-in-the-box 52″ TV on Facebook Marketplace for half-price just to get rid of it. And, I’m thinking of all the snide comments I’m going to make when the manager says he/she can’t take it back. As usual, I was worried for nothing.

The lady begins the transaction and asks if I have the debit card that was used to purchase the TV (otherwise, you get store credit). I did. I handed her my card, she looked at my name and said, “You’re Lynn Malone?”

“Uh, yes,” I replied.

“Are you from Chatham?” she asked?

“Uh, yes,” I replied.

“You know my mother and grandmother,” she said.

She proceeded to tell me their names, and yes, I had known her grandmother all my life, and I attended school with her mother. It’s a small world, really, and for five minutes we had old home week. I left the electronics department at Walmart feeling much less frustration, but more than that, I was grateful the Lord had answered my prayer that I would not say or do anything that would both he and I would regret. Trust me! Had I let frustration get the best of me, that story would have made it back to Chatham quicker than I could, and it would have diminished my witness, but more importantly, it would have stained the name of Jesus Christ.

Like most preachers, I have a knack for making short stories long, but that notwithstanding, I’ve pondered a few lessons since that trip to the Walmart.

One lesson is not to play “What if…” in my mind. What if there are ten customers in line and I have to wait thirty minutes? What if they don’t take the TV back? We created scenarios in our mind to cause worry over things that may never happen. Certainly, the scenarios that could have played out at Walmart are nothing compared to what many people face every day, but the human proclivity is to “What if” in the most dire circumstances. We cannot “What if” our way through life and expect to find the peace of God that passes all understanding in Jesus Christ.

Another lesson I learned in the Walmart is that this really is a small world, and that anywhere we go, there is someone who is likely to know us, or know someone who knows us. It’s that whole “six degrees of separation” thing, I suppose, but it is a reason to be kind and gentle in every situation. Of course, those are both fruit of the spirit, too, so there’s that…

A lesson I had confirmed is that the Lord does answer our prayers, and I’m grateful He answered mine that day. The problem is that we don’t often take the time to offer prayers. We get too busy to pray. One thing is for certain: the Lord can’t answer the prayer that isn’t prayed.

I also reminded myself of a lesson I’ve tried to teach the congregations I’ve pastored through the years: Pray before we enter the fray. Someone once said that the problem with life is that it happens so daily. We prepare ourselves for the challenges of life through prayer as we begin the day, or as we head into stressful situations. Yup! We pray in the middle of challenging times, but if we haven’t prepared for the challenging times through prayer, it may often feel like our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. Pray…at all times…pray, but let each morning begin with that heavenly conversation. It will set the tone for the rest of the day.

Sorry I took such a long time to make a few weak points, but I never expected a trip to the Walmart to yield positive fruit in my life. Perhaps the catharsis of my sharing will help make us all more attentive to the grace all around us. We can experience God’s grace in every place…if we’ll just pay attention…even, in the Walmart.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Draining…

Draining. That’s the only word I can think of to describe the year 2020. Between the election, the Coronavirus, the racial discord and hurricanes (oh, and let’s not forget forest fires, floods and rioting and looting), I find myself drained and wanting desperately for this year to be over.

We might say that today (November 3, 2020) is the day many have been waiting for (not me, I’m waiting for January 1, 2021). Many feel that as soon as the election is over things will be different. I’m not one of those persons. Oh, I think there will be different reactions to the outcome today brings. I’m probably going to get myself in trouble here, but I feel compelled to share what’s on my mind.

No matter what the outcome of today’s election, half the people in the nation will be overjoyed and the other half will believe the world is coming to an end (it is, by the way, probably just not tomorrow). Preparations are being made for any eventuality (see here).

My prediction? If Donald Trump loses the election, I suspect everyone will get up Wednesday morning and go to work and carry on with their lives anticipating a new administration (for better or worse). If Joe Biden loses the election, I suspect there will be many cities in our nation that will burn and many businesses will be looted and destroyed.

I’m not saying Biden supporters will be the ones doing the rioting. I am saying “antifa” or other nefarious anarchist groups may seize the opportunity to sow further division in the nation. I also know that half reading this will disagree, and half will agree. That fact is another evidence of the divided nature of our nation.

I’ve also been drained as I’ve watched the same divisions play themselves out in the church of Jesus Christ. As I wrote in a previous blog, we seem to forget that Jesus has torn down the “dividing wall” that separates us. We are no longer divided, but united through the blood of Jesus Christ. We sure haven’t been treating one another that way. No doubt, 2020 has been a stain on the witness of the Church in the world, and it’s just been draining.

I was challenged by John Piper’s assessment of the situation in our nation as he anticipates the election. The question on the lips of many believers is “How could a Christian vote for Trump?” The question on the lips of equally as many Christians is “How could a Christian vote for Biden?” To vote for the one is to vote for arrogance and boastfulness and pride and hatred. To vote for the other is to vote against life and truth.

Don’t ask an evangelical Christian from Louisiana how he/she could vote for Donald Trump. There was a time when Louisianians had to vote for a man who famously (or infamously) said, “The only way I could lose this election is if I get caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.” Of course, that was back in the day when you could actually say such a thing and not get canceled. 

That man was Edwin Edwards, a popular womanizer, gambler and extortionist who served a sentence in federal prison for his often unhidden corruption. But, evangelical Christians were basically left with no choice because his competitor in the race for governor was David Duke, a former grand wizard of the KKK, who cleaned up nicely and said things many folks wanted to hear. He garnered just enough support to slip into a runoff with the former governor, leaving Christians with a terrible dilemma. 

Most in Louisiana did with Edwin Edwards what they will do with Donald Trump—hold their nose and cast their ballot, not because Donald Trump is a man of pristine character, but because the Democrat Party has chosen a candidate and established a platform that opposes so much of what evangelical Christians value most. 

They will hold their nose and cast their ballots in Louisiana because they’ve been down this road before. They will vote, not on personality, but on what they believe to be the best policy to lead this nation forward. I would caution against questioning their virtue as evangelical Christians (though many will). When the choice is between two evils, one needs be picked. It is the nature of the two-party beast.

I suppose one could choose not to vote, or vote for a third-party candidate. I think we’re all struggling to do our best, and the reality is we don’t always do our best when we’re drained. I also know that God has enough grace to go around for all of us.

I also know that whatever happens today (and in the days ahead as results unfold), Jesus is still on the throne and He calls me to a higher obedience than does this or any nation. If freedom continues to ring throughout the land, I will celebrate and worship Jesus Christ. If tyranny for the believer comes, I will celebrate and worship Jesus Christ, and I will pray that my faith will sustain me (and that the Church’s faith will sustain her) through any fiery trials that come, and that she (and I) will be a better witness of the grace of God than perhaps we have been in the past. Either way, we (the Church) are safe in the shadow of the Cross.

So, as drained as I am, I will seek desperately to be filled–to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is only as we are filled that we will find strength to live through every time and age and circumstance that life brings. I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s prayer to the Ephesian church:

15 Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, 16 I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, 17 asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. 18 I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance.

19 I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power 20 that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. 21 Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. 22 God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church.23 And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself. (Ephesians 1: 15 – 23 NLT)

I’ll desire to be filled by Him. May you be, as well.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Asking the Right Questions…

“Who am I?” We’ve all asked ourselves that question at one time or another. It is a question of identity. Another question we all wrestle with in at some point in life is “What do I want to be when I grow up?” It’s a question of purpose, and we usually don’t ask it that way. We more often ask it, “What am I here for?” So, two existential questions of life are “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”

The questions get complicated really quickly, though. Let me illustrate. Who is Lynn Malone? Well, you would likely say, “He is the pastor of The House Church Movement, or Vice President for Business Development at Peoples Bank.” That is a correct if incomplete answer to the questions. It only answers the second question (“What am I here for?”). The original question is still unanswered. I asked who he is, but our tendency is to answer what he does. See the difference? Tricky, right?

It’s About Relationships

We can’t answer the “who” question without talking about relationships. To understand who Lynn Malone is, you would have to tell me about his parents, siblings, wife, and children. Then I would have a context for his relationships and would understand to whom he belongs. This belonging would help me more clearly understand who he is. This helps me understand his identity better than simply knowing what he does.

And while we’re talking about his relationships, here’s another important one to consider—his relationship with Jesus. Telling me about his earthly relationships only answers half of the “who is he” question. I also need to know about his relationship with Jesus to fully understand his identity because when Jesus enters the picture, everything changes. Literally—everything changes. This is what the Apostle Paul is telling the Ephesians in the second half of chapter 4 of his letter to the church.

Paul shares the tangible and practical aspect of the believer’s new identity which has been changed from what it was to what it is, and that change comes as a result of the believer’s relationship with Jesus Christ.

New Clothes

An Old Coat

Paul illustrates this change by using an analogy of taking off an old coat and putting on a new one. I’ve still got an old coat from a former life hanging in my closet. I wore that old coat (it’s nearly forty years old) when I was a sheriff’s deputy in Jackson Parish. It’s an old coat, but it still fits pretty darn good. But, Paul says it represents the old man, and in Jesus, we take off the old man.

I’m a bit of a fashion conscious guy. So, I go out to the mall a few months ago and I walk through the entrance and I see this red coat hanging there. I like color. I like bright colors. So, I see this red coat and I think, “I’ve gotta’ have it.” It is my newest coat. Paul says the believer puts on a new coat. He says we are changed!

As a matter of fact, were we to read back up in Chapter 4:17, we’d hear Paul tell them, “Live no longer as the Gentiles do!” Actually, that’s a little strange because most of the Ephesian Christians were Gentiles. So, Paul is saying that’s the old coat you’ve taken off. It’s not where your primary identity lies anymore. It’s NOT who you are. Now, you are in Christ, and because you are in Christ, you are changed.

Do we understand the implication for us today? Rather than finding our identity in tribes or groups, we find our identity in Christ. We are no longer oppressor nor oppressed. Our relationship with Jesus powerfully influences our identities because in Jesus we are new! Not reformed, refurbished, nor remodeled—we are simply and totally new! 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT) says, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

In our old lives, we thought and acted a particular way and belonged (spiritually) to a particular entity. But when Jesus entered the picture, we became new. So as a result, we began to think and act a new way, and we belong to a new person—God. 

The New Questions

This means when Jesus enters our lives, He changes the answers to our two questions. In fact, we need this new set of questions to explore our new identities:

  • Who am I in Christ?
  • Who is Christ in me?

Our truest and most powerful identity is hidden in the answers to these questions. Who I am is now framed most strongly by the One to whom I belong. I am no longer who I was. I am now who He says I am. The more I understand Jesus, the more I understand me.

But that’s not all. When I ask who Christ is in me, I discover all Jesus has done to set me up for the strongest contribution to the world. Jesus not only radically alters my belonging, but His power and presence in me now physically affect what I am capable of. His presence awakens spiritual gifts that give me a strong contributing edge I never had before. His passion for people awakens my passions, which give me fuel to pursue what matters to Him.

What is it that matters to Him? That’s what Paul lays out in one of the lists that he likes to make. He talks about sin, and they were sins that the first century Ephesians were dealing with. I don’t have time to go into all of them, and even if I did, we’d be focusing on the wrong thing. As Paul unpacks the nature of the 1st century world, he saw people who sinned and didn’t care. Their hearts were hardened to the sin they were in. He saw people who were shameless in the living of their lives. They did what they wanted to do and they didn’t care who it affected. It was the epitome of self-centeredness. I will say, however, that Paul’s take on 1st century Ephesus sounds eerily similar to 21st century western culture. Let that be warning enough for us.

The Christian life is not checking off lists of do’s and don’ts. It is about being changed by the power of God in our lives through His Holy Spirit. What matters to God is sexual purity, and if it matters to God, it ought to matter to us. Truth, generosity, compassion, love and forgiveness. All these matter to God and so they become guiding principles in our lives. They become part and parcel of who we are. They answer the question—“Who am I in Christ?”

Yes, we’ve put on a new coat, but just because we’ve put on a new coat doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t there to grab the old one and put it back on. Actually, that old one can be comfortable. Oh, and it still fits by the way! It’s easier to put the old coat on, too. Putting on the new coat is a conscious choice we must make every day. We put on the new coat every day by faith, by choosing to believe that we are who He says we are.

Sanctifying Grace

The Christian life is not a static life. It’s not a thermostat. Those are wonderful creations that we set it and forget it. Keeps things at a cool 68 degrees or a toasty 72 degrees. The Christian life is more like tending a fireplace. When I was growing up, my brothers and I tended to our grandfather, who was bedfast with arthritis. Every night in the late fall and winter, we had to stoke the fireplace with wood so it would keep the room warm during the night. In a fireplace you have to keep wood on the fire all day. That’s the Christian life. You have to keep working on it to keep the fire going. 

This is what I love about Wesleyan theology. Wesley understood that the Christian life is not static. That’s what sanctifying grace is all about—going on to perfection—moving further along the road of faith today than I was yesterday—growing more like Christ every day.

We must put on that new coat every day, and through prayer, bible study, fasting, fellowship, worship, meditation, communion, solitude…whenever we practice the spiritual disciplines we open ourselves to the power of God that is within each of us. Everything God wants us to be we already are on the inside in the person of Jesus Christ.

Augustine of Hippo

One of the great saints of the church, Augustine, grew up in a Christian home, but by his own admission, rejected the values of his godly mother and lived a sinful life. One of the many sinful pleasures in which he indulged was sexual sin. Augustine lived with a prostitute before his conversion, and legend has it that after his conversion he was walking down the street and this prostitute saw him. She shouted his name and he kept walking. He saw her, but kept his eyes straightforward and walked. She continued crying after him and ran after him. Finally, she said, “Augustine, it is I.” 

Augustine replied, “I know, but it is no longer I.” 

We are changed. It’s who we are in Jesus Christ, but we only know that if we ask the right questions.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Jesus IS the Answer…

I was just a kid in the early 1970’s, but I remember vividly the music of Andre Crouch and The Disciples. I remember his music because I was part of a youth choir that often sang songs he wrote. One song in particular that I’ve been singing over and over lately is one entitled Jesus is the Answer. I’ve been singing it because I believe the Jesus IS the answer for the world today.

I also vividly remember many people who mocked Andre Crouch and the title to that song. Mockers asked, “If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?” I don’t know if there was a specific question Crouch was asking back in the 1970’s, but I know there is a specific question folks are asking today (and I’m asking it myself, too). With the racial and political brokenness facing us in this monster year 2020, the question is “How do we heal the division among us?”

Is it necessary for me to point out those areas of division? Probably not, but just in case you haven’t noticed, here are a few:

  • Ideologically–Capitalist vs. Socialists/Communists
  • Racially–White vs. Black, et. al.
  • Politically–Democrat vs. Republican, Trump vs. Never-Trump
  • Religiously–Traditionalist vs. Progressive

The list could go on. The divisions are tearing at the very fabric of our humanity. I am concerned about where the divisions will lead us unless we do the hard work of reconciling our differences, and learning again how to live with our diversity as a people and as a nation.

Of course, we aren’t the first generation to deal with divisions. The Apostle Paul’s generation had one, too. He writes about it to the church in Ephesus as an illustration—and a vivid one it is! In Ephesians 2, he calls it “dividing wall.” The wall to which Paul referred was a 3 1/2 foot high stone wall in the Temple that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Jews, and on that stone wall were signs that basically read, “Any foreigner who enters beyond this point is responsible for their ensuing death.” Paul uses the image to tell the church that in Christ that wall has been torn down. The division that existed between Jew and Gentile prior to Christ no longer existed. Through Jesus Christ, the two people are made one. They are united in Christ. That was their new identity.

Try to imagine what it must have been like for the first disciples, steeped as they were in 2000 years of history as God’s chosen people, to be told that they were to treat Gentiles the same as they would other Jews. It’s hard for us to imagine because we don’t have any real equivalent today. Here they were, a tiny, insignificant nation, and yet God had chosen them and revealed himself to them. They had Moses and the Prophets. God said they were a holy  nation, set apart for his service.

They actually had a somewhat arrogant view of their calling. William Barclay wrote that, “The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell.” He would also write, “It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother [at childbirth], for that would simply bring another Gentile into the world.” It was such that if a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the family had the funeral for the boy or the girl right then. No, Jews and Gentiles were not friends, and the Temple had a vivid image to remind them of that fact.

The chosen people had erected a wall, and Paul tells the Ephesians that the wall was the law, but Jesus abolished the wall through his death on the cross, and reconciled everything by the power of his blood to God, the Father. Now, everyone—Jew and Gentile—comes to God on the basis of faith in His Son. There is a key word there–reconciled.

So, what does Paul say is the result of this reconciliation in Christ? First, the Gentiles are no longer aliens and strangers, visitors without any legal rights, but rather citizens of God’s kingdom. They now enjoy all the privileges of being part of God’s people.

We are embroiled in a debate over the immigration laws in our nation, and I’m not going to give commentary one way or the other about that, but think for a moment the risks so many of those immigrants are willing to take to come to America. The benefits of being an American citizen are worth going to any lengths to obtain.

If being a citizen of America is so good, what about being a citizen of the Kingdom of God? But, it’s even better than that. Paul extends the analogy. He says, “You’ve now become members of God’s household.” You’re part of the family. Being part of a Kingdom is one thing, but being part of family of the King, is another. It means, in the context of this passage, that we’re now brothers and sisters of one another. No matter what our background, we’ve been brought into a new relationship of care, affection and support that may not characterize our earthly family, but does characterize the ideal family, the family of God.

Paul doesn’t leave the analogy there, though. He says Christ destroyed one thing to build another. He tore down a wall so he could build a house. He’s building a house on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with himself as the cornerstone. 

I’m reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel, where people tried to build a great tower to reach heaven, and God came down and confused their speech so they couldn’t communicate with each other. They all went off to their own parts of the earth. That was the beginning of the alienation of the races. But in Jesus, we see the process reversed. In Jesus, we see a new humanity, a new community being formed in unity with Christ as its foundation. As this new community is formed, it becomes the place where God dwells and where his people come together to worship him.

Don’t miss how important the corporate nature of the church is here. If we are ever tempted to have an individualistic view of Christianity, to think that God simply comes to dwell in each one of us as individuals and the church is just an add-on, think about what Paul says here. As we’re built together we become a dwelling in which God lives by his spirit. As we’re united in Christ we become the new Temple of God, God’s dwelling place.

It’s important to note that Paul says we’re becoming a holy temple. That’s means we haven’t made it yet. God is still working to on us…individually and corporately. That’s part of Wesleyan theology…this whole idea that we are moving on toward perfection. It is part of the struggle we disciples have as we grapple with one another in this shifting culture. Where does God speak into the situations that divide us, and how does God speak into them?

Honestly, we start with what the Bible says. That’s what it means to be built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  They’re the human authors of most of the Bible. In other words, the church is built on God’s Word. That’s why we take it so seriously, and it’s why we don’t tamper with it. We know how dangerous it is to tamper with a building’s foundation. That’s why we should prick up our ears whenever we hear someone undermining the authority of God’s word, or questioning its authenticity. I’m certain the conversation won’t end there, but it at least must start there.

So, how are we to be united? I think there are implications for us personally and corporately. There is one word that I believe is key for our unity is Christ, and that word is forgiveness. Personally, we must begin to tear down the divisions we’ve built between ourselves and others by seeking and extending forgiveness as freely as God has extended it to us through Jesus Christ.

One of the ways we can do that is to acknowledge the person I’m listening to may know something I don’t know. Jordan Peterson has written a fantastic book entitled Twelve Rules for Life. Rule number nine says, “Assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t.” When we listen to others, we can begin to find places where reconciliation may come, and then we’ll discover our unity in Christ.

Corporately, there’s nothing that happens in the Church that should cause a breakdown in relationships…nothing! The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How can we invite others into a reconciled relationship with Jesus Christ if we’re not reconciled to one another?

Internal harmony is one of the things architects look for when they’re sizing up the aesthetics of a building. But the harmony we’re talking about here is more than just aesthetic. We’re talking about a harmony where all the parts work together to bring the building to completion. We overcome this division, too, by seeking and extending forgiveness.

We are united in Christ. That which divides us fades into insignificance when we acknowledge ourselves as God’s sons and daughters. The worth of people different from ourselves can only be judged from God’s point of view. The color of our skin, the sound of our accent, the language we speak with most comfort have nothing to do with it. What matters is that Jesus Christ died to reconcile us to the father and to each other.

So, yes, I believe Jesus is the answer to the divisions in our culture. Unfortunately, the culture is turning further and further away from Jesus, but that’s an entirely different blog.

Until next time, keep looking up…

It’s Harvest Time (or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 4)…

Let’s be frank. House church (organic church, simple church) is countercultural for us folks in the United States (most of the west, really). I’m okay with that, though, because if there was ever a time the Church needed to be countercultural, it is now.

Since I’m being frank, let me also say that if you should attend a house church, you’re not likely to find the music to be excellent (although if you come to the House Church Movement, you’ll find my daughter leading us with excellence), the preaching and/or teaching may not be as polished as one is accustomed to, and the youth/children’s program will be unspectacular.

These reasons (and probably a few more) are why there isn’t more house church focused church planting movements in the west. We like our high-energy music, our polished preaching and those youth/children’s ministries that are going to do for children what parents are so unwilling (or unable) to do for themselves. House church for too many people will lack the glitz and glamour that will reach a consumer culture.

That fact notwithstanding, I believe the house church model of church planting is perfectly poised to reach new fields that are ripe for harvest. The house church planting model is designed to be “close to the ground,” as in, rooted in relationships with neighbors and co-workers, high on interpersonal relationships, ingrained in the rhythm of the community, not restricted by money or funding and is simple in its administration.

Additionally, Covid-19 has changed the landscape of traditional church. By all accounts, most traditional churches are averaging 30 – 50% of pre-Covid attendance. Those churches that see a higher percentage are outliers. Based on what I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had with pastors, those percentages are not likely to change drastically for the foreseeable future. That’s because half the people believe the church shouldn’t be meeting yet, and the other half of the people believe the church should have never stopped.

The opportunity that exists for the house church in this environment is that the church can be where the people are. The new context is simply more conducive to the house church. The house church can meet in closed communities. The house church can meet in large apartment complexes. The house church can meet in dense urban areas where the cost of living (and the cost of property) is expensive. The house church can meet in college dorms. The house church can meet in places where the government has restricted public worship gatherings (it sure feels strange to write that sentence as I sit in the United States!). The house church can meet wherever there is a home and a facilitator.

For all these reasons, the house church model can revive an evangelistic zeal in the Kingdom of God for the west. Consider for a moment the rapid growth of the early church. Between Pentecost and 70 AD the church experienced the most phenomenal growth in its history, spreading from a mere handful of believers in Judea throughout the Mediterranean world. Most scholars agree that this growth was accomplished using private homes as the primary meeting place.

Consider, also, the following mathematical potential for a ministry such as The House Church Movement. Beginning with a single home congregation with an average membership of twelve people, allow for that one group to reproduce itself in the form of a second group after two years. Then, allow for each of those groups to reproduce during the next two years—and so on. Allowing for growth and loss within each group, yet maintaining the group average of only twelve members (a conservative estimate of group size), after 6 years, The House Church Movement would have 96 members. After 12 years, The Movement would have 768 members. After 15 years, it would consist of 2,304 members. After 18 years, 6,912 members. After 20 years, the overall membership of The House Church Movement would be 13,824!

Please understand, I hold no illusion that The House Church Movement will ever boast a membership of nearly 14,000 people. I simply offer these projections as a way of showing that this philosophy of ministry and evangelism has potential equal to, if not greater than more traditional models.

Please don’t think I’m trying to sell everyone on the house church model or The House Church Movement. I’ll admit that it’s even hard for me to move away from the traditional church model of ministry, but I feel called to this model and to this Movement because I believe that house churches take place where harvest happens–in the neighborhoods, in the work places and in the homes of both those who believe and those who do not.

Until next time, keep looking up…