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…

Prayer is…

If 2020 showed me nothing else, it showed me of my desperate need to pray more. I like to think I know all there is to know about prayer, but try as I might, I can’t seem to nail prayer down to a singular definition? I am supposed to be a person of prayer, and I know when I see someone praying, and I know what I do when (or if) I pray. I know the preacher does it, if for no other reason than that is says so right in the bulletin—the Pastoral Prayer. So, prayer is something done at a particular time and usually in a particular way, or a particular place for a particular reason. Prayer is all that, but that seems like such an inadequate understanding as I desire to go deeper in prayer in 2021. 

I take some comfort in knowing the Bible doesn’t define prayer anywhere. I know the Bible commands it. People like Jesus, Paul, Moses, David and Hannah exemplified it. I am invited through the pages of scripture to pray, and God commends it to us as a way to communion and wholeness. The Bible even describes prayer, but never once do I find a verse that says, “Prayer is…” If the Bible doesn’t define prayer, I wonder if I can?

The Lord’s Prayer

Though the Bible doesn’t specifically define prayer, its examples of prayer give me a clue in (at least) understanding what prayer is. For more than defining prayer, I want to learn how to do it. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Jesus was doing one day with his disciples. I’m not sure if we can definitively answer the question by looking at that encounter between Jesus and his disciples, but I believe we can get far down the road. Jesus taught his disciples to pray:

11 Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus said, “This is how you should pray: “Father, may your name be kept holy.
    May your Kingdom come soon.
Give us each day the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
    as we forgive those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation.”

Jesus would, in the verses following these, continue to teach his disciples more about prayer, but first, it was Jesus’ own example that made his disciples want to know more about prayer. I remind us they were Jewish men who were steeped in the traditions of their elders. They likely spent every morning and evening repeating the prayers of their fathers, yet when they saw Jesus pray, there was something that moved heaven and earth and made them want to pray that way. I’m not sure what that was, but I see three things that begin to help me understand a meaningful definition of prayer.

Upward Focus

Let’s start where Jesus started: First, prayer is upward focused. In verse 2, Jesus begins with the “Father.” As we learned the prayer from the King James Version, it begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Richard Foster says, “Simple prayer is ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate father.” The upward focus of prayer is our acknowledgment that God is our Father, that God is the source of truth outside ourselves. After all, we don’t pray to ourselves–“Oh, help me, Me!” We look to God for understanding in this confusing world. This upward focus is our confession of dependence on the One who is abundantly more than we can even think or imagine.

This understanding is insufficient in and of itself, for how can we have an upward focus unless we have first been called to turn our eyes toward heaven? When we turn our thoughts upward, we acknowledge it is God who acts first in prayer. Our prayers are a reaction to God’s first seeking us. In Psalm 27:7 – 8, David sings these words:

Hear me as I pray, O Lord.
    Be merciful and answer me!
My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
    And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”

The key is that God said, “Come and talk with me.” Without God first calling to us we cannot seek Him, and we can never experience the kind of prayer that ends in answers. We Wesleyans call that God’s prevenient grace—the grace of God reaching out to us before we even realize it. Prayer that is upward focused will move the hand of God because we have first been moved by the hand of God, and it will draw us deeper into a growing, on-going love relationship with the Lord.

Inward Focus

Yes, prayer is upward focused, but prayer is also inward focused. Verses 3 and 4 say, “Give us each day the food we need, and forgive us our sins…” In prayer, we do focus on our needs, but not in some selfish, prideful way. Actually, if we look up the words “pray” and “prayer” in Webster’s dictionary—although no one looks up words in a dictionary anymore—we find these definitions: “to implore, an entreaty, supplication.”

The words the Bible uses which are translated for us as pray and prayer in both the Old and New Testaments mean “to request,” and “to make a petition,” so prayer is asking God for something, and it is never selfish or sinful to concern God with the circumstances of our lives, and the needs we face. As a matter of fact, God desires that we should ask. Our asking is yet another way we confess our dependence on and our need for God.

The inward focus is not totally selfish when we understand that this prayer is consistent with the way Jesus lived. He was always occupied with the trivial things in people’s lives. He turned water into wine (and good wine, I might add) at a wedding. He fed hungry crowds, and he offered rest to weary souls. He ate with Pharisees and tax collectors. He stopped to talk to a woman drawing water from a well, and he healed a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. It is appropriate that he invites us to pray for our daily bread because all of our little daily concerns are important to him.

We must be careful, though, that this not become a shopping list we bring to God. It is a petition for survival. It is not, “Lord, let me win the lottery, then all my needs will be met.” Such a prayer would never strengthen our faith or draw us deeper into a relationship with him. Prayer is designed to strengthen the bond between us and the Father. Only as we call to God for daily provision, and only as God meets us at our point of need, will our trust grow. When trust grows, love grows. When love grows, the relationship grows, and that is what God desires.

There is more to this inward focus than daily provision to meet our needs. There is a spiritual aspect that must not escape our understanding. As we focus upward and God begins to reflect His love and holiness back into our lives, we begin to recognize our sinfulness, and our need for forgiveness. We pray for this deepest need of our lives. Deeper than the daily provision for our physical needs lies the need for God’s forgiveness.

Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2: 1 – 12) tells the story of a paralytic man who was lowered by his friends into a house where Jesus was teaching. The man obviously had a physical need, but Jesus saw a deeper spiritual need, the need for forgiveness. Jesus met both needs. As the crowd watched, Jesus looked at the man on the cot and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” The crowd, and especially the Pharisees, were stunned and asked, “Who can forgive sins but God?” Jesus, hearing their question, responded, “Well, just so you know I have power to do both, I say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” We, too, have both spiritual and physical needs, and prayer that is inward focused brings us an awareness of both. The greatest news in the world is that I am a sinner who can be saved from my sin.

Outward Focus

The Good News that we can be forgiven carries us deeper into the heart of prayer. Prayer that is first, upward focused that produces an inward change inevitably moves us to become outward focused. Jesus prays in verse 4, “just as we forgive those who sin against us.” Any prayer that is real prayer will touch our relationship with others. Jesus says we ask the Father to forgive us as we forgive others. It sounds almost conditional, doesn’t it? Well, it is! We cannot be in a right relationship with God and not have it affect our outward relations with others. How can we not forgive others if we have experienced God’s great forgiveness? God’s forgiveness renews and transforms us, and we then seek to be renewed in our relationship with others.

Richard Foster indicates that to forgive is the very nature of the created order. We must give in order to receive. We cannot receive love unless we give love. People may try to give us love, but if we are filled with resentment and vindictiveness, their offers will have no impact on us. We cannot receive anything as long as our fists are clenched. St. Augustine says, “God gives where he finds empty hands.”

God, The Pizza Man

Let me tell you about our love for pizza at our house. When the children were growing up it was our default food of choice (it’s become Mexican now). One of the greatest days of our lives as a family was moving to Junction City, Kentucky. It was great because Junction City had the luxury of pizza delivery. I know that doesn’t seem like much to most of you, but being raised in rural Jackson Parish, and serving my first pastorate in the same community, pizza delivery was something reserved for places like New York City and Chicago. It didn’t take us long to avail ourselves of pizza delivery in Junction City. Piping hot pizza a phone call away.

How many of you have ever ordered pizza delivery? Call the pizza place, the guy or girl answers and place your order, “Give me two large pizzas—one with pepperoni, one with double cheese. Malone is the name, and the address is 104 School St.” (that’s where we lived in Junction City). Hang up the phone and wait for pizza at your front door. Oh, we were in heaven!

Too often, that’s how we think of prayer. We treat God like the pizza guy. We call on God, place our order as though it was some shopping list, and we wait for an answer. When God doesn’t answer in a reasonable amount of time we get mad because he didn’t answer on our schedule. God didn’t meet our expectations. Forget the tip, buddy, I want a free pizza because it wasn’t here in thirty minutes or less.

God is not the pizza guy, and prayer is not akin to throwing out orders for someone to meet our expectations. What is prayer? Prayer is any intentional upward focus designed to bring an inward change that becomes reflected in outward relationships which produces an on-going, growing love relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Not sure that any of that qualifies as an appropriate definition, but it’s the one I’m going to work with for 2021. I’ll check back in with you in 2022 and see how it went.

May I also invite you to pray more in 2021? Here is the “Daily Prayer” app that I’ve put on my phone and will be incorporating into my prayer time this year. It might be helpful to you, too. If you don’t like that one, try “The Daily Office” app. You can download it on your phone, or use it right from your desktop or laptop. If you don’t like either of those tools, simply do a Google search to find one that fits your need. As has been said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

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…

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…

Crash…

Crash!

Vanessa and I were awakened at 2:59 a.m., this past Saturday to a thunderous crash. No, it wasn’t thunder. It was the crashing of a great white oak tree into our home during the passing of (by then) Tropical Storm Delta. Honestly, I knew what happened the moment I heard the crash. Vanessa and I were fine, so even in that moment, there was no fear. My first thought was, “Now everything is going to be wet.”

We hurriedly made our way to the back part of our house from whence the crash came. We still had electricity so we turned on the light to discover the exterior wall to our recently renovated dining room buckled under the weight of the tree, but surprisingly, the tree did not penetrate the ceiling anywhere in the house (the roof is another story!). Our back porch took the brunt of the tree’s weight and kept it out of the interior of the home. I’m thanking God for that back porch!

7’10” circumference

What did we do next? Well, the only thing we could do–we went back to bed. Well, Vanessa went back to bed. I went to sleep in my chair listening to the howling of the wind and the dripping of water inside my house. It wasn’t long until I heard another crash. This time it wasn’t our house. It was our neighbor’s house. They took a tree about the same size that hit ours (30″ in diameter). No one was hurt in that crash, either.

You’re probably wondering by now why I’m telling you all this. I’m telling you all this because the “crash” prevented me from doing any writing this week, so I don’t have much to blog about. There will be no deep theological reflections this week. My Saturdays and Sundays have recently been reserved for any writing that needs to be done, but this Saturday and Sunday were otherwise occupied. I’m spending this early Wednesday morning simply trying to put some words on paper (?) as a discipline to keep creative juices flowing…that and a regular rhythm of posting to the blog (experts say consistency is one way to grow a blog).

So, I’ll just say that we’re grateful for so many things over the past week. I am grateful that Vanessa and I celebrated 39 years of marriage on Friday, and in those 39 years, we never once (that we can remember) filed a homeowners insurance claim. We can take that off our list of “never before’s”.

I am also grateful that we were not hurt, that the tree fell in a good place (if there is such a place) if it had to fall at all, and that (as far as we can tell), it didn’t do any damage to our deck. I am grateful that we have insurance, and that we know people who get things done (or, we know people who know people who get things done). I am grateful for family and friends who have reached out in love and concern, and for neighbors who care about neighbors.

In my gratitude, I am also prayerful and mindful of others whose losses are far greater than ours. What we suffer is going to be a minor inconvenience. Yes, it’ll be frustrating going through the process of repairing and rebuilding what’s been damaged, and it’ll be expensive, too (do you know about “Named Storm Deductibles“?), but I’m grateful that we have the resources to take care of the needs we encounter. There are many others who don’t, and our prayers are for them.

I am mindful of our neighbors and friends in southwest Louisiana who have dealt with two hurricanes in a month’s time, whose lives and livelihoods have been (literally) destroyed by nature’s wrath. My prayers are with them, and our financial support has already gone to ministries who are helping in those areas. Were I still in vocational ministry, I’m sure I would have spent time in those areas helping, but…

Life throws us curveballs sometimes. That’s just life. I officiated a wedding Saturday evening for my niece. Hurricane Delta provided an excellent example for me to share with the bride and groom. The rehearsal and dinner were held amid a torrential downpour as the storm quickly made its way toward our area. I told the couple on Saturday that they survived a hurricane to make it to the altar. Let that always remind them that when the next storm comes (metaphorically speaking), they can face it knowing they survived a hurricane to get there. If they can survive a hurricane, they can survive anything.

So, we’ll get the insurance adjusters and the contractors and we’ll get started rebuilding. We’ll survive the inconvenience and we’ll thank the Lord for His mercy and grace to do so, and for the resources necessary to make it a reality. We’ll also remember those who haven’t been quite so blessed, and do what little we can to help them experience His mercy and grace, too.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Disciples Discipling Disciples (Or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 5)…

By now, you’re saying, “Enough already! Is why you’re starting The House Church Movement all you have to write about?” This will be the last blog I write that deals with the “why” of house church (or, at least MY why). 

Photo courtesy of the PCAJesus gave a very simple mission to His church immediately before His ascension–go make disciples (Matthew 28: 18-20). I wonder how such a simple mission has gained so much complexity over the centuries. Jesus’ first disciples were told to disciple others, and the only example they had was Jesus. In Luke 9 and Matthew 10, we find Jesus going house-to-house throughout Galilee and Judea, and then Jesus telling his disciples to do the same. The Book of Acts certainly confirms this model of ministry.

The Apostle Paul, in writing his letters to the early church, wrote to churches that were meeting in homes, and the instructions he gave them were given with this model in mind. The concept of spiritual gifting was given to the Church with the understanding that the gifts of believers would be lived out in the community of faith–the house church.

A word of clarity, though. The Apostle Paul would use the word for church when referring to both the individual house churches and the gathered body, so using the one does not detract from the other. Again, I’m not anti-institutional (the fact that I keep mentioning that does make me wonder a little though). Wherever the body of Christ gathers, there is the Church.

Unfortunately, the “gifts” for ministry became formalized as the Church grew and transitioned from a house-based movement to the more “traditional” model we know today throughout most of the west. Pastors, teachers, evangelist, et. al., became church professionals. In the early church, there was a team of leaders–bishops, pastors, elders–who led the church in making disciples. Now, we depend on professional staff teams to lead us, and the individual giftedness of disciples is underutilized in the Kingdom economy.

The Apostle Paul was very specific in writing to the early church at Ephesus about the role of leaders in the church. He wrote:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4: 11 – 12, NIV).

Each of these giftings were given by Christ Himself for the building up of His church, and the most fruitful discipleship model utilizes these gifts in their fullness to increase the Kingdom. This is the model wherein disciples disciple disciples, thus fulfilling the Great Commission Christ gave to His Church.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7).  He lists many different gifts that the Spirit gives to believers for the sake of the body. Then he explains how every part of the body is needed, and that we must be careful to not start to develop a mindset that some gifts are more necessary than others.  Does every single believer in a church realize that they are just as needed and important as anyone else in the church? Or do they tend to think that the preacher and worship leader are more important?

The House Church Movement is designed to create space for everyone in the body to contribute in the meetings and in everyday life.  The “pastor’s” is not the only voice that needs to be heard.  Long monologue sermons are not meant to be the norm in house church meetings because no one person should dominate things.

Everyone is called to make disciples.  We are all called to share the gospel with non-believers in hopes that they would follow Jesus. We are all called to take responsibility for the spiritual care of other believers.  But discipleship is hard and messy.  It involves intentionally getting to know someone, having hard conversations when sin is evident, working through conflict, and spending extra time with them when life gets hard.

The temptation in the church has been to replace discipleship with programs.  If there is a married couple struggling, we suggest they read a book, enroll in a marriage class, or go on a retreat.  Discipleship means having an older couple who loves Jesus to come alongside of them and do life with them through life’s challenges.  Though marriage retreats, classes and seminars can be helpful, we hide behind them and ignore our responsibility to make disciples. It’s not that these programs are bad, but they run the risk of undermining what is best and most important. We end up trading the best for the good.

In The House Church Movement, the pastors are not responsible for discipling everyone, but rather they will each disciple a few and then ensure that those disciples are also discipling a few.  And for those who are new to the faith, though they might not be fully responsible for the spiritual care of another person, they will be actively engaged in evangelistic efforts and be trained to take responsibility for others.

The House Church Movement, with its small, intimate, intentional group of believers provides no room to hide.  Each person’s life is consistently before someone else.  It means that each person is expected to be transparent with a few other believers about the things they would hide, while those believers walk with them through healing, repentance, and believing the promises of God.  There shouldn’t be any room for people just “attend church” when everyone is being discipled for life and ministry.

Discipleship is taking responsibility for the spiritual care of somebody else. It doesn’t mean you’re the only one invested in that person, but it does mean you should be aware of what’s going on in that person’s life. Discipleship is life on life. Discipleship doesn’t happen with coffee dates once a week. You need to be around each other and observe each other’s lives almost daily.

Disciples discipling disciples. It can be messy work, indeed! But, it can also be the most fulfilling and transformative work a disciple can ever do. It’s another reason I feel called to lead The House Church Movement.

So, there you have it. The five reasons I feel called to do this new thing. Now, maybe we can move on to something else.

Until next time, keep looking up…