The Golden Grace…

Silence is golden! It reminds me of the Psalmists words from Psalm 46:10, where he wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God!” Silence makes us uncomfortable, though, and if you find yourself uncomfortable sitting in silence for 30 seconds, you might need to develop the habit of solitude.

Solitude and silence are two sides of the same coin, for they are both about quietness—inward quietness and outward quietness. We can remove people from our lives but still fill the void with noise, and we can be in a great crowd of people and remain empty and lonely. The habit of solitude is a means of grace that brings inner fulfillment.

What do I mean when I talk about the habit of solitude? If fasting is the abstaining from something (primarily food) for spiritual purposes, then solitude is withdrawing to privacy for spiritual purposes. It is a “going away,” or “getting away” for the purpose of listening for the voice of God. We should note, however, that solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a particular place. We don’t necessarily have to go away to get away. We can possess inward solitude that can set us free from loneliness and fear no matter where we are.

LONELINESS AND FEAR

Let’s talk about that for a moment because it is loneliness that keeps many of us from developing this habit of solitude. I have over the years had the opportunity to go on a few silent retreats—most of them at Catholic abbeys. I remember the first one I attended. I was a first year “resident in ministry.” That means I was fresh out of seminary, beginning the “provisional” process toward ordination and the Conference begins that process by the practice of silence and solitude. I will confess I was scared to death. I’d never been on one before, and this was going to be for three days. I had four children and a spouse. I had just completed three years in seminary with friends and colleagues. I was appointed to a new church with people I needed to get to know. I’m a people person! What in the world was I going to do on a silent retreat for three days? I was going to go crazy, that’s what! But, when it was over, I couldn’t wait for the next one!

Loneliness is inner emptiness—so says Richard Foster. For some of us, we don’t like to be alone because we don’t much like our own company, or because our personality is so shaped by the people around us, we don’t even know who we are when we are alone. It may have to do with whether we are an introvert or an extrovert – introverts gain their energy from within, and are drained by exterior stimulation. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain their energy from exterior stimulation and are drained by interior work. Whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert, whether we don’t like our own company, or whether we don’t know who we are when we’re alone, we need to cultivate this habit because as a means of grace it strengthens our soul.

JESUS’ HABIT

Jesus knew the power of solitude and he practiced it often. Mark’s Gospel records a time when Jesus and his disciples had been busy doing miracles and ministry across Galilee. There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat. In this span of ministry, Jesus has been rejected in his hometown, commissioned his disciples for a ministry tour and received the tragic news that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded. He’s literally “had it up to here,” and so he says to his disciples, “Come on! Let’s get away to a quiet place and rest.” He knew that the clamor of busy-ness will sap even the greatest person’s strength.

Mark’s account wasn’t the only time scripture records Jesus getting away. Jesus began his earthly ministry by spending forty days alone in the wilderness (Matt. 4). With three disciples He sought out the silence of a lonely mountain as the stage for the transfiguration (Mt. 17:1—9). We could go on, but you get the picture that seeking out a solitary place was a habit for Jesus. So it should be for us, too.

GET REAL

What grace comes from solitude? What benefits? Let me mention only two. First, solitude provides an opportunity to get real with God. Charles Caleb Colton once said “Character is who you are when no one else is looking.” If we are going to be real with God, we need to get alone with God. In the quiet of solitude, all pretensions can be stripped away, all the things in life that are trying to mold us in their image are removed, all the requirements of the world disappear, and we can stand before God “just as I am” as the song says.

This is scary for some, but it is in solitude that we am reminded that above all else our identity is caught up in the fact that we are God’s chosen child. If we are not really sure of what God thinks about us, being alone with him might be pretty scary! If we’re not so sure that God loves us, get alone with him, listen to his voice – the first thing that the Holy Spirit teaches our spirit is how to say “Abba, Father” If we can get alone in silence with God, the first thing we will hear is the Spirit whispering in our ear “you are God’s adopted child – he chose you, he loves you.”

Dallas Willard, who wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines, said that the discipline of solitude is for strengthening. You may remember the story of Elijah from the Old Testament. Elijah was God’s prophet to the nation of Israel at a time of great apostasy under King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel. There was one instance when Elijah challenged 450 false prophets of the god Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah even did so mockingly, and he called fire down from heaven that destroyed all 450 prophets of Baal and the surrounding altar and their sacrifice. It was a victory of monumental proportions. Immediately after the victory, though, Elijah flees because he’s afraid for his life. Weary and worn out, it’s on a mountain in the Sinai desert that Elijah encounters God, not in a windstorm, not in an earthquake, not even in the fire, but in a still small voice. It was after Elijah encountered God on that mountain that he was able to complete his calling. He poured out his heart to God, he got real with God, and God strengthened him.

When you and I get alone with God, we’ll hear him say he loves us, and we’ll find strength to face life whatever challenge it might bring our way.

GET CENTERED

Second, solitude provides an opportunity to get centered. Jesus sought out solitude before he made big decisions in his life and ministry. Before he chose the twelve who would be his closest disciples, Luke tells us Jesus spent the entire night alone in the wilderness. Following the healing of a leper Jesus “withdrew to the wilderness and prayed” (Lk. 5:16). As he prepared for His highest and most holy work, Jesus sought the solitude of the garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36—46).

Billy Graham, in his autobiography Just as I Am, recounts the period in his life when he was being pressured by Charles Templeton to give up his belief in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Graham took some time in solitude and he realized that intellect alone would not solve his problem – that it was an issue of faith. So he placed his Bible on a stump in the middle of the woods, and knelt down and said, “Oh God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Templeton is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.” And through that time of solitude Billy Graham was shaped into the man the world came to know as the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. We get perspective when we get centered, and we only get centered when we get alone with God.

PRACTICAL STEPS

Solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a place, but even so, we can’t forget that habits are actions, whether inward or outward. We can be pious and talk about the solitude we practice in our hearts, but if that doesn’t issue itself in how we act, we missed it altogether. We need to take it from theory and put it into real life. How do we do that?

Why not start simply? Start with those first few moments as we awaken each morning. Rather than thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to get up,” why not think, “God, you love me and I love you”? My daily solitude comes with that first cup of coffee in the morning. Nothing but my Lord, my coffee and myself. No computer. No television. No telephone. Just silence…well, and the ticking of the clock. Silence is often hard to achieve.

Could you try silence and solitude while you’re driving? Turn the radio off for a time. Sure, you’ll hear road noise and passing cars, but you also might just hear God’s voice. Could you, instead of saying a blessing as your family gathers at the table, simply bow and sit in silence for a minute? Parents, why don’t you challenge your children when you’re on that long vacation road trip to a game of silence? See who can be silent the longest. It may only last five minutes, but those will be blessed minutes. We might do something as simple as slip outside for five minutes before bed to taste the silence of the night. We can redeem the time in many, many ways. Grab little moments that help us reorient ourselves to who we are and whose we are.

There are other more intentional and intense things we can do. We might not want to immediately through ourselves into a three-day silent retreat, but we can be intentional about designating a place to be quiet. My place is my couch early in the morning. It’s comfortable. It’s quiet. It’s cozy. Perhaps some of you have heard of Joel Hemphill. He’s a Christian singer and songwriter. Vanessa and I visited with him and his wife when they were building their new home in Nashville a few years ago, and the pride he had to show us was the room he had specially built to be his “quiet place.” Why can’t we find a room, or designate a space in our home to be quiet? Maybe your space needs to be a park, or by a stream. Wherever it is…find it…and use it!

Here’s another idea: Try to live one entire day without words. Spouses, please tell your significant other if you chose to do this! Otherwise, they might just think you’re mad at them, and that won’t do anyone any good.

Others have suggested three or four times a year, take three or four hours to get away and reflect on your life’s goals. You can stay late at the office, or you can go sit by the river. Better yet, use it as an excuse to go to the beach. Take a journal and write it all down. God may just surprise us with some new alternatives we never considered.

Then again, you might just want to try that three days of silence in a retreat. Here’s a way to make that happen.

The fruit this habit will bear in our lives is a more acute awareness of the voice of God. That’s grace to us. But, it will also bear an increased sensitivity and compassion for others. Like Jesus, we must go away from people so that we can be truly present when we are with people. There is a new attentiveness to their needs and a new responsiveness to their needs, and that becomes grace to them. Solitude is the habit that can be grace for everyone, and that is just perfect!

Until next time, keep looking up…

What About Us, Jesus?

Of all the names/titles given to Jesus, i.e., Lord, Savior etc., this name “Healer” is perhaps the most challenging for us in the 21st century. What do we mean when we say “Jesus is Healer?”jesus-is-2

We survey the ministry of Jesus and depending on how one classifies the event, there are between 30 and 40 healing events in the four Gospels alone. We read a passage like Luke 4:40 that says, “As the sun went down that evening, people throughout the village brought sick family members to Jesus. No matter what their diseases were, the touch of his hand healed every one.

So, what gives? After all, we pray for healing all the time, but far too often, the healing we seek never comes. If Jesus is Healer, where do we see this healing happening in our world today?

Who needs Obamacare? There certainly wasn’t much of a problem with healthcare with Jesus around. The folks in 1st century Israel called their health care plan Jesuscare! Got a backache? Go see Jesus! Got the flu? Go see Jesus. Surgery? Who needs surgery? Just go see Jesus! One touch is all you need. Must have been nice, and no increase in premiums. It sure would have been nice to get in on some of those healings. Makes us want to ask: When did Jesus go out of the healing business? Don’t we rate as much as the folks back then? What about my friend with cancer? What about us, Jesus?

FAITH HEALING

I’m going to challenge us for one moment to take all the pre-conceived ideas of “faith-healing” out of our minds. Don’t think about Benny Hinn, and let your memories of Kathryn Kuhlman and Oral Roberts fade. But still it leaves us to wonder why we don’t just go down to the local hospitals and clear the places out in Jesus name.

Boy, I wish I had the power to heal! There are folks in the world who say that I simply don’t have enough faith, or that those who are sick don’t have enough faith to be healed. Just believe a little more—faith of a mustard seed and all that, right? Hey? That’s the kind of faith four friends had one day when they brought their friend to Jesus (see Luke 5: 17 – 26).

Luke tells us when Jesus saw “their faith,” his healing power went into action. Notice, Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the paralyzed man’s faith. Perhaps he had no faith at all, certainly none that was expressed in this episode. Yes, faith is often present when it comes to healing, but whose faith is most important?

Or more, the same people who would say today that I don’t have enough faith would also say the problem must be un-confessed sin. That’s part of the issue on the day Jesus was healing this paralyzed man. Jesus knew the Pharisees and scribes, who were a sect in Judaism who had a strong belief in the idea that if someone was sick or blind, there must be some sin in their life that caused it, were watching. Paralyzed? What did you do to deserve that? Confess your sin and perhaps you can get well. That was their attitude.

I wonder if that’s why Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “Young man, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus didn’t address the physical ailment first. He first addressed the spiritual reality, and man, that set the Pharisees off. “Who but God can forgive sins?” The Pharisees question and Jesus’ response might help us understand what was happening then, and what is happening now.

Jesus looked at the Pharisees and said, “Just so you know, I’ve got authority to forgive sins on earth, I’ll say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” At Jesus’ word, the young man jumped up, took his bed and ran out of the house. Jesus’ healing power was a sign.

Here’s an important point to understand those 30 – 40 healing accounts in the Gospels—the healings were signs designed to point to the eternal blessings Jesus was bringing, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus was bringing to earth. These healings pointed ahead to the ultimate healing that Jesus was in the process of accomplishing, and that ultimate healing was not limited to the folks back then. No, it is for all of us, too. Yes, every one of us here today–Jesus loves you and me as much as he loved those folks back then. We are at no disadvantage to the people who were healed in his ministry.

So, here’s the deal, as I see it—Jesus is still in the healing business, just not necessarily in the same manner now as then. What do I mean?

MIRACLES AND MORE

First, let me acknowledge that sometimes, for unexplained reasons, God chooses to miraculously heal someone. A tumor is present on one visit to the doctor, and the next scan shows no trace of a tumor. Poof! Just like that, and there’s no other explanation for it but that God did it. All we can say is God surprises us with His mercy, and in those times all we can say is, “Praise the Lord!”

Second, let’s also acknowledge the healing power of medicine. Advances in health care are astounding compared to the first century. There were physicians in the first century. Luke, the Gospel writer, was one. People who were sick sought out physicians for their maladies. Recall the woman with the flow of blood. Luke tells her story, too (chapter 8). She’d spend twelve years going to doctors, but none of them could heal her. The health care advances of just the last 25 years would likely have led to her healing. The Lord uses doctors and medicines to promote healing today in ways never known before. Medical care is a great gift that promotes healing, and we are right to view it that way.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, knew the importance of health care. He even penned a volume that was required reading for his assistants. Wesley’s Primitive Physick was the equivalent of a New York Times bestseller. It went through twenty-three printings and was used well into the 1880’s, decades after Wesley’s death. In that volume, Wesley encouraged the use of doctors, and even promoted the idea that his preachers should offer health care to those in their charge, thus his volume of remedies and advice on health and healing.

For all that healthcare does for our healing, we still face the question, “Why not everyone?” I remind us that Jesus did heal this paralyzed man, and he would heal many others, too, but I also remind us that every one of these persons he healed would later die. Their physical healing was only temporary. Was Jesus’ faith not strong enough? There must be an expiration date on miracles!

ULTIMATE HEALING

We come to Jesus seeking a cure for what ails us, and there is no cure for death…there is only healing. When we proclaim Jesus is Healer, it is a statement that reaches beyond the physical. We go beyond the temporal to acknowledge, even as Jesus did, that healing is first a spiritual process before it is a physical one. Curing the body is a physical process. Healing the soul is a spiritual one. Curing the body is temporal, but healing the soul is eternal. We come to Jesus as healer seeking a cure for something physical. What Jesus as healer offers is something eternal.

Jesus gains the ultimate healing for us, the eternal healing, by dealing with the root problem of sin. Sin. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a particular disease or illness can be traced to a particular sin. That would be simplistic and wrong. There are a lot of unrepentant sinners who are perfectly healthy, and there are a lot of good, faithful Christians who are afflicted with chronic illness and pain.

I’m speaking, rather, of the general sinful condition that pervades this fallen world, ever since the time of Adam, and the sinful nature that we all inherit from Adam and pass down to our children is the root problem that results in all the damage and disease and misery that afflicts the human family. And to fix this, Jesus had to get to the bottom of it.

And, Jesus did so by carrying our sins in his body to the cross. When Jesus sheds his blood for the sins of the world, that my friends, is big medicine! As Isaiah 53:4-5 says,

“Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
 But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.”

Do we know that? Do we know that it was our sins for which Jesus died? Yes, our sins–of not loving God, of not hearing and heeding his Word. Our sins of wanting to be our own god, to make our own decisions about what is right and wrong. Our sins of lack of love for our neighbor. Of being jealous of our neighbor’s success. Of grumbling about those the Lord has placed in our life. Of gossip and greed. Of selfishness and un-forgiveness. Yes, those are our sins that Jesus is bearing, bleeding on the cross.

The fact that Jesus is bearing our sins, that Jesus is shedding his blood for them–Jesus on the cross is purchasing our healing. Sins forgiven means curse lifted. Resurrection ahead. Healing ahead. For you. For me. Forever. It’s as good as Christ’s own resurrection from the dead. It’s ours, through faith in him. He shares his gifts with us.

Don’t misunderstand–death is not the ultimate healing as some have proclaimed. Resurrection is! Resurrection is the gift of healing that Christ offers us all.

How does this gift get delivered to our door, with our name on it? Two words—Word and Sacrament. The ongoing ministry of the church is God’s means of delivering the gift Christ won for you and me on the cross. Word and Sacrament are not clichés. They are God’s delivery system for life and salvation, for healing of the soul, and, yes, healing of the body, too.

God is not just interested in saving our soul. He has also promised to redeem our body. God is committed to restoring creation, and that includes our bodies. God is going to raise up our bodies on the last day. We believe in exactly what God has promised: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

In the Word preached, the Gospel is heard with our ears and taken into the heart with gladness. In baptism, water is applied to these physical bodies, and in communion, the bread and wine represent the body and blood, and we receive the elements—we eat, we drink—and in so doing we receive Christ. Physical elements for physical people, yet working out an eternal healing that redeems both body and soul because Jesus is Healer. And, because Jesus is Healer, we pray—we pray for healing in the body and in the soul.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Mary! You Did Know…

Did you catch The Voice finals last week? Jordan Smith captured America’s attention (and their votes) with a stirring rendition of the now classic Christmas song Mary, Did You Know. Smith closed the competition with a song that his coach, Adam Levine, didn’t want him to sing, but in the end, even Levine said Smith made the right choice.

Mary, Did You Know has become a Christmas classic since Michael English first recorded the song in 1991. The words of the song were written by Christian comedian Mark Lowry with the music written by musician Buddy Green. Lowry said the song evolved as he contemplated sitting with the Virgin Mary over a cup of coffee, and the questions he would ask her.

You can watch Mark Lowry’s performance of Mary, Did You Know by clicking here.

Long before Lowry and Green put their song together, Mary sang her own song (found in Luke 1: 39-56) about her little boy, and the words she sang reveal the truth that yes, in fact, Mary did know.

Mary lived in an expectant time for the nation of Israel. The Scriptures had promised the coming of the Messiah, and rumors were rampant that he was coming at any time (sound familiar?). The Messiah was going to turn the world around and deliver Israel from all her enemies. He would usher in the kingdom of God. But if those people who were so high with expectation had gone to a stable in the town of Bethlehem they might have said, “That’s it? That’s the Messiah?” No one could have guessed how this child would change the world. No one could have imagined the impact he would have on world history and the change he would make in people’s lives. No one, perhaps, except Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Yes, Mary you did know!

Mary, you knew that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters. Mary, you knew that this child you delivered would one day deliver you…and all the others who would believe in him. She knew this baby had walked where angels trod, and that when she kissed her little baby, she kissed the face of God. Her song reveals she did. Her song is called the Magnificat, and it speaks of the glory and the deliverance and the salvation of God. Mary knew because her song put the focus squarely on God. Mary shows a maturity that is wise beyond her years.

Let’s remember that Mary is probably around 13 years of age, but certainly not more than 16 years of age. Betrothals were often made when a young lady was 13, and the marriage was generally a year later. It would have been unlikely she would have been much older. It would not have been culturally correct. At such a innocent age, Mary turns her focus to God. She gives God the glory, and she sings a song of love, a song of hope and a song of faith.

As soon as Mary hears the words of Elizabeth, Mary knew in her spirit that what had happened to her was for real. Praise erupted from deep within like an overflowing fountain. The moment that she and her people had waited for so long had finally arrived. God had heard the cries and the longings of His children and the work of salvation had begun.

Faith grows out of worship, and Mary’s entire song is worship. Worship takes the attention off us and focuses it on God. Worship is the environment that is perfect for strengthening and deepening faith because faith keeps its vision focused on the word and promises of God and not on the surrounding circumstances. According to Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is believing that because God has declared something, it is already an accomplished fact even if the tangible and visible evidence is not immediately apparent to our senses. Mary sang of God’s salvation, even though nothing around her changed. Mary was still a pregnant young girl from Nazareth. The Romans and the Jewish king, Herod, still ruled with an iron fist, the rich still had their goods and the poor continued to struggle. But, Mary sang because she saw a vision of the changed world God was bringing into being through her son…a world where all wrongs will be righted, where every injustice will be corrected, where the oppressed and downtrodden will be lifted up and those who have elevated and exalted themselves will be humbled.

Yes, Mary did know, and because she knew, she could say, “I am the Lord’s servant.” Here’s what we need to know: This same Jesus seeks to continue becoming flesh, to continue being expressed through willing men and women, and to dwell among us. You and I were each especially made to be a dwelling place for God. You and I are the sacred vessels through which He will make Himself known in our homes, our families, our schools and our communities. The “church” building is not the place. The Temple in Jerusalem is not the place. You and I are the place.

This Advent season, Jesus comes to us, the least likely individuals in the least likely of places and He says to you and me, as the angel did to Mary, “You who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!” He promises the outpouring of His Holy Spirit upon us so that Christ might be formed within us. God forces Himself on no one. He takes the initiative and He makes the invitation. Because Mary did know, you and I are here this morning and have a living hope, a steadfast faith, and the experience of God’s eternal and life-transforming love. This hurting and broken world doesn’t need to know if Mary knew. This hurting and broken world needs to know if we do.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Value in Growing Smaller…

A phrase kept going through my mind: Reduction is a strategic endeavor. Like a song gets stuck in your head, I simply could not put those words out of my mind. I finally got up at 3:30 a.m., and wrote them down.

tape measureAt first, the phrase didn’t make sense to me, especially in light of the fact that I’m supposed to be “growing” a church. That was my first connection to the phrase, but for some reason, that left too much undefined. So, what did I do? I went to Facebook (isn’t that what we always do these days?). I posted the phrase with two companion sentences: Reduction is a strategic endeavor. Some things must grow smaller before growing larger. Some things get better by being smaller. I asked for comments. Yes, I got quite a few (and no, there were no snide comments about reducing my waistline), but they all helped bring some clarity to the idea that “reduction is a strategic endeavor.”

Here’s what I’m thinking:

It’s a personal statement about de-cluttering one’s life. We must be strategic in eliminating the right things from our life to make margin for those endeavors that are fruitful and beneficial to helping us live healthy lives. There are a lot of things with which we can occupy our time. Most of them are good things, but not all of them are the best ways for us to grow as healthy persons and disciples. We must be strategic in eliminating the distractions, and focus on the things that matter most.

Okay, so it’s also personal, and can refer to my waistline. If we want to lose weight (and I can’t think of many people who don’t want to lose weight), we must develop a healthy strategy of exercise and diet. Without a strategy (and subsequent implementation) we’ll never take the first step in doing the necessary things to accomplish the goal. I might add, this is purely self-referential. I’m not casting a dispersion on anyone else and their waistline. Developing a strategy for healthy weight loss allows us to plan our work and then work our plan.

As I reflect, I understand that “reduction is a strategic endeavor” is also an intensely spiritual statement. I am reminded of John the Baptist’s words in John 3:30, “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” It is a statement about humility. We must be strategic in living lives of humility so that our mind becomes the mind of Christ. What are those things that keep me from humbling myself before Him? Is it my pride? How do I deal with that issue? Is it my arrogance? How do I deal with that? Is it my self-centeredness? How must I deal this that? Is it my laziness? Is it the fact that I rather enjoy having my own way? There are so many questions I ask myself that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what it means to become less and less that He might become greater and greater. More than identifying them, how do I develop a strategy for dealing with them. Come Holy Spirit!

I discover the statement is also a professional statement. As I ponder this aspect of “reduction is a strategic endeavor,” I consider the “busy-ness” of many churches. We are busy with activity, but is the activity fruitful. Activities become the “end” for many churches rather than the “means.” We end up doing activity for activities sake, and that only serves to make the church more insular and stifles involvement in the community (where the people who need Jesus hang out). Thom Rainer did a great podcast on the subject recently, and made some very salient points:

  1. Activity is not biblical purpose.
  2. Busyness can take us away from connecting with other believers and non-believers.
  3. An activity-driven church often is not strategic in its ministries.
  4. A congregation that is too busy can hurt families.
  5. An activity-driven church often has no presence in the community.
  6. Activity-driven churches tend to have “siloed” ministries.
  7. Churches that focus on activities tend to practice poor stewardship.

As the body of Christ, we must be strategic in eliminating every activity that does not specifically address the mission of reaching others with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will probably get into some touchy areas, but without a strategy, we will continue to be busy, but not rather effective. What a shame!

I also reflected on “reduction is a strategic endeavor” for the church as a whole. It sounds counter-intuitive to us as we see “mega-churches” (and now, “giga-churches”) growing by leaps and bounds, and we know that growth is good, especially when others accept Christ as Lord and Savior. But, I was given pause as I considered the words of John 6:66, “At this point, many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” Sometimes, discipleship is simply too hard. It’s easier to turn away from the challenges of being a disciple, and one reason the western church may be (and I’m only speculating here) in the state of decline is because we’ve had a lot of “cultural Christians”–those who were part of the body of Christ for the benefits that came from a religious affiliation. Perhaps (and again, I’m speculating) persecution is the Lord’s strategy for winnowing out His church.

Finally, there is another consideration on the phrase “reduction is a strategic endeavor” that I’ve pondered. It stems from my time as a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church. It’s painful, but it’s true, and I hesitate to even mention it here, but I feel compelled. There are many congregations in the UM Church that lack effectiveness (for a number of reasons). Those small congregations draw resources, energy and attention away from the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Is it a matter of stewardship to develop a strategy for dealing with those congregations, for developing a strategy for reducing the number of congregations that are not achieving the mission? That’s a challenging thought, and one for which I will receive much push back, but shouldn’t someone be asking the question?

There are probably many other considerations I should make, but that’s about where I am this morning. And, now, you know what I’m thinking (as though you even cared!).

Until next time, keep looking up…

Pondering Life…

Psalm139_1316I’m up early this morning, and I’m pondering life. Two reasons, actually. First, I preached on the 139th Psalm this past Sunday. It’s my favorite Psalm. It’s my favorite Psalm because the psalmist David reveals God to be personal, present and pursuing…and that was long before Jesus appeared to be Immanuel–God with us. The second reason I’m pondering life this morning are the new allegations against Planned Parenthood selling baby parts from aborted children, and that these revelations would come as I’ve spent a week praying over and planning a message around Psalm 139. Yes, I’m pondering life this morning.

A disclaimer: This post may be out of character, as I am not prone to outrage or indignation. A further disclaimer: I am adamantly pro-life, so these allegations against Planned Parenthood have touched a nerve in a deep, deep place. So you will know, I am adamantly pro-life at the beginning as well as at the end of life. Life is a precious gift from God, and it is not to be taken lightly. I also write this morning fully aware that I am likely to offend some. That’s okay. We’ll be offended together because frankly, I’m offended that we watch idly as over 1 million infants per year are aborted.

The disclaimers continue: I am fully aware that we live in a culture that thrives on “shock value,” and that the allegations are made with shock value in mind–and they are quite shocking! I’m also aware that Planned Parenthood has vehemently denied the allegations. The very fact that such shocking allegations can be made must be investigated, and if, in any way found true, every effort must be made to end the practice, and those responsible must be punished. I think it’s also imperative that Christians speak out to denounce, in the strongest way possible, the actions of Planned Parenthood, if proven to be true.

The words I ponder from the 139th Psalm this morning are these:

13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
    and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
    Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15 You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
    as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16 You saw me before I was born.
    Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
    before a single day had passed.

17 How precious are your thoughts about me, O God.
    They cannot be numbered!

I am reminded of a quote I came across as I was preparing my sermon. It comes from a University of Washington genetic engineer named John Medina. Here’s what Medina had to say in a 1995 lecture at Multnomah Bible College:

“The average human heart pumps over 1,000 gallons a day, over 55 million gallons in a lifetime. This is enough to fill 13 super tankers. It never sleeps, beating 2.5 billion times in a lifetime. The lungs contain 1,000 miles of capillaries. The process of exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide is so complicated, that it is more difficult to exchange 02 for C02 than for a man shot out of a cannon to carve the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin as he passes by. DNA contains about 2,000 genes per chromosome — 1.8 meters [nearly 6 feet] of DNA are folded into each cell nucleus. A nucleus is 6 microns [one millionth of a meter] long. This is like putting 30 miles of fishing line into a cherry pit. And it isn’t simply stuffed in. It is folded in. If folded one way, the cell becomes a skin cell. If another way, a liver cell, and so forth. To write out the information in one cell would take 300 volumes, each volume 500 pages thick. The human body contains enough DNA that if it were stretched out, it would circle the sun 260 times. The body uses energy efficiently. If an average adult rides a bike for 1 hour at 10 mph, it uses the amount of energy contained in 3 ounces of carbohydrate. If a car were this efficient with gasoline, it would get 900 miles to the gallon.”

We are, all of us, fearfully and wonderfully made. I believe God has intricately and intimately woven each person together, and that God knows us from the moment of conception. The Psalmist communicated a deep truth, one which we are quickly losing in our culture, if we haven’t lost it altogether. Children (even those in the womb) share the common humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we must stand for justice on their behalf, especially those who have no voice. I’ve also been pondering the fact that though a child in the early stages of pregnancy may be called a “fetus,” or a “lump of tissuse,” that I looked exactly like that lump of tissue at that age.

No, I didn’t go in this direction with my message on Sunday (you can hear it here). Perhaps I should have. The thoughts have not been far from my mind, even as these further revelations were made.

I’ll probably get a lot of comments on today’s post…many that disagree with me. That’s okay, too. This isn’t a deep theological argument for the pro-life position. It’s my blog, and my attempt to make sense of a senseless situation.

So, what’s a person to do? I don’t know about you, but here’s what I’m going to do:

  • Pray. I’m going to pray for the women who are contemplating having an abortion. I know they are struggling, and most of them don’t take the decision lightly. I’m going to pray that the resources and support network will help them make a decision that is life-affirming, and that they will find grace in that decision. I’m also going to pray for those with whom I differ, and that in spite of our differences, we can work together to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with those who face the prospect of abortion. I’m going to pray that the allegations against Planned Parenthood will be investigated fully, and that a just resolution will be reached as a result of the investigation. Finally, I’m going to pray for the children, and trust that every child, both born and unborn, will continue to be held in the grip of God’s grace.
  • I’m going to be more vocal in my pro-life commitment.
  • I’m going to work more diligently with those agencies that offer meaningful alternatives to abortion.

There’s probably more I could (and should) do, but at least it’s a start.

Gee! I sure hope I haven’t drug you down. Perhaps now is a good time to say

Until next time, keep looking up…

Long Songs and Love Affairs…

Don McLean’s 1971 hit American Pie is a long song. It goes on for over 8 ½ minutes telling the story of “the day the music died.” 

Let’s call American Pie one of the longest songs to become a hit and receive regular airplay on U. S. radio stations, because generally, we don’t sit still for long songs. American Pie pales in comparison to the length of some other songs, though. Pink Floyd is known for some rather lengthy songs: Dark Side of the Moon runs almost 43 minutes, and Echoes coming in at just under 24 minutes are but two. Neither of those compare with Longplayer, though. Longplayer is a one thousand year long musical composition. It began playing at midnight on the 31st of December 1999, and will continue to play without repetition until the last moment of 2999, at which point it will complete its cycle and begin again. Conceived and composed by Jem Finer, it was originally produced as an Artangel commission, and is now in the care of the Longplayer Trust. Longplayer can be heard in the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf, London, where it has been playing since it began. It can also be heard at several other listening posts around the world, and globally via a live stream on the Internet.[1] I’ve listened to it. It’s actually very weird! But, I suppose a 1,000 year-long song should be weird.

I mention these long songs because of Psalm 119. Psalm 119 goes for 176 verses, making it the longest chapter in the entire bible. Here’s what’s interesting about the 119th Psalm: There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. There are 22 stanzas to the 119th Psalm. Each stanza of this song coincides with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, the first stanza represents the letter aleph, and all eight verses of the first stanza begin with the Hebrew letter aleph. Likewise, the second letter beth begins the second stanza, and all eight verses of the second stanza begin with the Hebrew letter beth. That pattern continues through all twenty-two stanzas.

heart wordsOh, that the English language could capture the pain-staking labor of love that is the 119th Psalm! It truly expresses the love affair the author has with God’s word. In these 176 verses, the author (whom many commentators believe to be David) magnifies God’s word, praises God’s word, thanks God for it, describes it and asks God to continue to use it in his life. The Psalm is also a testimony to the knowledge the author has of God’s word. We’ve said the best songs are those written out of the writer’s own experience. Luke Bryan, reigning Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, recently said, “I like to hunt, fish, ride around on my farm, build a big bonfire and drink some beers — and that’s what I sing about. It’s what I know.” Well, that may be what Luke Bryan knows, but the Psalmist knows God’s word, and the advice he offers was not wishful thinking on his part. He had lived it, believed it, practiced it and had seen the benefits throughout his life. He was simply trying to communicate that value to others, and he chose to do it through the longest song in the Hebrew hymnbook.

So, what is the value in having a love affair with God’s word? If we took the time to survey the entire Psalm we would hear the Psalmist tell us there is no more rewarding endeavor, and no exercise pays greater spiritual dividends than reading, and dare I say, memorizing God’s word. Here’s what we’d find through these 176 verses:

  • Our prayer life strengthened,
  • Our ability to share our faith sharper and more effective,
  • People would seek us out for advice,
  • Our attitude and our outlook would be transformed,
  • Our mind would be more alert and observant (might cure a little of our ADHD),
  • Our confidence and assurance would be enhanced, and most of all
  • Our faith would be solidified.

Every one of these traits of the spiritual life are addressed by the Psalmist, but I especially like verses 9 – 16:

How can a young person stay pure?
    By obeying your word.
10 I have tried hard to find you—
    don’t let me wander from your commands.
11 I have hidden your word in my heart,
    that I might not sin against you.
12 I praise you, O Lord;
    teach me your decrees.
13 I have recited aloud
    all the regulations you have given us.
14 I have rejoiced in your laws
    as much as in riches.
15 I will study your commandments
    and reflect on your ways.
16 I will delight in your decrees
    and not forget your word.

Verse 11 is especially telling: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Knowing God’s word can keep us from falling to temptation. What do I mean?

Jesus is our example. Matthew records after Jesus’ baptism, he went into the wilderness for forty days, and during those forty days, Satan came to tempt Jesus on three different occasions. Once, he came when Jesus was hungry and said, “Turn these stones to bread.” Jesus replied by quoting Deuteronomy 4:3: “No! People need more than bread for life; they must feed on every word of God.” Jesus quoted scripture when facing temptation. Another time, Satan came and challenged Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. Satan even quoted scripture in an attempt to deceive Jesus (Yes! There’s a correct way and an incorrect way to interpret scripture), but Jesus responded with his own quotation of scripture, again from Deuteronomy 6:16: “The Scriptures also say, ‘Do not tempt the Lord your God’.” In the third instance, Satan took Jesus to the top of a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the earth, and said “I’ll give you all these if you will bow down and worship me.” Once more, Jesus answered from Deuteronomy 6:13: “Get out of here, Satan. For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God; serve him only’.” Jesus was prepared to meet every temptation because he had “hidden” God’s word in his heart. When temptation came, he went to the Word.

Notice, though that hiding God’s word in our hearts is more than simple Bible memorization. Hiding God’s word in our hearts means to have his word live within us and transform us in the process. The written word becomes the living word, and it breathes life into our weak mortal bodies. The Holy Spirit works through the written word to transform it into the living word as he moves in our old, dead spirit, and the word becomes a source of life and strength.

Many years ago in a Moscow theater, matinee idol Alexander Rostovzev was converted while playing the role of Jesus in a sacrilegious play entitled Christ in a Tuxedo. He was supposed to read two verses from the Sermon on the Mount, remove his gown, and cry out, “Give me my tuxedo and top hat!” But as he read the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” he began to tremble. Instead of following the script, he kept reading from Matthew 5, ignoring the coughs, calls, and foot-stamping of his fellow actors. Finally, recalling a verse he had learned in his childhood in a Russian Orthodox church, he cried, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom!” (Luke 23:42). Before the curtain could be lowered, Rostovzev had trusted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.[2] The written word had become the living word in Rostovzev’s life, and so it may in ours, as well.

So, here are some simple ways to begin to hide God’s word in our hearts.

  • Read the Bible every day, even if it’s only one verse.It’s better to learn a little bit perfectly than to learn a lot poorly. The New Living Translation is one I’ve found that is easier to read.
  • Join a Bible study group.
  • Start memorizing verses.

Isn’t it time to begin a love affair with God’s word? Can we hide God’s word deep in our hearts, and let the Holy Spirit breathe into our spirit so it becomes the living word so that we can live the kind of life God is calling us to lead—a life of holiness, even when we face temptation. I remind us that God is not calling us to lead a happy life. God is calling us to lead a holy life. Perhaps then, our lives will reflect the deep, abiding love affair about which the Psalmist sang.

Until next time, keep looking up…

[1] http://www.funtrivia.com/askft/Question108744.html

[2] https://bible.org/illustration/romans-1017

May I Have Your Attention Please…

Malcolm Gladwell, in 2000, debuted his first book entitled The Tipping Point. In that book, Gladwell defines the tipping point as “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate.” The tipping point is that moment of critical mass, the threshold of something new, or dare I say, the boiling point.

your attention pleaseThe boiling point might not be a good metaphor to employ  as we celebrate 239 years as a nation. I was listening to a podcast from a church researcher this week who stated that sociologically we have seen more cultural change in the past two years than we have in the previous 200 years.[1] We know change creates anxiety, and the rapid rate of change over the past two years has left us with no little amount of anxiety, even in the church. I confess my own anxiety as a pastor who leads a congregation, knowing that our congregations can hold as equally diverse opinions on social issues, political issues and theological issues as the broader population at large. And, I am pastor to everyone, and I want to be pastor to everyone. We hold in tension the diversity for the sake of the unity of the body of Christ. May I say, it’s a daunting task.

So, what do we do in these changing times? How do we deal with such great diversity? How do we respond in this culture that seems to be so divided? May I offer this advice: Praise God.

That’s exactly what the psalmist did in Psalm 33. Psalm 33 is a hymn of praise to God that celebrates God’s righteous character, creative power and sovereignty. These are all God’s qualities that make Him the only reliable foundation for hope and trust. With this psalm, the psalmist sets the tone of worship and reverence for the people of God, and we would do well to note that reverence in the face of changing and challenging times, whether as a nation, as a church, or as individuals who are facing our own transitions in life, that God is where our hope lies. Our praise must reflect our reverence for God, our dependence upon God, and our hope in God.psalm-33-18

Sometimes I think we’ve lost a bit of reverence for God. Verse 18 says, “But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him.” The word “fear” in the Bible means “to tremble.” It is used in connection with 3 experiences: 1) To tremble with the thought of being punished by a holy God for our sins, 2) To tremble at the sight of the mighty acts of God, and 3) To tremble with joy at the knowledge that people were being saved. Fear in this sense is simple reverence.

One of the cultural shifts that gives me greatest concern is the growing lack of respect we see. We see a lack of respect for our leaders. We see a lack of respect for the diversity of one another’s opinions. Name-calling and hateful speech show an utter lack of respect. I’m doing a Facebook fast for the simple reason that I became tired of scrolling through my news feed only to encounter post after post of disparaging comments and articles aimed at destroying the humanity of others. It’s not limited to for/against. The name calling and hateful speech comes from both directions. I remind us all that Christ died for all people, and our Methodist doctrine teaches us that all persons are persons of sacred worth. I fear our lack of respect for one another finds its roots in our lack of respect and reverence for God.

We have sought to bring God down to our level. We like to refer to him as “the Man upstairs,” or the “guy in the sky.” It’s almost impossible to have reverence and respect for Jesus when you want him to wear a tuxedo t-shirt! The psalmist reminds us that praise exalts God to the proper place. The Bible says He is the Holy One—El Shaddi (Almighty One)—Alpha and Omega—Creator of the Universe—Everlasting Father. Jesus will always be my Savior. Jesus will be my Lord. Jesus will be a friend who sticks closer than a brother. Jesus will always be King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but he is not now, nor will he ever be my “homeboy.” That is simply too irreverent a reference for the one who saved me and sustains me.

I love the way Jude closes his short letter with deep reverence: “To the only God and Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forever more! Amen.” The Hebrews would not even pronounce the name of God, but in our culture we’ve developed short-hand for our irreverence—OMG! Yes, I’m guilty! That, too, points to my own need of God’s grace. We’re all in need of God’s grace in our lives. That ought to be a reminder to us to be patient with those with whom we disagree. Respect for others means we can disagree without being disagreeable. I believe our respect for one another will come as we reclaim our reverence for God.

Yes, I know that won’t end all the name-calling and such, and yes, I know it makes me sound like a stodgy old fool, but let’s start there and see where it leads us. You never know. It just might raise the level of our conversation.

Until next time, keep looking up…

[1] Podcast, Rainer on Leadership, “How Church Culture Changes,” www.thomrainer.com, July 2, 2015.

Because I’m Happy…

minion stuartDo you remember the “minions?” They are the adorable yellow little helpers for Gru in the films Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2. They’ve shown up in advertising, television programs and music since those two movies, and now, on July 10th, is the debut of their own movie entitled simply, Minions. I mention the minions because one of the more popular connections with them is The Happy Song by Pharrel Williams. It’s an incredibly uplifting number that was the theme song for Despicable Me 2.  Watch it here:

 

The Happy Song is an incredibly happy, fun song that seeks to communicate the attitude we all should have as we go through life—no matter what happens, we should be happy. If we have a “happy” attitude, everything will look bright and sunny and better than it really is. While attitude may be 90% of life’s battle, a happy attitude will not always color the circumstances of life because as we define happiness, it is too dependent upon what happens to us.

In contrast, as we survey Psalm 1, we find what I like to call “The Original Happy Song.”

Psalm 1

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
    They are like chaff
    that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

The First Psalm opens up with the phrase translated “blessed is the man.” The Hebrew word is esher, and is often translated as an interjection that says, “Happy is the man!” The New Living Translation says, “Oh the joys of those…!” This is a holy moment, and David seems to be overwhelmed with joy as he shouts this great truth in song. We need to be aware, too, that as David sings, this is the opening song of the Hebrew hymnbook. He’s writing a sacred song to a sacred people. The tune would not be on the top ten iTunes playlist. This is a song for those who desire to know God. What David says, in essence, is that if you want to discover happiness, live this way. Live this way, not that way, and you will find happiness. It’s the first instruction given to the faith community in their life of worship.

It’s interesting that Jesus started in the same place David started. You remember how Jesus began his ministry? He gathered his disciples on a hillside in Galilee, sat them down, and in the Beatitudes, gave them the keys to a happy life: “Blessed (happy) are the meek, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” Live this way, and you’ll find happiness. Jesus and David on the same page. That’s probably not an accident. It’s probably not an accident, either, that like David does in this first psalm, Jesus talked about trees, well, more specifically, vines and branches, and he also talked about a path, as does David in Psalm 1. In the same message in which Jesus preached about happiness, he closes that message with this admonition: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7: 13 – 14 NIV). Compare that to David’s, “For the Lord watches over the path of the godly, but the path of the wicked leads to destruction” (verse 6).

Both David and Jesus tell us there’s a way for people of faith to live their lives to discover the fullness of God’s salvation. It includes both positive and negative behavior. Don’t do that. Do this. There’s a right way to live, and a wrong way to live.

Here’s a point to ponder today: There are two different roads in life, and no matter how much we don’t like to talk about it, not every road leads to the same place. It might be time to ask, “Which road am I on?”

Until next time, keep looking up…

Dealing with Difficulties…

psalm 46Henry David Thoreau once said every writer’s duty was to give “first and last, a simple and sincere account of their own life.” Most songwriters take that philosophy to heart, too. That’s certainly true with Taylor Swift. Almost all her songs have to do with break-ups with former boyfriends. I don’t want to diminish the pain felt by a teenager who endures a break-up—after all, pain is pain no matter the source, but the truth is that many great songs have been written out of the depth of painful experiences. It’s true of the great hymn of the church—A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, penned the hymn in the 1520’s after the Diet of Worms at which he was charged with heresy, ex-communicated from the church and declared an outlaw. He lived the rest of his life in hiding. Through his trials and tribulations, Luther would proclaim, “A mighty fortress is our God…” Luther would take his famous hymn from another whose life had known hardship, the psalmist who penned Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.  Selah

Psalm 46 is a song of radical trust in the face of overwhelming threat. The author never clarifies the nature of the threat, but reading the psalm it would indicate that is was likely a political threat, or possibly even in the midst of a war. One commentator speculates this was another of David’s psalms and was written at the time of the Assyrian invasion of Judah to give hope and assurance of God’s presence, protection and provision in the face of the invasion.

We Americans have our own illustration of that which the psalmist sang. We call it 9-11, and most of us here remember that date, don’t we? We remember where we were and what we were doing on that day. Even on the evening, we opened our churches and held prayer meetings, and it didn’t matter what pastors planned to preach that following Sunday, it was changed so that words of comfort and hope could be spoken. There were countless sermons that called on this 46th Psalm to bring words of comfort and hope to people whose foundation had been shaken. Politically, our world has been shaken. We don’t know quite what to do with it.

Culturally, too, we feel the ground shaking around us. There are some significant cultural shifts taking place in this world. They are happening so quickly it’s like the earth is shifting underneath our feet and we can’t seem to get our footing solidly underneath us before the next shift is taking place. Technology has hastened much of that shift. The changing of societal norms has hastened that shift. We scratch our heads dealing with one cultural earthquake, and before we can figure out how to deal with that one, the next one is already overwhelming us. From same-sex marriage to climate change to immigration reform to the disintegration of the family to the legalization of drugs we’re faced daily with questions and more questions, and we’re not sure we like all the answers.

Individually, too, we can feel the earth move under our feet. We get the word from the doctor—“It’s cancer”—and the mountain crumbles. Our marriage fails and we wonder what happened. We lose a child tragically and there seems to be no reason to live. We lose our job and we’re left to wonder how we’ll manage to feed the kids and pay the mortgage. We lose again the battle with some addiction and we just get tired. All we want to do is give up the fight. Our interior lives can be shaken by the brokenness of our own sin. And, the ground shakes, the earth quakes, the mountains crumble, and we need hope. What do we do? We do exactly what the psalmist did. We cry out to God. We put our trust in him.

I see three truths the psalmist acknowledges that allowed him to put his trust in God. The first truth the psalmist acknowledged is this: God is real. The psalmist begins, “God is…” I’ve been a pastor for almost 25 years, and the one thing I’ve learned is the more I learn about God the more I discover I don’t know about God. The closer I get to God, the more questions I have about God. That does not, however, cause me to doubt the existence of God. William Murray says, “Humanism or atheism is a wonderful philosophy of life as long as you are big, strong, and between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. But watch out if you are in a lifeboat and there are others who are younger, bigger, or smarter.”

We live much of our lives as what Craig Groeschel calls Christian athiests. Christian athiests are those who believe God exists but live their lives as though He doesn’t. We’re like the atheist in London making a speech at Hyde Park who said, “My hatred of religion is inherited; my grandfather was an atheist; my father was an atheist; and, thank God, I’m an atheist, too.” When we live as Christian atheists, we wander away from God. We foster violence in movies, television and music. We become obsessed with lust. We allow greed to possess us. We kill unborn children for the sake of convenience. And, when the ground shakes beneath our feet, we tremble in fear and live with the anxiety. but, when we believe God is real, we find God is our refuge and strength. We don’t live in fear. I love how the psalmist says it in verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” We hear the words “be still,” and immediately we think of getting quiet. We think of solitude and silence. There is an element in that, but the Hebrew literally means “cease and desist”—stop what you’re doing. It’s like God is speaking to two fighting children and says, “Stop that!” Stop what you’re doing. Stop being afraid. Stop worrying. Trust me. Acknowledge that I am.

I wish I could prove God is real. I would want to point to the beach to prove God is real. I lay at the beach, especially at night, and I see the stars spread across the vast universe and I think, “This couldn’t just happen!” I hear the waves roaring and beating against the shore, and it reminds me of God’s majesty and power. The apostle Paul said creation was the best evidence of God’s existence. He wrote, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen” (Rom. 1:20). I lie there and I know it’s the sun and moon and gravity all working together, but I consider the fact that the earth is the perfect distance from the sun to support life. If we were any farther away from the sun, we would freeze; if we were even slightly closer to it, we would burn up. It’s obvious (to me, anyway) that God is real. I would also point to babies and beetles, to the bible and to the fact that the church exists. I would point to Jesus, and to my relationship with him, but it would all be pointless if I proved he were real because then it wouldn’t be faith. By faith, we acknowledge that God is real, and though our whole world crumbles around us, we will not be afraid.

The second thing I see the psalmist acknowledge is that God is present—always! We experience tragedy in our lives, or in our culture, or in our nation and we ask, “Where was God?” Where was God on 9/11? Where was God at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Where was God in my cancer? Where is God in all this cultural upheaval? The same place he was in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were rebelling. God was present waiting to cover their sin. Was He really present? Couldn’t He have stopped it before it began? Oh, it is not a matter of whether or not He could have. It is a matter of our choice. But, He was there!

God was with Joseph when he was rotting in jail – ever present. (Gen 37-50) If ever anyone’s world came crashing down, it was Joseph’s. Yet with all his hardships, problems and abuse, Joseph was able to honestly say, “You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.” God was there when his brothers sold him into slavery, and God was there when Potiphar’s wife accused him of rape, and God was even there as he languished in prison. Every step of the way, God was able to take Joseph’s circumstances and mold him ever more closely into the man he would one day become. He was there all the time, though I am sure Joseph must have wondered at times where God was, in the end all knew well He was there all the time.

We could go on and on and tell of experiences such as Moses (Ex. 1-4) on the backside of the desert – being prepared for greater service. Or, Samson (Jud 14-16) groping in darkness – being strengthened in his hour of weakness. Or, Peter & John (Acts 3-5) beaten for preaching the Gospel – being given greater opportunities for sharing the good news of Christ. Or Paul (Acts 14-28) being stoned, shipwrecked and imprisoned – yet being assured that all things work together for good to them who love God.

“Where was God?” The same place He was on a Friday when His own son’s life was being taken from Him. Ever present – Jesus was God in the flesh, enduring the pain for the benefit of others. And even the Father didn’t flee the scene. Even Jesus felt forsaken, and asked God why His presence wasn’t felt. But God was present, and sin ran its course, and that is always a most ugly scene! Where was God when His Son hung dying on the cross? Didn’t He know? Shouldn’t Jesus have been able to come down from that cross? Couldn’t the Father have prevented it? Was He helpless? Didn’t He care?

Of course, He knew! Of course He could have stopped it! And, Of course He cared! The Father knew it was happening, could have stopped it, but He didn’t. And, aren’t we glad! There was a greater good to be accomplished by the suffering and death of Jesus. Through the suffering of One, many would be made whole. Through the sacrifice of One, many would have their sins forgiven. Through the death of One, many would be made alive.

God is ever present, even when the world comes crashing down around us.

One final thing to acknowledge, briefly—God is in control. That knowledge should enable us to see our circumstances in the light of eternity. Sometimes, life is like being in a waiting room. You know there’s something wrong but you’re not quite sure what it is. You just want to see the doctor and find out what’s wrong so you can get it fixed. A waiting room can be an unpleasant and unhappy place. You want this to be over and not have to wait any more. It is all you can do to obey the scripture that says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).

Jill Briscoe says, “I remember a time when I was waiting for soon to become now. I went down in Oconomowoc to a little lake where we live, and I sat there very early in the morning, praying, pleading with God that my soon would become now. ‘God, I cannot see you working. What about all these prayers that people are praying? This is a terrible situation. What are you doing about it?’ God said to me, ‘Any fish in that lake?’ I looked at the lake, which was like glass, and I said, ‘Sure. Of course there are fish there.’ ‘How do you know? Do you have to see fish jump to believe they’re there, Jill?’ I remember sitting there for a long time until I could say to God, ‘If I never see a fish jump, I will believe they’re there and active. If I never see you answer a prayer, I will believe.’ We all have a choice when trouble comes knocking at our door. We can curse God and die, or we can trust God and grow.”

Whatever circumstance you’re facing—God’s got it. Whatever our culture is facing—God’s got it! Whatever our church is facing—God’s got it! Let’s put our trust in Him. Let’s live obediently to Him! Let’s be faithful, come what may. That’s the song the psalmist is singing. If we sing it, too, we’ll discover that God is actually writing a song from our lives, taking the good and making it better, and taking the bad and working it for good, and in the end, it’ll be a sweet, sweet song of faith and hope.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Who Said Church is Dying?

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. For those from non-liturgical traditions, Pentecost Sunday is the day we acknowledge the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples 50 days after Jesus resurrection. Luke records events in Acts 2 that occurred that day. Let’s call it the birthday of the Church, and it was one of the most awesome displays of God’s power recorded in the Bible.

pentecostUnfortunately, in many circles today the Holy Spirit is either neglected, forgotten, or misunderstood. The Holy Spirit was given to unite the body of Christ, but the Spirit has become the center of controversy. Sometimes I wonder if we lack unity because we’ve quenched the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches, and in our personal lives. I wonder if we could actually have worship without a bulletin on Sunday morning. Dr. A. W. Tozer, author and pastor, said, “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.” He said that prior to 1963. I wonder what he would say in 2015?

The first Pentecost was a demonstration of God’s power that changed the world forever. God’s power brought transformation. That’s what God’s power does. Not only was this past Sunday Pentecost, but it was historically significant for those of us who call ourselves Methodists. We Methodists call May 24th, Aldersgate Sunday. It was May 24th, 1738 that Wesley recorded these events in his journal:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death…     After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”

John Wesley had an experience with God’s power, and it too, changed the world. It was Wesley’s Methodist movement that is credited with reforming England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Historians have suggested that England didn’t go the way of France in the 18th century because of John Wesley. It was Wesley’s Methodist movement that swept across North America when, by the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest Protestant denomination in America. One in five Americans called themselves Methodist. Today, 80 million people worldwide find their religious roots in Wesley’s Methodism. That’s what happens when the power of God explodes on His people. The same power that was present on that first Pentecost is the same power that was present with John Wesley on Aldersgate Street in London, and it’s the same power that’s available to you and me today, and it’s the same power that fuels the church.

The recent Pew Research Center study on religion in America reveals some interesting findings about the faith of American Christians. As one who has served as a denominational official, and has studied the decline of our own denomination, the research only confirms what we already knew. I am blessed to serve a mainline church that is bucking the trend, but the truth is that mainline Protestantism has been in decline since the high-water mark of 1955. Someone said, “If 1955 ever comes again, the mainline church will be poised for explosive growth.”

While we may lament the decline of the Church in North America (and other places in western culture), the church is a long way from dying. The power of God revealed in the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost is still active today, and it is just as transformative as it ever was. The Washington Post ran a recent article sharing some of the amazing and encouraging facts about the growth of Christianity around the world. Here are a few facts worth noting:

  • Africa’s Christian population stands at 500 million today. Roughly one in four Africans are Christian.
  • Christianity in Asia grew at twice the rate of the population on the continent. In the next ten years, it’s projected that 110 million more people will convert to Christianity on the Asian continent.
  • Demographers estimate that more Christian believers are found worshipping in China on any given Sunday than in the United States.

As United Methodist, I’m particularly encouraged by what’s taking place in Africa. Today, there are nearly 5 million African Methodists, with an average of 220,000 more being added each year. Within ten years there will be more African United Methodists than in the United States. The Philippines is also seeing an explosion of Methodism. There, nearly one million people are  being reached through the 24 Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church.

There are other statistics I could point to that affirm the fact that Pentecost is still happening. People are being touched by the power of the Holy Spirit, and their lives are being changed. Though we lament the direction of the church in America (which says a whole lot more about us than it does the power of the Holy Spirit), it is a bit like Mark Twain said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” No, the church is not dead. It’s not even dying. It’s more alive today than ever before. If we would be the Church, and see the power of God revealed then we must, once again, open ourselves to the mind-blowing, life-changing, and as John Wesley wrote, the heart-warming Holy Spirit.

Let the fire fall, O God! Let the fire fall!

Until next time, keep looking up…