Learning to Love (Part 2)…

There is a passage in 1 John that haunts me often: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). It haunts me in light of the second part of the “Great Commandment” that Jesus stated in response to a lawyer’s question in Mark 12:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12: 28 – 31

I know that I love that which I’m passionate about, and as I’ve contemplated the first part of Jesus’s great commandment, I pray that I’m passionate about God, and that to love Him passionately is to desire Him, to devote ourselves to Him, and to discipline our lives to be with him through windows of grace like prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and others.

There is, then, this second part that troubles me–love my neighbor as myself. As Jesus gives the commandment, it seems as though the two are eternally woven together, that there cannot be the one without the other. It seems as the Apostle John views them the same way.

The starting place, perhaps, is to love myself. That seems a bit selfish on its face. Love myself? That seems too deep a subject to delve into in this blog. There would be too much navel gazing that would, in fact, become self-centered. Regardless, we are commanded to love our neighbor. Let me focus on that one…

Jesus Tells a Story

The thought makes me like another lawyer Jesus encountered. We read that story in Luke’s gospel. You can read the encounter here, but let me offer the Lynn paraphrase. We know it as the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story to a lawyer who wanted to know how to receive eternal life, and he answered his own question with a reciting of the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6—“love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” Then, he adds, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke adds in verse 29 that the lawyer wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

He wanted to justify himself. After all, you really don’t expect me to love everyone, do you? If we want to justify what we do, we can simply define people and circumstances using our own definition and thereby absolve ourselves from any guilt for not doing what we knew we should do, or for doing something we knew we shouldn’t. We’ve all got a little bit of lawyer in us, don’t we?

In response, Jesus tells the story: A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked by bandits. They beat him up, stripped him and left him for dead beside the road. We could stop right there and say the man had no business going from Jerusalem to Jericho alone. It was a road known to be frequented by bandits. See, it was the man’s own fault. He should have been smarter. He took a risk and the risk didn’t pay off. Certainly, that’s what those who stood around Jesus listening that day would have thought initially. It’s the man’s own fault. How often have we seen someone broken and beat up by life, and we thought, “Well, they made an unwise decision. They made their bed, now they have to sleep in it?” Probably, much too often.

Jesus continues by saying a Jewish priest came along, but saw the man and passed by on the other side of the road. Next, a Levite (or Temple assistant) came by, and likewise went around the man on the other side of the road. The good Jews listening to the story would have said, “Yup. That’s what I would have done.”

Neither a priest nor a Levite could sully themselves with the blood of a beaten man. It would have rendered them unclean and they would not be fit for service in the Temple. They would have to go through a drawn-out cleansing process, and it simply was not worth the effort. They made a prioritized decision. They had more pressing business to which to attend.

Then, Jesus says, a dreaded (Jesus’s word–not mine) Samaritan came by. Jesus is setting his listeners up, and he’s also setting up this lawyer. Samaritan’s were hated by Jews, and no good Jew, would want a Samaritan to help even if they were lying in a ditch dying. That’s exactly what the listeners and the lawyer are thinking, but Jesus’ story reminds us our neighbor isn’t necessarily who we think it is.

So, this Samaritan sees the man, and Jesus says, “he felt deep pity.” So, the Samaritan kneels, soothes and bandages the wounds. He puts the man on his donkey, takes him to an inn and cares for him. The next day, he offers the innkeeper money to take care of the man. He does, after all, have to go on about his business, but he tells the innkeeper, “if you have any other expenses beyond what I’ve paid you, when I come back, I’ll settle up with you.”

Jesus asks the lawyer, “Now who was a neighbor to the man attacked by bandits?”

The lawyer replied, “The one who showed mercy.”

Jesus said, “Yup. Now, go and do the same.”

Love IS Emotional

So, what can I learn from this encounter about showing love to my neighbor? First, I can acknowledge that love engages me on an emotional level. Certainly, that’s true with romantic love, but I’m reminded that we’re not talking about romantic love. We’re talking about “agape” love—that sacrificial, self-denying kind of love. Yet, even agape love engages us on an emotional level.

The Samaritan, Jesus said, “felt deep pity.” In other words, he felt compassion. Pity and compassion are both emotions, so love is emotional, but it isn’t ONLY emotional. It is the emotion, the compassion that motivates us to act, so even though it may be emotional, it becomes tangible. Compassion was the Samaritan’s motivation, and it had nothing to do with the fact the man should not have ventured down the Jericho road alone. We think, for some reason, that because a person has made a decision that led to bad consequences that we should have less compassion for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. If a person is broken and battered, we have a responsibility to love them the more. 

We should have compassion because Jesus had compassion on the crowds who sought him:

Jesus traveled through all the cities and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And wherever he went, he healed people of every sort of disease and illness. He felt great pity for the crowds, because their problems were so great and they didn’t know where to go for help. They were like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9: 35-36

The NIV says, “he was moved with compassion.” Jesus, moved with compassion, healed, restored, forgave and died. He did it all for us because he loved us. What started in the heart of God as compassion, mercy and pity ended at the cross in deep love and grace, and from that came the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of our souls.

Love IS Tangible

So, love is rooted on the emotional level, but quickly becomes tangible. If we love others, it will begin as we connect on an emotional level with others. We must remove ourselves from the center of life and feel compassion and concern for others. Else, we’ll be like the priest and the Levite. We’ll say, “I’ve got other things that demand my attention. I have my agenda. You’re not a priority right now.” To love others is to see a need and to be moved with compassion so that we desire to see lives different, better, more whole.

Emotion sustains us as we move to action. Without emotional engagement, the commitment to act will wane. Love is both emotional commitment and tangible action—the action is like that we see in the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan knelt, bandaged the wounds and carried the man to safety. The tangible act confirmed his compassion.

Love IS Sacrificial

But, this love was also sacrificial. The Samaritan had already invested his time by stopping, bandaging and carrying the man to the inn, and yes, even he took the risk of being rejected. Some Jews would rather die than have a Samaritan help them, much less touch them. It’s possible that the beaten man could have said, “Get away from me. I’ll die first!” I think, though, that only healthy people are quite so stubborn. When we’re desperately clinging to life, we’ll grasp at any straw, accept any help. The prospect of terminal circumstances changes our perspective rather quickly. Yet, rejection remains a real possibility. The lesson? We should never let our fear of rejection keep us from loving others.

We should never let our fear of rejection keep us from loving others.

The Samaritan not only sacrificed his time and energy, but he sacrificed his money, as well. He paid the innkeeper to care for the man. His money became a tool he used to demonstrate his love for others. Money is amoral. Our morals determine how we utilize the resources entrusted to us. If we ever get to the point that we see money as anything other than a tool for promoting life-transforming ministry, that’s the day our discipleship begins to die because that’s the day we turn inward and become selfish. 

Financial resources can be blessing, or they can be curse. Giving generously is a core value of a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is a means of showing our love in tangible ways. If we utilize money as a means of glorifying God, we’ll discover His blessings in ways we can only begin to imagine. But, if we grasp tightly to money in fear of losing it, we’ll discover that it will soon vanish, and we’ll be left wondering what happened, and why God seems so far away.     

One more thing I see, and that is that love is on-going. Loving others is not a one-time endeavor. Love is lived in relationship, and the Samaritan said to the inn keeper, “When I come back…” He gave money to the inn-keeper, and he had every intention of returning to check on things.

Life transformation happens in relationship. That’s why a church’s mission outreach must be more deep than broad. We can do a little good in a lot of places, but little transformation takes place, either for others or for us. Or, we can do a lot in a few places, and thereby build relationships that begin to transform the world, one relationship at a time.

I’m not sure that I’ve really learned anything about loving my neighbor as myself or not. Most days, I don’t even really know where to start, but if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned maybe I need to start with the person in front of me.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Learning How to Love (Part 1)…

I suppose it’s appropriate that I’m thinking a lot about love this week. After all, yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and I shared a message with the folks at Beulah Community Church on the biblical understanding of love (watch it here). As much as I think I understand the concept of love, I find that I struggle greatly with the actual act of loving. That’s the rub for me.

Those of us who have grown up in church have heard these words all our lives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12: 30-31, Lynn Paraphrase). We’ve heard them, and I, for one, have always asked, “What does it mean to love God?” Let’s not talk about loving others. I want to know what it looks like to love God? What does it feel like to love God? Sometimes I think it’s easier to love others than it is to love God. Of course, the Apostle John wonders, “if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:21). I assume if you’re reading this that you do, deep in your heart want to love God, too. Like me, you just want to know how.

An Encounter with Jesus

I think to know how to love God, we first need to understand the context in which Jesus made the statement. Jesus made the statement after his authority was challenged. The Pharisees were attempting to entrap him, so they had challenged him on the issue of Jews paying taxes. Pharisees didn’t like paying taxes to the occupying government, and worse, they hated the Jews who served as tax collectors for the Romans. Inhabitants were responsible for paying 1% of the income as an income tax, but in addition to that tax there were import and export taxes, crop taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, an emergency tax and others. Sounds familiar to me! Jesus said, “Pay your taxes.” He wasn’t going to be trapped.

Then, some Sadducees approached and asked a question about the resurrection. Hey? If the Pharisees couldn’t trap him, perhaps the Sadducees might. Sadducees and Pharisees were like political parties in the United States, except they were religious parties and they held differing opinions on theological issues. It might be more akin to Baptists and Methodists today. They’re both Christian, but with different understandings on certain issues. Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead, and to prove their point, they chose to challenge Jesus with an outrageous puzzle. We won’t go into what Jesus said to them. Suffice it to say, Jesus answered well.

One lawyer who had been witnessing the entire episode perceived that Jesus was a pretty smart fellow, so he thought he might give it a try. Now, think about this: a lawyer is steeped in the law—even the religious law. So, the lawyer asks a religious question, and if he was asking a religious question, he was expecting a religious answer. That’s exactly what Jesus gave him.

Jesus answered the Jewish lawyer with the Jewish “Shema.” It’s Deuteronomy 6:4 – 5, and every self-respecting Jewish male recited it every morning as part of his daily devotional. Listen to Deut. 6: 4 – 9: 

4 “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. 6 And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. 7 Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. 8 Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. 9 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Loving God, for the Jew, as it was meant to be, was about living in the constant awareness of God’s presence and grace. The purpose of the Shema was to incorporate God into daily life. Daily living was the context for teaching children about God. Daily living was the context for experiencing God. God was not just for one day a week. God was for every day. God IS for every day. If we don’t experience God somewhere, some way every day, we need to question whether we experience God at all.

Jesus told the lawyer, “Love God with all your life—heart and soul (the emotional & spiritual self), mind (the intellectual self), and strength (the physical self). Jesus was saying, “Employ all your energies—put your whole self into it. In one word—be passionate. I love the way Eugene Peterson says it in The Message: Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’

What are we passionate about? That’s a fair question, isn’t it? It’s fair because we know we invest in those things we’re passionate about. Here’s a list of passions. Where’s yours?

  • Movies
  • Clothes
  • Sports
  • Politics
  • Music
  • Food (my personal favorite)

We can even be passionate about faith, but that’s usually only one day a week. If we’re not careful, we can let life steal our passion. That’s what happens to most of us in our relationship with God.

Passion Killers

Pastor Rick Warren has a list of what he calls passion killers. He says these things are what kill our passion for Christ. First is an unbalanced schedule. Life is about balance. Too much of anything, even a good thing can be bad. Work is a great thing, but too much work can kill our passion for our spouse, our hobby, our children, or our relationship with God. 

Second is an unused talent. I know when I was a DS, and I wasn’t preaching every week, I could feel myself losing that passion. I’m passionate about preaching. I may not be very good at it, but I love to do it. You pay me to be your pastor, but I preach for free. 

A third passion killer Warren identifies is unconfessed sin. Guilt is a great passion killer. Warren says that, “We don’t walk around thinking, ‘I have a sin in my life. I am a guilty person’.” Rather, we rationalize it. Consciously we think, “It’s no big deal,” but subconsciously it gnaws at us. We don’t have to carry that guilt, though. Christ died for our sin. Confess it, and move on. Don’t let guilt kill your passion for God.

A fourth passion killer is unresolved conflict. Conflict divides us from one another. If there’s conflict at work, you don’t want to go to work. If there’s conflict at home, you don’t want to go home. If there’s conflict at church, you don’t want to go to church. Conflict will kill our passion for anything, and that includes God.

A fifth passion killer Warren notes is an unsupported lifestyle. He says we’re created for relationship, and if we live in loneliness, we find our passion for most all life diminished. God created us for relationship with himself, and with each other.

Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is about rediscovering that passion. How do we restore the passion in our lives? Three words: desire, devotion and discipline.

Three D’s

Desire is the first characteristic of loving God. We’ll never love God unless we first desire Him. We pursue the passions of our lives –whatever they are—yet, they too often leave us unfulfilled. It might just be because our hearts are made for God. I love how the wisdom writer says it in Ecclesiastes 3:11: Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.

Devotion is the next characteristic of loving God. There is no better picture of absolute devotion than a man and woman standing at the altar on their wedding day. The smiles, the endearing gazes into each other’s eyes, the little wink as the vows are spoken to each other, and the anticipation of the coming night.

I get a good view of this every time I perform a wedding, and even the worst couple, in that moment, are carried away in heart, soul, mind and strength. The great A. W. Tozer said, “We are called to an everlasting preoccupation with God.” That is devotion, and as husband and wife stand at the altar hopelessly devoted to each other, I am reminded that we are the bride of Christ.

The final word is discipline. I don’t like that word mainly because I have little self-will. It makes me cringe and think I have to do legalistic things to meet God’s approval. I think it’s being “obedient.” Obedience is not how we love God. Obedience is a response to love. Obedience is evidence of our love. Discipline is not law, but is a means of experiencing God’s grace. Spiritual disciplines like fasting, confession, Bible reading, solitude, worship and prayer are tangible ways we incorporate God in the every day.

As I write this morning, I am reminded that Lent begins Wednesday, and Lent is the perfect time to practice the spiritual disciplines more intentionally so that I can love God more meaningfully. Oh, and there’s one more discipline—the sacrament of Holy communion—it, too, is a way to incorporate God in the everyday. That’s what it means to love God—experiencing Him every day!

How will you experience God today…and everyday?

Until next time, keep looking up…

My Constant Prayer…

If you’ve been around the church at all, you’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing.” It comes from Paul’s instruction to the church at a place called Thessolinica, and it follows right after he told them to rejoice always and right before he tells them give thanks in everything. I don’t know about you, but there are a few times that I find it hard to rejoice, and there are probably a lot more times that I fail to give thanks, so that little “pray without ceasing” thing that falls in the middle finds me coming up short, too.

Paul wasn’t the only person to commend constant prayer to us. Jesus pointed out the necessity of constant prayer to his disciples before Paul ever showed up. Luke records this in his gospel:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Luke 18: 1 – 8 (NIV)

Jesus, as he was prone to doing, told his disciples a story to illustrate his point. He tells the story of a godless judge who was always put upon by a widow seeking justice for some wrong done to her. In the story, the judge granted her request because she was constantly brining her petition to him. Don’t think for a moment that Jesus was comparing God the Father to the wicked judge. He was rather saying, “If wicked men can do justice, how much more can God do justice.” He was saying to his disciples, “If you want to see God work among His people, keep praying.”

If we want to see Jesus work among us, if we want to see answers, and see lives changed, and see OUR lives changed, we must learn this discipline of constant prayer. We should pray always. I have learned, however, that constant prayer is a hard thing.

When We Pray

We all pray (see last week’s blog). Many, if not all, of us pray in the crisis times of our lives. In a time of desperation, prayer becomes the last resort, and let me say—it’s okay! Even that prayer is better than no prayer!

Jesus prayed in the crisis. On the night he was arrested, Luke tells us Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, and he told his disciples to pray that they might not be overcome by temptation. Gives me the indication that temptation might, in fact, be a moment of crisis for us, you think? But then, he went further on, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.” Luke says an angel appeared and ministered to him, and as Jesus continued praying great sweat drops of blood dripped from his brow. For Jesus, the cross lay just ahead of him. It was a crisis moment, and Jesus prayed. The great difference in Jesus and us? Jesus prayed before the crisis of the cross. We usually wait until the crisis hits.

We pray at other times, too. Many of us pray when we’re facing a major decision in our lives. Job opportunities open us for us, and many of us pray about those opportunities. We pray for guidance and wisdom to make the correct choice. Or marriage. How many of you reading this actually prayed before you got married? I’d be interested to know (share your story in the comments section below). I’ll confess. I didn’t. Or at least, I don’t remember doing it.

How about praying before we purchase a new car? Major decisions offer an excellent opportunity to pray. It raises an interesting question. Does God really care what type of car we buy? Probably not, but prayer before major decisions of life show trust and dependence on God, and that’s one of the things prayer is meant to develop.

Buying a new car can change our lives completely, though. That new car might mean extra hours at work in order to afford the payment, and that means less time with our family. It may mean less expendable income to use when we do get that time away with family to develop those relationships that will last far longer than material possessions. It may also mean the difference in being able to support the work of the Kingdom of God, which, in turn, affects our spiritual lives. Major decisions are life-changing. Why would we ever consider changing our lives without first praying about those decisions?

Finding Time to Pray

We don’t face major decisions every day, and by God’s grace, we don’t face a crisis every day, so what about this constant prayer thing? Time has been called the greatest currency and the greatest commodity of contemporary culture. In this world moving at breakneck speed, we have come to value time more than anything else. You know how it is?

The daily schedule looks like this:

  • 6:00 a.m. – Alarm goes off. Wonder why it takes so long for Saturday to get here.
  • 6:05 a.m. – Drag self out of bed. Look in mirror for signs of life.
  • 6:10 a.m. – Wake kids up, make coffee, get Pop-Tarts in toaster and cereal on table.
  • 6:15 a.m. – Shout at kids!
  • 6:16 a.m. – Get first cup of coffee. Survival looking possible.
  • 6:20 a.m. – Shot at kids!
  • 6:30 a.m. – Get in shower, while shouting at kids!
  • 6:40 a.m. – Get dressed, while shouting at kids!
  • 7:00 a.m. – Get kids loaded for school.
  • 7:05 a.m. – Get stuck in traffic (now shouting at other drivers and traffic signals)
  • 7:25 a.m. – Drop kids off at school, head to the office, while continuing to shout at traffic
  • 8:00 a.m. – Get to work, wondering why I keep this job

That’s just two hours out of our schedule. Most of the rest of our day continues that same way. We start early and we don’t slow down until our heads hit the pillow, and then we realize we haven’t really prayed. Sound familiar? Uh, huh! Me, too, and I’m a preacher. With the schedules we keep, when do we pray? How do I fit prayer into my schedule?

How We Pray

Let me first offer a word of advice on what NOT to do: Do not put prayer on your “To-do” list. When we put things on our “to-do” list, we feel guilty when we get to the end of the day, and we haven’t checked those boxes off. Prayer, or lack thereof, is never meant to make us feel guilty. Prayer is meant to usher us into God’s presence, and God wants us to know his presence in the “to-do’s” of life. Home, school, family and work are all legitimate concerns that conspire to make life a blur, but we cannot adore life unless we adore the one who gives us life. Prayer helps us adore Him. So, how? Tell me how, please?

How about starting right where we are? Rather than trying to pray in some fanciful isolation that we almost never find, we need to discover God in our times. What do I mean? Mothers, especially mothers of infants, discover God in your times with your baby. God will become real to you through your infant. Times of play with your baby are your prayer. When you are feeding your baby, sing your prayer to God.

When we’re driving down the road, instead of listening to the endless drones of another news program, turn off the radio and listen for God amidst the honking horns. Here’s my growing edge: Instead of shouting at the person who cuts you off in traffic, pray for him or her in that moment. I said that was my growing edge.

Or, how about this? Let your favorite color become a prompt for an instant of prayer. When you see purple, pray a prayer of thanksgiving.

When you hear your favorite song, let it remind you to say a prayer for your family.

When you pass a person you know on the road, pray a prayer of safety for them.

These are called breath prayers.

There are countless more ways to be in prayer. Prayer is not stopping at a specified time and saying a specified set of words. Prayer is living in God’s presence in the midst of what is happening around us. God invites us to see and hear what is around us, and through it all, to discern the footprints of the Holy.

Just Do It!

We develop the capacity for constant prayer by doing it. We can’t assume that time will magically appear for us to pray. We’ll never HAVE time for prayer—we have to make time. Don’t feel guilty because you don’t have time for prayer on a daily basis. Rather, find a time that you do have for prayer, and do it.

John Dalrymple said, “The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.” Constant prayer produces the miracle we are looking for in life. The miracle of constant prayer is the daily realization of God’s power, presence, and purpose in us, and ultimately, through us.

There was a man who would pass the church every day on his way home from work. He would stop, and go in and sit on the pew for an hour. This happened for several months. Finally, the pastor approached the man and asked what he did in those quiet times.

“Oh, I just look up at Him, and He looks back at me.”

When we look up at Him, and He looks back at us, when to pray will never be a problem. Whether at work, or on the street, or in the church, or at home, we know that prayer is a continuing experience, and an ever-present comfort.

Until next time, keep looking up…oh, and keep praying 😉

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…

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…

I Think I Need a Drink…

I wrote last week about the draining nature of 2020 for me, and the reality is that 2020 has been draining for many people, so much so that they have been driven to drink! Nielson reported a 54% increase in alcohol sales the first week of the “stay-at-home” orders in the U. S., and three weeks later the World Health Organization warned that alcohol use would exacerbate the health-related concerns of the pandemic. Go figure (see here and here for more concerns)!

I ended, though, with the expression of my desire to be filled…to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul had something to say about that idea, too! Those who follow Christ, Paul says, have “put on” a new way of being. This new way of being comes as a result of being filled…filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.

A CASE FOR WINE?

We don’t simply come to Jesus Christ for salvation and that’s the end of it. The Christian life is like my fire pit. DE7E8223-A03C-479B-B090-F8D65F778712Vanessa and I love sitting around our fire pit, but to continue to enjoy its warmth and glow, we have to keep stoking the fire. It’s a process that keeps the fire burning. So is the Christian life.

The Apostle Paul liked to use analogies, too. As he wrote describing the life of followers of Jesus Christ, he variously used a wrestler, a runner and a soldier. Those are all active people. We must do something as we participate in this walk of faith where we are becoming people of Christ.

Paul having previously cautioned the Ephesians about their behavior, says in 5:15– “Be careful how you live.” He says, “Don’t be foolish, but rather be wise. Take advantage of every opportunity.” Then, in verse 18 he cautions them to not “be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life.

Some folks read verse 18 and think Paul is making a case against Christians drinking. Is Paul telling Christians not to drink? Not really. Paul wasn’t a tea-totaler, and he would instruct his protégé Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). We know wine was a common beverage in the first century, and that Jesus himself drank wine. Don’t forget that Jesus even turned water into wine at a wedding (John 2: 1-12). This passage is not a case against drinking wine. It is a case against getting drunk. More particularly, it’s a case against getting drunk as a religious activity.

There was in the city of Ephesus a great following of the god Dionysus. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine. The worship of Dionysus included drinking, drinking and more drinking with lots of frenetic dancing thrown in. Think “frat party” here and you’ll have a good idea of their religious service. Followers would drink and dance until they were drunk. The belief was that if they could get totally wasted they could open themselves to the fullness of the god, Dionysus. That’s the culture these new followers of Christ were coming out of, and Paul says, “You don’t have to do that!”

BE FILLED

Paul knew (and we know) that life is challenging. Between the time we come to trust Christ and the time we enter heaven, life happens. Life doesn’t go swimmingly just because we came to Christ. The problems we had before are likely the same problems we have after. The same temptations we had before are probably the same temptations we have after. The problem is that when we face the challenges that life presents us, we’re want to reach back into the old life and deal with those challenges in the old way. Paul tells the Ephesians they don’t have to reach back into their old life because in this new life there is a new way to be filled with the power of God. This new way is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Paul says that rather than be filled with wine, be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are some who believe this filling by the Holy Spirit is one in which we get carried away in a frenzy. Paul isn’t talking about running up and down aisles, jumping pews or speaking in tongues. He uses a word that means to be “under the influence.” To be filled with the Spirit is to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we’re prompted to ask “How do we come under the influence of the Holy Spirit?” Paul’s use of the word helps us understand that, too.

The word is given as an imperative. That means it’s a command. It’s not an option. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not something reserved for pastor’s and worship leaders. It’s something that’s intended for every believer. Every believer is given the Holy Spirit as a seal when we come to faith in Christ, and so it is God’s desire that each believer live under the Spirit’s influence. Rather than being under the influence of some alcoholic beverage, or the influence of some other outside source, we are to live under the Spirit’s influence.

The word is also in the present tense, which speaks of a continuous action. It’s not a one and done thing (sort of like my fire pit I mentioned earlier). This filling is meant to be an on-going process—an on-going experience.

A lot of people have had mountain-top moments on their journey of faith. A mountaintop moment is like Peter, James and John had when they went with Jesus up Mount Tabor and saw him transfigured (Matthew 17: 1 – 11). They wanted to stay there. In that moment, they were just so close to God. But, mountaintop moments fade because life is lived in the valley. This filling Paul talks about is meant to be an everyday kind of filling that sustains us through life in the valley. It’s meant to influence us every day. We can’t fill our cars up with gas once. We have to fill them up continually.

There’s one more interesting point about the word used: the word is in the passive voice. It means this filling is something that is done to us. We can’t fill ourselves. We can only put ourselves in a place where God can fill us. How do we do that?

GETTING FULL

First, we ask. Have we ever asked God to fill us with His Spirit? Every day we can ask God to fill us. Fill me as I go to work today, Lord. That’s what I do! Every morning, I’m continually asking God to fill me with His Spirit, to speak his word through me. You can pray these prayers, too:

  • “Fill me with your Spirit, Lord, as my spouse and I deal with this issue.”
  • “Fill me as I face my boss today.”
  • “Fill me as I deal with this health issue.”
  • “Fill me for _______________.”

If we’re not under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we’re going to want to revert to old, and even self-destructive ways, to face the challenges of life. Simply ask. Jesus said in Luke 11:13: So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Second, we worship. Worship puts us in the place where we can experience the Holy Spirit. Paul says “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians 5: 19). Regular worship is part and parcel to being continuously filled with the Spirit. We experience God and are drawn closer to Him.

Third is fellowship—connecting with other believers. Paul stresses that fact throughout his letter to the Ephesians, and does so once again as he says, “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). The Christian life is not a “one-person show.” We need each other. We cannot, and we will not, be filled with the Spirit unless we connect with the body of Christ and other believers.

Finally, we connect with God’s word—the Bible. When we open the pages of the Bible, the Holy Spirit feeds our souls. Just reading the words opens us to experience God in new and life-changing ways.

I hear some of you saying, “Well, I just don’t get much out of it when I read the Bible. I can’t feel anything we I read it.” Trust me. Just the act of reading the words opens us—even if we don’t feel it. Look, we’re not always going to “feel” God doing God’s work. Just because we don’t feel it, doesn’t mean He’s not doing it.

God is faithful and He will fill us. We just have to put ourselves in the place where we can be filled.

0A615C60-C567-4824-B5DD-4044B35A7F4D_4_5005_cSo, let’s all have a drink! Drink in the fulness of Jesus Christ through His Holy Spirit!

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…

G.O.R.P….

I am not a hiker, but I have been hiking. So, I know very little about hiking except what I’ve read. I mention hiking, though, because hiking comes to mind when I think about God’s sanctifying grace (yeah, I know, you can’t figure out how my mind works–sometimes I can’t either).

SANCTIFICATION

I am thinking about God’s sanctifying grace because I’ve been studying again the core beliefs of the Evangelical Methodist Church. Here’s what the Church says about sanctification and living a holy life: “We believe in entire sanctification following regeneration, whereby the believer is cleansed from the pollution of sin, saved from its power, and enabled through grace, to love God with all his/her heart,” and “We believe that every Christian is expected to live a holy life, one that is truly Christian.”

Regeneration. Sanctification. Those are three dollar theological words that mean “a new life” and “a holy life” respectively. New life (regeneration) comes when we accept Jesus Christ, and a holy life (sanctification) is what grows out of following Christ. Now, you’re probably wondering, “What does any of that have to do with hiking?” I’m glad you asked.

Do you know what G.O.R.P is? G.O.R.P. is an acronym that stands for granola, oats, raisins and peanuts, or as others have said, “Good old raisins and peanuts.” For a hiker on a journey, gorp is a snack designed to keep the hiker from crashing on an extended trip. It’s hard to pack a lot of food on an extended hike, and g.o.r.p. is sufficient in calories to keep the hiker from experiencing what is known in the hiking world as the “bonk.” A bonk is when a hiker doesn’t take in enough calories and energy and capacity deteriorates, thus preventing one completing the journey. Good old raisins and peanuts is meant to sustain the traveler through the journey, to help the person stay fueled to finish the hike.

That, in a nutshell (no pun intended), is the essence of God’s sanctifying grace. Life is a journey, and all along the way God’s grace is available to us, in different ways at different stages of the journey. It is God’s sanctifying grace that sustains us over the long haul of life. It is His grace made real in the challenging times, when energy and capacity wane…when life happens.

Sanctifying grace is God at work in us through the Holy Spirit to transform us. Our journey, our spiritual journey, is a journey toward transformation. When we come to Jesus Christ and he forgives our sin and gives us a new start, that’s not the end of the journey. In that moment, Jesus does something for us. If justifying grace is God doing something for us, sanctifying grace is God doing something in us. The something He desires to do is make us holy. We hear that word “holy” and we think, “Who me? Holy? No way.” Yet, that is the life Christ call us to.

HOLINESS

Understand, living a holy life is not living a holier-than-thou life. None of us will likely ever live a perfect life, at least that’s been my experience—but that could just be me. But, John Wesley taught that not only does Christ deliver us from the consequence and penalty of sin, he also delivers us from the power of sin. The Apostle Paul does a masterful job in Romans 6 explaining this idea.

(c) John Wesleys House & The Museum of Methodism; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John’s brother, Charles Wesley, also does a masterful job capturing John’s teaching with this verse from Charles’ great hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing:

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
  He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
  His blood availed for me.

As we journey through this life, there will always be temptations to sin. There will be challenges to our faith. There will be crises that cause us to doubt. We will deal with death. We will deal with disease. We will deal with difficult people. We will deal with anger. We will deal with frustration. That is the life. In those times, we need grace, and God gives us grace so that we need not surrender to the baser insticnts of our fallen nature. Christ has given us new life. Christ gives us hope. It is Christ who sustains us through life.

The holiness Christ call us to is different than sinlessness. As Wesley taught it, and we understand it, holiness is nothing more…but also nothing less…than love for God and love for neighbor. It is to love as God loves. Jesus gave us two great commandments. We find them in Mark 12: 29 – 31: “The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.

The spiritual journey of life is about growing up in love. It is growth, and growth is a process. We don’t miraculously love as God loves. Oh, that it would be so simple. Growth is a process, and holiness is a process. Yes, there is, in one sense, where we are made holy by the work of Christ on the cross, but holiness that is lived out occurs over time. Don’t be surprised if you didn’t wake up the day after you accepted Christ living a holy life. But also, don’t be surprised if he begins a work in you, too.

C. S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, explains it this way. When he was a child, he often had a toothache, and he knew that if he went to his mother, she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let him get to sleep. But, Lewis said, he did not go to his mother–at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason he did not go was this: He did not doubt she would give him the aspirin; but he knew she would also do something else. He knew she would take him to the dentist the next morning. He could not get what he wanted out of her without getting something more, which he didn’t want. He wanted relief from his pain; but he couldn’t get it without having his teeth set permanently right. And he knew those dentists; he knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. Our Lord, says Lewis, is like the dentists. Lots of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.

Sure, most of us don’t wrestle with big sins…even the day after accepting Christ. You know, like murder and stealing and lying. No, what we deal with are much more subtle sins…like selfishness, jealousy, greed and envy. Those sins need transforming, too, and when we struggle with those along our journey, when they sap us of our energy and capacity to love, it’s then we need grace, and the promise of the Gospel is that God gives us His grace—His sanctifying grace—to give us strength, to give us energy, to give us hope in the face of the struggle so that we move closer to the place…closer to the destination…closer to the trailhead…closer to holiness.

What is our G. O. R. P.? What sustains us so that we make it to the end? What makes us holy? I remind us again of the disciplines of the spiritual life—prayer, solitude, fasting, accountability. We know about bible study, too. Another is submission. All of these are the disciple’s G. O. R. P. They strengthen us and grow us in holiness.

There is another one, too. It is the sacrament of Holy Communion. There is strength here. There is grace here. At the Lord’s table, we are reminded of love, and we’re reminded to love. And, we’re reminded that love is sacrifice. It is sacrifice that the Apostle Paul calls us to in Romans 12: 1 – 2—the surrender of ourselves to Christ:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

We recall Christ’s sacrifice for us, and we see in it his sacrifice, and we acknowledge he calls us to the same sacrificial life. At the Lord’s table, we find strength for the journey. Here we are enabled to keep moving forward.

The Australian coat of arms pictures two animals—the emu, a flightless bird, and the kangaroo. The animals were chosen because they share a characteristic that appealed to the Australian citizens. Both the emu and kangaroo can move only forward, not back. The emu’s three-toed foot causes it to fall if it tries to go backwards, and the kangaroo is prevented from moving in reverse by its large tail. In the following of Jesus, G. O. R. P. helps us be like the emu and kangaroo, moving only forward, never back…becoming more like Jesus everyday–that is holiness…that is sanctification.

Until next time, keep looking up…