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Wineskins

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. -Mark 6:22

In his book, Aquachurch, Leonard Sweet wrote, “If you’re doing church the same way you were a year ago, you’re falling behind and failing.”  Never has change come so quickly to a society and the Church is not exempt from the consequences.  Yet for many of us the Church is where we seek refuge from the dizzying pace of life.  It is where we look for stability and security, something familiar and comfortable.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  For God in Christ is our stability and security.

However, the containers in which we experience God in our life and share it with others have to change and adjust, flex and give or we lose him.  Jesus was talking about that when he said “you can’t new wine in old wineskins.”

Our problem is that we sometimes have trouble separating the wine (Jesus) from the container.  That is often why we have trouble keeping up with and accepting the changes necessary to be faithful.  It doesn’t matter where it’s in music, or forms of ministry or worship.

It can be scary.  But it’s also exciting to have an opportunity to share Jesus in new and different ways.  For be sure of one thing, Jesus is still the greatest need people have.

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“Why Does God Permit Evil?”

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. -Romans 8:28 (NIV)

Some years ago, I sat in a doctor’s office and he told me he was an atheist because of the evil in the world.

There is perhaps no problem, no question which troubles more people about the Christian idea of God   that this one: “Why does God permit evil and suffering?

A couple of months ago, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, there was a lot of discussion of this.  A full range of opinions from those like the doctor to those who suggested that somehow God willed this event were expressed.

Some people deal with this question by explaining it away—nothing is really bad.  It’s just that we don’t have enough knowledge.  If we knew all we would see that really it wasn’t evil at all, just shadows that add depth to a beautiful picture.  In our world it is increasingly difficult to hold to that idea.

For others it is God’s will.  We may not understand but we must simply accept it.  Whatever will be will be.  It is punishment for sin.  He sends it for trial or testing.

More than 30 years ago, a Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner wrote a best selling book—Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.  Churches all over the country studied it.  His answer to the question was basically that God is limited in power and cannot prevent some things.

While it is true that many find comfort in some of these ideas the Bible says something different.

God is the creator and all powerful.  So, in one sense, it can be said that God is responsible for evil in that He created a world in which it is possible.  He gave human beings a choice and they made the wrong one.  Since all creation is woven together and interrelated, as the weaving of a fine fabric, those choices affect everybody and everything.  It is not just a spiritual flaw but even the natural order is affected.  Read the creation account about how humans’ relation to the earth is changed.  In short, we blew it and ruined everything.

But there is good news.  God did not give up, abandon creation, us.  He set in motion a plan to do it over, even better than before.  The key in this plan is Jesus Christ.  Through him God gives us a second chance to make the right choice—that is to trust God with our lives.

The good news is not that it is a cure for suffering and evil in this world but that God has a means for using suffering and evil to defeat itself (signified by the cross).  God’s great power is shown in, not that everything that happens is good but, that God uses even evil to carry out His great plan.

Evil and suffering are a reality in this life, but God is not pleased, in fact, suffers with us.  And He is doing something about it.  A new age has begun, a new creation described by John (Rev. 21:1-4).  The whole creation, Paul says, has been groaning, as in pains of childbirth…as we wait eagerly for…redemption.  In the meantime: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ…(Romans 8:35-39).

Don’t Forget

Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard.  – Revelation 3:3

One of the constant warnings God issued to His people in the Old Testament was not to forget, often to little avail.  One of His most common charges to them was that they had forgotten.  Specifically they forgot: the “things they had seen,” “the covenant,”  that they had “provoked” the Lord, “all his benefits.”   Most of all they forgot “The Lord who brought [them]…out of Egypt.”     In contrast, God would not forget them or His promises.

Human beings are subject to spiritual amnesia.  We forget.  We forget God’s blessings.  We forget our sins.  We forget our promises to God.  We even forget God.  Phillip Yancey confesses that when he takes a trip, gets out of his normal routine, “it will suddenly occur to me that, except for a cursory blessing before meals, I have not given God a single thought all day.”  I don’t know about you but that “hits me dead center.”

At it’s simplest, living a life in the Spirit is living in remembrance of God. That is, to live our lives paying attention to God, with an awareness of living it before God.

However, that does not come easily or naturally.  It takes the “D” word, the word which our nature and our culture want to banish.  It takes Discipline which involves practice, focus, intention.  We will slip back at times and need to repent, but as we walk with Him, we expect that our sense of his presence will be more constant and more important to us.  So in the midst of so many distractions, which challenge us all, remember God.

Where We Are

You must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. –II Peter 3:3

I was recently looking at the results of a national study on the “Beliefs, Preferences and Practices” of the American people.  It is the first of its kind study in fifteen years.  Several things in particular caused me to “sit up and take notice.”  The first was that over four in ten Americans  (42.3%) believe “God is the full realization of human potential.”  More than one in four  (27.9%) agree with the statement: “Everyone and everything is god.”  When asked about religious preferences almost one in four (22.6%) answered “none.”

Another study by the Barna group and examined in a book by David Kinnaman, “You Lost Me,” deals with the mass exodus of young Christians from church.

These and other data paint a sobering picture of the state of Christianity and the church along with prospects for the future.  In light of that what is a Christian to do?  For some it becomes an exercise in spiritual “hand-wringing.”  For others, the response is “We know the outcome.”  Jesus said “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  So, let’s go merrily on our way to heaven and “to hell (literally) with the rest of the world.”

However, Jesus warned this would happen.  And in that context, he gave us our orders: “Go and make disciples, followers of Jesus.”  How can we do that in a world like ours?  There is no easy answer.  However, there is one thing we must do.  Make sure our/my life models Jesus.   Nothing so disarms the enemy, so attracts others to him.  We see too many Christians (I use the word loosely) who disprove the good news.  We have too many churches where it is not taken seriously and who settle for a thin religious veneer rather than transformed lives.

A former professor of mine, Dr. James Robertson, used to say (in his rich Scottish brogue) we need to “adorn the gospel.”  He was saying we need to live so our living is good advertisement for God’s way.  Everything else depends on God’s people being like Jesus.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny ? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father…. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.  –Matthew10:29,31

For those of us living in the NE corridor of the United States and the path of Hurricane Sandy, today we are either breathing a sigh of relief because we were spared or we are assessing the damage and trying to make sense of it all.  And in the midst of a disaster like this we need perspective.  As I have been thinking about it I just want to share what I wrote after the Haitian earthquake of 2010. Read it.

Suffering and Growing

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name [of Jesus]…. In those days…the number of disciples was increasing. –Acts 5:41, 6:1

“this century [the 20th],…has produced more martyrs than all other centuries combined.” – Philip Yancey

 Recently, as I was looking to update for our church newsletter something I once wrote, I went to the website of the World Methodist Council.  This headline caught my attention: “General Conference in Fiji to Begin Wednesday.” When I read the news report and some background I found out that the government had not allowed the Methodists to meet for four years.  This year they have been given permission to meet under some very strict rules.

Tensions between the MethodistChurch in Fiji and the government erupted in May 2009 when the rulers of the nation took steps to ban the annual conference, cancelled weekly radio programs associated with the church and even arrested nine Methodist leaders…. Police Commissioner Brigadier General Ioane Naivalurua has warned there may be a police presence to ensure attendees do not stray off topic from a pre-approved agenda.

This kind of experience is not an unfamiliar one in church history.  Christians have often faced great personal and corporate obstacles to their journey with Jesus.

            Some years ago Susan Bergman published a book entitled Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith.  It is stories of those 20th Century Christians all over the world who have sacrificed their lives in witness to Jesus Christ.  In the reviews of the book, Philip Yancey says, “this century,…has produced more martyrs than all other centuries combined.”  The 21st century may well pass that.  Richard Wurmbrand, who spent 14 years in prison for his faith, says that a third of the Christian church today must operate in secrecy, under the threat of extermination.

In our own denomination, depending on your source, there are now estimated to be as many as 70 million Methodists in the world.  In the last generation some areas of the world have shown staggering increases while others have declined.  What is thought provoking is that the growth areas almost always correspond to those areas of the world where it is costly to be a Christian and the declining areas are where Christians enjoy privilege and comfort.  For instance in a 30 year period;  Methodism in Africa grew by 178%;  Asia 319%;  in the Pacific 158%; and in Latin America 583 % (source World Methodist Council).

In those same years churches in both Europe and the United States were in decline.

Even where the church is declining, there are exceptions, individual congregations which defy the pattern and grow.  Again almost without fail, those churches are where the cost of being a disciple is made real in some way.

The evidence is clear.  History has demonstrated over and over that Christianity thrives on hardship.  The reason is clear.  Discipleship, Jesus said, is the way of the cross.  It is costly to be a follower of Christ.  When we try to make it easy for people to be Christians, we distort the Gospel and at best, it survives sterile and unproductive, or it dies.

For those willing to take the costly way of the cross there is a life of joy and power.

“Helpless No More”

At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. –Romans 5:6

          Did you hear about the plane that left Chicago bound for LA.  As it leveled out at 40,000 ft., a voice came over the loudspeaker:

          “This is a recording. You have the privilege of being the first to fly in a wholly electronic jet.  This plane took off electronically. It is now flying a 40,000 feet electronically.  It will land in LA electronically.
          This plane has no pilot, no co-pilot, no flight engineer.  But don’t worry.  Nothing can go wrong…go wrong…go wrong…go wrong…go wrong.”

          There is perhaps no human predicament more frightening or unsettling than that of
                   helplessness,
                   to be out of control,
                   unable to do anything,
                   to alter a particular circumstance,
                   to be at the mercy of events or another person.
          John Bunyan begins Pilgrim’s Progress by describing the despair of helplessness.
          Therefore it is particularly important to remember:
          It was hard to be a Christian under Roman Empire.
          It was hard to be a Christian during the time of Martin Luther.
          It was hard to be a Christian during the time of John Wesley.
          It was hard to be a Christian early in our history.
Well, we’ve moved beyond a lot of the problems of those times but it is still hard to be a Christian.
          I remember an Annual Conference (yearly regional gathering of our denomination’s leadership) when we heard a wonderful sermon during the ordination service.  It was on being servants of God, how that is our calling—to  express God’s love.
           The sermon was delivered with great zeal and in an inspiring way.  It      was true.  You could hear and see the consensus, the affirmation of those who heard it.  My good friend expressed it—“It needed to be said.”  There, however   is a catch.
          The Bible says we are helpless.  And there is nothing more frustrating or discouraging than to be told what we ought to do or how we ought to live and not to be able to do it.  It is hard to be a Christian—i.e. to live like one!
          But the good news is not first about what we are to do.  It is about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  We were helpless/powerless but by now trusting in Jesus we have a new life that makes it possible to live as followers of Jesus.  God’s love becomes the central driving force of our life.  We are helpless no more.

Squeezed by Life

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?…How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? … But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. -Psalm 13

Do You ever complain?
Do you ever complain to God?
Get angry with Him?
How do you feel about that?

            Did you know there is a whole group of Psalms that are characterized by complaining to   God—Psalms of Lament.
            Furthermore, there are other Biblical examples of holy people, God’s own people saying things to God we would never expect—complaining, accusing, etc.  Listen to the great prophet Jeremiah:

He tells God he is suffering for Him, he has  fed on God’s words, they were his joy and heart’s delight.
            I never sat in the company of the revelers,
              never made merry with them;
            I sat alone because you hand was on me
              and you had filled me with indignation.
            Why is my pain unending
              and my wound grievous and incurable?
            Will you be to me like a deceptive brook [“liar”-King James trans.],
              like a spring   that fails? 

            What we have here is the real life of God’s honest believer living in a world where we get squeezed by life and the practical example of how they have reacted.  These people are human, fallible, struggling, yet believing.
            I was introduced to Brian Sternberg years ago in a book by Philip Yancey called Where Is God When It Hurts.  As I was working on this I did some research and came across the following from a sermon by R.J. Tusky just last month:

            Once upon a time, Coach Grant Teaff wrote a book called “I Believe.” It’s about a young man who was once the world’s greatest pole-vaulter. His name is Brian Sternberg.
            In 1963, Brian was a sophomore at the University of Washington. He was not only the world’s best pole-vaulter, but also America’s trampoline champion. Teaff says:  “Word around track was that Brian Sternberg was the most self-centered, young athlete to come along …in a long time.”
            Teaff tells how he watched Brian perform the day he broke the world’s record. He says: “The thing that caught my eye was his poise, self-confidence, and that he never smiled.”
            The next day at breakfast, Teaff was stunned when he read the newspaper headline: “Brian Sternberg Injured.”  Brian had been working out, alone, in the gym. He did a triple somersault and came down on the trampoline …off-center. His neck hit the edge of the frame, snapping it and leaving him totally paralyzed, able to move, only …his eyes and his mouth.  Brian was left a helpless, hopeless cripple, and …a very …very …bitter  …young man.
            Five years later, Coach Teaff saw Brian again. It was at a convention for coaches and athletes at Estes Park, Colorado.
            Once everyone was seated, the auditorium was totally darkened. Suddenly, a movie projector lit a large, panoramic screen. There was Brain Sternberg …racing down the runway, executing that record-breaking pole-vault. Every coach and athlete in the room “oohed” and “aahed.”
            Then the auditorium went totally dark again …except for a single, brilliant spotlight, illuminating a single chair, with arms, on the, otherwise …bare, stark stage. It looked like some tractor-beam from a spaceship, locked onto that chair.
            Then, out of the stage-shadows, came a huge, nationally-known, football player named, Wes Wilmer. In his arms was what looked like a large ragdoll. Its long arms and legs hung limp at its sides and flopped this way and that, as Wes Wilmer walked across the stage. The ragdoll was six-foot, three-inch Brian Sternberg, all 87 pounds of him.
            Wes placed him in the chair and carefully, propped him up with pillows, so he wouldn’t fall over. Then, in a raspy voice, Brian Sternberg began to talk:
            “My friends-Oh, I pray to God that what has happened to me, will never happen to one of you.  I pray that you will never know the humiliation, the shame…of not being able to perform one …single …human …act.  Oh, I pray to God you will never know the pain I live with everyday.  It is my hope and my prayer that what has happened to me will never happen to one of you.  Unless, my friends …that’s what it takes for you to put God …in the center of your life.”
           
The impact of Brian’s words on that particular crowd was absolutely electrifying. No one there will ever forget them.

            I read somewhere that it was said the place to go if you wanted encouragement is Brian Sternberg’s house.
            Brian, Joni Eareckson Tada (paralyzed in a diving accident) and untold multitudes more, squeezed by life find in Jesus Christ meaning and purpose.  And they become shining examples of how life with God overcomes all obstacles.
            Brian once closed a Look magazine article this way: “Having faith is a necessary step toward one of two things. Being healed is one of them. Peace of mind, if healing doesn’t come, is the other. Either will suffice.”1

1 “The Spirituality of Suffering,” http://www.theaword.org

God Has a Plan

You intended… harm…, but God intended…good. Genesis 50:20 
In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

My daughter, Heather shared this story with us:

Her sons, Carter (5) and Kanu (2) were playing with Legos, and she heard Carter say very calmly, “Don’t get mad Kanu. You know what?”
     “What?” Asks Kanu.
     Carter continued, “God always has a plan. Even if things seem bad, he always has a plan.”

How are things going for you right now? 

Not too good.  God has a plan.
Things are going wrong at work.  God has a plan.
I lost my job.  God has a plan.
My son/daughter is struggling with growing up.  God has a plan.
My husband/wife wants a divorce.  God has a plan.
We’re losing our house.  God has a plan.
The doctor’s news was bad.  God has a plan.
I’m overwhelmed with my children, my job, life.  God has a plan.

In the Genesis story, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery but God had a plan. 

God always has a plan.  Even if things seem bad, he always has a plan.  What a powerful truth.  You may not know or understand what it is, but it is for your good in spite of how it seems right now.  Trust God and God will work out the plan for your good.

A Time for Silence

[God] said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence….Then the LORD said….” I Kings 19:11-12, 15a

The United States is probably the only country in the world where success is measured by how busy you are.  Before the recent economic downturn Americans were increasingly working longer and longer hours.  They are way in front of all industrialized nations.  One UN report said they worked 2 ½ weeks more than Japanese, 6 weeks more than British and 12 ½ weeks more than German workers.  An economist who oversaw that report said, “It has a lot to do with the American psyche, with American culture. American workers are eager to make the best impression, to put in the most hours.”

We fuss about being busy with too crowded schedules.  We lament that we don’t have enough time for the important things like devotions and ministry for example.  But it looks suspiciously like all our protestations are really a way of saying to people, “Look how important I am,” or “Look how successful I am.”  Because we continue to make choices that keep us busy rather than enabling us to slow down, simplify, and prioritize our lives by what we say are the really important things.

One of the victims of our busyness is silence.  I made a phone call about our long distance service and as you might expect was told something like all our representatives are busy serving other customers, your call will be answered as soon as possible.  Then I was treated to silence!

I was reminded of that later when I read an article on silence in worship.  Silence is a rare experience for harried, busy, successful getting-ahead-people.  Chances are if you have an experience of silence it makes you uncomfortable, uneasy, irritated.  Waiting for someone to answer your call is not an opportunity for silence but an irritation.

As one writer observes, even in worship, “Silence, it seems, is to be filled.”  She continues, “I suppose we inherit this sense of silence as ‘dead air time’ from radio and TV, where every second of time not pulsing with a voice or image is ‘lost’ or ‘dead.’”1

Silence is difficult to find in our daily lives even for those who seek it.  We have become so accustomed to so called “white noise”–whine of refrigerators, idling motors, florescent lights, neighboring boomboxes, passing cars, etc. we are startled by silence.  Our life style our technology all make it difficult to find stillness, silence.  It is true that every new technology changes the way we live.

To be sure there are times in which it is sinful to be silent.  To face evil and say nothing is sin.  To keep silent when God is to be praised is sinful.  We are told there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccl 3:7 NRSV).  Yet, the Bible places a great emphasis on silence.

It is a sign of wisdom—If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom! (Job 13:5 NRSV)  Jesus certainly demonstrated it was important to him.  Do you regularly use silence as a part of your discipleship practices?

John Wesley was once advised to preach faith until he had it and then to preach it because he had it.  I’m not there yet in regards to silence.  But by God’s grace I hope to get there.  I invite you to go with me.

Some reasons for silence

1Marilyn Chandler McEntyre