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Thanksgiving

Today in countless homes, in all kinds of places people will think about and tell about things for which they are thankful. The list is long for most of us and most of us realize there are even more things than we are aware of.

However, the most intense moments of thankfulness are not found in times of plenty, but when difficulties abound. Think of the Pilgrims that first Thanksgiving. Half their number dead, men without a country, but still there was thanksgiving to God. Their gratitude was not for something but in something. It was that same sense of gratitude that lead Abraham Lincoln to formally establish the first Thanksgiving Day in the midst of national civil war, when the butcher’ s list of casualties seemed to have no end and the very nation  struggled for survival.

It is exactly the type of situation referred to in the Bible: give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thess 5:18) Our list of “fors” might be short. Perhaps in your own life, right now, there is intense hardship. Try following the directions of the Psalmist: Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth… Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. -Psalms 100:1a, 4 (NIV)

Praising God, giving thanks won’t change your circumstances but it will change you. True thanksgiving is accompanied by joy. Through grace it is God’s gift to you.

Have a joyful Thanksgiving Day!

P.S. A personal story: Today I started my day with this song that I had not thought about for a long time and I experienced the results of praising God.

It’s a Covenant

“I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” -Hebrews 8:10b (NIV)

For more than 200 years many Christians have begun a new year with a worship time called a “Watch Night Service.” Influenced by a Moravian practice, in 1740 John Wesley held the first Watch Night Service. It was a time of reflection, testimonies, singing, and prayer. Later Wesley would call them “Covenant Renewal Services.”

In the book of Hebrews, the writer places this statement in the context of God’s dealing with His people in the Old Testament: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Hebrews 8:10)

Few concepts or terms are more basic to the Bible story than that of covenant.  It is not a concept unfamiliar to us either, though the term may not be as common as some others—contract, agreement, deal.  God’s relation to His people (from the Biblical perspective) is a covenant relationship.  It is about a relationship governed by promises, obligations.  God is the initiator and prime determiner but His people have a part to play.

The blessings of the covenant are more than part of a ceremony. They become reality in the life of His people.

The Bible makes clear that at the heart of the covenant is God’s love. You are important to God, more important than the whole world.  And that applies not just to the saints.  Whoever you are, whatever your past or present state, even your future, God loves you.

The Old Testament story shows a people who are hard-headed, unfaithful, ungrateful, unloving, and untrustworthy who repeatedly break their promises to God and break His heart.  The book of Hosea compared them to an unfaithful wife, an adulteress.  His book is 14 chapters of sins and shameful behavior.  In dramatic fashion, God compares his love to that of a husband to an unfaithful wife:

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” (Hosea 3:1 NIV)

What does God say about all that?  I love you.  I have chosen you. God’s love (graciousness) is prior to everything else—our sins, our faith, our righteousness and it lasts beyond all else, in spite of all else. Even if we have been a total disaster as a person, a church; no matter how long the list of charges against us might be; how far we have left God, He is pursuing us like the “hound of heaven.”  Should we ultimately make our bed in hell, it will be over the broken pieces of God’s heart for He will still love us.

In 2017, can we assume our part of the covenant and love God back with all our heart, soul, and mind? It is my prayer for you and for myself.

 

Made Whole

Luke 17:19-Your faith has made you whole.

One day as Jesus travels he is encountered by ten men who are lepers. The horror of their predicament is illustrated by the fact that they cannot even approach Jesus but, from a distance, plead for his pity.

Jesus issues simple instructions to go show themselves to the priests; a requirement for anyone healed of leprosy to have it verified. And the text says, “as they went, they were cleansed.” Interesting—not “they were cleansed and went” but as they went. They obeyed and were healed.

Then one of them, only one, seeing he was healed returned to praise God and thank Jesus.

Does this incident surprise you?  It did Jesus!  I find it hard to say that and wondered if I could (I know the theological difficulty).  In one sense Jesus is never surprised.  He is God.  But, he is also human and in a human sense, he was surprised.  He was also apparently very disappointed.  It shows in his words: “Were not all ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Then Jesus adds the words that put a whole different light on this story.

“Rise and go; your faith has made you well [whole].” Did you notice? All were “cleansed” or “healed.” But only this man was said to be made whole. Or as the Message has it: “Your faith has healed and saved you.”

Physical healing is great but it is not salvation. Fixing some problem we have, helping us be a better person, giving us insight into a puzzling situation all are things for which to be grateful. But only our faith in Jesus provides salvation, makes us whole.

The point of it all is to be made whole.  To stop short of that is to accept a treatment that deals with the symptoms rather than radical surgery which produces a cure. God wants to make you whole.

The nine received a touch from God, and they probably went on to do what they were told, but they were not made whole. It made them better able to fit into the community, better citizens but it did not produce the indelible stamp of faith: gratitude. When God touches us, then our praise, gratitude takes precedence over everything else!

God, don’t let me settle for anything less than being made whole.

What God Offers That No One Wants

For you have been given…the privilege…of suffering. –Phillipians 1:29

Last week a young man in our community in his mid-twenties died suddenly and unexpectedly. Something like that raises questions which we can’t answer. But, for most people death, however untimely, can be accepted as part of the order of things.

Something much more problematic for those who believe in God is suffering. In fact we often try to deal with a loved one’s death by saying, “She/He doesn’t have to suffer any more. It has been said that Americans know only one stance toward suffering—“get rid of it.” Dr. Jack Kervorkian, who assisted dozens to die, said that he was helping end suffering.

Carmen Benson, in the midst of a long struggle said, “I can bear suffering for a little while, but after years of it—pain heaped upon pain, with never a day of respite—I find it just too much! Surely that cannot be God’s will for anyone!”

Is it just possible that our preoccupation with escaping pain, suffering run counter to God’s working in our lives and thus prevents us from maturing spiritually?

This is a delicate matter, a holy matter and we need to enter only in humility and caution. Benson wrote “Our minister spoke glowingly of all that suffering does to refine the character…. tender… compassionate. The only thing lacking was that he doesn’t do much suffering.”

No one in their right mind wants suffering. To seek it, for its own sake, a martyr’s complex is a sickness itself.

That being said, suffering is a part of life, even a Christian’s life. Oswald Chambers once wrote, “An average view of the Christian life is that it means deliverance from trouble. It is deliverance in trouble, which is very different.”

There is, of course, needless suffering—humanly caused, or that can be avoided, or healed by God’s grace. But the Biblical message is that suffering is a means of grace when faced in trusting obedience to God. Benson is right—“It is always God’s will to make us whole, but not to heal us physically [or to rescue us from suffering] —it is to cure us.”

Dave Dravecky was a young baseball pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. A cancerous tumor was discovered in Dave’s pitching arm. After a lengthy battle his arm had to be amputated. Dave and his wife, are Christians. He said, “Looking back, [my wife] Jan and I have learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop….Both places should bring us to our knees: the one in utter awe; the other, in utter dependence.”

Jesus attained His goal by suffering. Likewise, it may be said that our goal of spiritual maturity does not come without suffering. But suffering is not eternal. It does end. That is God’s promise to us.

The Great Experiment

Your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven. -Matthew 5:16b

Today is July 4th, Independence Day in the United States. It is the birthday of this country, what has been called “The Great Experiment.” Christians living that experiment have become different from most other Christians in history. We have enjoyed a favored status. The government and larger culture have accommodated, even in some ways supported those calling themselves Christian. Many have seen this as a “Christian” nation, at least in name if not in fact.

Christians in most other countries for most of history have had a different and often more difficult journey as followers of Jesus. They have had to live as minorities with governments and societies less than friendly toward them or even hostile. So they have learned to live the life more nearly matching Jesus’ words, “in the world you will have tribulation.”

But things have changed for Christians in our country. We are becoming a more secular country and more and more find ourselves in opposition to decisions of our government and opinions of our neighbors. And we often do not know how to react.

Some express and become motivated by anger, fear or defeatism. None of these are characteristics that Jesus has taught and modeled for his followers.

So, how can Christians in our society avoid either compromising our Biblical principles or becoming angry and bitter self-imposed cultural exiles?

I believe the answer is found in one word—grace. We saw it modeled in Charleston. We heard it proclaimed by President Obama at the funeral for the slain pastor. It shows when we don’t get our way, when we are good losers. So when a law is passed by the democratic process which we don’t agree with, we respect it. It shows when we are mistreated, misunderstood or misrepresented. We don’t return evil for evil or hatred for hatred but overcome them by good, by love.

The “Great Experiment” was that people, all kinds of people would live together with their differences intact but accepting of each other. Jesus’ followers in such a place are to be “salt and light” and full of grace.

Don’t Get Over It

 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Romans 5:6 (NLT)¹

Some years ago I read about a story Garrison Keilor told of a family Thanksgiving dinner:

The table was laden with food. But the hostess made the mistake of calling on Uncle Joe (not real name) to give thanks. We all knew that Uncle Joe would talk about the cross and when he talked about the cross he would cry. Sure enough he did.

There’s nothing that makes people more nervous than to hear a grown man cry. We shifted from foot to foot.

“We all knew that Jesus died for our sins, but Uncle Joe never got over it.”

I wonder if a lot of us haven’t gotten over it.  We’ve moved on to God helps me in my troubles, comforts me in my sorrow, heals my sickness, provides resources to make me successful at my job, in my relationships.  All good and important things. But the bottom line is Jesus died for our sins.

Dear God, don’t let me get over it.

¹Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved

Listening To God (2)

“God…has spoken” –Hebrews 1:1,2-
“Listen and understand. –Matthew 15:10

Listening is the primary starting place for a journey with God. The Bible is the primary place we hear God. That’s not a misprint. In spite of the problems our culture sees with it, the Bible is what God says to us, in writing.

There is no denying it can be daunting, at least in the beginning. There is no denying there are some things we don’t understand. According to Eugene Peterson, classicist, Gilbert Highet “used to say that anyone who reads the Bible and isn’t puzzled at least half the time doesn’t have his mind on what he is doing.” But every period of renewal and revival, reformation has come as God’s people returned to the Book—reading, studying, teaching. It is there we hear God. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.

It is important to remember that the reading, studying are not ends in themselves but means to hearing God. As Jim Cymbala puts it “Christianity is not predominantly a teaching religion…The teaching of sound doctrine is a prelude, if you will, to the supernatural.”

Need direction? Need understanding? Need encouragement? Need correction? Need salvation? Listen; God has what you need.

To Tell the Truth

The truth will set you free. -John 8:32

Have you ever thought about how hard it is to tell the truth in church. Surprised? Do you believe the church is the place of truth? Do you assume that unlike other institutions, places, and people the church is different because here we find the truth? Of course, the church is the custodian of truth, specifically the gospel truth. Of course the church is the place where you don’t expect people to lie to you, and most of the time they don’t.

So when I talk about it being hard to tell the truth, I don’t mean we tell lies to each other (though it’s not unheard of). Rather, it is how we often fail to think about or talk about the negative, the problems, the unflattering things. Of course some people see only negative and some who are never happy with anything. Some of them use every chance possible to point out shortcomings (real or imagined).

We are often guilty of trying so hard to “sell” our story, our church, ourselves to others that we distort the truth by only talking about the positive. Sometimes, we also hide unpleasant matters by “creatively” interpreting facts so that we maintain an upbeat atmosphere.

We sometimes “kid” ourselves about our own spiritual condition. We don’t express our real opinions because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or cause problems. We accept shoddy efforts because after all, they’re just volunteers.
Usually this is not done for wrong motives but because we have mistaken notions about protecting image and feelings. In some cases we just don’t think. I know that I’ve probably been guilty myself. I want people to feel good about the church, themselves and (I have to admit it) me. So I don’t notice or don’t mention anything that might prevent that.

Now some of this is simply using good judgment. For example you don’t write a brochure for prospective new people and talk about negative issues (You don’t mislead either). We see that the positives far outweigh the negatives, and rightly emphasize them to prevent a “negative spirit” from discouraging us.

The point of all this is that we need to learn to trust each other and God enough so that we can face real problems and issues that affect our ability to grow as disciples, to reach the unchurched and make all disciples. As a church we have a lot of strengths but like all churches we also have weaknesses. While I do believe we need to focus on our strengths, we also need to deal with weaknesses. Identifying them, acknowledging them, talking about them is never easy but necessary so that we can deal with them in constructive ways.

My prayer is that God will help us be honest with ourselves and speak the truth to one another in love.

Starting Again

God’s kindness leads you toward repentance. -Romans 2:4b

            It happens all the time with children.  In the middle of some task they mess it up and you tell them to start over.  They’re telling you something and get it all confused.  So you say, “Just slow down and start at the beginning.”

Haven’t we all wanted to start over?  I wish I had it to do over.  But in life, we don’t get that opportunity do we?  To go back to square one is not an option is it?

            The Bible says it is.  God calls us, offers us an opportunity to start over, to start with a clean slate.

            It begins with something called repentance which means to change one’s mind, heart, life.  In the historic Christian communion service, participation is invited for those who “truly and earnestly repent of your sins and intend to lead a new life.”

            The trouble is that repentance doesn’t come easily.  Then President Bill Clinton, speaking to a Prayer Breakfast in 1998 put it in perspective.  He said, “I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned.…For us, turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy. It means losing face. It means starting all over again. And this is always painful. It means saying I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.” ^^Clinton’s quote ended with this prayer: “Lord help us to turn, from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around, O Lord, and bring us back toward you. Revive our lives as at the beginning and turn us toward each other, Lord, for in isolation there is no life.”-Q

Repentance means “coming to self,” “turning”, or returning (from the OT).  In the NT it is to change one’s mind for the better, have a better mind.

            It not only is at the beginning of the Christian Journey but is an on-going necessity of the Christian life.  Matthew Henry wrote, “Repentance is a daily duty.”

            I am told in the St. Louis airport there is a large watch with hands that run backward.  Beneath it are the words, “Make Time Run Backward!”  If it were possible to do this and start again what a difference it would make.

           There is good news!  You can start again!  Turn toward God.

Too Good to Be True

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ,…The people were all so amazed.  Mark 1:1, 22a

A computer lease we were looking at “seemed too good to be true.”  It was.

We all know the feeling—something is so wondrous so great, so joyful,  that it just couldn’t be true.

Such things just don’t happen in a mixed-up, disappointing, sin and sorrow-filled world.  And that is exactly the feeling created in anyone who really begins to “breathe” the atmosphere of the New Testament.  The news about Jesus seems almost too good to be true.

To be sure, the watered-down version that many have heard from their youth up and which the church too often seems to teach isn’t so hard to believe.  This collection of religious sentiments somehow  (we’re not quite sure how) built around the person of Jesus who was a very good man, is not hard to believe and creates no feeling of wonder and amazement and certainly had little power to transform lives.  But the unedited biblical version is a different story.

Get this—Jesus is the Son of God.  Even the demons recognized they were not dealing with just another human being, exclaiming, “You are the holy one of God!”  As Jesus came to John for baptism in the Jordan river, there is an accreditation, an approval expressed by God the Father: “You are my son, and I am delighted in you.”  God among mortals!  And we think, “That’s too good to be true.”

But notice the impact Jesus had on those who heard him, those who walked with him, those outside as well as within his circle.  As they heard his teaching, saw him in action, it seems Mark “ransacked” the Greek dictionary trying to express their amazement, astonishment, wonder, awe in the presence of this person.  It’s too good to be true!

In what is said to be representative of a typical day in the life of Jesus, he casts out demons, heals Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with a fever, reaches out to touch one legally untouchable and cures the incurable leper.  His loving compassion and power which heals, and his wisdom which enlightens are amazing.

Then it begins to dawn on us what the NT is trying to say, “that is what God is really like.”  This Jesus, whom the whole world looks to as the epitome, example of love, concern, the best in human kind, is what God is like!  He is not just a man but God among men!  It’s all too good to be true!

Just like the man who saw Jesus heal his son of a spirit which caused him to fall into the fire and go through horrible agony, when Jesus asks, “Do you believe?” responds, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  We begin to understand a little of what the man was trying to express.  I do believe! I want to believe! But it’s too good to be true!

While we’re trying to catch our breath, get our minds around the idea, “God is like this,” we are brought to our knees by the this: Jesus is one of us.  His life becomes a pattern for me/you.  As surely as Mark will not let us forget that this is God’s own son, so likewise he will not let us escape the fact that He was a real human being.

He sets the pattern for every true disciple (Jesus follower).  A decision to trust God, acceptance of a calling/mission and dedication to it, set the boundaries of life.  And with that, there is the equipment, power of the Holy Spirit descending on Him, to give Him the ability to perform the mission.  So, we make our choice, dedicate ourselves, and God fills us with His spirit and empowers us.  But we think, “it’s too good to be true.

In his powerful book, A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken tell how he and his wife, became Christians.

They considered themselves pagans.  They began by believing the Christian gospel had nothing to say to them. Over a period of time, Vanauken and his wife began to consider the meaning of the gospel.  Not taking that way easily, He said,

“we discovered much more than we had expected: The personality of Jesus emerged from the Gospels with astonishing consistency.  Whenever they were written, they were written in the shadow of a personality so tremendous that Christians who may never have seen him knew him utterly: that strange mixture of unbearable sternness and heartbreaking tenderness.

What was happening seemed to happening against his will.  But as he read and thought and talked with these Christians what seemed almost too good to be true was becoming harder and harder to escape.  Vanauken saw the issue and saw it clearly:

Christianity had come to seem to us probable.  It all hinged on this Jesus.  Was he, in fact, the Lord Messiah, the Holy one of Israel, the Christ?  Was he, indeed, the incarnate God?  Very God of very God?  This was the heart of the matter.  [Did] he rise from the dead?  The Apostles, the Evangelists, Paul believed it with utter conviction.  Could we believe on their belief?  Believe in a miracle?

He goes on to describe his growing excitement. As he began to think that it all might really be true, it began to dawn on him that the highest aspirations and deepest longings of his life came together at the person of Jesus Christ and the gospel.  And almost against his will he is driven to Jesus.

As he read the New Testament, the incredibly good news broke through—and hoping against hope, for it was just too good to be true: Vanauken them came to a turning point: “I could not go back….I had encountered Jesus….It was a question whether I was to accept Him—or reject.  (When I saw that) I could not reject Jesus.”

When you really meet the Christ in the pages  of the NT, the sheer excitement of it all makes it seem too good to be true.  Mark’s whole gospel is predicated on the conviction that once he tells you what Jesus did and said you will know who He is—God’s own son, but also one of us;  our savior but also our example.

HAVE YOU HEARD THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT JESUS?
IT IS TRUE, YOU KNOW!

If you do not know Him, you can invite Him into you life now. click here for how.