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Strangers in Town But Members of the Household

Now you are the people of God -I Peter 2:10b

Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.”  That is when no one is looking, and not trying to impress anyone.

While that is true in a sense, it is certainly not the fundamental truth of the Christian experience.  Because as John Wesley said, Christianity is a social religion.  An essential and primary ingredient in the Christian experience is community.

In this letter Peter is not addressing “isolated individuals but a community. It is nothing less than the continuation of the OT “Covenant People”.  In this short passage Peter uses several terms for this community.  He calls them:

obedient children
temple
spiritual house
priesthood
race
nation
God’s own people

Even though strangers in the world, they do not loose their identity because they are members of a community. This community, which the New Testament calls the church is to provide the environment for growth and spiritual health. It is also to be the primary witness to God’s work in the world through Jesus.

Because we are strangers in a hostile world, we can only maintain our identity as Christians/survive in community.  This community gets its value and identity by belonging to God and its purpose by worshiping and witnessing to His excellencies.

Are you trying to go it alone as a follower of Jesus? If so, find a group of other followers and join them. Churches like Messiah will welcome you with open arms.

Listening To God

Hebrews 1:1,2- “God…has spoken”

“You weren’t listening” is a common complaint about me from my wife. Listening is a powerful human activity. But it often is the missing ingredient in human interaction. The source of many problems between people, individually and collectively, is lack of communication. I am convinced that often the real cause is a failure to listen. To be trying to be heard, to express a need, a concern, or to make a point and to sense that the other person is not listening rates at the top of the frustration chart. Everyone wants to know they are being listened to. And most relational problems can be worked out if we really listen to one another.

Listening is the primary starting place for a journey with God. In the Bible it goes like this: God speaks, calls and God’s people are to listen/obey. Submission to God’s word is the basic ingredient of the spiritual life. And God’s word once spoken did not go away but was to be recalled/listened to forever. The call to love God (The Shema) was followed by instructions:

Keep these words…recite them to your children, “discuss them in your home, make them a sign on your person and on your house” (Deut. 6:4-9).

The reason is simple. Life is created by God’s word. The world was spoken into existence. The NT identifies this creative word with Jesus. The book of Hebrews describes Him as God’s final (complete) word.

However, it is not always pleasant to hear. In the book of Nehemiah we are told that when the people heard it they wept. William Willimon says,

“You may think that the toughest task of a Christian is serving on your church’s Finance Committee without losing your faith. No. Your toughest task as a Christian is to hold your life and your church accountable to this peculiar odd, not made for television story called the gospel.”

If we are to become good/holy people it begins with listening to God. Are you listening? To be continued.

Encouraged To Be Disciples

Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye. -Acts 20:1(NIV)

Some years ago, I attended a conference at Asbury Theological Seminary.  I don’t know if the conference leaders had consulted with one another or not.  But there was a recurring theme that I didn’t really notice at first.

After the week was over and I returned to the church where I was pastor.  And on Monday morning I met the jarring reality of everyday life—Council Meeting, etc. It was a typical Sunday/Monday morning syndrome of pastoral life.

It “so happened” (God’s work) my daily reading was in the book of Acts.  And one day something caught my attention: “Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said good-by…”

Something started to stir—first, just a little bubble.  I’m dense, but God is equal to the task!  Without me knowing it, for two weeks God had been putting something together.  The recurring theme—encouraged, strengthened, Barnabus (Son of encouragement?).   And then I remembered Jesus’ charge to His disciples, what we call “The Great Commission”: “Make disciples.”  But it was the final words: “I’m with you,” which brought it together.

Encouragement of his people is a priority for God.  He knows about the Sunday/Monday morning syndrome, the wear and tear of the battle, the discouragement brought by the deceitfulness of sin, the failures of our weakness. 

            The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit  (Psalm 34:18)

            Encouragement is also a key element in discipleship, both in the being and the making.  We tend to loose sight of this element, perhaps in the excitement of new people coming into the church.  But later, as the apostles return from their missions, their ministry to the Christians is encouragement. 

God’s method of encouragement is that human beings filled with His Spirit, stand with one another to encourage and strengthen.  In the book of Hebrews we are told to encourage one another daily (Hebrews 3:13).

Bothers/Sisters God has made provision for Monday morning, for the discouragement that lurks around the corner, for the draining effect of the battle. 

That is the primary ministry that we are to have to one another.  Any consideration of the way we shape our lives together must keep that in focus.

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.

“Prayer—Just Do It”

“I remember you in my prayers….pray…for all God’s people.  And…me….” -Ephesians 1:16b; 6:18,19

Someone once said, “Ask a Baptist for $50—he’ll say, “let’s pray.”‘
‘”Call on a Methodist to pray—he’ll say, “here’s $50.”‘

The reason that is funny is that Methodists (at least the modern ones) are not noted for their praying.  Most of us will certainly acknowledge the need to pray but look on it a little like the little boy who one day asked his grandmother to take him to the circus.

She replied, “I can’t, I’ve got  to go to go to Prayer Meeting.”
He thought for a minute and said, “Grandma, if you’d go to the circus just once, you’d never want to go to prayer meeting again.”

Even preachers are not immune to a certain reluctance to pray.  One Sunday morning, a preacher went to visit a neighboring church.  The pastor called on him to pray and he replied, “Pray yourself, I’m on my vacation.”

Prayer is problematical.  Even many who say that believe in prayer see it as getting in touch with your deepest self, or visualizing what you want and then doing it.  It is associated with all kinds of strange notions, ideas, and even drugs.   Timothy Leary (psychedelic drug guru) once said, “to pray properly you must be out of your mind.”

R. Gregor Smith says that a majority of “even conscientious church members” have given up the habit of private prayer in the conventional sense.  If he is right and certainly there is evidence he is, we are in serious trouble.   Because James Montgomery was right, when he echoed John Wesley, calling prayer the Christian’s “vital breath.”  Prayer is the most distinctive Christian act.  Biblically and historically, Luther was on solid ground when he said if one does not pray then he is not Christian.

In the Ephesian letter Paul begins by assuring the believers that he is praying for them.  He closes by urging them to pray for each other and for him.  All that he has called them to do is to be done in prayer.

“I find I am better or worse as I pray more or less…I can never be better in life than I am faithful in prayer…when prayer lags, life sags…If you know how to pray, you know how to live.” (E. Stanley Jones)

If we want renewal, if we want to be Christian, to be better Christians, then we must pray.  There is no option.

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.

Prayer: the Essential Tool (Part II)

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. Ephesians 6:18a
I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.  John 16:23  (NIV)

There is much I don’t know about prayer, especially what you learn by experience.  But I know a lot about it.  The problem is that my beliefs and my knowledge don’t always translate into practice.  There is a great disparity between our belief (stated) and our practices.   We give lip-service to the importance of prayer.  We talk about it a lot.  We request prayer—for ourselves, others, for events, ministries.  We do pray (most of us).  We have our prayer list, prayer teams, even occasionally special times of  prayer, gatherings for prayer.

But I believe prayer is the weakest link in my discipleship.  It is the chink in my armor.  And I suspect, no I know, I am not alone in this.  I believe in prayer.  I am convinced it is the bottom line of discipleship.  And as Jim Cymballa says, “We are not New Testament Christians if we don’t have a prayer life.”1

Christians have always known that prayer is the essential tool of the Christian life.  Listen to what they say about it:

It changes the pray er.  “To pray is to change.  Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.  If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”2  “Prayer is designed more to adjust you to God than to adjust God to you.”3

God’s work is done.  “Most of the people we meet, inside and outside the church, think prayers are harmless but necessary starting pistols that shoot blanks and get “things going.”4  “Anything creative, anything powerful, anything biblical, insofar as we are participants in it, originates in prayer.5

We become recepients of God’s greatest gifts.  St. Augustine said, ” God does not ask us to tell him our needs that he may learn about them, but in order that we may be capable of receiving what he is preparing to give.”Kierkegaard insists, “The true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God wills.”7

Prayer is for everyone.  Everyone needs to pray.   Everyone can pray.   Steve Harper tells about visiting at Sunday dinner.  His hostess called on the youngest child to pray.  The little girl says, “God is great….”  Then mother turns to Harper and asks, “And now preacher would you ask the blessing for us?”  “All children pray, until we teach them not to.” (Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick)8

Nothing should be more convincing than Jesus’ model for us.  The great example is what Jesus said to his disciples on that last night with them (less than 1/10 of 1% of his ministry).  This is recorded in four chapters in John’s gospel.  One of those four chapts. is the prayer that Jesus prayed.  Can you believe that is not significant?  One fourth of what Jesus said that night is prayer, almost 5% of whole book of John.  Not teaching about prayer but praying.

Don’t let the tool get rusty.  Pray!

__________________________________________________________

1Cymballa, Fresh Wind Fresh Spirit, 50.
2Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline quoted by Maxwell, Partners In Prayer, 74
3Blackaby and King, Experiencing God, 174
4Eugene Peterson, Working The Angles, 32
5Eugene Peterson, Working The Angles, 28
6Bloesch, The Struggle Of Prayer, 29
7Bloesch, The Struggle Of Prayer, 63
8Betty Shannon Cloyd, CIRCUIT RIDER, Nov/Dec ’98, 12

Prayer: The Essential Tool (part I)

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. Ephesians 6:18a 
I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.  John 16:23  (NIV)

On Sunday, as part of a Father’s Day/birthday present from my wife Alana, we attended a service at the Brooklyn Tabernacle in downtown Brooklyn, NY.  What an amazing experience/place.  Perhaps you know of the award winning Brooklyn Tabernacle choir.  But there’s much more to the church than that.  Four two hour high octane, spirit-filled services on Sunday to overflow crowds which total more than 8,000 fuel all sorts of ministries in Brooklyn and around the world.  Pastor Jim Cymbala  faithfully and powerfully delivers God’s word.  As I witnessed the many ministries and life of the church highlighted I was awed by God’s powerful use of that congregation.

You might ask, “How does this all come about?”  A lot of things certainly could be credited, but there is one thing that to me is the most crucial to all that church is.  If you weren’t paying a lot of attention you might miss the announcement of a Tuesday night prayer meeting.  You might not catch the fact that around 5pm when the doors open for the 7pm meeting people begin to gather.  You might miss that literally hundreds of people show up each week for serious spirit-directed prayer.  In his book, Fresh Wind Fresh Fire, Pastor Cymbala attributes this to be what, more than anything, triggered and sustains the growth and life of “BT” as they refer to it.  This is consistent with the Biblical proclamation that prayer is the essential tool for God’s people.

More than 30 years ago as a graduate student in history at the UNC-Greensboro, I read a statement by historian Cain Brenton which I’ve never forgotten:  “Once we we have put something into words, we think we have accomplished it.”    He was writing about our substituting talk for action, discussion for accomplishment.

In no area is this more true than in the Christian life.  We talk a great game, but never actually do it.  Prayer is especially susceptible to this problem.  We can read books on prayer, preach sermons on prayer, have studies on prayer, develop great theories and never do much praying.  I am especially susceptible to doing that.  We actually have “prayer meetings” where little praying is done.  They are filled with Bible study, formal liturgies, music, teaching, etc. but not a lot of prayer.  Someone said that the syndrome of Protestant churches is that we have become “artful dodgers of a disciplined prayer life.”

I am sure what we are as a Christian or a church rises no higher than our prayer life.  To be continued.

The Growth Goes On

Night and day, whether he [the sower] sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows. -Mark 4:27 

     Do you every feel overwhelmed when you look around at how much work there is for the church to do and how few there are to do it?  We regularly are bombarded with calls for help in some ministry.  We wonder how in the world God’s work can every get done with our limited resources and leaders and workers.
      A mental health worker, Dr. Darold Treffert tells the following story:        

“Amy, 15, had always gotten straight ‘A‘s’ in school, and her parents were extremely upset when she got a ‘B’ on her report card.  ‘If I fail in what I do,’ Amy told her parents, ‘I fail in what I am.’  The message was part of Amy’s suicide note.”

This attitude, belief that performance, accomplishment,  production is the measurement of life saturates our thinking, fuels our living, gives us ulcers and destroys some of us.
          Someone has said that much of the nervousness and the lack of time is because “we have taken over control of our world.”  We can and must do everything.
          In the church it is expressed in what someone has called “the atheism of technique—the belief that we can hasten the kingdom by using the right methods, trying some new gimmicks, and working our heads off.”1
         
In Jesus’ parable comparing God’s kingdom to “growing seed” we read these words: Night and day, whether he [the sower] sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows,…All by itself the soil produces grain.”   In midst of human activities—good, bad, indifferent and in midst of human problems and cares God’s growth goes on.
          This gives us perspective about what matters.  We can slow down.  We have to time to pray.  Look at Jesus.  Humanly we would have expected him to be frantic, with all that needed to be done but exact opposite is conveyed.
          The late preacher, Helmut Thielicke wrote:

“Woe to the nervous activity of those of little faith!  Woe to the anxiousness and busyness of those who do not pray!…In most cases today we do not sin by being undutiful and doing too little work.  On the contrary, we ought to ask ourselves whether we are still capable of being idle in God’s name.”

Martin Luther put it this way: “While I drink my little glass of Whittenberg beer [“Pepsi,” the Methodist version] the gospel runs its course.”
         It is about power—a tiny tree can split a rock as it grows.
          This is not a not a parable about doing nothing.  The seed is sown.  There will come a day when you can’t produce.  To see God carry out a plan quite independent of what we do or don’t do is the ability to be at peace.

1 Robert M. Johnston

Christians Are Connected

John 15:1-17  I chose you …to go and bear fruit

          What does Jesus really want from you?
          One of the most important things Jesus had to tell his disciples in those last crisis packed hours was His purpose for them, what He expected from them and how it could happen.
            He does this by way of an analogy of the grape vine.  As the purpose of a vine is to produce fruit—grapes so He says I have chosen you to bear fruit.  It is this which will glorify my Father.  For that to happen you must abide in me because without me you can do nothing.  Just as the branches draw their life and ability to bear fruit from the main vain, so you get your life and productiveness from me I am the vine.  “Abide in me”=keep my commandments(obedience), maintain your relationship to me, keep the connection.  “Without me you can do nothing.”
            He pointedly told them He had chosen them to “bear fruit.”  That fruit is a life characterized by love.  He told them what was necessary and what would happen if they didn’t.
                      I don’t think this was exactly what Jesus had in mind, but Gerald Kennedy tells of an inquiry made of a Methodist bishop about a preacher in his area.  “Why,” said the bishop, “He is dull.  He is supernaturally dull…No man could be as dull as he is without divine aid.”
          So what are the results of being connected, of “abiding in Christ”?

 EFFECTIVE PRAYER
            “ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.”
            “so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” 
        
We are inclined to read this in one of two ways:

  • If you can believe strong enough, God will give you whatever you ask for.
              Little Johnnie was saying his bedtime prayers a week before his birthday.  In a loud voice he listed all the things he wanted.  “Don’t pray so loudly,” his mother instructed.  “The Lord isn’t hard of hearing!”  “Maybe he isn’t,” admitted Johnnie, “but grandma is.”
  • Or we ignore it, water it down, never take it seriously

The Bible and Christian history makes some incredible claims for the power of a believer’s prayer.  Frontier Methodist preacher, Francis  Asbury said, “Prayer is the sword of the preacher, the life of the Christian, the terror of hell, and the devil’s plague.”1
         
These statements need to be understood in the context.  They are about believers being fruitful, that is producing more believers.

GOD GLORIFIED BY FRUIT
      The measure of success is does it bring honor and glory to God.  As my preaching professor, James Robertson, used to say, Christians “adorn the gospel.”  Their lives are attractive and these lives attract people to Christ.  The reason there is so little impact of some Christians is there lives don’t attract to Jesus.  Richard Foster says, “People do not see anything to be converted to.  They look around at these Christians telling them to agree to these little statements and say the enclosed prayer.  They say, “But you aren’t any different from anybody else.  So, what am I supposed to be converted to?” 2

JOY
       First Jesus’ joy is in us, in our fruitfulness.  Then our joy will be full.  We experience the joy spoken of so often in the Bible.
          I confess to you, I am troubled when I apply those three tests to my life.  So I have to ask: How is my connection?  Am I abiding in Jesus?
          How about you?