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All In

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. -Romans 10:9-10 (NIV)

Recently in my daily reading these two verses caught my attention. Specifically the phrase “it is with your heart that you believe” set me on one of those “I wonder…” paths which has lasted for a couple of weeks.  I keep coming back to these questions: “Why did the apostle not just say “believe”? Why “believe in your heart” and “with your heart…you believe”? Don’t we generally connect believing with the mind, with the head? I think I do.

However, there is a problem with that. Have you ever done something and said “my heart was just not in it”? Have you ever made a statement which you accepted as true but which didn’t make a lot of difference to you? I think there are many people who accept the story of Jesus as being factual, true but which has little effect on them. As Pastor Steve put it, they’re not “invested” in it. It’s a little like someone throwing you a rope and saying “catch this or it will hit the ground” vs “catch this so I can pull you out of the river to prevent your drowning.” Both statements are true but there’s a world of difference between what they mean to me.

When the Bible uses the word heart, it is usually referring to the whole person, with all that may infer. Yes, it involves my mind but also everything else about me. To believe with my heart is to say, “I’m all in.”

As a follower of Jesus, am I all in? Are you all in?





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.

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
spiritual house
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.

“God’s Children Bear A Family Resemblence”

I John 3:2 we are God’s children now; …we will be like him.

All important events in the life cycle are connected to certain rituals which most of us know and in which we readily share.  For instance—when a baby is born:

“Who does she/he look like?”
“He has his Dad’s nose.”
“Her face is shaped just like her mother’s.”

            Now, often that is not a fact so much as expectation.  We look for and expect a child to resemble its parents and family members.  As a child grows it usually exhibits more and more traits of family.  It may not be so noticeable to those who see it every day but is often obvious to others.

So when John says we are God’s children, it raises some expectations.  If you were reading this in the Greek text, it would say “NOW we are God’s children.”  The emphasis is on the “now.”  In context, it is clear that those who are trusting Jesus belong to God’s family.

To say we are God’s children has powerful implications.  Not the least of which is that it establishes our identity.  To know who you are, to have a sense of identity, may well be one of the most important factors in your mental and emotional health.  If you do not have a sense of identity, if you do not know who you are, chances are, you have some real problems in your life.  This is especially important in our day, because we live in a world where there is a tendency to treat a person as an object, to manipulate a person, to see a person as disposable, to see one as useful only as he/she serves me and my ends.

To have a sense of belonging, to have a sense of identity is also vital to our spiritual health.  Often when someone introduces me, they tell my name but add something to that.  He’s our neighbor, a pastor at Messiah Church, Alana’s husband.  And the less they know me personally, the more likely they are to do that, to identify me by my function, my job.

Probably you have been identified, not by who you are so much, as by some relationship—Joe Blow’s wife or Susie Blow’s husband, or by some job you perform.

But when we say we are God’s children, it establishes our identity, not by our function or even just our relationship but OUR NATURE.  The CHRISTIAN LIFE IS NOT SIMPLY TAKING ORDERS FROM GOD OR EVEN FOLLOWING JESUS’ EXAMPLE.  THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS LIVING OUT A NEW NATURE, being part of a new kind of people.  Obviously as to “behaving like God’s children” most of us have a ways to go.  The child is not yet what he/she may become.  But the genes are there and with normal growth and development maturity will come.

And we have that amazing promise: “We shall be like Him!”  “Not yet but shall be” is essential to being human.  There is always the tension between what I am (performance) and what I shall be.  As Gordon Allport has said, “All people are in transit.”

Are you anxious to be like Jesus?  Keep trusting him and following and it will happen.

Loving Life

Whoever would love life… -I Peter 3:10

          How important is life to you; to most people?  Who wants to die?
The rather normal and expected answers are that everyone (unless something is wrong with them) believes life precious and clings to it.
        So the text which says “whoever wishes to love life” seems strange to us.  The suggestion that ordinary, normal, healthy people may not love life is met with disbelief.  Is Peter so out of touch with reality?  Or, is he talking to people for whom life is so painful and difficult that anything would be better?
          At first glance, the latter seems to be a likely explanation—these people are in the midst of, or at least facing terrible persecution.  This is an underlying theme of the whole letter.  Certainly that would be an important message for people for whom life has dealt a cruel hand.
          However, giving that its due credit, when you see the solution he suggests, it becomes clear that this applies to everyone not just a hand-full of persecuted first century Christians.
          It is a fact that not everyone loves life.  In the Bible, the writer of Ecclesiastes is direct:  “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecc. 2:17)
          Peter wrote in a day of much cynicism about life and it is a growing attitude in our time.  Earnest Hemingway expressed it when he said, “I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.”  For many, life is characterized by frustration and boredom.
Do you love life?  I don’t mean do you want to live as the better of two alternatives.  It is one thing to say we love life in the abstract and quite another to love the particulars of our life.
          The pursuit of satisfaction in life is major preoccupation of an affluent society.  Some seek it in success.  Others believe possessions, things deliver what they long for.  Years ago I read this story:

A wealthy man moved into a new house, next-door to a Quaker.  Quakers believe in plainness and simplicity.  The Quaker watched as the moving company unloaded a great amount of furniture, clothes, and decorative things.
Finally, he walked over to his new neighbor and said, “Neighbor, if thee hath need of anything, please come to see me and I will tell thee how to get along without it.”

            To those early Christians, persecuted and suffering, Peter tells the secret to loving life whatever one’s circumstances: “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech.  They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it.”
In short, do good.  Goodness is not just what you ought to do, it is also the best way to live.  It is living in tune with God and His ways, it is living the way we were intended, the way we work best.  What you say and do, the way you relate to people is the key to loving life.
The kind of goodness called for begins with love for Christ.  “In your hearts give Christ a unique place.”  I Peter 3:15 (Barclay)
Do you want to love life?  Make Jesus Lord of your life.

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”?

            “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.

      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

       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?

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