Thank you!

Pastor friends,

I appreciate you!  Thank you for serving our Savior in the power of His Spirit for His glory.  At times, you receive the acclaim and applause of men.  Other times, antagonism is your companion because you minister in Jesus’ Name.  Worse yet, your service and efforts are often met with apathy, even among those who claim the Name of Christ.  Most often, your day is filled with a combination of those things.  May you continue to serve your King with one motive in mind – to hear those precious words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” directly from His lips as He greets you as eternity begins.

Being Thankful

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.  I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. (Psalm 9:1-2 ESV)

Facebook is increasingly becoming my prayer list.  I enjoy praying for dear friends and family that I have known for years and also for more recent colleagues and acquaintances.  This time of year, amid holiday get-togethers, vacations, family celebrations, and various ministry events, I praise God for how He has blessed so many of you!  While I rejoice with those of you who now are rejoicing, my heart and my prayers do go out to those of you who now are searching for God’s blessing.  May you see His face clearly very soon!

I love seeing the pics of your beautiful family members.  Some of them are transitioning into new and exciting chapters of their lives.  What a joy to be surrounded by those you love.  Thank you for sharing the news and views concerning your travels both at home and abroad.  What beautiful and fun places you have the wonderful opportunity to enjoy.  Some of you are traveling because you have been given the incredible opportunity and responsibility to share the Word of God among every tribe, tongue, and nation so that Jesus is glorified.  What a gift to be able to do so!  Enjoy!  Celebrate!  Be blessed!

At the same time, why not pray for the many in our own nation and the vast majority of people around the world who will never experience such blessing.  And above all, remember the One who is the giver of all good gifts and the One who blesses us with every spiritual blessing through His Son, Jesus Christ!  Everything you are, everything you get to do, and every experience you live is but a gift from Him.  Why not thank Him today?

If there is a loving God, then why…?

Theodicy is a fancy word that helps us ask the question, “If there is a good and all-powerful God, then why is there evil and suffering in our world?”

Some make the following assumption:  Tragedy occurred.  An all-powerful God could have prevented this.  An all-loving God would want to prevent this.  Yet, this tragedy occurred.  Therefore, such a God does not exist.

Here is another assumption we may make:  An all-powerful, all-loving God exists.  Tragedy happens.  Therefore, our all-powerful, all-loving God has a loving purpose for permitting this tragedy to occur.

Why do we so often choose the first?  I think it is because we, in our pain, want to blame something or someone.  When we do, what is our answer for suffering?  There is none.  When we choose the second, we find that there is some purpose for our suffering (even if we don’t readily see it) and we find the source of grace, strength, and comfort to deal with tragedy.

Remember, the Bible teaches that the universe we live in is not the universe God created.  When man introduced sin into God’s creation, God’s universe was corrupted.  This is the source of evil and tragedy, which didn’t exist before man’s sin.  The good news is, God has a perfect, new heaven and new earth in our future if we belong to Him.

God is not the author of evil and His holy, unchanging character reminds us He can never be.  Yet, God permits evil, always punishes evil, can bring good out of evil, and one day will deliver us from the presence and power of evil.  Praise His Holy Name!

I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.  Isaiah 45:7 ESV

What’s This Thing Called Lent?

I must confess that I grew up in an evangelical culture that did not place great emphasis on the liturgical calendar.  Words like “advent” and “lent” belonged to “those churches.”  Over the years, advent wreaths and calendars began to be used by some, but lent, and the idea of ashes and abstinence never really caught on.  As I studied the history of the concept, I found some baggage attached to lent that made me feel uncomfortable embracing the practice as a whole.  Yet, the idea of taking an extended period of time to focus on the holiness of God and my own proper response to Him, of remembering the atoning sacrifice of Christ for sinful mankind, of being awed by His glorious and powerful resurrection, and of using focused prayer and fasting to seek and find Him appeals to me greatly.  The Jews recognized their New Year, Rosh Hashanah, their most high and holy day, Yom Kippur, and the time period of ten days including those holidays as “days of awe” or “days of repentance” – a special season to focus on repentance and getting right with God.  Why not have the same emphasis leading up to a remembrance and celebration of what Jesus did to free us from sin and death?

One must be careful not to think that observing such days is necessary to have a relationship with God.  Following certain practices or holidays does not make one righteous.  Paul said, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17 ESV).  Things like “days of awe” or even our Christian holidays are not given to us to make us holy, but to remind us of the One who does – Jesus Christ (read the rest of Colossians 2).  What I would like to do over these next 40 days (leading up to Good Friday and Easter) is write about some things that remind you about Him.  Reading my thoughts, giving up certain things, or following certain practices won’t clean up your heart or change your life.  But meeting Jesus Christ will.  “Lent” comes from the Old English “lengten,” or spring.  These “lengthened” days remind us that new life is coming.  May I take some time to remind you that new life is only found in Christ?  I will use daily Scriptures from Redeemer Presbyterian’s reading plan, “A Journey Through Lent” as the starting point for my meditation, but will add my personal thoughts.  Please read along if you need the reminder, as I do.

A Season of Fear

Halloween is almost upon us.  Christians have many varied reactions to this event.  Some are appalled that a pagan ritual has been made mainstream and is now the second biggest money-making holiday in America.  Others want to “Christianize” the season by focusing on the Christian roots of “All Saints’ Day” on November 1st.  Many don’t want to celebrate the scary parts of the holiday, but instead reinvent it as a harvest celebration.  Most do agree that to the majority of Americans, the day is not seen as a celebration of evil, but a harmless excuse to get candy from the neighbors.  And to get scared.  Americans love to get scared.  Just check your TV listings and see how many horror movies are being shown this time of year.

The purpose of this article is not to argue in favor of any of the above positions, but rather to get us to think about fear.  But the fear I want us to meditate on is not the fear of ghosts and goblins, but “the fear of the Lord.”  This fear, the Scriptures teach, is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10), and the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7).  Most of us like the idea of growing in wisdom and knowledge – we pay thousands of dollars to colleges and universities to help us in that quest.

In English, “fear” is the opposite of trust, and its synonyms are “fright” and “dread.”  The Old Testament Hebrew word for fear is “yirah,” and is sometimes seen as being negative (like fright and dread), or positive (respect, reverence and worship).  It has a very broad range of meaning.

For example, in Leviticus 19:3 God commands us to “fear” our father and mother.  Other translations translate it as “respect,” which seems to get at the true meaning.  In Genesis 32, Jacob genuinely is terrified at meeting Esau, knowing that earlier that Esau wanted to kill him as Jacob cheated him out of his birthright.  How do we know which way to take this word?

In terms of how we view God, yirah can be positive, as in Psalm 66:3, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth!  … Say to God, ‘How awesome (yirah) are your deeds!”  It can also describe a terror at one day standing before a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing and the One who will judge us all.  What makes the difference in how we view God? What makes us cower in terror or bow in reverence before our Almighty God?

The simple answer is relationship.  What is your relationship to a God who is so holy His very presence shakes mountains?  An example might help.  Remember back to when you were a child.  Picture yourself leaving school and beginning your walk home.  As you turn onto a lonely street, you see a muscular boy, twice your size, approaching you.  What is your response?  If he is the school wrestling champion and you just stole his lunch money, you might feel some dread and terror.  If he is your brother, and has come to walk you home through a scary part of town, you feel peace and security and an awe of his strength.  The key is relationship, which is also true concerning God.  Meeting the God who is all-powerful, all-knowing and the One who will judge us all will bring terror to the person who is still in their sins and has not been adopted into the family of God.  But being with this same God brings great joy to the heart of the person who can call God, “Father.”  What is your relationship to Him?

Slow to Speak

Like many of you, this past week has been filled with many tears and unceasing prayer as almost daily I hear of the loss of lives of those made in God’s image and as I think of their dear families now filled with questions, pain, and overwhelming grief.  The most recent news reports try to figure out why the lives of brave police officers who were protecting the rights of those protesting against the police could be snuffed out so violently.  I sometimes write things down to figure out what is in my heart and mind, so please allow me to do just that and add words to the multitude of things that have already been written and said.

I grieve over those who are gone.  Some no longer have the chance to hear about the everlasting love of our Savior.  How do family members now face the days ahead without those who were so special to them?

I am amazed at the continually increasing divisions our country is experiencing.  Politically we have been aware of this divide for some time.  We are now becoming more and more aware of the gap between people of different races, economic classes, and _________ – you fill in the blank.  We had hoped that many of those gaps were shrinking, but are now wondering if the distance is instead increasing.  People with loud voices and various causes use their volume to take advantage of this divide for their own benefit and amusement.  The result is that these gaps get bigger, fear grips our hearts because of what we are told of those on the other side of the gaps and anger becomes what motivates us to action.  Everyone seems to have a voice and much to say, but few seem to have any desire to listen.

The Holy Spirit through the pen of James told us, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”  Notice the progression – we need to be very quick to listen.  We must do that first, before we speak.  We must hear the other person and really listen.  This includes mulling over what they just said.  We must think about what they said and why they said it.  Even if we disagree with what we just heard, if we listen perhaps we will understand why they said it, at least a little bit.  We should be quick to listen – but then slow to speak.  Too often we aren’t really listening because we are thinking about what we are about to say.  Our priority is not about the other person, it is all about us – what we feel, what we think and what we know should be done.  Isn’t this what arguments consist of – no listening, fast talking and the next step, anger?  No wonder we are so angry.  We all have too much to say and too many opinions to share.  And now with social media, we can share our words instantly with the world.  (Yes, it is a bit ironic that I am sharing my words with the world right now.)

Now to the grief of today.  Can’t we take some time to grieve?  Can’t we allow families to start to say good-bye to their loved ones before we use their loved ones to further our favorite cause?  Can’t we be silent as they share their doubts, their fears, their questions and their anger?  Can’t we give them our presence and our hugs, but hold off on our words?  There will be a time to talk about these causes.  Some of them are really important.  But do we need to talk about them today?

Followers of Jesus Christ, we have much to say to an angry, divided world.  We have words of comfort to share with the grieving from the God of all comfort, Himself.  We have words of hope about a Redeeming Savior that this world needs to hear.  He is our only Hope!  He is the One who can reconcile sinners like us to a Holy God such as He is, and then help us reconcile to each other.  We are messengers of reconciliation!  But let’s share this wonderful message after we have really listened to this hurting world.

 

What Are We Calling Them To?

I have been reading the book of Acts lately and have been impressed by the sermons preached after the Holy Spirit came and filled God’s people with power to be witnesses of Christ.  Peter’s masterful sermon on the day of Pentecost was a Christ-centered history lesson that showed how the God of history brought the King of Kings into the world to save men from their sins.  3,000 people were saved after hearing and responding to these words.  In Acts 3, after a man lame from birth was healed in the Name of Jesus, Peter again preaches, explaining how this man was healed, but again putting the focus on Jesus as God and King.  (It is interesting that in both messages, Peter blames his listeners for killing Jesus – not exactly the best way to endear yourself to the crowd.)  In Acts 4, Peter and John are called before the religious leaders and Peter again preaches about Jesus.  In Acts 7, after Stephen is arrested by the religious leaders, he preaches another historical review that culminates in another clear proclamation of who Jesus is.  The result?  He is martyred.

Here are a few observations I have as I compare these messages to what is being preached today:

  1. These messages would be considered too “boring” for our western churches today. Too much history, too little humor and engaging stories.  Too much teaching, too little catchy principles for living.  Try to read these sermons word for word at our gatherings this weekend – see how many people remain interested.  Yet, look at what the Holy Spirit did through those words.
  2. These messages clearly lay out the track of redemptive history and the theology of who Jesus is before calling anyone to a response. Today, after hearing messages about how we can live better lives, preachers then give a quick invitation to “come to Jesus.”  My question is, if Peter and Stephen felt led by the Spirit to clearly lay out the historical context for who Jesus is before they called people to respond, and their audience was vastly religious, how much more do we need to lay this groundwork as we communicate to a largely biblically illiterate and post-Christian culture today?  When we don’t tell our audience who Jesus is, and then we tell them to “come to Jesus” – what are we calling them to?  Maybe a better question is, “WHOM are we calling them to?”  Is it to the biblical Christ, or the popular, tolerant, nice moral teacher Jesus of modern culture?  I think that one of the reasons many people “fall away” from following Christ today is because the Christ they accepted was a caricature, not the real Christ.  No wonder they fall away – a cartoon Christ cannot radically transform anybody.