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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Does Hope Have Any Value in a Fast Food World?

I frequent fast food restaurants. I don't necessarily like their food. I like getting my order quickly. I have very little patience when I enter these establishments. I have an expectation of speed rather than quality.

These restaurants are always crowded. I see people who are just like me who want their desires fulfilled quickly. They also have very little patience. They want what they want right now. Tomorrow they will not be able to tell you what they ordered. Their motivation is to get in, get what they want, consume it and get out.

Does this sound like the contemporary church? Let me explain.

Hope has a different meaning for contemporary Christians than it did for New Testament Christians. Their hope was not built upon God's removal of the tribulations they were experiencing. They were looking for the return of Christ when all things would be made right. They were concerned that they would be found faithful when He came. They looked for His return daily.

I don't think most contemporary Christians see hope in that way. Their concern is that God get them out of their present situation. They ask Him for new jobs, more money, people to love them and healing for sicknesses. Of course, there is nothing wrong with praying for these things but, unfortunately, there is no thought of Christ's return in any of their prayers. The long-term hope of the redemption of the whole world is foreign to their thoughts. They see God as one who fulfills their orders for the present time rather than the One who will set all things right.

Admittedly, it has been a relatively long time since Christians began the hope for Christ's return. True faith requires continual hope because of the promise that has been made and does not waver no matter how long it takes for the promise to be fulfilled.

There are only a few contemporary preachers who speak of Christ's return. There are many more sermons which speak of a God who promotes those who believe in Him. They tell of how He removes all the obstacles which keep His followers from having what they deserve. They say that being a Christian is good for business. These sermons provide Chrisitans means for transferring God's power to themselves. As one preacher said, "I know the streets of heaven are paved with gold but I want some gold right now!" (It may not be an exact quote but it is close. I was so surprised by his audacity that I didn't write it down.)

I am sure that the New Testament Christians disliked tribulations as much as contemporary Christians. They, no doubt, also prayed that God would remove their hardships. Paul, himself, prayed that his "thorn in the flesh" would be removed.  Yet, this does not seem to be their ultimate hope. They looked to the coming of Christ. They saw their salvation in His return. In fact, they knew that they would not truly experience their salvation until they were in His presence.

Oh, I still plan on praying for current needs for myself and others. But, that can't be the whole understanding of my Christianity. I want to be found faithful even if God never answers any of my present requests. (I say this with the expectation that He will indeed answer some of my requests.) I want my hope to be built on His return rather than what I will receive from Him immediately. I want to see my own salvation being fully realized at His return. I want to work as if He is returning today.

And yes, I will still go to fast food restaurants and have the same expectations as I have always had. I just don't want my faith to take the character of a fast food patron. I haven't come to my faith to get in, get what I want or get out. I have come to stay because He is coming.

And He just might come today.

Romans 8:24-25 (NIV) 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Have We Lost Our Vision?

I am fairly insulated from the rest of the world in my office. It is a Christian environment. The staff is kind and careful to follow Christian principles. It is easy to forget what lies outside my doors. There is world that lacks the Shepherd to lead the sheep.

Jesus saw the crowds and their emptiness. They didn't know what to do with their lives. They were pursuing their own goals without any great return. They were like hamsters running on wheels that went nowhere. They were tired and dispirited with no direction or real hope. They were lost without admitting it. He had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a Shepherd.

Sheep need a shepherd to give them direction. Sheep have a tendency to follow the next blade of grass which can lead them off a cliff. They look down without noticing what is around them. They fail to see danger or where they are in relation to the other sheep. It is easy for them to get lost pursuing that next blade of grass.

Sheep are often in need of a shepherd to mend their wounds. Sheep pursue the next blade of grass so miopically that they can be cut when they slip on rocks. Sheep can be hurt by dogs or other predatory animals even if they escape or are rescued by the Shepherd. They need the Shepherd to put salve on their wounds and care for them.

Sheep have no idea how to find water. They know where it is if they remain in the same pasture but roaming sheep are led to water. They are afraid to get a drink from fast moving water. They need still water to quench their thirsts. Thus, they need the Shepherd to lead them to this water.

Sheep have no defense against predators. They need the Shepherd to protect the sheep. Wolves will try to take young sheep even with a Shepherd but the Shepherd fights them off with His staff. He puts Himself between the wolves and the sheep.

The shepherd may build a small stone wall to corale the sheep at night. He lays down as the door (gate) of this corale so that the sheep will have to cross over Him to get into trouble.

Sheep have no purpose without a shepherd. The Shepherd shears the sheep in season to provide clothing for others. It cools the sheep in the hot summer months and gives the sheep purpose.

Does this sound like those in the world today? Do they pursue the next item in front of them and get themselves in trouble? Do they get in debt or ruin their relationships because of these pursuits? Are they often wounded without anyone to heal them? Do they know how to find Living Water which will spring up from inside of themselves and quench their own spiritual thirst? Are they in need of protection? Do they need a purpose in life? Of course, people need all of these things.

People need the Great Shepherd. I need Him; you need Him. Yet, we also have the responsibility of seeing these "crowds" so that we can share the gospel. The need is for workers for the harvest is plentiful. The need is for Sunday School teachers who will spend the time to share the gospel with classes. The need is for greeters for those who will make the church an inviting place. The need is for getting outside the church to share with our neighbors and co-workers the good news of this Great Shepherd.

Have we lost our vision? Do we believe that our only ministry is to feed the poor or entice the rich? Do we think that we can merely sit in our padded pews and let the world go to hell?

We must not for someday the Great Shepherd will ask us to show us the sheep we have brought to Him. We must go and pray that others will join us. We must "see" the crowds too.

Matthew 9:36-38 (NIV) 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."

Friday, December 16, 2011

An Encouraging Word Is Needed Today

I do not put on rose-colored glasses and look at the world without seeing the struggles, disappointments and failures. I see the hardship and dispair in the eyes of many. This look is seen in many believers as well. So, I would like to address it. I would like for you to know some encouraging words for today.

God still loves you with an everlasting love. Nothing in the world will change that. It doesn't matter what you have done for Him or against Him; He still loves you. He has proved that love with the sacrifice of His only Son while we were still His enemies. He loves us even if we choose to reject Him.

God still has wonderful plans for us regardless of how things are going right now. He will continue to complete that which He has called into us. He will walk with us to the end of this journey.

God isn't finished with us yet. As long as we are breathing, God is working on us to create the image of His Son. He is bringing us to the joy of our salvation. He is pruning us for greater things.

God will bring us to victory. He is a God of victory; not defeat. He brings all those who will walk with Him into His victory. It doesn't matter how the battle looks at the moment. God will bring victory!

God is still as powerful as He ever was. He is still healing, speaking and bringing miracles to this earth. He is not hindered by circumstances. He uses circumstances to reveal His glory.

God is still in control. It does not matter what Satan has done for he must get permission from God to do anything at all. This means that God is using the evil that Satan is producing to create a people whose faith is in Him. He is bringing Satan to his end by allowing him to bring that evil. It is an ultimate rather than an immediate goal.

Nothing can come into your life that you and God together can't handle. Everything you face can be overcome because He is walking with you.

There is an end to any and all pain. That end may be your graduation from this life to a new life with Him in heaven or it may be the victory you will have over that pain. Cancer is no conqueror of God-- Not is MS, ALS, diabetes, Aids or any other disease.

God does not want you to be lonely and He has a solution for it. Look around and you will see God working in others to bring you what you need. He is a God who walnts us to be completed by our interaction with others. He is a God who loves us through the love of others too.

Did I say God loves you?

1 John 4:16 (ESV) 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.

Pass this on if you believe someone needs to know this.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Have You Been Fooled?

People like to hear simple solutions. In fact, many people think they can run the country better than those in charge, diagnose their health problems better than their doctors, fix the economy better than the economists and solve unemployment without the aid of others wisdom. People see their own "simple" solutions as "the" solution. They choose not to know the problem in depth because that complicates the solution. Therefore, it is better to be ignorant of the true issues and look for simple solutions.

People like to hear simple solutions. They know the tax code is complicated so anyone who presents a very simple means of computing taxes is going to be heard. The internet has capitalized on people diagnosing their own health problems, car break downs, plumbing issues and everything which needs a solution by allowing the users to address their symptoms and giving them simple solutions. (Of course, there are more in-depth places to explore on the internet but those with the simple solutions get more traffic because they are simple.)

People believe that those who reject their solutions must have another agenda. They often say, "It just isn't that complicated!" when it is really very complicated. This is why politicians often support simple solutions by dividing the classes. Their solutions sound like, "We can pay for all your needs by taxing those who make more than 99% of the rest of us," and, "The real problem is that 47% of the country pays no taxes at all." You can see how simple the solution is for both sides. Each one says that the other should pay more. The other side has a selfish agenda. The polarization of our society is assuring that there are no solutions to our problems.

People adopt their simple solutions so fervently that they fail to see the other side. They will deny that their solution has flaws while refusing that another solution has merit. Therefore, the one who wants a higher minimum wage can't see what that will do to the small business owner. The one who is making millions only sees those who are down and out when a photo op is needed.

It is foolish to believe that many of the concerns facing our world have simple solutions. It took a long time to get into the mess that we are in and backing out of them is not going to be simple. It is foolish to believe that the problems are all because of another group. We are really all connected in this world. The solutions are for us to work out together. Trying to do so apart will fragment us farther and never provide solutions.

It is important for us to become intensely informed from both sides of the debates which present the solutions to our problems. Sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that there are others who will provide perfect solutions is foolish. Thus, we need to explore the other side of every solution so that we can see both points of view.

The real solutions to our problems are often a marriage of other simple solutions. This is not compromise. It is taking both sides to create a better solution than either side could alone.

There is one thing we should use for the basis of our understanding: There is One who will give us guidance in our solutions. Denying Him is saying that you have explored the whole universe and know there is no god. But, of course, that can't be true. Denying Him is saying that you have accepted a simple solution which says their is no god because you have truly failed to look. This is no different from those who are accepting the simple solutions for the economy, political leadership or unemployment. They chose the simple solution because they got to the real solution.

Real solutions take wisdom and instruction. Without these we will continue to languish in our problems as we point to others as the culprits of all our woes. This is no solution at all. It is foolish!

Proverbs 1:5-7 (ESV)
5 Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
       and the one who understands obtain guidance,
6 to understand a proverb and a saying,
       the words of the wise and their riddles.
7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
       fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Preaching God's Word

Sermon preparation is both hard and easy. Preachers have to produce a sermon each week for their congregations. They simply cannot stand before the congregation and say, "Sorry, nothing came to me this week." Thus, they (we) must say something even if it is lame. 

That is why it is so important to be in God's word each week for the preacher's own personal rather than public spiritual growth. Sermons should be the spill-over of the spiritual life of the preacher. They should be the word of God because God has spoken to them. 

Sermons must be given as the preacher has received them. Since God does not produce "on command," sermons take time. Some times God speaks immediately but more often the preacher is forced to seek the Lord with his whole heart to hear what God wants to tell the congregation. It takes prayer (sometimes with fasting) and study of God's word. It takes the surrender of the preacher's personal desire to say what he would like to say. It requires humility since it is only by God's grace that that He speaks to the preacher. 

A sermon is a tremendous responsibility. The preacher isn't there to "wow" the congregation, tell the best jokes or become a psycho-therapist. He should consider his sermon as God's word. It should be so carefully prepared that it will reflect the scripture being presented. It will explain and apply this scripture in the context of the hearers. Preaching a sermon should be seen as delivering a much needed medicine to the sick. It should be handled and delivered carefully.

Preparing a sermon is also very easy. God wants to speak to His people. He has called the preacher to deliver this message. He uses this instrument (the preacher) with precision. He speaks to the preacher who listens. Listening is not all that hard. All the preacher has to do is get out of the way and let God speak through him. Sermons are easy once that is done. Of course, the hard part is getting out of the way.

That doesn't mean that sermons don't have humor or personal touches. Look at some of the messages in the Bible. Jesus was asked whose wife a woman would be in the resurrection after she had seven husbands die on her. I imagine His first thought was, "Are you kidding? The real question is 'what is she putting in the soup?' Come now, seven brothers married to the same woman, one at a time and each one dying and there is no suspicion of malevolence!" We should see the humor in humanity as we seek to present the message. I believe that God has to laugh sometimes when He sees some of the things we have done. We should be able to laugh too.

Go to church this weekend (or whenever your church meets). Pray for your preacher in the meantime. Pray that he will deliver God's word to you rather than a well prepared but dry explanation of the scripture.  God's word is life-changing.

1 Thessalonians 2:13 (ESV) 
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What to Look for in Your Next Church

People visit the church I pastor every week. Most of them are looking for something. Many of them have no past connection with church. They have never been to church before. They may be looking for many things that we can't provide. We cannot become the place where every problem goes away. We can't be the people who encourage bad behavior. We can't preach Christ and other religions at the same time. Many of these people and others check us out and keep going.

There is no virtue in losing people. We are not an exclusive club which limits its membership. We are a people who seek to bring those who do not know the Lord into His presence. However, we can't violate our own principles to keep people either. We cannot take people to Christ by going somewhere else. We are limited to the teaching of the Scriptures, the leading of the Holy Spirit and our own convictions of right and wrong. It isn't that its "my way or the highway"; its "His way is the high way."

So, I write this with my own convictions to help others who are seeking a church which will lead them to the same place I want our church to lead people. What I am saying is: I know I am biased. I just want you to know that I know it.

The leadership of your new church should have several traits which should be observable. The leadership will never be perfect but these leaders should exhibit a clear separation between themselves and the world. Church leadership is in the world like the rest of the congregation but it must provide the example of living a holy life. This should be seen in a consistent time with the Lord each day, a obvious confession of sins before the Lord and an uncondemning spirit. The latter characteristic will allow the leadership to point out sin without condemning the sinner. The Holy Spirit is the One who convicts the world of sin. Church leadership can only point to the sin.

The holy lifestyle of the leadership should be seen in their righteous behavior. It will be clear that the decisions being made have been done so because of their spiritual maturity for they have prayed about each step the church should take. Sure, surveys may be taken, consultants may be consulted and trends in culture may be taken into account but the prevailing atmosphere will be one of prayer and seeking the Lord.

Because this leadership has confessed with a godly lifestyle, the congregation will know grace itself. They will understand that the leadership has given them grace and that their only godly response is to return grace to the leadership. The leadership will be blameless because of its hard work, continuing care and selfless lifestyle.

The pastor of this church will be gentle rather than harsh. I understand that there comes times for "fire and brimstone" but most of the time the sermons will be encouraging, comforting and urging the congregation to live lives worthy of God.

I personally do not understand the pastors who privately complain about their congregations. They tell me of their ignorance, failures and ungodliness. I liken this to a coach who complains about the performance of his players. Wasn't he responsible for their actions? Shouldn't he have coached them better? Shouldn't a pastor take some of the responsibility of the actions of his membership after some period of time? Isn't his responsibility to urge them to live lives worthy of the Lord?

Thus, the congregation should reflect the lives of the leadership after a period of time. The congregation will try to beat the leadership into submission if they have had long periods of being beaten by the leadership. They congregation will either live in a godly manner after being under the leadership for a long time or they will seek another church which has no example of godliness which convicts them of their sins.

Note that I have spoken of "over a period of time." Godly leadership has been oppressed in many churches which has led to verbal and political persecution. These leaders have been fired, forced to live on smaller and smaller salaries, criticized openly before the congregation and others and sent anonymous letters of malice. This is the worldly response to godliness: demonize the godly and exalt the guilty.

Obviously, you do not need to be a part of a church that is so ungodly unless God has called you to be a part of the solution of bringing that church to her knees in repentance. That is a special calling that requires a significant maturity and commitment.

So, what are you looking for? A holy leadership which leads righteously and blamelessly before the congregation which is being encouraged, comforted and urged to live in a godly manner. This congregation will also follow the characteristics of the leadership if the leadership has been there for a significant period of time. You cannot judge these characteristics by bells and whistles but by careful observation.

In the end you have to say, "Do I want to go where this congregation is going?" Of course, you should also check your own heart. Are you wanting to go where God wants you to go? Are you seeking a godly lifestyle or a place to hide and do whatever you please?

God has a part for you to play in the mission of your new church. So, where do you want to go?

1 Thessalonians 2:10-12 (NIV) 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Characteristics of the "Called" Minister of the Gospel

Most of the people I know in the ministry are honest, hard working, God seeking, praying ministers of the gospel. They have different personalities and gifts but share some common characteristics. I have observed these people and know that God called them because of how they are used by God. Not all of them are in pastoral roles. Each of them lives out their calling in very specific ways.

Called ministers have hearts that sink into the ministry. They look forward to doing their ministry. They don't see it as work even though they will work harder than anyone would expect for the salaries they receive.

None of them are perfect. They fail at times but they are never failures. They sin at times but they are known more for their seeking the Lord rather than their sins. They express their faith by their words and the ways they live.

Called ministers don't wonder what they should do each day. They know their calling. When they don't know how or what steps to make, they go to the Lord in prayer. Their prayer life is not relegated to praying for the sick. It encompasses their ministries. These called ministers seek the Lord until they know exactly how they are to preach, lead, address issues and continue their ministries. Their outward lives may not be spectacular but their prayer lives are. Evidence of such a prayer life is seen in how they speak of prayer, how they pray publically and the time they spend in prayer. Those who go into their "inner room" to meet with the Lord come out changed. Their faith and demeanor is different from those who rely on other means of carrying out a ministry.

These called ministers need no one to monitor their work. They know the Lord is watching them at all times. They know that they work for Him and work with Him. They know that nothing will be done without abiding in Him. Therefore, they do what they do as His servants. They seek to please their Lord so fervently that no godly person will deny their work ethic.

Called ministers of God are more likely to get criticism than those who aren't. Many ministers are judged by the way they handle the politics in their areas of ministry. They speak favorably to the potential big giver even though he is living a licentious lifestyle. They pander to the whims of those who will cause the most trouble. This is not the case of the called minister. He or she is gentle with those around their ministries but careful to hold their principles regardless of the political fallout. These ministers may be "run off" or fired or given so much more hell in their places of ministry than those who are in the ministry for the job rather than calling.

Called ministers are blessings to their areas of ministry. They bring the presence of the Lord into every situation. They cause the godly to seek God more and the ungodly to be uncomfortable. They may not be great orators with great articulation but will speak loudly by their actions. They will say more with stumbling wordsof life than those whose words are beautiful on the outside but filled with death inside.

Note the called ministers around you and lift them up in prayer. Pray that, though their lives may not be easy, their ministry will bring the presence of the Lord to all those around them today.

1 Thessalonians 2:4-9 (NIV) 4 On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. 5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed--God is our witness. 6 We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else. As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, 7 but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. 8 We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. 9 Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Church of Smoke and Mirrors

1 Thessalonians 2:3-5 (NIV) 3 For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. 4 On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. 5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed--God is our witness.

The Wizard of Oz was a favorite movie of mine as a child. The Wizard kept the people of Oz believing that he was all wise and all powerful by trickery. They failed to look behind the curtain at the man manipulating the gadgetry. I wonder if the message of the gospel has stooped to the smoke and mirrors of the Wizard of Oz to draw a crowd.

I once heard of a pastor who was using special gimmicks to draw in crowds. He once told people to come because a certain famous person would be at church the next week. He even went as far as to have a limo parked outside that next Sunday morning. During the worship service he announced the arrival of this famous person but failed to produce them. Then, he looked down on the congregation who had arrived supposedly for the purpose of seeing the celebrity and tell them, "Jesus comes every week and you don't come to see him!" He played on the guilt he had produced. Think of it: he told them to come because of the celebrity then, when they come, chastises them for arriving. What a gimmick!

I am not opposed to using tools which help people worship or understand. The church has used imagery to convey the gospel from the beginning. Paul spoke of the monument to the "Unknown God" as he shared the gospel in Athens, Jesus picked up children while expressing the need to come into the Kingdom of God as children and healed them so that people would understand who He is by His power and glory. There were times when God used spectacular events like fire falling to light an altar or the stopping of the Jordan River to reveal His will. But these were not gimmicks. They were genuine acts of faith and miracles of God!

I am glad that there are many churches growing like weeds. I just don't want them to be weeds. I want them to accurately share the gospel with all of its truth by the power of the Holy Spirit. I would love to see them have a spiritual awakening that cannot be explained by the presence of a charismatic preacher. I would love to hear that God is moving without any other explanation.

A guy once told me, "If they come to your church for a hotdog, they'll leave your church for two hotdogs." The problem with gimmicks is what you do for an encore. You have to keep doing more and more spectacular feats to get people to come back. This is like the tv ad which is so amazing that no one can remember the product that is being sold. Gimmicks which draw attention away from the gospel diminish the power and truth of the gospel.

Jesus did not come to me with any gimmick. The Holy Spirit convicted me and revealed the truth. I was alone when I asked Jesus into my heart. A couple of years later, after walking away from my faith, the Holy Spirit came to me while alone and convicted me. He helped me remember the joy of the Lord. I pledged to Him that I would remain steadfast and asked Him for continued  conviction. I have not lived perfectly but I have been one who confesses often and seeks Him regularly because He draws me near. None of this came with any smoke and mirrors.

I suppose someone could think I am just full of sour grapes. They think I feel this way because my church is not experiencing the phenominal growth of the church of smoke and mirrors. I hope that is not he case and I want the Holy Spirit to convict me of this if it is.

My problem is that I talk with a lot of people who do not understand the gospel. They come to church regularly, were baptized as children and nod their heads in agreement with Jesus as the Messiah, but do not have a powerful relationship with the Lord. They believe that everyone is going to heaven. They have no daily time in God's word. Their prayer life is almost non-existent. I wonder what they think I am talking about when I speak of walking with the Lord.

The gospel must be preached with and by the power of God. It must reach people through the conviction of the Holy Spirit. It must change people from the inside out.

The filling of a church by smoke and mirrors is a sham. It reveals the lack of faith found in the preachers who produce this trickery. They do not believe the gospel has the power to draw people or convict them so they resort to means they can produce.

Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." I believe that those who resort to thing apart from Jesus are doing nothing though it looks like a lot, but isn't looking like you are doing something when you really aren't the nature of using smoke and mirrors?

Friday, December 2, 2011

When Is a Ministry a Failure?

Many pastors are discouraged. Many of them are secretly looking for another profession. They may even be looking to their denominations to "promote" them out of their present ministries. Though they have cried out to God, they have not seen any results. Each Sunday is the same. Their churches shrink slowly and they are wondering just how much longer they can endure their own "failures."I have found that the problem most pastors face is not failure but how success is measured.

Success is not measured by comparison.
Each pastor's mailbox is filled with the success stories of the mega-pastors. Their churches are full, the giving is more than they know how to spend and their books are best sellers. The pastor of the shrinking church wonders why this hasn't happened to him. He knows he has prayed. He knows that he has studied the Bible. He knows that he has done the best job he knows to do. He spends much of his time making sure the air conditioning works the next Sunday. He works hard to see each one of the sick and pays special attention to those who are feeling the hurt of divorce, the loss of a loved one or the emptiness of unemployment. He knows the mega-pastor doesn't even know all of his staff, much less all of his members. He wonders why he is in this position while these others are allowed to write books and preach all over the world.

Success is not measured by desire.
Many pastors saw their ministries differently while they were in seminary. They were on a equal plain with most of the other students. They didn't see that others sermons were that much better than theirs. They saw themselves going to grow churches. They wanted desperately to baptize hundreds each year. They wanted to see new buildings erected as they led churches to be leaders in giving to missions. Their desire hasn't wained but their reality hasn't met their desires. They still want this. It just isn't happening.

Success is not measured by complaints.
I believe that each church has five people who are sent by Satan to complain. These people side up to the pastor at first and stab him in the back at the first opportunity. They complain and stir up trouble under the guise of being concerned for the church. They have been a part of running off the past three pastors and they don't feel that their work on earth is yet done. These people are rarely the ones who lead the charge. If something is said often and widely enough people will believe it is the truth. These complainers are saying it often and to as many people as possible.

So, how should a ministry be evaluated?

A ministry should be measured by calling.
Pastors are called to the ministry not to success. They are to fulfill the role rather than to be admired, become famous or write books. They are called to lead in the church where they are. They are not called to become the character and personality of a known mega-pastor. Pastors should praise the ministries of these mega-pastors but never measure their success against them.

A ministry should be measured by obedience.
It isn't desire that makes one great but obedience. Desire can mislead us to do things that we should never have done. Obedience to our Lord is all that counts. It isn't how much we have been given but what we have done with it that really counts. The Parable of the Talents should teach us that God expects us to take what we have had entrusted to us and be obedient with it.

A ministry should be measured by changed lives.
The pastor should spend some time each day alone with the Lord. He should be changed by His presence so that he can share this change with those around him. Changed lives are measured one life at a time. The pastor should never overlook the one in order to see the hundreds. Lives are not changed by mere church attendance. Many people come to church every week and are still white-washed tombs full of dead men's bones. Pastors should focus on those who are being changed by the presence of the Lord rather than the complaints of the five people who were sent to literally raise hell in their churches.

Maybe your pastor is feeling like his ministry is in vain. He has been called, faithful and is seeking the Lord in his own life. His ministry is changing folks but he may not even know it. It may be up to you to tell him that his ministry is not in vain. You have been changed!

1 Thessalonians 2:1 (NIV)  
1 You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Church: There's an App for That!

 Acts 17:19-21 (NIV)
19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul went to Athens to share the gospel to a group of people who were continually looking at new ideas. They were Greek "geeks" of the day. Paul seized the opportunity to address these who wanted to hear what he said because it was new.

Paul used the setting to address them. The Athenians had filled their streets and buildings with idols but they also had an inscription to "an unknown god." Paul knew that they had searched everywhere but did not know God. He knew they had not found Him in all their idols and explained to them who God really is. Some scoffed at the resurrection, others wanted to hear more and  a few became believers.

Paul employed the culture of the area to share the good news of Jesus Christ. He sought to win some with each message he preached. He knew that there would be nothing that would win all so he searched for ways to reach people with the gospel.

My church has just created a mobile app so that people can communicate the gospel in today's environment. The app tells about the church, allows the user to post prayer requests (which are pushed out to all other users), provides a venue for watching sermons, gives the calendar of church events and encourages people to invite others to church with one click to "Tell a Friend." It is using the environment of this day to reach the next generation. I think this is something that Paul would have done.

Please check out our app and see if it is something you would like to suggest to your own church. Let's reach the world one person at a time. Let's use every available means.

In the Apple Store search by entering "Thalia". (no quotes) In the Android app store search by entering "TLBC" We are Thalia Lynn Baptist Church. The company we used to create this app can be contacted by clicking on "More" at the bottom right of the app and scrolling down to "Built By."

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are You Worthy of Imitation?

1 Thessalonians 1:6 (NIV) You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

Paul commends the Thessalonians for imitating those who had brought them the gospel. Paul, Silas and Timothy had lived such an exemplary life among the Thessalonians that the imitation of their lives was also an imitation of the Lord. That significanly differs from those who say, "Do as I say, not as I do!" The Christian should live his life worthy of imitation.

Maybe you have seen evangelists come to your church in big buses or with incredible fanfare and thought secretly, "Its no wonder why they preach the gospel. Just look at the lifestyle it allows them to live!" These evangelists are typically isolated from the people except when preaching. They are wisked away after each meeting. They are kept in lavish hotels, dined at the best restaurants and fitted to the finest clothing. Very few people know how they really live their lives. The only knowledge you have of them is their own testimonies and in these they make themselves heroes even when they confess their sins. They cannot be an example because those who come to the Lord under their preaching do not know them.

These Thessalonian beleivers had welcomed the gospel even though they were going through great suffering. They saw that Paul, Silas and Timothy were not rich evangelists who came into to town, wowed everyone and headed to the next town. Paul set up his tent making business there. He was there long enough to establish this trade. Some have estimated that he was there for two years or more. (Acts 17 makes one believe that he was only there a few weeks but this can't be the case from Paul's own testimony in 1 Thessalonians 2:9) 

There are two ways to get people to think more of you. One is to leave quickly and/or keep yourself so isolated that no one knows your faults. The other is to live in such a way that they appreciate and wish to imitate your behavior. Paul, Silas and Timothy have done this. They have lived closely enough to the Thessalonians that they were able to imitate them. It is clear that Paul wanted these new believers to act this way. It is also clear that he knew that they were watching.

It has been said that the Christian is the only Bible some people will ever read. Many people have welcomed the thought of Christ but rejected the gospel when the observed the actions of Christians. It should be evident to every believer that others are watching. It should be evident that they will probably become imitators of those whom they have observed.

The Christian life should be lived with the desire that others will imitate your life. This is not arrogance. It is placing yourself under the lordship of Jesus Christ so that your boasting will be of Him and how He changed your life.

It is giving God the glory.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why Is Forgiveness so Hard?

Forgiveness is an easy thing to speak of. Believers know that they are forgiven and should forgive others. They admonish each other to do so. The real difficulty comes when they have either done something so egregious that they believe it exists only in the realm of the perverted or when someone has done something to them which has hurt them deeply.  Then, forgiveness is very hard.

Church should be where forgiveness reigns. The church proclaims forgiveness on billboards, literature and from the pulpit weekly. The church websites share the gospel of forgiveness given by Jesus Christ our Lord. No good church member denies forgiveness . . . until forgiveness must be given.

So, why is it that the individual members and the corporate body of believers have so much trouble with forgiveness? The answer is easy: they are obeying the ruler of this world.

John records in Revelation 12:10:

 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 

Satan stands before God day and night reciting our sins. He is saying these things because he seeks to injure God. He is saying these things because he understands nothing of forgiveness. He believes God should continue to hold them against us. He is condemned already. Forgiveness is beyond him. His nature is that he will never ask for it nor will it ever be granted to him.

Thus, condemnation is a rule for this ruler. It is the rule he, himself lives under. He believes that it cannot be overcome but that it can prevail so that his realm will be full of people who stand unforgiven and are perfectly fine with their condemnation before God because Satan either believes he will win over God or that he can hurt God by making people believe that forgiveness is a fantasy.

Jesus said of Satan:

John 12:31 (ESV)
 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 

This world and all that is in it has been judged. Satan is the ruler of this world. He has been granted the ability to make the rules of the world. Therefore, the most natural act is to obey the rules of this world. The rules of this world from Satan are chaos and condemnation. Those who lack forgiveness are obeying the ruler of this world. They are acting naturally rather than spiritually.

Does that mean that God has lost control? Absolutely not! Satan can only act where he has been granted permission. That is why Satan seeks to keep prayer far from the believers. Prayer acts in the spiritual world where the battles are fought. Prayer brings Satan defeat. He cannot stand a group of believers earnestly praying together. He will do whatever he can to hinder it.

Forgiveness also exists in the spiritual world. It is remembering that someone has committed an act of pain but never bringing it up to condemn them. Satan cannot understand this. This is why he stands before God to remind God of our sins.

Forgiveness is so hard because people try to forgive in this world. They think that forgiveness is natural. It is not. It is supernatural. Thus, even those non-believers who forgive are doing so because they, too, have been created with in the image of God. That image of pre-falled glory which was stamped on every person allows them to forgive some things. But not everything is easy to forgive. Some things require the abiding presence of the Lord Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why you have to forgive things more than once? Remember, Satan does not understand forgiveness. You are still in his world. It is natural to remember and feel all the emotions of something that you have already granted forgiveness for.

Thus, you must keep your mind of the Spirit if you are to overcome the condemnation you feel for other or even yourself. Forgiveness is not of this world It is of God. All sins, those who have been committed against you and God, have been paid for by the blood of Jesus. Therefore, you cannot hold it against someone when they have sinned against you. If you do, you have a higher standard than God for He accepts the blood of Jesus.

This is something Satan cannot grasp.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The "Election" of the Believer

Yesterday I did some Christmas shopping. The Apple Store was very different from all the others I visited. Someone greeted me as I entered the store. I told the guy (I think they call him a genius but I have my doubts. ) what I wanted He asked if I already knew what model and color I wanted. I told him exactly the model, color and capacity I wanted to buy. He directed me to a place right by the door. A few moments later a young lady with a mobile credit card reader reached directly behind herself to pick up the product I wanted, scanned it, took my credit card, bagged my product, emailed the receipt and thanked me for coming in. The total shopping experience took less than five minutes. I am a guy and this is my way to shop!

Lots of believers think this also gives a picture of salvation. They believe that God places an order for those whom He wants saved. Since He has already paid of their salvations, He can pick them up without regard for what they want for their lives. They have no choice but to go with Him. They call this election. I don't see it this way.

The Bible clearly speaks of election. It means "called out." I believe it is much more special than God's ordering system to bring people to heaven. I believe it involves the person's response to the gospel as much as God's calling.

I have been hit with following question in the past: "If the only way to salvation is Jesus, then what about all the people in darkest Africa who never heard of Him? Are they condemned because they never heard?" This has been a "show stopper" for many people sharing Christ over the years. So, here is my answer.

God is a loving and a gracious God. God gave His only Son for the salvation of souls. He has sent missionaries and witnesses long distances and into dangerous situations to bring salvation to people. He will send this message anywhere it will be received. In some cases the message would not have been received because the people are steeped so deeply in their own personal self interest religion that there is no need to send the Word. In other cases, I believe God still gives grace to those who would believe. I remain that God's character does not change. He remains a loving God.

Thus, the word "election" is not one that makes a person special only because of God's choice for it also makes the person special because of their choice of Him. He knows who will respond. He gives grace. He even gives His grace from the response of those who believe to share with those who will never believe.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians to tell them how special they were. God had chosen them. He told how the gospel had been received in power, the Holy Spirit and full conviction. The presence of God was there to present this gospel to them. The Holy Spirit filled these believers and they fully believed. Their election was dependent upon their response.

Stephen preached a powerful message before a group of Jewish people. His message had power and he saw a vision of Christ standing at the right hand of God. Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit but the people rejected his message because, as he told them, "you always resist the Holy Spirit." The problem was not with the power of the gospel or the presence of the Holy Spirit but their own resistance to the message that came from Him. (Acts 7)

The fact that it also depends upon our response does not diminish the grace God has given us. He sent the message to a people who did not deserve to hear it. His Son died for those who killed Him. There is no good that we can do to save ourselves nor are we ever to earn this privilege. We are totally dependent upon that message coming to us. We need to receive the faith necessary to have the conviction necessary for salvation.

God has worked miracles through the believer and non-believer. He has used circumstances to bring people to Himself. He has urged and used others to repeatedly give the gospel message to some. He has literally moves the world for the salvation of one and He continues to move the world for the salvation of one at a time. The gospel is no pyramid scheme. Everyone is directly attached to the Owner.

Why would God have allowed Adam and Eve to sin if He really wanted programmed robots in His kingdom? Why would He allow any of us to sin or even allow any of us to be born if He simply willed a few to Himself? The answer is simple. He wants people to decide for themselves and His election those who do very special.

You see, we forget that God does not have to take us. He could reject those who want to believe in Him if He wasn't the loving, gracious God we know Him to be.

Yes, I believe in election. I think it makes those who know Him very special.

1 Thessalonians 1:4-5 (ESV)
 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,  because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Essence of Being a Christian

1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 (ESV)

 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers,  remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Most people lie somewhere in between a true faith in Christ and a convinced belief in atheism. These people will agree in the presence of a god but will not know the true God personally. They may or may not go to church. Their motivation for doing so in external. They may do it to please someone, make business contacts or even use church as a social connection point but there is no intrinsic value of church for them. They may claim to be spiritual but their understanding is more paranormal than biblical. They may have made a public declaration of faith in Christ as a child but this act has no real meaning to them now. They truly lack the three essential elements of a saving faith in Christ.

Faith is not really explainable. Some people think faith is believing in something that you know isn't true. Some others believe it is something that exists within the believer which keeps him believing even when there is no external evidence. But faith is a gift of God which exists on the spiritual plane. It speaks to the spirit within the person who believes. The person cannot explain that at one moment he did not believe and in another he does. He cannot give the steps which brought him to his belief. Something happens. It works within the individual. Salvation is born.

How does anyone know the stories of Jesus are true? Two weeks ago I was in Crete talking with a guide about Paul's shipwreck near where we were. She disputed the possibility of the shipwreck because of bad weather. I told her the Bible said that this is what happened. She asked, "But can you really believe the things in the Bible?" I told her that I did.

She was looking at what she had observed and concluding that her own personal history proved that the Bible was wrong. What if that is applied to the gospel? How many of us can say that we have seen a man who was dead for three days rise from the tomb and ascend into heaven? Our own personal experience would rule out the possibility of a resurrected Lord. It takes more than wanting to believe to convince ourselves of the gospel. It takes a work of the Lord to bring faith into our lives. It takes a work of faith on our part in accepting the truth of the gospel.

That work of faith continues in our lives as a labor of love. The work that the Lord does continues in what we do. The two cannot be separated. We serve because we love our Lord. That love is also an act of faith. Think about it for a minute. Christians love a man whom they personally know but who died almost 2000 years ago. This is akin to a man telling you that his mother was a tomato unless you have faith. The fact that Christians will give their lives to share this faith with others reveals the love they have for Him. This is not a intellectual belief. No one would claim first person love for someone who died so long ago without either being crazy or having had God given encounters with Him. It means that this man who died is still alive tin order o have personal encounters with Him today.

Love is also unexplainable. It causes us to do things we would never have done unless someone is watching. It gets the mother up late at night to feed her baby. It makes a man work harder than he would for himself to provide for his family. It causes a daughter to give a kidney to her ailing father. Love may involve labor but it is not seen as labor to the one in love. It is seen as a privilege.

Christians fix their eyes on the prize. They have a steadfast hope in seeing Jesus. They look forward to His return and still expect to see Him when they die. Their hope is met with opposition. There are those who will try to convince them that they are merely believers in fairy tales. They will tell them that this world is all there is. They will say that self sacrifice makes no sense other than its own personal benefits in this world. They will claim that Christians do not care about those in this world as much as those who put their hope in this world.

But is that really true? How many hospitals or schools have been started by atheists? If there true hope was in this world wouldn't they make sure that this world was the best it could be?

Believers look to see Jesus and therefore do the things of Christ until He returns. They work toward healing because this is His calling upon them. They open schools so that the gospel can be spread through knowing the Word of God and through the professions of Christians in the world. Christians look to Jesus with a passion that will not allow them to be the only ones who will see Him. Their hearts cry out for others to believe. They pray for their loved ones salvations.

The essence of being a Christian is found in the work of faith within the believer, the labor of love which is both being done to and by the believer and the steadfast hope in seeing Christ again and bringing others to faith.

I have recently been around people who have gone to church all their lives but who do not understand any of this. They were raised in their churches and continue to attend. I suppose that being raised in a garage won't make you a Volkswagen either.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Which Is Most Important?

People often come to our church and remark on the atmosphere within the building. They talk of the people they meet rather than how our building looks. The sanctuary is still beautiful but it needs serious upgrading.  The halls are narrow, the restrooms are inadequate and there are always lots of repairs. Our church's greatest impact is in the attitude of the people. There is something very different about them.

This does not appeal to many. They want a church that looks like a Taj Mahal and do not care if the people are cold. They like to rub shoulders with the well-to-do rather than those who may not know what they will do tomorrow. They come and make the decision to walk out before they meet a single person.

It has been said that a "best seller" is a book that everyone wants to own but no one wants to read. It is important that you have it and can tell others that you do. It does not matter what's on the inside as long as it is on display at the owner's house.

This is the same issue people face when coming to church. Many fail to see which is more important. Their relationship with their Lord is about how it looks and how it performs rather than the relationship that is born within them when they believe. They are not so fascinated that souls are won to Christ as that they walk into huge opulent buildings. They want their church to be known so that people will admire them for attending there even if they don't attend very much.

Putting it frankly, it is more important that people come to know Christ than they walk into great buildings. The work of Christ to save a soul is more powerful than building a building. It is more important that your soul is saved than what you have or can do for the Lord.

Not everyone at our church is saved. Many come without a knowledge of Christ. They come like a blank page which can have salvation or damnation written on it. They watch and learn as the Holy Spirit draws them closer. They are not attracted to our buildings for they are nothing to be attracted to. They see those within the church who are struggling with the same issues in life as they struggle. They know there is something different about these people but they don't know what it is.

There is nothing more important than having your name written in the Lamb's Book of Life. There is nothing more important than your eternity made secure by trusting in Christ as your savior. It is more important than anything that you can do for the Lord. You may be instrumental in building a huge building for your church or you may even confront a demon and rebuke him in the name of Christ but it will not be more important than your salvation.

So, don't rejoice so much in what you have done for the Lord but rejoice in what He has done for you. He has given His life so that you can have eternal life with Him. This is most important.

Luke 10:17-20 (NIV)
17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name."

18 He replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Does God Expect Me to Be Thankful for Everything?

1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NIV) 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

No, God does not expect you to be thankful for all things. Paul wrote that thankfulness should be found in all of life's experiences. It does not mean faithful followers will thank Him for the tragedies in life. It means that their thankfulness continue even though struggles abound.

How can that happen? I'm glad you asked.

James says:

James 4:4 (NIV) 4 You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

Not many people feel that they have earned the title of adulterous. James' caustic attitude toward friendliness with the world makes it justified. He was saying that this world should not replace the love we have for God. It should not be seen as our father nor as our permanent home. It should not be seen as that which provides our every need. We are in the world but we cannot be of the world.

For the past two weeks I have been in the Mediterranean on a cruise. Over three hundred of us followed the second and third missionary journeys of Paul. It was enlightening. However, many of us said that the cruise was best part. Each day we ate what we wanted, were served by others who cooked what we wished, cleaned after us, entertained us and anticipated our wants before we wanted them. Two days of pampering made many of us say, "I could get used to this." And that is the problem with friendliness to the world. We wish to make permanent that which is temporary.

I noticed something totally unexpected on this cruise. Many of the people, though given service like they have never had before, began to complain more and more. Their spirit of thankfulness diminished rather than increased. Their level of expectation increased as the service had increased. Instead of being thankful for the way we were being treated, they were becoming more critical. Friendliness with the world means that there is some expectation that the world owes something to us. Receiving it makes many people forget that this is not our home so that they seek all their fulfillment from the world. But the world simply cannot provide this. Therefore, they feel an emptiness and complain because they, like a drug addict, believe their problem is a deficiency of what has made them feel good.

Understanding that this world is not our home allows us to understand that we are being prepared for something more than this world. Paul wrote:

Romans 5:3-4 (NIV) 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Struggles develop perseverance in those who realize the world is not their home. They realize that nothing comes into their lives without God's knowledge. They know that He will carry them through the struggle if they will walk with Him. Their walk develops their strength. That strength becomes character by which others recognize them. They are seen to be trustworthy toward their Lord because they have not faltered when the "going got rough." Their hope in the resurrection grows. They look forward to the time they will walk with their Lord rather than backwards.

The bodies we are born in wear out. Things fall out, turn other colors, wrinkle up, creak and simply hurt. The body falls apart the longer we live. It diminishes in strength. This is not true for the spirit that has been born again. The spirit who walks with the Lord through the struggles develops more strength, stronger character and steadfast hope. The Christian should be at his strongest at the end of his life. The hope should become a bright beacon for the believer. That hope becomes a source of thankfulness when the struggles arise. It does not make the bad things which are happening good, but it does give them a purpose. A Christian should become more thankful as he matures even during the struggles because he knows that God will make him stronger in hope.

Peter wrote:

1 Peter 1:6-7 (NIV) 6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
God receives glory when we walk faithfully through struggles. God does so in one of two ways. Either God uses our struggles to perform a miracle which will show His power, glory and love or He walks with us through these things to show His power, glory and love. I can think of two examples.

In John 9 Jesus and His disciples pass by a blind man. Knowing that the man was born blind they ask, "Was it because of his sin or his parents that he was born blind?" Their understanding was that this kind of tragedy must have resulted from sin. Jesus tells them that it wasn't because of the man's sin or the sin of his parents that he was born blind (note that Jesus didn't say that either was sinless) but his blindness was so that the works of God could be displayed in him.

Each struggle that faces us is an opportunity for God to show His work. It may be that God will simply do a miracle that will result in others (and ourselves) giving Him glory and honor because He has miraculously removed the struggle.

On the other hand, this does not mean that every struggle results in God's removal of the problem. Paul records in 2 Corinthians 12 that he has a "thorn in the flesh" which he has asked God repeatedly to remove. Each time God has told him that His grace was sufficient. Paul understands that this thorn was so that he would not be so full of himself. He understands that it is how God is displaying His power through him.. Thus, Paul gives glory to God for his weakness.

In either case, thankfulness should prevail. Either God will remove the struggle or walk with the believer through the struggle. Both display God's love, power and glory. The mature believer should recognize this and thank God for being used in such a way.

 But these are not the only reasons we should continue in our thankfulness even though we are struggling. Paul also wrote:

Romans 8:28 (NIV) 28 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.

God takes good and bad thing and works it for those who love Him; for those who as believers are called according to His purpose. It does not make bad things good but caused good things to happen from the bad.

Joseph was hated by his brothers. Most of them wanted to kill him but they decided instead to sell him into slavery. He was seventeen at the time. He rose to the top of Potiphar's household only to be wrongly accused by Potiphar's wife. He was sent to prison. In prison he interprets dreams. He is forgotten and looks to live out the rest of his life in prison. Then, Pharoah has a dream that bothers him. One, who has had Joseph interpret a dream in prison, tells Pharoah about Joseph's ability. He is brought out of prison, interprets the dream and is made second in command to Pharoah. Joseph is thirty years old.I imagine that Joseph could not make much sense of his circumstances for the thirteen years he was either in slavery or prison.

Nine to ten years later his family comes because of a great famine. He is able to provide for his family's existence because of his place in before Pharoah. His tragedies have resulted in his whole family's salvation.

After their father dies, Jospeh's brothers are afraid that Joseph will take his revenge on them for what they have done. Instead Joseph replies, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good." Joseph couldn't call what his brothers had done as good. It wasn't. Yet, he could see that God had used it for good.

And God always will make it for good. So, the next time you are in the middle of something that is horribly bad you can still remain thankful because you know that God will make something good happen.

In fact, the next time you are in the middle of something bad and you can't see what He will do, say these words to yourself, "God isn't finished yet!" Then give thanks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Ever Happened to Putting Others First?

The committee assigned to reduce the deficit spending of our government has failed. The failure comes from their inability to agree on how it should be done. Each one of them knows that cutting anyone's expected benefits will be political suicide. Maybe some of them were willing to do so but I bet that most of them weren't.

Most people realize that our country cannot continue spending at its current level without raising taxes significantly. Most of them have agreed that the spending must be reduced. Some believe that the taxes must also be raised. The real problem is that each group of people believes that another group of people should bear the burden. Each is fine with the spending cuts and the raising of taxes if their areas are not cut nor are they taxed more. (There are a few exceptions.) Thus, entitlements and raising taxes on everyone is off the table. Thus, 99% want to tax the 1%. (This, too, is a type of bullying.) Everyone is happy as long as someone else pays the price of reducing the deficit.

Amazingly, even church members are in agreement with this. People are not opposed to sacrifice as long as someone else is doing the sacrificing. They love to hear the story of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross but fail to see need for any sacrifice they should make because of their faith. Therefore, they do not give sacrificially, serve sacrificially nor put others before themselves sacrificially.

One lady in a former church told (not "asked") a guy to get up from his seat because this is where she always sat. She did not care whether he was new to the church, knew the Lord or was simply there to explore the claims of Christ. Her comfort was more important than his.

I have found that everyone generally agrees with me on Christ's teaching of sacrifice but they do not want to put it into practice. They believe that being a Christian and church member provides benefits rather than sacrifice.

The Apostle Paul understood that no one can truly know Christ and claim all his benefits at the same time. He realized that you have to put all those things aside that should have provided privilege in order to know Him. He considered it a privilege to do so.

The early Chrisitans sold what they had and gave it to those in need. They understood what Jesus said in being sacrificial. They did so because their hearts were changed. Can anyone truly call himself a Christian without a changed heart? Doesn't Christianity require that others be placed first? Doesn't it say that the greatest is the servant of all?

Self sacrifice is such a distinct virtue that it makes the Christian stand out in our society. It says that we should come forward and say that we will sacrifice for others. Who else will do this? Who else understands that releasing things from your own control allows you to have what you really need?

What good is it that a man should own the world and lose his soul? What good will anything of this world be when we are with our Lord? What good is it now if we can't know our Lord because of these things?

The world says that sacrifice is fine as long as I am not the one sacrificing. Our faith in Christ says that sacrifice is simply following the example of our Lord.

I suppose that putting others first is just not in vogue for many Christians.

Philippians 3:8 (NIV) 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ

Matthew 20:25-28 (NIV)
25 Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Acts 2:44-45 (NIV)
44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

Matthew 16:26 (NIV)
26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

What do you think these verses mean?

Friday, November 4, 2011

New Wineskins; New Wine

Has the Spirit stopped doing new things in our churches? I think not. While I am not that creative, nor am I considered by anyone to be "cutting edge" I realize that there are many new things going on within churches which brings a new life.

Many years ago "contemporary" worship appeared. Many churches had serious problems with it. These were traditional churches whose members were ready to demonize the new forms of worship. So many churches fought the battles of this "new wine in old wineskins." It seems that the familiar is always best is universal throughout time.

I personally remember hearing people say that they would never own an answering machine or a cell phone. Those people supposed that their resistence to the new would stop the technological progress. It didn't and many of them own answering machines and cell phones.

I personally have a hard time with facebook and twitter. I haven't gotten the hang of them yet. There are some things that some people are saying that I just don't want to know. That doesn't mean that this means of communication is invalid. It is merely a personal preference.

Churches which miss the understanding of these parables of patches on old garments and new wine in old wineskins are destined to struggle, at best, or die, at worst. They will try to live in the new world around them while patching their holes with the new members who will not fit into their church.

Many churches die because the neighborhood around them changes while the churches remain the same. The members shut their doors and say that everyone is welcome who resembles those who are already in the building. Visitors come but they don't stay. Some leave because they know that they must become like these people who are already members of the church. Others leave because they know that they are not really welcome.

Yes, I have often heard the stories of people in other countries who stand for hours to worship. I am told that these people would be grateful to worship with our oldest hymns and most stoic of traditions. I have no doubt that this is true. I also know that I am not in those countries and imposing that standard on the people to whom I am reaching is like trying to use unshrunk cloth to patch and old garment.

Jesus statement, of course, dealt with the fact that the change He was bringing was not like the old Judaism that had existed for thousands of years. He was bringing something new that would have to be dealt with as something new. He continues to bring new things which must be dealt with in new ways. His commission to make disciples has never changed but the methods to do so certainly have. The methods of worship and reaching people will bring newness which must be met with adoption rather than resistence. It should not be demonized as evil but as birthing new life into the believers and His church.

Recently, I heard someone say, "The old ways are best." I didn't ask whether he liked washing his clothes on a washboard or riding his mule to work. I didn't ask if he used the same old roads he always used or got on the freeway to travel. I didn't even ask if he still used a hand saw instead of a power saw. I just smiled.

Matthew 9:16-17 (NIV) 16 "No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is the Christian Life All or Nothing?

A rich, young man comes to Jesus and asks Him what it takes to obtain eternal life. Jesus gives the expected answer, "Keep the commandments."

"These have been kept since I was a boy!" is the excited reply.

Immediately, Jesus felt love for this young man. He told him then, "You do lack one thing. Go sell all you possess and give it to the poor. Then, come follow me." But the young man sadly walked away.

I suppose the young man could have said he had sold everything and come followed Jesus but he went away sad because he knew that he just couldn't pull the wool over Jesus' eyes.

Is eternal life contingent upon a complete commitment to Christ? Can people acknowledge Jesus as Lord without truly making Him Lord and still be His? Can the relationship with Jesus be so compartmentalized that a person can be fully devoted to Christ at church and still do whatever he wants everywhere else?

The scriptures are clear: we must be fully committed, acting under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

This is not about being perfect. It is about our commitment. Our commitment is to do what He says, be what He has called us to be and to confess each failure. The latter carries a guarantee that we shallb e cleansed from all unrighteousness so that we can do what He says and be what He has called us to be.

Let's say you have an employee who is expected to work forty hours per week. This employee consistently works thirty one hours each week. Would that employee's work ethic be accepted as satisfactory or would correction be in order? What would be the action of the employer if the employee continued to skip work like this? Would we expect a holy God to accept blatant refusal of being totally committed when we wouldn't expect an earthly employer to accept substandard performance?

Grace is the forgiveness that God gives His followers who seek to follow Him fully. That grace came at the price of the total commitment of Jesus Christ on the cross. It demands our own commitment even though there will be failures.

This is not about working for or earning salvation. There is nothing any of us could have done to earn salvation. It is truly unmerited. Our own good will never erase our bad. The price of sin had to be paid; the sacrificial death of Jesus. That is something that we realize with our commitment to Him. Our commitment does not pay the price of sin. Our commitment is the realization of His payment for our sins.

The most miserable existence is found in a believer who is living a partially committed life. There will always be doubt and conflict in his life. There will always be a sense of guilt and restlessness. He will be like a poor child who is only allowed to watch other children receive the good gifts of their parents. He will know they exist and may pretend to have them, yet also know that he is pretending.

One of the people I baptized this past Sunday said in her testimony, "For a very long time, I believed in God and Jesus and prayed allthe time but I don't think I was totally committed to living for Jesus. Then, it seems suddenly, God has jerked me up and said, 'You're going to church, you're going to commit yourself, you're going to follow me, you're going to learn my word, and I have a plan for you!' I went from trying to do everything in life on my own to wanting Jesus is every step. I went from not understanding God and Jesus and many other things to, 'I'm going to stop making excuses and I'm GOING to figure this out!' I went from never going to church, EVER, and never reading the Bible to going to every part of the church I can and I'm reading the Bible every chance I get. And I keep reading in the Bible over and over that if I believe, then I'm supposed to be baptized."

I believe she gets it. How many others have been sold a cheap gospel story which preaches that salvation is only "fire" insurance?

Mark 10:21 (NIV) 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Journey to the Center of My Soul

Matthew 22:36-39 (NIV) 36 "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'
What is left in my heart, soul or mind if I have loved God with all of them?

There is nothing left but the love of God. This love enables all other love to flow through me. It is central to my being.

Yet, I also find:

Luke 14:26-27 (NIV) 26 "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

How can there be hate in my life if love has filled my heart, soul and mind?

What Jesus is trying to tell us is absolutely foreign to much of the preaching and teaching that I hear today. This preaching says that we must put God first in lives as if He is on a list with other things. Jesus does not say this at all. He puts God in a totally different category as all other things in our lives. He makes God to be the center of the life of a disciple rather than simply someone that we love more than other things or other people.

The Matthew statement by Jesus says that we should love others as ourselves. It is obvious that Jesus is saying that we should love ourselves and our neighbors. The Luke statement says that we must hate our own lives if we are to be His disciples. Many people want to make this an act of comparison. In other words, they say our love for Jesus should be so great that the love we have for our wives, children and own lives is really hate in comparison. That explanation doesn't really for the logical conclusion is continually neglecting our families and ourselves in defference to God if we are to be true disicples. This is not compatible with other scriptures.

Paul tells us:

Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV) 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Many scholars point out that "fruit" is singular. The verb "is" is also singular. However, many people want to claim that there are nine "fruits" of the Spirit. If this was true both "fruit" and "is" would be plural. This means that the fruit of the Spirit is love by which all other qualities spring forth. This means that the love that I have brings joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This means that the love that I have through the Spirit is central to my character.

The love that I have for God is also central to my ability to love myself, my spouse, my children, my neighbor or anything that deserves to be loved. This love, when it is at the center of my soul, orders all other characteristics in my life. God must be central rather than merely first.

Putting God first is elevating all the other loves to be on the same list as God. This is like putting God in "first class" while everything else rides in "coach." However, you are the only flight attendant and the person screaming the loudest will get the most attention. Thus, you may say He is riding in first class but you must leave Him behind to handle all those who are riding in coach. Thus, our lives are conflicted with ambiguities of importance. We run to where we think we must while occasionally touching base with God to tell Him that He is really first.

We need to see God as the plane rather than the passenger. We ride on the plane with all of the other things and people that have some importance in our lives. We must stay on the plane or we can't act rightly toward all those other things.

He is at the very core of our souls. Everything else and how we treat those things must come from being with Him. We center our souls upon Him and we live according to His will toward everything else. This is not merely putting Him first! This is making Him completely central to all our character and relationships.

When someone says that we must put God first, I reply, "That's not enough." In fact, I believe that it is impossible to be consistent in trying to live our lives that way. I know that my day must begin with my devotion to God who is at the center of my soul or I will not be able to act in a godly manner to the world around me. I will sometimes treat my neighbor, wife, children and even myself without the love of God. I certainly will fail at being Jesus' disciple.

So I pray: Lord Jesus, be the center of my soul by which I will make all decisions today. I hold nothing back from You. I love You with all my heart, soul and mind. Please order my life as You will. Amen.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Disaster Looms But God Still Reigns

The earth is warming and we will all drown! Bacteria are mutating to become invulnerable to antibiotics! The worlds' economies will crash and bring us to worldwide anachy! Nuclear weapons are being created by people crazy enough to use them! Does this sound like last night's news?

People gather around their computers and televisions to hear people tell them of the upcoming doomsday. Each of these disaster predictors tell what must be done to avert the calamady. Each asks for you to give so that their organization can win the battle. Each has a political candidate to support. Each one claims that any individual who doesn't support their organization will cause the disaster to continue in its present course. Each one claims to be a savior.

I certainly don't want to stick my head in the sand and pretend that  there are no problems in the world. I don't want to ignore the problems of polution (in fact I ride a bicycle to work each day). I do accept some responsibility but I also don't think that the problems are will be solved by these organizations. Yes, we live in a sinful world but God has not lost control. He will ultimately redeem His creation.

Knowing God is sovereign doesn't mean that I can do the wrong things and still make good things happen. For example, the student who claims God's grace should not merely depend upon that grace when he takes a test. He should study and know God's grace in the studying. God gives the grace of a good mind, time to study, study materials, a teacher and peace that passes all understanding. This enables the student to be prepared and perform well when the test is given. This grace comes when things have some measure of control.

God's grace is also present when things aren't under control. For example, Christians who are caught in a tsunami experience God's grace and sovereignity in different ways. Some will survive the disaster and tell their testimonies to others of how God spared their lives. Some will suffer hardship and tell of God's sustaining power through His acts of grace. Still others may lose their earthly lives but be transported into His presence with their deaths. Each can tell a story of God's grace.

We can't make everything come out as we want. We should and can do what God wills for us. These actions may or may not avert a disaster. They will prove our faithfulness. Faithfulness proves our love for Him. We draw near to Him in this love and He draws near to us.

God may give us a message which will increase our faith about things to come. I have had such experiences when it seemed like disaster was immanent. God told me that He had another plan. He told me so strongly that I told others. I have had others say that I was a prophet because of these clear words from God but I don't believe so. I simply have "heard" Him tell me that He was still in control and the things which are apparent are not going to happen at all. He has other plans and He will bring them to light.

So, I ride my bicyle to work. It is a minor thing to fight polution but it is something. I listen to the doomsayers and ask what I should do. I do what God says because He is in control.

At the end of 1999 I had a friend who was storing food and money because of the millenial bug that was going to cripple our society when all the computers failed. I talked to a programmer at Compaq computers about the situation and he told me that this talk of computer failure was hoopla. I prayed and God clearly told me that I should do nothing about it. I told my friend about the response God had given me. He told me I should do something anyway. I had the option of believing or disregarding my message from God. I chose to believe but I didn't do so simply because of what I had heard from my friend at Compaq. I did so because God is ultimately in control.

This applies even in your situation. No matter how bad it looks, God will not allow anything to come into your life that you and He can't handle together. You can take that to the bank!

Revelation 19:6 (NIV) 6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: "Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.

Isaiah 52:7 (NIV) 7 How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!"

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sure, You Prayed But Did You Inquire of the Lord?

Joshua 9:3-15 (ESV) 3 But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, 4 they on their part acted with cunning and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, 5 with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly. 6 And they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant country, so now make a covenant with us.” 7 But the men of Israel said to the Hivites, “Perhaps you live among us; then how can we make a covenant with you?” 8 They said to Joshua, “We are your servants.” And Joshua said to them, “Who are you? And where do you come from?” 9 They said to him, “From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the LORD your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, 10 and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. 11 So our elders and all the inhabitants of our country said to us, ‘Take provisions in your hand for the journey and go to meet them and say to them, “We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us.”’ 12 Here is our bread. It was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey on the day we set out to come to you, but now, behold, it is dry and crumbly. 13 These wineskins were new when we filled them, and behold, they have burst. And these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey.” 14 So the men took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the LORD. 15 And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them.
There are lots of times I don't ask for the Lord's will. For example, I didn't ask the Lord which shirt I should wear this morning. My wife would tell you that I should have, or, at least, asked her before I got dressed but I did it all by myself. Which shirt I wear today was not a concern for me so I didn't take it to the Lord. I don't think He was concerned either.

However, many times I need a "word" from God to tell me what I should do. The circumstances may be plain and the evidence on what I should do may be obvious but I still need to ask Him what I should do. These decisions have consequences. They need more than the cursory prayers said at the beginning and the end of church meetings. Those who want the Lord's will have to wait until the Lord answers them. There is a greater commitment here than merely saying a prayer. It takes patience.

Godly decisions cannot be determined by hearing the testimonies of others and examining the evidence alone. Surely, every con man knows that these "reasons" become the basis for running every con. Never forget, the "con" comes from the "con-fidence." Apparent evidence for great gain is at the heart of every con.

I had a member of a church I served come to me with great news. This person had won the grand prize in a national contest which would allow him to have more money than he had ever had. He wanted to give some of it to the church. However, the company awarding the prize told him that he must first pay the income tax on his winnings. All he needed to do was send them a check and the money would come. I told him that this was a scam. I told him that the IRS did not require anyone to pay taxes on money they had not yet earned. I called the police in this person's presence and had a policewoman tell me that this was a scam. He left my office feeling dejected and disappointed.

A few weeks later I learned that the guy sent the money anyway. The "prize awarding" company gave him phone numbers of people who could verify the need to send the tax money in advance. He had made these calls and was assured that the whole process was legitimate. Of course, he never received anything from his winnings.

Now, I believe he prayed about it. That is, I believe he said a prayer. I know he didn't wait for a word from the Lord because he was listening to the lies of the "company" and the evidence of the "testimonies" of supposed past winners.

So, how do you hear this word form God? You first make a commitment to do nothing until you hear from God. This humbles you because you simply can't do what you want when you want to do it. You place yourself as a servant of the Lord who does His will.

Then, listen for the Lord still speaks. Sometimes He uses godly people. Those who are walking with the Lord can bring you His word. Sometimes He uses your quiet time when your heart is fully listening to Him. He brings a scripture to you quiet time. He brings a word from the Spirit to you. He gives you an unexplained peace within your heart. Somehow you know that it is a word from God.

The greatest problems in my life were created when I said a prayer, listened to others and looked at the evidence but did not inquire of the Lord. Yes, I prayed but I didn't honestly ask; I told God what I wanted to hear. I accepted my own prayer as His word. I made sure that I heard what I wanted to hear.

Decisions cannot always be made by testimonies and evidence. They can't always be what others want you to do. Remember that Peter, out of his love for Jesus, rebuked Jesus for saying He would go to Jerusalem to die. This is the same man who, not so long before, had the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus had blessed him for his faith in Jesus as the Christ but he rebukes Peter in the greatest possible way when Peter tells Jesus that He shouldn't die in Jerusalem. He calls Peter Satan and a stumbling block. He tells Peter that his mind is not set on what God wants but on what Peter wants.

Thus, if you are facing a decision which will have consequences, you must inquire of the Lord beyond merely praying. You must be willing to listen.

Are you listening now?