Gouging out the Eye: What James Knight, and Scripture, Teach Me

Making it’s way through the news is a story about James Knight, a dentist who fired his dental hygienist, Melissa Nelson, because she became for him an “irresistible attraction.”   My initial introduction to this story came through a blog by author Dan Brennan where he offers “some Christian thoughts” about the firing.

It’s a good article, and one that had me convinced he was right.

At least for a moment.

But upon further reflection I am struggling to see what exactly is  “Christian” about the article, or more precisely, about the reaction of many within the Church who appear just as shocked, outraged and befuddled by the actions of James Knight as the secular media.

Brennan, in his post, offers a stirring invitation to Christians to embrace an “ethic of delight” towards our neighbor, one that “would give both men and women grace and deep meaning to the sexual energy and beauty men experience in the presence of another woman as not something inherently lustful.”

Brennan appears to be advocating, without knowing the desires of Knight’s heart (or anyone else’s), that he (and all of us) should take delight in the “sexual energy” that exists between he and another beautiful woman with whom he spends a great amount of time with.

The problem with this is that it goes against everything Scripture would have to say on the matter.

Jesus said that if a man looks at a woman with even the intent of lust, he has committed adultery (Matt. 5:28).   How seriously should a person take this?  Well, far from “delighting in the sexual energy” that exists between the sexes, Jesus says,

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell (Matt. 5:29).

In other words, do not play with fire.  Jesus is radical when it comes to dealing with sin in the lives of his would-be-followers.    Lust is not something to toy with.   And yet, what passes for much of “Christian thinking” these days would have us believe that our fallen condition isn’t really that bad, that there really isn’t any spiritual battle for our souls being waged, that sin isn’t something God hates or that holiness is no longer mandated.

As such, “Christian thinking” is no longer scriptural thinking, as even a few examples reveals…

  • Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41)
  • Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body (1 Cor. 6:18)
  • Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8)
  • For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thess. 4:3)
  • “You shall be holy, for I am holy”  (1 Peter. 1:16)
  • Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:19-20)

And if the conquest narratives of the Old Testament teach us anything, at the very least it must be the seriousness with which God takes sin and the extreme measures necessary to extricate it from our lives.

Instead of being crucified by fellow Christians for taking the stand he did, James Knight ought to be applauded for choosing to glorify God in his body, heart and mind – for that is the first commandment.    The second, to love one’s neighbor  – the one we tend to focus on while neglecting the first – is meaningless in God’s eyes if we are not first honoring him.    These should not be mutually exclusive.   Knight ought to honor his duty before God (and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the measures he has taken were necessary to resist what was for him a dangerous temptation) and honor his duty to his neighbor, Mrs. Nelson, by being sure she is well taken care of through this transition.

Mr. Brennan tries to paint Christians like James Knight as the bad guys.  They are sending a message to the world that says sexual temptation cannot be resisted.     As a former sex-addict, I know this to be false.   It can be resisted.   But for some of us it requires radical measures.  Even Jesus thought so (gouge out your eye).

I wonder if this same “ethic of delight” would be applied to those who struggle with other idols?     Would Mr. Brennan advise the alcoholic to develop a healthy “ethic of delight” with alcohol?     Do recovering alcoholics who keep all forms of alcohol out of their homes, who never enter a bar and who navigate new routes to work to avoid familiar hang-outs send a message to the world that attraction to alcohol cannot be resisted?

Or do we applaud such people, even revere them, for their integrity and resoluteness to starve out their devil, who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour?

Perhaps it is easier to ridicule James Knight and his striving for holiness and marital fidelity than to face the hard truth that we care more about pleasing our neighbors than God.    When our Christian thinking leads us to the same conclusions as the secular world or when our standards of holiness are simply reflections of political correctness than it is safe to say we have lost our moorings along with all sight of a holy God who hated sin enough to die that we might not.

It is understandable that the secular, unbelieving world finds the actions of James Knight peculiar, even outrageous.    Going to such drastic measures for the sake of honoring God and a marriage vow will naturally get the attention of the world.     There is something wrong, however, when the same story is equally peculiar and outrageous among Christians of today.   Watchman Nee was correct to observe,

By the time the average Christian gets his temperature up to normal, everybody thinks he has a fever.

James Knight, your fever is showing.  Thank you for reminding me of Jesus’ command to be vigilant, to always be on guard, to stay awake (Mark 13:35-37).

What about you?   Is your fever for God obvious to others?  A redeeming quality of this news story could be that God, in his mercy, is calling you – calling us – to something deeper.     Scripture exhorts us to give no foothold to the enemy, to be radical when it comes to dealing with temptations that seek to steal our hearts away from God.     Christians spend a lot of time talking about picking up their cross or dying to self or taking the narrow road.   James Knight, it appears, is walking the talk.

What “eyes” do you need to cut out from your life today so that you can bring glory to God tomorrow?

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12 Step Theology

The following is an article I found on a website really worth checking out:  Setting Captives Free.  It’s a site dedicated to helping men and women find freedom from the things that bind them through the ministry of God’s word.

What I am sharing here is something that I have come to experience as truth, but it was not always so.   For a number of years I was a member of a 12 Step group called SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous).   I even started a group after moving here a year and a half ago.  Before leaving for Pure Life I shared with a friend that I feared my biggest hurdle being at Pure Life would be what I perceived to be it’s posture towards 12 Step groups.  I was sure that I would bristle and harden my heart towards any ministry that dared to look upon my sacred cow with suspicion (As it turned out, I don’t recall a word, positive  negative, being said about 12 Steps).

Thankfully, God granted me the grace I needed to weather that storm and I now find myself surprised by how much I depended upon the world’s wisdom over God’s.  The following article expresses that well, I think.

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12 Step Theology

I was once told by a secular authority that AA’s 12 steps were based upon St. Augustine’s Confessions. Being totally unfamiliar with AA, I believed him and, in my mind, this gave AA credibility. If Augustine didn’t know about God’s grace, who did? And, if they were basing their program upon his description of his bondage to and then liberation from sexual sin, shouldn’t it be sound? I foolishly repeated this “fact” to others, as well.

As it happens, immediately before finding The Way of Purity course, I had been reading the Confessions and wondering how I could be set as completely free as Augustine had been. So, when I started the course I had his experience very much in mind and everything finally made sense to me. At the time, I knew of little that might be different between this course and a 12-step program.

But now that I have seen what the 12 steps look like, it is obvious that this authority, who told me they were modeled after Augustine’s teaching, was wrong. The 12 steps leave out the most crucial thing that Augustine talks about. The first three steps are the biggest problem, since they are the foundation. These foundational steps are different from Augustine’s liberation and his theology and are even contrary and opposed to what you would conclude if you study what Augustine said about how God saved him. The 12 steps provide a mirror image which is deceptive in its likeness, while being ultimately the opposite of what they imitate.

The FIrst Step: We admitted we were powerless…

The first step is “We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors.” There is something right about this, since we are powerless to free ourselves from sin. We need a savior. Augustine, who was enslaved to sexually immoral practices and couldn’t give them up on his own, could perhaps be relied upon as providing support for this step – except for the fact that in the 12-step program this recognition is based upon seeing that the “addiction” is a “disease.” Well, Augustine never excused his behavior by blaming it upon something so blameless as a disease. No; what Augustine said is this:

I sighed after such freedom, but was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice” (Confessions VIII, 10).

Augustine didn’t admit to a powerlessness born of some disease that he just happened to have. Original sin makes the whole human race “sick and sore” from “Adam to the end of the world” (Against Faustus, XXXII, 14) but, nonetheless, the problem was not a disease but the perversion of his own will. He was bound to sexual immorality because he himself had willed this slavery and because he was bound to that which he loved. He was also bound because the just punishments of sin are moral blindness and depravity. The more he chose to ignore what he knew was true, the harder it was for him to see the truth, and the more he chose lust, the less he was able to choose against it. So the problem for a fallen human being has two sides: He cannot see what is true and he cannot do what is right.

This leads to a second difference with the AA step: the first step that Augustine identifies is not our recognition of our powerlessness. Augustine uses Genesis as the model of the work of redemption:

2 The earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Gen 1:2-3

Augustine said that, until we are saved, we are (1) formless – original sin and our own sinful actions have destroyed our original form; (2) empty – when we sin, we destroy ourselves, and so become “empty;” (3) in darkness – “we were covered by the darkness of ignorance” (Confessions XIII, 13), an ignorance produced by our own sinful acts; (4) fluid and insubstantial, like the waters – we dwell in a sea of bitterness at the bottom of the abyss (cf. XIII, 37), and our hearts are “dark and fluid” (XIII, 15). The Spirit of God, however, is far from us – we are submerged in the abyss beneath the waters, whereas God is far above us and above the waters we dwell within.

How are we rescued from this? It isn’t just by recognizing that we are powerless. No – we must see that God is desirable, that holiness is desirable, and that sin is despicable. We recognize we are sinners who cannot stop sinning; that sin is awful in itself and not just in its effects; that God can save us and is what we need!

We must see our despicableness and God’s holiness and desire to be like him.

How does this happen? By God’s act: God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. Augustine locates the first step of liberation from sin here: in God’s revelation to us of the truth. It follows, then, that no program based on anything but God’s revelation could save us and, really, that no program could ever save us, since only a special act of God, a bestowal of his sovereign grace, could open the eyes of our minds to see our true condition and the truth of His Way. God reveals himself to us by giving us his Word and his Spirit; “Your Word, eternal truth…raises those submissive to [Jesus] to himself” (VII, 24), and “By your gift [of the Spirit] we are set on fire and carried upwards: we grow red hot and ascend” (XIII, 10).

Returning to the issue of what this powerlessness is all about – what does Augustine teach about this? He said that he was so wretched that he thought that “[if] we were immortal and lived in unending bodily pleasure, with no fear of losing it” (VI, 26) then this would be blessedness (heaven with 72 virgins, right?). No one who conceives of blessedness in this way is ever going to be free, because they think all there is to life is these types of pleasures. If you love God for the sake of the flesh, you don’t really love God. The problem for Augustine was that he loved sex more than he loved God, and was totally attached to it; thus the well-known prayer attributed to him, that God would make him chaste – but not yet. The 12 steps do not teach that the acts to which we are in bondage are inherently sinful; the focus seems to be on their consequences, not on their nature. Again, this is because the idea is not that we are bound by sinful wills, but bound by a “disease.” We do bad things because we are bound by these things. What isn’t recognized is that we are bound by these things because we have substituted them for God, and have been handed over to these idols as a consequence.

This is why the first step must be, not the recognition of our own powerlessness, but the grace of God which allows us to finally see things clearly. We need to see that God is more desirable than sin, and we need to see sin for what it is – something rank and disgusting and awful. We must see God for what he is – beautiful and awesome and above all HOLY, and to be worshipped. We need to see that God has made us for Himself.

I would like people to take away from this is that the first AA step is incompatible with what Augustine taught because, although we do need to recognize that we are powerless (1) this recognition must be based upon a recognition of our own sinfulness, not a recognition that we have a disease; (2) we need a special act of God in our lives by which he enlightens our minds and shows us just how sinful we are and how desirable he is, a revelation usually though the Word and the Spirit. Simply recognizing your powerlessness is not enough to move forward; Augustine had recognized his powerlessness for a long time – he said he was “twisting and turning in my chain” (VIII, 25), but it wasn’t until God’s light came to him that he was able to be free from his sin. If a Christian version of the 12 steps were made, the first step would be this: God revealed to us his overwhelming holiness and our despicable sinfulness. “But Lord what glory is there which is not in you?” (VI, 10). The first step belongs to God, and this is why no program can set people free, why no advice can liberate people from sins, but only the grace of God can achieve this.

The Second Step: We came to believe…

“We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” – We are led to believe that merely reaching out for “a” higher power will save us.

Certainly, someone examining Augustine’s transformation would say that he was freed after coming to believe that a higher power could restore him. But first he converted to Manichaeism, founded by a Persian known to us merely as Mani. Wikipedia gives the following information about Manicaeism:

“Mani was likely influenced by Mandaeanism and began preaching at an early age. According to biographical accounts…Mani received a revelation as a youth from a spirit, whom he would later call his Twin, his Syzygos, his Double, his Protective Angel or ‘Divine’ Self. This ‘spirit’ allegedly taught him ‘divine’ truths which developed into the Manichaean religion. (This Syzygos resembles greatly the ibril of Mohammed). His ‘divine’ Twin or true Self brought Mani to Self-realisation and as such he becomes a ‘gnosticus’, someone with divine knowledge and a liberating insight into things. He claimed to be the ‘Paraclete of the Truth’, as promised in the New Testament: the Last Prophet and Seal of the Prophets that finalized a succession of men guided by God and included figures such as Zoroaster, Hermes, Plato, Buddha, and Jesus.”

Yes, men were diluting God’s truth by combining different religions as they pleased even way back then. Mani taught that matter was evil and that spirit was good, and God seems to be some kind of spiritual body in an eternal war with the powers of darkness. Augustine joined this religion, discovered many problems with it, and was promised that a man named Faustus could answer all his problems. When he finally met this man, he found that he could teach him nothing, and he gave up on this foolish religion.

You might think that Augustine was saved after this; but no, next he followed after the Neo-Platonists. The Neo-Platonists at least had a good idea of what the attributes of God were. They were examples, Augustine later thought, of men who did recognize what could be learned about God from general revelation, from the world, but did not worship him as he should be:

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools… Romans 1:19-22

The Neo-Platonists did not accept God’s revelation of himself in Christ. And Augustine followed this path for some time, without ever being freed from his bondage.

The lessons of this are two: first, it isn’t enough to seek “a” higher power; it matters that it be the right one; second, that even if you have a good idea of Who God is, that isn’t enough, either. You might know to which God to pray but, if you don’t accept his revelation of how to seek and worship him, you will not be freed.

Augustine had been searching for a “higher power” for some time, and had been involved in both the Manichean heresy, which has a very low view of God, and in Neo-Platonism, which has a very high view of God. The Neo-Platonists were like men on a hill divided from a city by a great forest, who could see a city but couldn’t see how to enter it. They could not enter the city because they would not accept Christ and were puffed up with pride in themselves and thought they could come to God by themselves. Now if AA were right, either of these would be enough, since both of them proclaim a “higher power.” But Augustine was never set free by either of these worldly philosophies.

The Third Step: We made a decision…

“We made a decision to turn our life and our will over to the care of God as we understood him.” Again, this was what Augustine did as a Manichee and then as a Neo-Platonist, to no avail whatsoever. Augustine was turning his life over to “God as he understood him” but it wasn’t until he turned his life over to God as He revealed himself in Christ that he found freedom. When he did this, it did not take him “12-16 months” to “recover” from sinful sexual practices, but a single day. As it mentions in one of The Way of Purity lessons, he was so completely transformed that when a prostitute well-known to him approached him, and said, “Augustine, it is I,” he replied, “Yes, but it is not I.” He didn’t live as a “recovered” fornicator but saw his behavior and desires completely transformed by God’s grace.

Basically, Augustine’s experience is an example of God’s grace completely liberating a sinner through his Word and Spirit in order to enjoy Him alone, but the 12 steps hardly teach these things: not that we need the Word, not that we need the Spirit, not that God’s grace is totally sufficient to set us free, and not that God is the one thing needful for our hearts.

I write this because I find it very shocking that this kind of thing is being so dressed up and is deceiving people. I find it disturbing that not only secular authorities, who might be excused since they are ignorant of what Christianity is, but even Christians, such as Rick Warren and Chuck Colson, don’t see how incompatible this program is with Christianity.

The Fourth through the Twelfth Steps

In almost every way, this program echoes Christian teaching – but distorts it. By removing the root, it removes the hope we have of being totally freed in Christ. By not explaining with what we must replace our idols, it leaves us to seek a new idol to worship.

It is entirely correct to instruct us to confess, to ask God to remove our defects, to make amends, to be vigilant, and to seek God’s will – but this is nothing but “good advice” if the liberation is not based upon Christ’s death on the cross and the total, amazing, eternal freedom bought at Calvary for all of the elect.

A worldly program may teach radical amputation and radical accountability. The 12 steps do not include anything about amputation although, I imagine that when it comes down to it, they may require something along these lines. They do teach accountability.

But where is appropriation? And where is adoration? It is these two principles that connect most closely with worship. Men fill themselves with and adore what they worship. When we were lost in sexual sin, we filled ourselves with depraved images and adored these idols. Where will men learn that they must fill their hearts with Christ and adore him only? And what will their fate be if they are never taught this?

43 When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation. Matthew 12:43-45

Augustine said that “our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (I, 1). He could not escape the power of the idol of sexual immorality until he came to desire God instead; “a man is necessarily a slave to the things by means of which he seeks to be happy. He follows them wherever they lead…” (On True Religion, XXXVIII). We are slaves of sexual immorality, of smoking, of drinking, or of another idol because we cannot believe that Christ will satisfy us. We believe that we need this idol in order to be happy.

According to Augustine, we therefore necessarily seek after whatever we believe we must have to be happy. Freedom is found when God shows us that we can trust him to satisfy our every need. The heart which does not seek God will necessarily seek after some other thing to give it happiness, and it will be a slave to that thing. So unless we learn that Christ must be our fountain, we cannot be freed.

My people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living waters, and dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. Jeremiah 2:13
31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 3:31-36
1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before him? Psalm 42:1-2
Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Deut. 8:3
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. John 6:35

We need to learn to seek our happiness in God and to feast upon the Word of God. Otherwise, when once we are freed from our Egypt, we will only be slaves to some new power. That is what Augustine taught. And that is what the 12 steps completely ignore. You may spend years going to a 12-step program in order to manage your “disease.” But, because they do not give you the one thing needful for freedom, that is, Christ, only the fortunate few who already have Christ on their minds can find real freedom there.

Programs such as Celebrate Recovery attempt to integrate the two, but the result is incoherent and muddled, effective more in spite of the format than because of it, more because they are taught in Bible-preaching churches than because of the soundness of the program, itself. A look at Rick Warren’s attempt to show that the beatitudes, which apply to the whole Christian life, teach the “eight principles” (i.e., eight of the twelve steps), should convince you of how difficult it is to fit the two sides of this program together. The connection between a given beatitude and a given step is often so weak that you cannot see why Warren is so confident in the “match.” Christ can set you free forever and fill that void in your heart that the 12 steps do not tell you how to fill.

Alexander Jech, mentor in The Way of Purity

“What do you want me to do for you?”

My devotion time this morning was spent in Mark 10.   In this chapter Jesus asks the question,

What do you want me to do for you?

two times.

The first he asked to his disciples – his closest followers – those whom we would naturally assume would have the right answer.    

They don’t.   They ask for glory.   They ask for honor.  They seek greater position in God’s kingdom.  They desire to be known.

The second time, just a few verses later, he asks the same question to a blind begger.   This man gets it right.  When asked what do you want me to do for you?  he humbly replies,

Rabbi, let me recover my sight.

I want to always stay needy like this blind begger before the feet of Jesus.  The moment I answer this question the way Jesus’ disciples did I know I am on dangerous ground.  

Lord, give me eyes to see you today.   

Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness (Psalm 115:1).

 

 

My House Shall Be a House of Prayer

With everyone else I am still trying to get my head and heart around the recent tragedy in Newtown.    As a father of 5, I can’t imagine the grief and sorrow of the many families affected forever by a few seconds of chaos.    May they find comfort and peace in the heart of God in the upcoming days, weeks and months.

When Newtown happened I was still in the midst of grieving another tragedy that occurred 2 days prior in a mall in Oregon, where a lone gunman took the lives of 2 innocent shoppers before ending his own.

Yesterday’s tragedies get eclipsed by today’s, and because human nature is what it is,  tomorrow’s seem all but guaranteed.

Temptation-1-2005_06_18-01_29_12

Tragedies like these evoke in us a desire to see something change.    They upset our equilibrium.   They judge harshly our complacency.

Some of these hoped-for changes are laudable and necessary.   Some lament the ever-increasing secularization of our culture and believe these horrors could be averted if we re-instituted public prayer  in our schools.    Some believe better gun control laws are the answer along with repenting of our obsession with guns and the right to own one.

I would gladly welcome both proposals and and would be happy to see them incorporated.

Others will miss this opportunity for change altogether and divert our attention to heroic moments of brothers saving a wet cat or a millionaire athlete giving out an annual shopping spree to some lucky kid.  We will surround ourselves with appeasements of our innate goodness to prevent having to look very deep at the evil that lurks within.   We preach, “peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

But none of this – neither legislating public prayer or gun control, or focusing on the outward goodness of humanity – will resolve our crisis.

Our problem is not a political or legislative one, it is a heart one.

While prayer in schools is a good which I applaud, a friend reminded me this weekend that prayer in schools did not prevent the Amish school shooting of 2006.    And tighter gun laws, while no doubt necessary, will not protect the innocent.     In Beijing, China, the same day as the tragedy in Newtown, a man attacked 22 children and one adult in a primary school with a knife.   This, the latest of a barrage of knife attacks inside Chinese schools.

And as for appeals to remember our goodness, both our Scriptures (Rom. 3:10-12; Ecc. 7:20) and our experience say otherwise.    Fact is, there is an Adam Lanza in every one of us.  But for the grace of God, go I.

Jesus said that it is out of the abundance of our hearts that evil such as sexual immorality and murder comes (Mark 7:21).   He told us that we must first make the inside of the cup clean (our hearts), and then all else will be clean (Matt. 23:26).

Jesus did not allow his audience to take the easy way out by rallying to change the external forces around them (eg. lobby for prayer in schools or gun control) nor did he comfort their crisis by telling them they are basically good people who are just unfortunate products of their evil society.

No.  He told them, as he tells us today, to repent.  He calls each of us to the long, hard, dying-to-self life of obedience.    He brings judgment upon our prayers which say,

Thank God I’m not Adam Lanza

while justifying the contrite in heart who cries,

Have mercy on me, God, a sinner.

We long to see something change, but want to see it happen without changing us.

I believe there is an opportunity here for us to make some radical changes but it will begin where Jesus began:  By becoming more faithful disciples ourselves and making disciples of the nations.

And this, I think, is where those calling for prayer in schools have it at least partially right.    But it has nothing to do with schools.    It has to do with churches.

St. Peter said, “the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God.” (1 Pet. 4:17).     What is this judgment?    In large part I believe it is summed up in Jesus’ words:

My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers (Matt. 21:13).

How little our churches, let alone schools, are houses of prayer!    How little time we actually spend in pouring our hearts out to God, seeking His wisdom and direction and protection over our lives and our land.    There is something wrong in our churches when we can hold a pot-luck and raffle that draws hundreds but call a mid-week prayer meeting and you get crickets.

We as a “Christian nation” will rise up as one at 4Am for Black Friday but few of us will “rise before dawn and cry for help”  (Psalm 119:147).

While we ask in the wake of tragedy, “Where was God in this?” God may very well be asking of us, “Where are my prayer-warriors in my House?”

Jesus said my house shall be a house of prayer.  Perhaps before we make schools havens of prayer we should first make ourselves, and our churches, battle-grounds of the same.

Yes, something must change.  But the change begins in me.  And in you.   As for me, I resolve to continue in my morning prayer walks before the sun rises, beseeching God to become more in me that I would become less.    I resolve to pray with my wife and children at home, to model what it means to be desperate and thirsty for the voice of God in my own life.    I resolve to cry out to God for our nation, our schools, and our churches, that we would know the power of God to transform our hearts and minds and see revival in our day and age.    I resolve, by the grace of God, to stand in the gap for a growing majority in our country and churches who no longer fear God or believe He is really paying attention.     I resolve to make God’s house a house of prayer, and to cling to his promise which states,

if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chron. 7:14).

What will you do?

Can Methodism Be Reborn?

Below is an edited version of an email I sent out to some pastor friends of mine a few months ago.   In my devotion time this morning I was in Psalm 85, which echoed a prayer I have been praying for the Church for many months.   It reads,

Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?  Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to their folly.

Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.   (Psalm 85:6, 8-9)

What is true for my church, the Methodist Church, is true for many others, I believe.   I hope the following is of some benefit to you, and the churches we love and serve.

I’m reading a wonderful little book I picked up at the library today entitled, Methodism Can Be Born Again, by W.E. Sangster, whom I had never heard of until today (an extraordinary Methodist preacher in Britain, as it turns out).

I wanted to share some insights I have gleaned from this book with you as a way to perhaps encourage some dialog with people more learned than myself and experienced in parish life.   Or, perhaps this will serve you in some other way on a personal level or be something you feel will serve someone else.   Either way, I pray you are blessed.
What I find so wonderful about this book is that it is written in 1938, and as such, prophetic in its diagnosis and treatment of Methodism’s decline.   After examining some of the reasons commonly given for decline in both attendance and ardor by those within and without the church (i.e. the War, loss of biblical authority, competing attractions on a Sunday morning, radio (ha!), a transient society, and a spirit of secularism), he goes on to write this, which I quote:

Endless discussions as to the true diagnosis must give way to some radical cure.  We know enough to make a beginning.  At least, we know enough to know where to begin.  We must begin with ourselves.  General criticism of “Methodism” must give way to clear, incisive and detailed criticism of a Methodist.   Rigorous self-examination is demanded.  When a man thinks he has “explained” the parlous condition of the Church by reference to the radio, Sunday movies, new building areas, or whatever other cause is our long category takes his fancy, he thinks also that the responsibility for the situation is not his, and that there is nothing to be done about it.

I couldn’t agree more.  A pair of books I read at Pure Life, Calvary Road and We Would See Jesus (by Roy Hession) argue that revival must begin within our own hearts.   We cannot lead anyone where we have not first been.   The Cleveland District superintendent, Joe Green, reminded me of the conviction of the late Scottish preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, who wrote,

The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness.

Sangster goes on….

On that dark betrayal night, when our Lord said to His disciples, “One of you shall betray me,” John did not say, “Is it Peter?”   Peter did not say, “Is it John?”   They all said, “Lord, is it I?”

To that point, I believe, the grace of God is constraining Methodists at this time of celebration [he is writing near the bicentennial of Wesley’s Aldersgate experience].   The pew has been blaming the pulpit: the pulpit has been blaming the pew.  The pew says that the preaching is lifeless and irrelevant: the pulpit says the people are absent or prayerless.  Back and forward the blame has gone, and nothing will be done till the utter folly of this mutual recrimination is seen as folly, and pulpit and pew alike humble themselves before the Cross, confessing their own sins, and saying, “Lord, is it I?”

He moves into addressing the cultural malaise towards denominational-ism and the heightened attitude of church-goers forgoing identification with any one group, preferring being spiritual but not religious (remember, he’s writing in 1938!).    He laments our sacrifice of our distinctiveness as Methodists for a more tolerant, unified, catholic Church.   Of this, he writes,

If we are right in our supposition that some do not regret the loss of our distinctiveness in the belief that it will aid the triumph of true catholicity, their satisfaction is surely misplaced.  Catholicity is one of the things that can always look after itself.  To get near to God is to get near to those who are near to Him.   It is a blessed by-product of the holy life.  It need not be strained for, either in lopping off the characteristic differences of the denominations, or by copying customs, precious to others, yet learned for no deeper reason than the desire to be alike.  If we all aim, with a single eye, to get near our blessed Lord, we shall get near to one another.  The hill of Calvary is not as large as all that.  Those who can touch the wood can touch each other.

I’ll conclude with his 4 questions in the middle of the book, each of which the rest of the book aim to answer.   As he analyses the Oxford Group Movement (Groupers) of his day and what they have in common with Methodism’s genesis, he asks,

1. Can Methodism recover fellowship?  (meaning, our distinctive class meetings which urge one another towards Christian perfection, or holiness).

2.  Can Methodism recover assurance?  (meaning, a positive, robust message of the Gospel characterized by a great confidence in the God of our salvation.  In a confused world the Methodist preachers were sure.  I love this line:  “The pioneers of the Evangelical Revival never began a sermon with the phrase beloved by modern preachers, ‘I feel I have a feeling which I feel you feel as well.'”)

3.  Can Methodism recover her passion for holiness?  (John Wesley, he reminds us, believed that sanctification was the chief reason God raised the Methodists up.   Losing this note in both our preaching and practice is, in my opinion, our death sentence).

4. Can Methodism recover her zeal for personal evangelism?  (meaning, the early Methodists, enlivened by the power of cancelled sin in their personal lives could not keep it a secret.   Religion has become too much a private matter, he says (1938!!) and winning souls is no longer the objective of the pastor nor the layperson – instead, maintenance of a machine is the goal).

I believe the answer to all four of these questions is YES and AMEN!   I hope you feel the same.   I pray that it will be so, and I pray it begins with me.

God Has Chosen Our Heritage

Last week, the day after Thanksgiving, I had the honor of speaking at my grandparents 60th wedding anniversary celebration.   Some family members have since asked for the words to that sermonette, so here they are.    Thank you, Grandma and Grandpa, for inspiring such ideas!  

There is this wonderful word tucked away in Psalm 47 which came to life for me as I thought about what I might say today.   It reads, God chose our heritage for us (Psalm 47).    This strikes both a note of grace and mercy for us today.   Grace because today we celebrate the joy and love of such a heritage and give thanks for numerous ways grandma and grandpa’s shared lives have had a profound impact on so many.   Mercy because the shade this family tree provides, under which we are gathered here today, is similar to the shade of another tree, the cross of Christ, which summons us, even demands of us, a response.   

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 God has chosen our heritage for us and we would do well today, even in the midst of great celebration, to inspect the fruit of our own trees.

 As I told people why were making the trip from TN to PA – that my grandparents were celebrating their 60th year as a couple – the responses I received were all the same:  wow, you don’t see that very often.    

 Sad, but true.   What is so sad and tragic about this observation is the lack of testimony on God’s earth of the sacredness of covenant between two people and the witness it should provide the world of God’s solidarity with us. 

 I don’t think grandma and grandpa would mind me saying that what we celebrate here today should not be considered a miracle or something extraordinary but what ought to be commonplace, particularly among those who claim to live under the shade of the cross.  Marriages that persevere through decade after decade, which carry on through seasons of feast or famine, which determine to live by faith rather than feelings, which make a choice to love in the same way God has made a choice for us ought to be the rule rather than the exception among we who have been given such a heritage. 

 God has chosen our heritage for us.  It is fitting that we should take this time to consider how we will honor God’s choice towards us, even as we honor my grandma and grandpa.   Such is God’s mercy.

God has chosen our heritage for us.  It is fitting to celebrate today the race Grandma and Grandpa have run and continue to run.  We are all benefactors of their steadfastness.  Grandma and Grandpa, I hope the presence of all of these here today says to you how much your marriage has touched so many lives.  Such is God’s grace.     

Gratitude: The antidote for lust

I’ve had a few management interviews at Amazon where I work.  One of the standard questions asked in the process goes something like this:

How do you handle stress in your life or keep from being negative?

I use this occasion to tell them about my faith in God and how an attitude of thanksgiving is something our household strives to uphold daily.  I tell them about the “Thanksgiving Tree” we made which hangs on our wall, comprised of cut-out hands of each family member where the fingers (which look like a turkey) are filled in with things for which we are each thankful.    I tell them how each night before bed we go around the family and share a praise – something to give God thanks over – before we pray.

Thankfully, thanksgiving and praise has become a cornerstone of our home.

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And it’s a good thing, too.   Paul says in his first chapter to the Romans that there are many who know God, but because “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to Him” they became “futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21).

A thankless home and heart will eventually become a dark one.

When I am short on my thank-list or feeling down I recall a sermon I heard by Doug Detert while at Pure Life on gratitude.   He said there are 4 things we can always be thankful for and if we make it a habit to give thanks for these 4 things we will soon find our spirits lifted.    Those things are:

1.  Our Father in Heaven who is good, and loves me.

2. The blood of Jesus Christ which bought me.

3. The gift of the Holy Spirit who is changing me.

4. And the creative Word of God, which makes something new out of what was not there before.

These truths are unchanging, despite our circumstances.    We can always be thankful for these four things.   I have found that when I meditate on these I am strengthened, and the “lusts of this world” lose their hold on me.

Thanks be to God.