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“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).

 

 

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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.

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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.

Sober? Or Holy?

One of the unique features of  SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) is it’s sobriety plan.   Unlike AA where the boundaries of sobriety are easily demarcated (no drinking), sex apparently has a lot of gray area.   As such, each person, along with the help of their sponsor (mentor), defines a sobriety plan unique to the individual.

I knew guys who had sobriety plans which stated they had to remain completely abstinent from pornography.   I knew others who thought pornography was OK so long as they did not sleep with prostitutes.  Others had a sobriety plan which stated they could not masturbate more than twice in one week.   Anything more than that was a “slip” which meant they were no longer sober.

Everyone had a different definition of sobriety based upon their own understanding of themselves and their struggle.  A sponsor’s task was to help the sponsee formulate and stick to a plan.  Each member of the group supported each person’s individual goals for sobriety and it was considered improper to question the adequacy of the sobriety plan of another.

Looking back, it’s remarkable to me that as a professing Christian and practicing pastor I never thought to question this.  I probably even thought it compassionate.  Or maybe I thought how wonderfully liberating it is to not have anyone telling me what is best for me!   Knowing myself, probably more of the latter.

Jesus no doubt would have been banned from an SAA meeting because he would not have tolerated such “compassion” to one’s self.   Nor would he flinch from asserting authority where needed.    He would have set the bar much higher than any one of us would set it ourselves and he would demand our pursuit of it.   Jesus would say to us today, just as he did then, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Jesus didn’t call us to be sober.   He called us to be holy.

God’s idea of holiness is not subject to change based upon our understanding of ourselves or our personal struggle.   God is not impressed with our sobriety plans and how well we uphold them, particularly when they fail to meet His plan for holiness in our lives.    Jesus said that anyone who even looks at a woman with the intent to lust has already committed adultery (Matt. 5:28).   Thus, pornography (not to mention sleeping around), is not just a “slip” that may or may not jeopardize a sobriety plan but a sin against a holy God.  It’s adultery, and God hates it.

Likewise, the man or woman who equivocates about masturbation is bargaining with God.   Limiting the occurrence to twice a week (which may be a victory for some) may earn a person a sobriety chip at their next meeting but it is not going to be a sacrifice pleasing to God.   God wants our heart- all of it – and a sobriety plan which allows for “just a little sin a few times a week” is a poor path towards God’s will for us, such as…

Be holy, for I am holy (1 Peter 1:16) or,

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thess. 4:3)

God wants more for us than sobriety.   God wants us to be holy.

The same is true for the Christian who feels they are not addicted to anything.    There is a corollary here between the addict pursuing sobriety and the Christian pursuing God.

In the same way the sex addict gets to choose their sobriety plan we are now part of a Church culture which allows the Christian to dictate their own plan of salvation.   Respect for authority is nil.  We all have our own ways of “doing church” and “worshiping God” and if anyone tells us we are wrong we will happily find another “group” that will accept us as we are and demand little if nothing of us in return.   Pastors in every circle seem to fear man more than God and have long abdicated their sacred calling to disciple people to holiness in favor of catering to congregants felt-needs.   We dare not question anyone’s “salvation path” in the same way it is uncouth to question anyone’s sobriety plan.

Pleasing our own self-interests is not a game only addicts play.   It happens among the best and the soberest among us. 

Jesus said that the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many (Matt. 7:13).   The way forward, Jesus says, is through the narrow gate.    The road may be hard, but it is worth it.   It leads to a life beyond “recovery” and one the Scriptures call “new creation.”

So what should we do?   New creation doesn’t happen unless the old one dies.  Addict or not, it’s wise to follow Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church and,

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Cor. 13:5)

Does the power of God reside within you, enabling you to say no to your flesh?   Is your heart’s desire to please God and bring Him glory for the sole purpose that He is God?   Do you long for holiness in your life?   Do you allow others to have an authoritative voice into your life to help squash the tentacles of pride and the deceitfulness of your own heart?   Are you walking in the Spirit or in your flesh?

How we answer these questions could reveal a life that is either chasing after sobriety (as an addict or a church-consuming Christian) or one that is chasing after God’s own heart.    The former seems to be what the masses are doing and it leads to death.   The latter, Jesus said, is a path few will find, but it leads to life.

So what will you choose?   Being sober?  Or being holy?

When God Doesn’t Listen

I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I cried out to God to change me.  To take away the desire to look at pornography, to lust, to cheat, to lie.     The number of bruised palms from slamming the steering wheel after driving away from yet another indulgence I vowed just the day before I wouldn’t do.

The tortured yearnings of an addict.

We cry to God.   No one seems to be home.

There is a reason for this.    And the reason is not because I wasn’t working the steps hard enough or making my daily phone calls to my sponsor.   It’s not because my counselor just doesn’t understand addiction.   It’s not because I suffer from some childhood father or mother wound.    It’s not because I don’t know how to pray.

No.   The reason God seemed distant despite my emotional pleas for help is a simple yet hard truth:

I loved myself, and my sin, more than God.  

There is a passage in Psalm 66 which cuts through all the excuses and charades we as addicts are encouraged to play in our culture today.    It reads,

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (Psalm 66:18)

God knows the heart.  He sees our innermost thoughts and motives.   God sees what and who we love and knows when our cries for deliverance stem from a selfish desire – such as restoration of a marriage or career or reputation – rather than a desire to serve and honor a holy, jealous God who demands our sole allegiance.

And so it is that God will turn a deaf ear towards us in our darkest hours until our worldly sorrow is replaced with godly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10).     Worldly sorrow, the sort of sorrow that regrets the consequences of our addiction, leads us deeper and deeper into the pit.    Godly sorrow, the sort of sorrow that reckons our addiction as sin and despises it for how it offends God, leads to true repentance, and therefore, life.

Be honest with God.   Confess the love affair you have with your sin and ask God to help you see your sin the way God sees it.     This is a prayer God is sure to hear and desires to answer.

Psalm 66 is not without hope.    Hear this great promise found within it, and may it be your testimony as well:

For you, O God, have tested us;
You have tried us as silver is tried.

You brought us into the net;

You laid a crushing burden on our backs;

You let men ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water;

Yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.