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To the “Withered Hands” Among Us: A reflection on depression and the Church

On Friday Anthony Bourdain took his own life.  He is one of roughly 125 who did the same that day.  One of 45,000 each year.

On Thursday, a friend shared with me how a sermon he heard Sunday impacted him.   The text was Mark 3, the story of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand.   The thing the priest said that stood out to my friend is that Jesus was angry at the Pharisees because they were silent in the presence of need.

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus,[a] to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mark 3).

That story echoed in my heart on Friday as I watched past episodes of Bourdain’s No Reservations or scrolled through Facebook reading friend’s reactions to the news of his suicide.    It is fitting to see so many people speak up in the wake of tragedies such as these to remind people teetering on the brink to say something, to reach out, to make a phone call, to talk to a trusted friend or counselor.   All well and good.

But the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man with a withered hand reminds me that there are people among us who cannot reach out.

Due to social stigma many who suffer with mental illness and/or addiction remain hidden from our sight, afraid to speak up fearing that the shame that will come with voicing their need will outweigh the pain they presently suffer through alone.  Their withered hand is unable to extend beyond themselves to ask for help.

What I find so poignant about the above story is how Jesus has eyes to see the man with the withered hand.   His first instinct is to look for those who cannot speak up or reach out for themselves.   Jesus does not wait for a person in need to cry out for his help but is actively seeking them out so that he might push back their darkness.   Afterall, it is the sick and the oppressed – the addicted and depressed – for whom he came to save (Luke 5:31).

What I find so damning about the above story, however, is how Jesus directed his anger towards the religious who no doubt had this withered hand man in their midst week after week after week yet were silent.   How many times have I been in the midst of someone who is in need and I, too, have been silent?   How many of the 125 today who will be convinced that death is better than life are desperate that someone might notice their withered hand and say to them, “Come here”?

I am not suggesting that I or any of us can save everyone.   We are not God.   But it would be a grave mistake on our part, I think, if we did not at least acknowledge that when it comes to mental illness and addiction and other diseases which bear stigmas of shame we, the church, the body of Christ, are silent.   We cannot say of ourselves that when we enter the synagogues of our day we have eyes that are trained to seek out the withered hands among us.   We cannot say we are well equipped, should we see them, to speak words of life into their broken ones.

And though we are not God, I believe the Master wishes to teach us something if we will stop to listen.

The good news is we can get better if we will admit we need to do so.    What would it look like if every person battling alone with their own version of a withered hand heard a loving, compassionate, and resounding invitation from the body of Christ to “Come here”?

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Addiction and Spiritual Malpractice

Below is the video of yesterday’s ADDICTION sermon.   It’s a sermon I would never have been able to preach a few years ago.   Why?  Because I was committing spiritual malpractice.

For many years as a pastor I would look at pornography or engage in other lustful pursuits during the week before preaching a sermon on Sunday.    I knew I was committing sin, and felt terribly guilty about what I was doing, but justified it by convincing myself the good I was doing on Sunday outweighed the evil I was doing the other days of the week.   I convinced myself that God can and does speak through donkeys and would bless my efforts despite my habitual ass-likeness.

I realize how outrageous this sounds to many of you.  How can you be so  blind!? you ask.   But this is precisely what sin does to us.  It blinds us to the truths of God.  Paul calls us “darkened in our understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in us, due to the hardness of our hearts” (Eph. 4:18).  It doesn’t happen overnight.   The spiral of degradation takes time, dragging us deeper and deeper into it’s grip until the things which seemed so obvious before are now blurry, unclear, and suspicious.    When living in sin the Bible reads less black and white and a lot more gray.

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Jesus called such practitioners of religion “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27).   They looked good on the outside but inside their hearts were decaying, ugly, far from God.   They were blind to it, though, just as I was blind to the darkness of my own heart and the effect it had on others.   A blind shepherd cannot lead sheep anywhere good, nor to any place they have not been themselves.   A preacher who is looking at porn on Saturday cannot expect God to bless his or her efforts on Sunday.    We grieve the Holy Spirit, and thus short-circuit the mighty work God wishes to do in our churches when we live under the bondage of habitual sin.

Oh the number of Hail-Mary-Prayers I threw out there on Sunday morning!  Hoping that somehow, someway, God would be pleased to overlook what I had been looking at all week and bless “the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart.”   What a fraud!   Granted, all good things come from the hand of our Father, and it is only because He is rich in mercy that I was not struck down dead in the pulpit and, I pray, I did not make a shipwreck of too many people’s faith (A couple years ago I wrote a letter to my former church, repenting to them for my spiritual malpractice, asking them to please forgive me.  To this day I pray for them and anyone who had the misfortune of sitting under this “blind guide,” that God would bless them and keep them and fill their heart and minds and souls with every good thing.   I praise God today that they have a pastor whom I believe loves Jesus and knows His power to save.  Praise God for answered prayer!).

The truth is, pastors, if we cherish sin in our hearts God will not listen to our prayers (Psalm 66:18).    If our private lives are such that we are not walking in the Spirit but in our flesh then our prayers that God bless our people, heal their wounds, superintend our words, and pour out His Spirit on His church have no guarantee of being heard.   We are committing spiritual malpractice and must repent.   We must cry out to God to give us a spirit of repentance, that He would open our eyes and our hearts so that we might see ourselves in light of His Holiness.   We must cry out that He would soften our hearts so that we can see our sin and how much it displeases God.   When we do this, the scales will fall from our eyes and we will know.    No longer will God and His word be gray to us.    The delusion will dissipate and we will begin to expect God to heal the wounds of His people and pour out His Spirit in a mighty way on Sunday because He has done it in our own hearts every day of the week before.

Pastors, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the state of our churches as they are in this country are signs of God’s blessing.   Many of them stand today only because of God’s mercy.   Jesus died on the cross to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).   If we are not witnessing strong-holds coming down in our churches, then we must not point fingers at them but at ourselves.    What strong-holds are in MY life?   What am I not believing God can deliver me from?   Stop committing spiritual malpractice on yourself and your sheep.    “Repent, and turn again, so that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19-20).

Social Activism Vs. Personal Holiness

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This was part of my devotion reading this morning.  Being the father of two adopted children I took a lot of comfort from this verse.   It helped to affirm that I was right with God, that my “religion” was “pure and undefiled” because I took care of orphans.

As I read this passage today, however, I recognize that the last half of the verse is often left unsaid.  In all the years I used this verse to justify myself or call others to action I only ever quoted the first half which dealt with orphans and widows.   The command to keep oneself unstained from the world – to be holy – was somehow lost in the frenzy to do good deeds.

If it is true that the sort of religion God the Father accepts is one that looks after the “least of these” then it is equally true that the only religion God the Father accepts is one that takes seriously a call to holiness – to be set apart from the world.   We should look, live, think, and act noticeably different from the world.

I confess it’s easier to do the first part.  It’s easier to busy ourselves with doing good things for others – even adopting an orphan – than it is to divulge ourselves of the things of this world which leave us stained.    It’s easier to mow my neighbors lawn than it is to turn off the T.V.    It’s easier to visit someone in the hospital than it is to take inventory of the type of music I listen to and ask whether it glorifies God.   It’s easier to volunteer to teach Sunday School than it is to set my alarm clock one hour earlier each day so I can get up to pray.

What about you?   Is it easier for you to busy yourself with doing good things?   Does the last half of James 1:27 get swept to the side?    It seems to me that it’s so easy to get caught up in one side of this verse or the other.    So many churches are so caught up in social activism that they look more like the United Way than they do the church of Jesus Christ.    Then there are others who are so caught up in keeping themselves unstained from the world that they forget that Jesus ate with sinners, and calls us to do the same.     Far too many pit social activism against personal holiness.    The Christian must not do this.

How are you finding balance?   Is your religion “pure and undefiled before God the Father” by displaying both social activism and personal holiness?   Or is it more one than the other?

New town, new church, new creation!

It’s been awhile since my last post.   A month ago our family moved to the other side of the Tennessee River to Dayton where I have been appointed to serve as pastor at Mountain View United Methodist Church.    I’m in awe of the power of God to do far more than I could ever think or imagine.   The promise He gave me 2 years ago while at Pure Life, that if I would surrender everything and walk in obedience to His word He would restore everything the locusts (my sin) have eaten (Joel 2:25), has been realized.   That we are here today, ministering to God’s people in God’s church, is a testament to the faithfulness of God to do the impossible.     I’ve never felt so full and free as I do today and I’m excited for the opportunity to share at every opportunity I have the transforming, resurrecting power of Jesus Christ.   He makes all things new!

That was the theme of my first sermon at Mountain View.   It’s my testimony.   It’s what God wants to do for anyone who will humble themselves and cry out.   He will do it for you!   May God’s mercy fill your every need, and may this word provide you with hope.

Prayer: Not Optional

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed (Mark 1:35).

This description of Jesus’ early morning activity – prayer – hits me where I live.   If the Son of God needed to begin his day by finding a quiet place in which to pray, how much more do I?   If I mean it when I say I want to be like Jesus then at the very least I ought to imitate his habits.   Jesus prayed.  And therefore so should I.

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John Meunier shared a post from his bishop relating a conversation with a visiting African bishop.   The African offered his views on some of the things the American church needed, and at the top of his list was prayer.  He said,

The American church is not a praying church. You say lots of prayers, but you don’t pray deeply and listen to God. If you really want your church to be more alive, you need to pray for your church, your pastors, and your leaders.

I believe this is right.   It’s been said before, and bears repeating, that the vitality of our churches is not found in how many cars are in the lot on Sunday morning but by how many are there on Tuesday night prayer meeting.

When I find myself lacking in power or vitality it is not hard to diagnose the problem.  It’s almost always a slippage in my prayer life.   It almost always means that for whatever reason I have decided that on this morning (and maybe a string of mornings) I am too busy to pray, or too tired, or too whatever.

What follows here is a powerful sermon about prayer.  I first saw it 18 months ago and still refer to it when I need to recharge my batteries.   I pray we become a people known for being a people of prayer.  For Jesus it was not optional.  May the same be true for us.

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?

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?