Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

Unknown in Heaven and Hell

There is a fascinating story in Acts 19 about some traveling Jewish exorcists who marveled at the miraculous things Paul was doing through the name of Jesus Christ.     Such was their envy of his power that they decided to use Paul’s Lord to help them in their own ministry.    To those who were harassed by an evil spirit, these Seven Sons of Sceva commanded them to come out “by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims” (Acts 19:11-17).

For so long I said the same thing to my own demons!     For decades I trusted in the power of the Gospel that others believed in but never the one I knew for myself.    For years I preached about a Jesus who could save the world from sin….just not my own.    I would tell people as a pastor, “be healed in the name of Jesus” when in reality I was thinking, “I hope Paul’s Jesus is listening.”

Faith envy is easy to succumb to, isn’t it?    I think it’s because it is far easier to trust in the faith of another than it is to take the leap ourselves.   Unlike Peter who at least jumped out of the boat chasing after Jesus we opt instead to stay inside, where we think it’s safe.    We marvel at the faith-filled Peter’s around us, wishing we could be like that, even as we assure ourselves that it’s better this way because Peter did sink after all, right?

Thankfully there are examples out there of victory  – of walk-on-water- moments – who caused me to confront my own lack of belief.  There are few things as a Christian more troubling than knowing we should be free from the chains of our habitual sins yet having little to no experience of that in our own lives.    Seeing it happening for others gave space for the Holy Spirit to convict me that my relationship with Jesus had little to do with he and I and more to do with my riding the coat-tails of others, in the same way the Sons of Sceva rode the coat-tails of Paul.

When you try to confront the demons in your life by conjuring up the faith of others you get the response these seven sons received:

Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?

Who are you?   The devils rightly know Jesus and Paul because they are storming the gates of hell.   But who are you?   Why should the demons be concerned with you?   There came a point in my defeated Christian existence that I realized I was not even in the battle which Paul describes in Ephesians 6:10ff, but a mere spectator.  I was an unknown player in both heaven and hell.  I was still sitting in the boat, believing the lie that being around Jesus was good enough.    I was not truly “struggling” against sin in my life, as much as I might try to convince myself or others that I was.  In reality,  I was mastered by it.  

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When these seven sons tried to attack the demons before them through a power that was not their own they were “mastered” by these spirits, scripture tells us, and fled the scene “naked and wounded.”   When we try to defeat the sin in our lives by trying to appropriate the faith of someone else, or by calling upon the power of some program or technique, or through doubling-down on our efforts to be more religious (I’ll do, do, do, more, more, more!), then we are facing the enemy naked and alone.   Our sin will man-handle us again and again.  We will remain defeated…and unknown by either  heaven, or hell.

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.

How Psalm 119 Saved My Life (and can do the same for you)

To those who desire to distance themselves from a life of bondage to habitual sin, who cannot seem to muster up enough faith to make it through the day (let alone move a mountain), and/or have lost or never had an abiding love for God’s word nor the discipline of reading it much and often, I offer the following discipline which, by the grace and power of God, helped to save my life (and can do the same for you, too).

My counselor at Pure Life gave me an exercise to do which I thought very little of at first.   He told me to read a portion of Psalm 119 every night for the entire time I was there (7 months).   Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible.  It is broken down into 22 stanzas, each one a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.   My task was to read 3 stanzas a night and 4 on the 7th night.   This would mean I’d read through the entire Psalm in a week.

But I was to do more than just read.   I was to take note of the verses that didn’t describe me at present and pray that the Lord would make that true of me.    Let me give you an example…

Verse one reads (yes, at that time it didn’t take long to find something that didn’t describe me!),

Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord!

My way was anything but blameless and I knew I did not walk in the law of the Lord.   I continually gave over to my flesh, feasting on whatever my eyes desired, and as a result my life was anything but “blessed.”   I was heading towards divorce, estranged from my 5 children, jobless and homeless.   Not blessed!

So, when I read this first verse and recognized this was not me, I prayed,

Lord, my way is anything but blameless and I have walked my own path for far too long.   Help me!   I want to be blameless in your sight.  Make me know and walk in your ways!

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Verse 7 reads,

I will praise you with an upright heart,
when I learn your righteous rules.

Oh how I wanted to praise God with an upright heart!   For years I would stand in church whether as a spectator or a pastor and could not praise God with integrity.   How many times I would hoist up some shallow prayer of confession just before church, promising I’d not look at porn again (knowing I would at the first opportunity on Monday), just so I could appease my guilty conscious for an hour, further deluding myself that my praise was acceptable and pleasing to God.     Dear God, I prayed, teach me your righteous rules!   I want an upright heart!

On and on this inspired Psalm goes, with verse after verse which did not describe me as I was but as I hoped to one day be.    Over the weeks and months I began to see how the Holy Spirit was using these holy words to change me from the inside out.    I began to rejoice as I read these same words which weeks before condemned me.    What a joy it was to cry out to God in praise, “Yes!  Because of You I have an upright heart!   I can praise you with integrity!  I am truly blessed!   Your law is sweet and good, it is a light for my feet!   Your word keeps my way pure!”

Psalm 119 is about falling in love with God’s word.   It testifies to the power and authority of the words of God to change a heart from being consumed with self to becoming consumed with the Word.   Do you believe that God desires to make you new?   He will use his Word to accomplish this task.   Trust it!

If you are struggling with some habitual sin in your life, or find yourself less-than-passionate about reading God’s word, I challenge you to read/pray through Psalm 119 once a week for the next 6 months.   The person who comes to this inspired text with hands open and head bowed will not be disappointed.    You will be blessed.   God promises to do it!

 

 

Our Killing God: A Lenten Reflection

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We must trust also in a ‘killing God.’   We must declare with Job, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him’ (Job 13:15)

These words from the Puritan, William Gurnall, have been marinating in my soul since I first read them months ago.  They sprang to life as I read over the text for this Ash Wednesday.  The prophet Joel begins,

Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near (2:1)

Not everyone in the church today believes there is any need to tremble.   We have so domesticated God that we wouldn’t recognize Him if he came throwing flaming arrows from a war horse, as Joel goes on to describe Him.   God, we have told ourselves, is a cute bobble-head smiling down on us from our dashboards.

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From the beginning there has been a steady push to remove all of this violent, killing imagery from God, as though it is up to us to make God look more respectable and politically correct for mass consumption.   A recent blog from an evangelical scholar questioning the Bible’s goodness and trustworthiness when it comes to talking about a killing God is just one among many attempts to fashion God into the best, nicest, me.   Surely, we argue, God cannot be less loving and compassionate than me, right?    And therein lies the problem:

God is not us.   God is wholly other than us.  

C.S. Lewis, in his wonderful book The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, has this profound exchange,

“Is Aslan safe?”

‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe?

‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.

And then again,

“People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time.”

There was a time when I tried to clean God up for greater consumption.   I gutted Him of the images the prophets gave Him through the Spirit’s leading, the very images that caused people to tremble and rend their hearts.   Today, perhaps I could be found guilty of swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction at times, but given the culture I move and breath in, I pray it offers a helpful balance.    Yes, God is good.    Yes, God is love.   But I never want to be found guilty again of emptying God of His terribleness, or His wildness, or His holiness.

Gurnall continues his thought above,

It takes a submissive faith for a soul to march steadily forward while God seems to fire upon that soul and shoot His frowns like poisoned arrows into it. This is hard work, and will test the Christian’s mettle.  Yet such a spirit we find in the poor woman of Canaan, who caught the bullets Christ shot at her, and with a humble boldness sent them back again in her prayer (Matt. 15:22-28)

Somehow we must learn to live within this tension.   Lent, I believe, offers us a time to sit and wrestle with this God who is both good and terrible at the same time.

Though I may want a God who is always blowing kisses my way from the dashboard, I need a God who will also throw arrows, piercing my wicked, wandering heart to a cross. 

Dog Make me Holy

I love my dogs.

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I also hate them.

They have a tendency to bring out the worst in me.  Things can be going along just fine and then Chloe (the red head) will do something I don’t want her to do and my day is suddenly soured.   I go from peaceful and calm to angry and enraged, shouting for her to put that down, stop doing that, quiet down, sit, stay, shut up.

I take a prayer walk in the early mornings and I take Chloe and Miles with me.  It’s a struggle at times to pray with them beside me, sometimes wrestling each other for the best spot, sometimes veering off the path at the whiff of some game or garbage, sometimes barking at ghosts, or doing any number of other things that interrupt my planned period of dialog with God.   I get frustrated with them and yell, trusting that God can sort out my requests of Him from my rants towards them.

Yes, it’s ironic to be in the midst of crying out to God to be made a vessel of His mercy while telling my dogs to shut up. 

But not just ironic.   It’s illuminating.

What I’ve been learning lately is that God is faithful to use everything – EVERYTHING – for the purpose of making His children holy.    It’s not an accident that my dogs make me crazy.   It’s not an accident that they frustrate my prayer time.   All of it is used by God to illuminate what is still left of my flesh that needs to die.   My dogs reveal that there is still a lot.

And so it is that, by God’s grace, I’ve been more aware of these feelings of rage and why they arise.   It’s not my dog’s fault.  Rather, my anger towards them is a symptom of my selfishness.   When they cross my will and I get upset I am saying in my words and deeds that my desires and needs are the most important.   I am saying that I am the center of my world and woe, or woof, to anyone who interferes with that fantasy.

A better way, a more holy way, is to humble myself and choose in those moments to serve rather than be served.    Rather than blow up at my dogs for crossing my will I’m praying for the strength and grace to serve them and meet them in their need.   Yes, I know that sounds crazy.  Serve my dogs?   Aren’t I their Master?

But this is exactly what Jesus is calling me to do – to lay down my life for others, canine or otherwise.  By serving my dogs as an act of obedience towards God, my Master, I relinquish the control I think I have to Him.

And so it is that my dogs are making me more holy.   God is using everything, so it seems, to reveal what is inside my heart and what He has yet to lay hold of.

He’s using my dogs for his purposes in my life for this season.  What “dog” is presently in your life, driving you crazy?   It’s possible God is trying to get your attention.

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.