A Call to Serve Where?

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:19-20 NIV

What is it about God that He seemingly delights to send us where once we would not go? Many years ago I vowed never to pastor a certain small church in New England. Almost thirty years after making that vow, guess where God sent me? Now in “retirement” from that assignment, I find God has had other surprising assignments for me. Presently, I am serving as a transitional pastor in a small church, (yes, a very small church) one which I would never have considered years ago. It is a church that I once would have found easier to write off than to pursue a ministry of redevelopment. So, why God, why?

During my doctoral study at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, I was introduced to an old book written by one of the seminary’s founders, Adoniram Judson Gordon. One paragraph in that book transformed the way in which I now view ministry.

“Why not withdraw from the church which has become thus secularized and desecrated? To which we reply emphatically: Until the Holy Spirit withdraws we are not called upon to do so.  And He is infinitely patient, abiding still in His house so long as there are two or three who gather in Christ’s name to constitute a templum in templo, a sanctuary within a sanctuary, where He may find a home…So we strongly believe that a few Spirit-filled disciples are sufficient to save a church; that the Holy Ghost, acting through these, can and does bring back recovery and health to the entire body.” Gordon, How Christ Came to Church, p. 61

Does a gathering of two or three constitute a church within a church as Gordon implies? Has he ripped Matthew chapter 18 and verse 20 out of its context, one which focuses on the ministry of church discipline and restoration? Or has he correctly understood that if Christ promises His presence when the church is about the difficult business of church discipline, He is certainly present whenever two or more gather in His name for other matters as well? Does the Father not hear and promise to grant His favor whenever two or three agree and pray the mind of Christ concerning His church? I submit that if that two or three Spirit-filled disciples are present, there exists a real hope for renewal and life. And, my wife and I have found more than two or three where God has sent us. God has heard their prayers, and is about to do what no other can do! What better place to be and to serve than where God is working and has promised to work?

Can You Hear Me, Lord?

One Monday April morning almost a decade ago, 29 coal miners died deep underground in West Virginia following an explosion of coal dust and methane gas. For a while there was hope that four of the men had survived in a special chamber 1300 feet below the ground. Had they survived however, their calls for help would likely not have been heard without very special equipment designed to detect the faint sounds of tapping deep under the earth in response to the detonation of a prescribed number of charges of dynamite on the surface.  

Sometimes we are tempted to feel that calling out to God in the day of overwhelming trouble is about like that, almost totally ineffective. But I want to encourage you, because I believe that as never before, now is the time to call on God to bring spiritual renewal and healing to our lives, and to breathe fresh life into the churches of our nation.

Three thousand years ago, a great king who had faced the hostility of enemy forces, and betrayal by trusted friends and members of his own family, found God to be as close as the mention of His name. He put it this way:

“The LORD is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear Him; He hears their cry and saves them.” Psalm 145:18-19 NIV

Whatever we face, there is never a worry that God will not hear us, if we call on Him. There is but one condition however. We must call on Him in truth. Jesus said:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6 NIV

The door of access to the Father’s throne is narrow, but that door is open to anyone and everyone who seeks it. The arms of Christ are opened wide to welcome all who come to Him in faith, and those who come to Him will have His ear!

“Wanna Get Away?”

I used to love those “Wanna get away” ads for Southwest Airline. Have you ever felt the need to get away from the noise and to have some “alone time” with God?

After high school, I attended Gordon College for a year or so, before transferring to Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University), where I eventually graduated. That year at Gordon was a challenging one for me for many reasons. One of them was sharing a dormitory room that freshman year with three other students. You can imagine the difficulty any of us had finding time to be alone.  

One of the things I liked to do when desperate for time to myself and my God, was to find my way to the old college chapel. If it was empty,  I would climb up to the old pipe organ, and begin playing hymns full organ! It would take me into heaven itself. The old chapel building no longer exists having been replaced by a much larger and nicer new one. I have no idea what became of the old organ, since it too has been replaced. But the old chapel and that organ was a refuge for me in those days. God spoke to me there, and I spoke to God.

That was more than fifty years ago, but I still find the need to get away to be alone with God. Sometimes it has been rising at an early hour finding refuge in a wicker chair on the lanai of our Florida home. Other times refuge is found on long morning walks around the neighborhood. I desperately need and covet those times with God. Jesus Himself felt the need for such times during His earthly ministry (Matthew 14:13 and 23).

The Desert Fathers of the early church may have taken solitude with God to extremes. But I think most Christians today are barely acquainted with the God they profess to know. Sometimes I’m convicted by my own superficial relationship with God. Does my heart beat with His? Do my thoughts resonate with the notions of God? Imagine the difference a life saturated with the fullness of God would mean to the hurting disillusioned people we encounter every day.

Just Suppose…

Just suppose… [It isn’t always wise to do this. But for a moment let’s make it an exception to the rule.]… so just suppose that you were God, and you wanted to send a message to human beings, but you knew that human beings weren’t very good at listening.  I’m told that at best we remember only about 20% of what we hear. The Scriptures tell us that for many centuries people largely ignored the messages God sent them, both in written form or spoken to them in the oracles of the prophets. I am reminded of the opening words to the epistle of Hebrews which declare,

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,… Hebrews 1:1 TNIV

But they weren’t listening. So, suppose you are God, and you have Good News for people who are known to be unreceptive, news which could save them from disaster, the consequences of sin and moral self-destruction. More than that, this Good News would mean new life, peace, and joy if taken to heart, embraced and owned by faith.  You have a plan to save humanity, but human beings are not listening, and all previous efforts to communicate with them have gone ignored. How would you communicate the Good News to them? How would you do that?

  • Would you send supernatural messengers to tell them?

Angels perhaps?

  • Would you send ordinary folks to check out the story and bear witness?

Shepherds perhaps?

  • Would you send a sign in the skies for people to see?

A peculiar star perhaps?

  • Would you send scholars to verify the facts and correlate the data?

Persian Magi perhaps?

  • Would you condescend to the human condition and simply tell them yourself in the flesh?

God’s Son, Jesus Christ perhaps?

The amazing fact of history is that God did ALL those things! Does He get your attention? That is what Christmas is really about.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 ESV

A Christmas Question: Whom Do You Serve?

On Thursday of this past week, Will N. was sentenced to life in prison on charges related to molesting a teenager and child pornography. It was painful day for Will, who will spend his first of many Christmas days in jail, but what he suffers and will suffer to the end of his life, cannot be compared to the pain inflicted on the victims of his actions and their families. Sadly, the circle of pain extends to many I know who worked with him and for him over the past ten years as the transportation manager for our county’s school board. It was in that capacity I knew him, and yet again did not know him.

After retiring from a pastorate in New England four years ago, I worked part time for Will as a school bus driver and later as a transportation assistant. He struck me as professional and competent, kind and empathetic, a young man with great administrative potential. His oral presentations at our annual in-service trainings were spot on, and I personally encouraged him as a speaker, which just happens to be my “stock and trade.” But what I didn’t see was the evil to which he was enslaved, and willingly so.

Will led a double life, but eventually the true master of his life was exposed. I couldn’t help but remember the words of Bob Dylan,

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

                  “Gotta Serve Somebody,”  Slow Train Coming Album, 1979

At some point in life, we all make a choice about for whom we will live. The outcome of our lives and the way in which we are remembered hinges on that decision. I suspect Will’s descent into a living hell was not sudden and deliberate, but involved a long series of compromises in the wrong direction. Still, at some point he chose the wrong master. Most of us will never be as bad as we could possibly be, but if we choose wrong, the potential is there. That is why Christ came into the world so long ago, to offer us a living hope and the ultimate antidote to sin and death.

At Christmas, we are presented with a choice. Serve the One who is called  “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6),”or serve a lesser god. That choice will ultimately be our reward or our ruin.

Choose well!

“For God so loved the world that He gave His One and Only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”               John 3:16 NIV

“But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name.” John 1:12 KJV

Warmly Welcomed? Not!

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

John 1:10-12 NIV

One crisp autumn day several years ago, a dear friend of my wife’s invited us out for dinner. We drove to a very fine restaurant located in the southern Berkshire’s, but our friend did not feel a reservation would be needed in advance. When we arrived, the parking lot was full, but we were in no hurry and we were expecting to spend a few hours together over an exceptionally fine dinner. We got out of the car, and walked past a group of friendly well-dressed people eating hors d’oeuvres. They told us just to “go on in” and as we were looking for the welcome desk, a waitress approached us offering something to drink. We asked for a table, but then were informed that this was a private party, a wedding reception actually, but we had no idea for whom. Embarrassed, we politely turned around and slinking out the door made our way to the car.

I wonder sometimes how Jesus Christ feels during the Advent season when we are presumably celebrating His birth. Does He feel like an unwelcomed visitor whose presence is merely an excuse for people to party and indulge themselves?  If Jesus were to enter your home or mine, and found us celebrating, would He be wondering, do I belong here, or do I even want to be here? It behooves us then, (I think) to take a step back, take a deep breath and ask ourselves, why we are celebrating, and to be sure that the celebrating is ultimately about Him. After all, the cliché is true, “He is the reason for the season!”

Giving Thanks for a Hope, Sure and Certain!

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NIV

These are the words of a man who suffered imprisonments, floggings, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst, and countless sleepless nights for the cause of Christ.  Oh, and I forgot, he suffered from that thorn in the flesh for which he begged God to deliver him. And yet he has a hope for which he can be thankful. What is seen in the present is not permanent. What is unseen, that which lies ahead is eternal and ever so good.

Thank God for a body that we can one day shed, like the skin of a snake, for something so much better! A body like to that of our risen Lord’s! And there is a payment scheme that rewards us exponentially and disproportionately greater for anything we suffer for Christ’s sake in this world now.

Do you know, that the difficulties of life are best handled by those who have the hope of a better tomorrow? Both Lynn and I saw how the hope of a better future in God’s presence transformed the terminal illnesses of her late husband Dan and my late wife Eileen into lives that burned brightly for Jesus in their final days. No fear in death. Boldness in praise of the One whom they knew was waiting in Heaven for them. For the believer in Jesus, we know that the suffering we endure now, no matter what it is, will not last forever. I like Paul’s words in Romans chapter 8,

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Romans 8:18 NIV84

One day, no more suffering, no more pain! One day we shall be liberated into the glorious freedom of the children of God, and in the meantime, the Holy Spirit indwells us to remind us of the fact that liberation from suffering and the day of the redemption of the body, is sure and certain. Praise God! We have a hope for which to be thankful at all times and in every situation.


Learning to Pray for Others Like Jesus Did

Imagine praying effectively like Jesus did! John chapter 17 records for us the longest prayer of Jesus in the Bible. Theologians describe it as the “High Priestly Prayer of Christ.” This is the actual prayer Jesus prayed as He walked from the Upper Room after the Last Supper, on His way out to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, where He would soon be betrayed.

Jesus was acutely aware that His death, resurrection and ascension to the Father meant His followers would be left behind to represent Him and His mission. He prayed that the Father would glorify Him by enabling His followers to do just that. As I considered how Jesus prayed, I was struck at how differently He prayed from the way we typically pray for others, particularly those near to us in the Body of Christ.

There are some things Jesus does not do in this all important prayer.  He doesn’t ask the Father to solve all their problems and dilemmas.  He doesn’t ask Him to fix everything that is broken. He doesn’t ask for God to make His loved ones financially secure or wealthy.  It would not necessarily have been wrong to pray about such things, but He focuses on the things that are most important, the things which ultimately matter most to Him and which should matter most to us as we pray for those dearest to us. What does He pray for?

Jesus prays that His followers:

  • experience the joy of intimacy with God (John 17:3, 13),
  • that they be kept safe from evil influences (John 17:11, 15),
  • that they be kept pure for productive service (John 17:17),
  • that they be of one heart and mind in the family of God (John 17:20-21),
  • and that they experience the presence of Christ and see His glory (John 17:24-26).

Oswald Chambers rightly speaks of intercessory prayer as “the ministry of the interior,” and cautions us against becoming “amateur providences” by dictating to God how He should work in the lives of others. One thing is for certain, we can be as effective in prayer as our Lord, if we pray His petitions for one another in Christ. Indeed, He has promised:

“I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.                            John 14:12-14 NIV

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”  John 15:7 NIV

What would happen if we prayed like Jesus for those near to us, and those not so near to us in Christ? If you can imagine it, let’s do it!

God’s “Not-So-Hidden” Arrow of Forgiveness

There is a notion that forgiveness and reconciliation requires that old wrongs be erased from the memory banks of the brain. Some folks even have the notion that God who knows the end from the beginning and exists in the eternal present, has no memory of our sins, once He has forgiven them. The mere existence of the Bible which records the sins of the saints of the past, gives the lie to that notion. God is all knowing and the facts of our sins are never forgotten. The risen Christ for all eternity bears in his hands and feet and side the scars caused by his death on the cross! They will always remind us that we were sinners for whom He died. So, what then does forgiveness mean? It is not a matter of WHAT we remember, but HOW we hold what we remember.

Forgiveness means that just as God looks at us through Christ and chooses not to remember our sins against us, so reconciliation requires us not to remember the sins of others against them.

For many years, I drove a school bus part-time. And periodically that meant as a school bus driver I had to pass a road and skills test to maintain my license. The inspector for the state DOT needed to watch me safely do student pick-ups, drop-offs and railroad crossings. On one occasion as a veteran driver, I blew the air brakes pre-trip procedure on a technicality. So, a retest was required a few weeks later. On that occasion, I was a bit nervous. Would the inspector remember my past failure? To make matters worse, on the retest, I came to a railroad crossing and while crossing the tracks realized I had not cancelled the master switch, with the result that my red SOS lights were activated and the crossing arm in front of the bus stuck out like a harpoon. He could not have missed it. I uttered an immediate loud “oops!” But before I could say anything else, the inspector said, “Good Ed, you didn’t stop until you had safely crossed the tracks. Is there anything more you want to say?” And realizing he wasn’t remembering my sin against me, I said, “No Sir!” Out of sympathy, I suppose, that inspector chose not to remember my faults then both past and present. But God does better than that!

God is not merely loving and sympathetic! He does not remember our sins against us, because He is RIGHTEOUS to forgive us our sins, because the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. God’s Son took the full penalty for our sins upon Himself, such that all the just wrath of God was fully satisfied by the blood of Christ. The only thing God can now extend to us, is His love and forgiveness. Does he remember our sins? Yes, but they are never ever remembered against us.  And, so it is, that if a brother or sister repents and receives forgiveness, we can and must reassure them that because Christ bore it all, our sins as well as theirs, so, they need not fear we will revisit their transgressions. For as the apostle Paul mandated, we must:

“Be gentle and ready to forgive; never hold grudges. Remember the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” Colossians 3:13 TLB Paraphrase

Look, I know that forgiveness and reconciliation is not the easiest thing to which we are called, but there was One who did the most difficult thing in all history for anyone to do, and He did it for you and me. He bore your sins and He bore mine. On the cross His arms were stretched-out wide and they remain wide even today, open to all who have offended Him and seek forgiveness, if they will simply come to Him in repentance and faith. He asks us now to join Him in His work by proclaiming the message of reconciliation toward God for sinners, and living out the meaning of forgiveness and reconciliation in our relationships with others.


Finding God in the Conflict of an Ordinary Life

Count it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, be should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. James 1:3-5 NIV 84

Some years ago, while serving as the Social Services Director at a large skilled nursing facility in Florida, there was a sudden “regime change.” The administrator who hired me had been replaced by another from corporate, who had the reputation for firing department heads beginning with the Social Services Director, whenever she was assigned to a new facility.  In spite of the fact, that I had never gotten less than a superior rating from our state inspections, I began to “catch the heat.”

It felt like our new administrator was attempting to bully me into firing myself. Frustrated and ready to quit, I resorted to seeking help from “the Wonderful Counselor.” Rising early one morning, I prayed, poured out my complaint to the Lord, when He seemed to say to me, “If I want you to remain in place doing your best and enduring the heat for me, would you be willing to do it?” To this day, I don’t know what possessed me, but I said, “Yes, Lord, I’ll stay until you move me and not one day sooner!”

Suddenly the weight of all the abuse and nit picking was lifted. I went to work that day with a totally different attitude. And then it happened! At about 11:00 AM, the phone rang in my office. It was Larry B., the administrator of a modest 50 bed ALF just down the road. Larry knew nothing about my circumstances, nor did I ever disclose them to him or anyone else. His first words were, “I’ll bet you are wondering why I’m calling?” Somehow, I knew the moment he asked, that I was about to be hired as his replacement.

God had an opportunity for me that I didn’t seek in any way, but it wouldn’t have been mine unless I was truly willing to serve Him anywhere He chose regardless of the difficulties. Oh, and by the way, that new administrator, who made life so miserable for her staff and me, she left for another position just one month later!