Is There a Well of Contentment?

Having devoted over a decade of my life to working with the elderly, I have seen far too many who nearing life’s end, feel their life had no meaning, no purpose or satisfaction. But the lack of contentment in life does not belong the elderly alone.

At just 27 years of age, Tara Condell, a well-traveled, educated young woman, highly regarded by her peers, ended her life suddenly by hanging herself in her West 10th Street apartment in New York City. But just before her death, she posted a suicide note on her personal website. I was struck by her words which I’ve heard in one form or another over the years.

“I have written this note several times in my head for over a decade, and this one finally feels right. No edits, no overthinking. I have accepted hope is nothing more than delayed disappointment, and I am just plain old-fashioned tired of feeling tired…”  [New York Post online, January 31, 2019]

It is easy for us to write off people who make the choice to end their lives because they are depressed and find no contentment in life, but if we’re honest about it, we live in a world filled with people who live their lives pretending that they are content when the reality is that they are simply going through the motions of life, existing with no hope for the future?

Yes, I have seen many sincere Christians struggle to find meaning , purpose and satisfaction in their lives as well. I do not judge them. I know my own frailties too well. Overdriven people and those who become socially isolated are vulnerable to depression. But, is there an antidote that can lift the heart and encourage us even as darkness knocks at the door? Is there a well of contentment from which we can drink?

David, the shepherd-king of Israel overcame the stresses and anxiety of warfare,  rejection, betrayal, and bereavement by drinking from the well of contentment, constantly remembering that in possessing God he had everything he really ever needed.The contentment David found in the turmoil of life is summed up in the first line of the most famous Psalm in the Bible, the 23rd Psalm. “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” 

The late James M. Boice, the famous scholar-pastor of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church wrote:

“…If ever a psalm could stand almost on a single line, it is this one, and the line it can stand on is the first. In fact, it can stand on only part of a line, the part which says, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’” Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary. pp. 206 ff

That single line reminds me of a poster which gave me a ray of hope during one dark period in my life. It said, “If you have money but you don’t have Christ, you have nothing, but if you have Christ and have no money, you have everything.” To a young pastor with a young family to support and little income, more years back than I care to admit, realizing that God had my back, not only gave me hope, but encouraged my faith to believe God would provide, and He did! The boast of David, is much more comprehensive and greater than that. To belong to the Lord and to be the object of His care is to have everything! Blessed are those who possessing Him by faith, know He possesses them!

The Call to Follow Jesus: Extraordinary or Ordinary?

He was the son of a wealthy Italian merchant. To describe him as a spoiled unmanageable rich kid is an understatement. He lived the wasteful wanton lifestyle of a rock star in his day, and like a rock star, he had his own posse,  a large band of equally spoiled adolescents who traveled and partied hard with him night after night.

But to the greater dismay of his father and his companions, he had a miraculous encounter with Jesus Christ, and his life was forever changed. He read in the Gospels that Jesus told His followers:

Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. Matthew 19:24

Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece.  Luke 9:3

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Matthew 16:24

And so, taking these commandments of Christ as his “rule of life,” Francis abandoned his wealth, giving all but the clothes on his back away, and even that was taken from him by a thief, leaving him cold and naked and running into the forest for his life. Finally, he cut off the ties to his father, forsaking his inheritance, and set out to follow Jesus.

The radical call of Francis to take Christ’s command to give everything away and minister to the poor in order to serve Christ attracted many followers. They came from all over Europe joining him in what eventually became known as the Franciscan order. His radical commitment to Christ and doing the works of Christ marked his life from the day of his conversion until his death at 43 years of age. It is said that on his deathbed, he asked that all of his clothing be removed so that he could die naked in the same shameful way Jesus died.

There is something attractive about that, is there not, in a call to live heroically and to do something radical for God? I am of the opinion that it is actually easier to recruit people for something that is big, something that captures the imagination, than it is for something that is deemed ordinary in the Kingdom of God. And yet, I believe that while God may occasionally call on someone to do a great thing, it is not the first thing to which He calls anyone. In fact it is not to the extra-ordinarily great thing but to the ordinary business of living a holy life, a life devoted to God 24/7, that we as followers of Jesus have been called. Oswald Chambers put it this way,

“The sense of sacrifice appeals readily to a young Christian. Humanly speaking, the one thing that attracts to Jesus Christ is our sense of the heroic,…”                          […but then he says…]

“…the scrutiny of our Lord’s words suddenly brings this tide of enthusiasm to the test, ‘First be reconciled to thy brother’” [Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, “The ‘Go’ of Preparation,” September 24th].

How ordinary is that? In other words the primary call of God is not to do some great thing or to make some great sacrifice, but to live in right relationship with Him and with others. Then again, that sounds quite extraordinary does it not?

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!