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!

A Visit with an Old Faithful Guide

A few years ago, I renewed contact with an old friend and mentor, a pastor who figured prominently in my childhood, influenced my conversion to Christ at seven years of age, and baptized me two years later. His name is Albert R. Siebert and he recently went home to be with the Lord at 96 years of age. More than 50 years had passed since we had seen each other, when I “Googled” his name and discovered that he lived just 20 miles from my home. I found his name and phone number, picked up the phone and scheduled a meeting at a local restaurant.

After reminiscing with him over lunch, Al, as he preferred to be called, invited me to his apartment overlooking Tampa Bay, and we began sharing God’s working in our lives. Just before  leaving, he pulled an old thin book from the top of the stand next to his easy chair. He said, “You know what this is?” Bending closer, the faded brown cover read, The Practice of the Presence of God, its author, Brother Lawrence.  “Ed,” he said, “I’m going to be sharing selections from this with my Golden Heirs group at Northside on Thursdays.” Al then shared with me how he had rediscovered Brother Lawrence a few months earlier and how it had encouraged his walk in Christ.

Al struggled with loneliness since the death of his wife Sue, a few years earlier. She had been his closest companion and friend for over sixty years, when she died quite unexpectedly in her sleep, after what seemed an uneventful day. They had kissed “Good Night,” drifted off to sleep, and she died. But then his eyes brightened as he spoke of experiencing God’s presence, even in his loneliness. And then he read the following passage from Brother Lawrence’s last letter,entitled “From his death-bed.”

GOD knoweth best what is needful for us, and all that He does is for our good. If we knew how much He loves us, we should be always ready to receive equally and with indifference from His hand the sweet and the bitter; all would please that came from Him. The sorest afflictions never appear intolerable, but when we see them in the wrong light. When we see them in the hand of GOD, who dispenses them: when we know that it is our loving FATHER, who abases and distresses us: our sufferings will lose their bitterness, and become even matter of consolation.

Let all our employment be to know GOD: the more one knows Him, the more one desires to know Him. And as knowledge is commonly the measure of love, the deeper and more extensive our knowledge shall be, the greater will be our love: and if our love of GOD were great we should love Him equally in pains and pleasures.

Let us not amuse ourselves to seek or to love GOD for any sensible favours (how elevated soever) which He has or may do us. Such favours, though never so great, cannot bring us so near to GOD as faith does in one simple act. Let us seek Him often by faith: He is within us; seek Him not elsewhere. Are we not rude and deserve blame, if we leave Him alone, to busy ourselves about trifles, which do not please Him and perhaps offend Him? ‘Tis to be feared these trifles will one day cost us dear.

Let us begin to be devoted to Him in good earnest. Let us cast everything besides out of our hearts; He would possess them alone. Beg this favour of Him. If we do what we can on our parts, we shall soon see that change wrought in us which we aspire after. I cannot thank Him sufficiently for the relaxation He has vouchsafed you. I hope from His mercy the favour to see Him within a few days. Let us pray for one another.

Those were Brother Lawrence’s last words!

Tears welled up as Al read those words, and I looked deep into the heart of a man who loved Christ more than life itself. Oh, that I would love Christ like Al, MY pastor, and my friend.

Peace and the Call of God

John Ortberg raises the question of whether or not “having peace” about an open door is a proper criterion for determining God’s call (All the Places You Will Go, pp. 137-138). He argues that “having peace” about the calling of God is not the usual pattern. In fact, and I think he is right, that not having peace is often an excuse for capitulating to unbelief and fear, resulting in disobedience. If we think about the calling of Moses, Gideon, Barak, Jonah, Jeremiah and a host of others, that would be correct.

The question is, does that mean the usual pattern is the one we should emulate, or is the pattern of Joshua, Samuel, Isaiah and Jesus the one we should follow. While we might argue about the nature of the struggle Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane, the whole tenor of His earthly ministry was desiring to do but one thing, namely to do the will of His Father in Heaven, and it was His joy to do just that. Indeed, Jesus not only experienced joy and peace in the doing of His Father’s will, but told His disciples that His peace should characterize their lives as they followed Him (John 14:27; 16:33).

Often in discussions of God’s will, Philippians 4:6-7 and Colossians 3:15 are cited inaccurately. Context in both passages speaks to God’s mind on how believers should relate to one another. God wants believers living in peace with one another. But is there a better passage to which one might appeal to make a case that there is a peace of God which ought to characterize a calling of God?

God spoke to Joshua shortly before he was to lead Israel in the conquest of Canaan, and said to him:

“Have not I commanded you? Be strong and very courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged; for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 NIV84

May I submit that when we fear and are terrified by God’s calling, it reflects a lacking in our knowledge of the God who calls us? It may be the usual response to an open door, but it is the wrong response. Isaiah “saw the LORD seated on a throne, high and exalted…,” and once cleansed of His sinfulness, heard God’s invitation “Whom shall I send?” and he eagerly responded, “Here am I. Send me!” If our hearts are right with God, “having peace,” the kind that comes from God, ought to be the rule not the exception to the rule.

Too often, I have trembled when I should have experienced the peace that comes from knowing,

“The one who calls you is faithful and He will do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:24 NIV84

Have You Seen a “Burning Bush”?

Thirty years ago, I hit the proverbial wall in my walk with Christ. My family was breaking up before my eyes and with it my “identity” as a pastor, a husband, and a father. Everything was far beyond my control and there was no consolation to be found from family or friends. But from within there was an impulse that got me walking out of doors late at night, and all I could think to do was look up at the stars. Could God have been the mover behind such an impulse? I’d like to think He might have been. Has such a thing ever been recorded in Sacred Scripture (Genesis 15:5)?

I used to refer to those walks as “looking up walks.”  I didn’t know anything about “burning bush” experiences in my life, or developing spiritual rhythms that not only provide rest but time to spend with God. (I’m learning NOT to come into God’s presence with an agenda!) Sure, I had a discipline of morning devotions in the Word and in prayer, but this was different. It was just me in the presence of El Shaddai.  Strangely, I grew to love those walks, listening and then talking to a really big BIG God. It developed into a habit I maintained for several years. I hated it when it rained, because I selfishly coveted those evening times in fellowship with my Creator. It was during those times that God did heal my spirit, and helped me deal with the broken pieces, but mostly it was about His presence and about spending time with Him. I was His and He was mine! How awesome it was to know I belonged to Him?

Perhaps you are familiar with the old devotional, Streams in the Desert. In one of my favorite readings, I found these words attributed to George Pardington, “Waiting upon God is necessary in order to see Him, to have a vision of Him. The time element in vision is essential. Our hearts are like a sensitive photographer’s plate, and in order to have God revealed there, we must sit at His feet a long time. The troubled surface of a lake will not reflect an object” (Cowman, 1925, p. 73). Love those pictures!

Maybe you are like me, sometimes lamenting the kind of life that just doesn’t slow down. I thank God for my wife, Lynn. She knows how to slow me down, remind me to refresh my soul, and prioritize. But the flesh wants me going, going, going! And if I let it, I cannot see my Lord in a “burning bush” or during  a “looking up walk,” or anywhere else. So now I’m thinking, maybe I need to resume an old habit, the rhythm of those “looking up walks.” Who knows, there might be another “burning bush” along the way.