Monday, July 28, 2014

When We All Get to Heaven

Heaven is for real. I know that in my heart, as well as believing Colton's story of visiting heaven while undergoing emergency surgery.

In "The Book of Hope" by Rev. Dave Bailey, I found the following poem about heaven. It made me laugh, and I hope it makes you laugh, too.

Heaven's Surprise
By Rod Hemphill

I was shocked, confused, bewildered as I entered Heaven's door,
Not by the beauty of it all, nor the lights or its decor.

But it was the folks in Heaven who made me sputter and gasp--
The thieves, the liars, the sinners, the alcoholics and the trash.

There stood the kid from seventh grade who swiped my lunch money twice.
Next to him was my old neighbor who never said anything nice.

Herb, who I always thought was rotting away in hell,
Was sitting pretty on cloud nine, looking incredibly well.

I nudged Jesus, "What's the deal? I would love to hear your take.
How'd all these sinners get up here? God must've made a mistake.

"And why's everyone so quiet, so somber - give me a clue."
"Hush, child," He said, "they're all in shock. No one thought they'd be seeing you."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Know the Direction, Be Surprised by the Destination

The first time we took the Kate to a Zoo. she was very young and wanted to know what it was going to be like.  "Will there be lions there?"  "I don't know, I've never been to this zoo before."  "Will the animals be just walking around where we can pet them?"  "No, most of the animals will not be walking around where you can pet them."  "How do you know?  You've never been to this zoo before."

A basic self-leadership principle is that a person cannot lead others to a place they have never been.  It is a healthy reminder that in order to lead others, we have to be going somewhere.  If I am to lead the people of our church in nurturing a relationship with God, I must be nurturing my own relationship with God, etc.

There is much truth to that principle, however, this image of leading people only to where we have already been misses the divine nature of the journey we are on.  When Moses led the people out of Egypt and toward the promised land, he didn't know where he was going.  They seem to have been wondering in the wilderness, walking circles in the dessert.  In the end, Moses gets them to the edge of the promise land.  He sees the land but never steps foot in it (Deut. 34: 1-4).  In essence, Moses led the people to a place where he had never been.  How does he do this?  He walks with God and brings the people along with him.  He does not know where he is going, but he knows what the next steps are, because God reveals those steps along the way.  At the beginning of the journey, Moses was concerned that he would not be able to convince Pharaoh to release the people, nor be able to convince the people to follow him into unknown territory.  "Moses said to the Lord, 'My Lord, I've never been able to speak well, not yesterday, not the day before, and certainly not now since you've been talking to your servant.  I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue" (Ex. 4:10).  God retorted, "I'll help both of you [Moses and Aaron] speak, and I'll teach both of you what to do..." (Ex. 4:15).

Jesus echoed this sentiment when preparing the disciples for ministry in response to persecution once he was no longer among them in the flesh: "Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I'll give you the words and wisdom that non of your opponents will be able to contradict." (Luke 21: 14-15)

Sometimes trying to get a sense of how everything is going to work out in the end paralyzes us from being able to take the next steps in faith.  Our journey is by it's very nature one step at a time.  None of us can know exactly where we are headed, only whether or not we are headed in the right direction. How do you know when you are on the right path?  Do you have God-sized expectations about where Christ will lead?

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Power of God

Look at the evening sky!
    Who created the stars?
Who gave them each a name?
    Who leads them like an army?
The Lord is so powerful
  that none of the stars
    are ever missing.

Isaiah 40:26 CEB

We had a lovely sunset last night here in South Jersey. And the reason I saw that sunset was because I went to our "Worship on the River" evening service.

"The Lord is so powerful that none of the stars are ever missing..." Often, in the hubbub and worries of everyday life, I forget about God's great power. I try to rely on myself rather than trusting in the Lord.

So from now on, every time I see a beautiful sunset, or stars shining in the night sky, I will try to remember and rely on God's power to ease my mind.

How about you? What helps you remember to trust in the power of the Lord?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Three Year Olds and Obedience

I've learned a lot about God through being a mom.  Katie Davis, a missionary in Uganda who adopted fourteen girls, writes this about her little 3 year old daughter Grace, and it sums up one of those lessons really well:

"I don't exactly remember when it started.  One day, Grace simply would not get into the bathtub.  So I didn't make her.  I let her get in bed dirty that night.  The fight just wasn't worth interrupting everyone else's bedtime.  But on the second night, I couldn't ignore her again.  She really needed that bath. 

So we began the struggle, and it continues to this day.  Night after night, we go through the same motions. The scene unfolds like this:  I ask Grace to get into the bathtub, to which she quietly replies, "I don't want."  I, in my kindest, sweetest Mommy voice, explain to her that she is three years old, that she doesn't always know what is best for her, and that she does not always get what she wants...  She simply looks at me, not understanding at all what I am trying to say. 

Not to be deterred, I try a different approach, saying excitedly, "Come on, Gracie! Let's go play in the bathtub!"  At this point she blinks her eyes very fast, ad big crocodile tears begin to run down her cheeks, another plea for sympathy.  When she sees that her tears are not getting her anywhere, she begins to shriek, "No bath, no bath, no bath!"  as if the water would melt her. 

I say it more sternly the next time.  "Grace.  Bath time."  I then lift her feet and practically drag her down the hall to the bathroom.  her sorrow turn to anger.  She makes her best, "I don't like you, Mom" face, folds her arms, and plots to her bottom.  "I don't want!" she shouts.  So I pick her up.  She kicks and screams, and eventually I get her into the bathtub.  She flails around in ther for a bit, letting me know with her wails that I am ruining her life and she may never be happy again.

And then, a funny thing happens.  As she splashes water on herself, she remembers: She likes the bath!  The bath is fun.  Not to mention a really great way to get clean.  By the end of the scenario, Grace usually enjoys her bath so much she doesn't want to get out of the tub.

The bath time struggle never is about the bath at all.  It is about obedience.  Grace is 3 years old and she simply does not want to obey.  She thinks she should be the one to decide whether she gets in the tub or not.  She is 3 years old, and she is trying to figure out just how much control she has in her little life.  At this point, not much...

The reality is, little disobedient Grace reminds me so much of myself.  I shudder to think what I could have missed in life because of my disobedience.  I am so thankful that God in His grace does not allow me to win.  Because usually, the fight is not really about what He is asking me to do.  It is not about the bathtub.  It is about me, trying to figure out just how much control I have over my little life.  At this point, not much..."

- Katie Davis, Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption (New York: Howard Books, 2011) 225-226.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Thou shalt not... complain?

Do everything without complaining or arguing. Then you will be blameless and innocent. You will be God’s children without any faults among people who are crooked and corrupt. You will shine like stars among them in the world.... Philippians 2:14-15 GW

Another Facebook meme got me to thinking. As many of you know, my mom passed away in May at the age of 97 and a half. Can't forget that half, as she reminded us just the week before she died.

One of the unfortunate memories I carry of Mom from her last few years was the fact that she was always complaining. Nothing was ever up to her standards... her care at the three assisted living homes, yes, three because we kept moving her to try to make her happy; the healthcare associates, the food, her doctor, her apartment... you name it and she'd have a complaint about it. Or two or three. Even when we brought her flowers, she'd study the bouquet and find something wrong with it.

Luckily I have some good memories of Mom to help me forget the complaints... how she took such good care of herself right up until the end, how grateful she was for the small things my sister and I did for her, how generous she was to us.

But like Mom, I'm prone to complaining. Maybe it's in the genes.

Today, thinking about Mom's last years, I pray that I can follow Paul's direction in his letter to the Philippians. "Do everything without complaining or arguing...."

That's a tough one. Maybe I should get it tattooed on my arm so I can read it every day as I get older.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Something is Wrong

Something is Wrong part one

From my early stages of coming back to God and asking Him back into my heart there has been this theme constantly running in the back of mind. “Something is wrong!” There was a reason I left the church at a young age, something is wrong, I look around and I see churches dying left and right, something is wrong. You can’t watch ten minutes of television without hearing a sexual innuendo, or a slam on Christianity, something is wrong.  

Having this theme running in my mind may seem at first very pessimistic or unhealthy but I have found it to be quite the opposite. The way it plays out in mind is something is wrong, now let’s fix it. Taking a car into be serviced by a mechanic because something is wrong, the first thing he or she is going to do is find the problem.   Going under the hood all willy-nilly with a wrench replacing parts left and right might fix the problem temporally but chances are you will be back probably worse off than you started.

Having this theme running in my mind also helps to prevent me from playing church. If I am going through a struggle with the family or I am having an unresolved conflict at work it doesn’t do me any good to just offer a simple prayer and wash my hands of the matter while leaving God to do all the cleanup. Being active with God at my side teaches me where I went wrong. It straightens my walk and strengthens my faith. If I were having an issue with my temper, can you see God cleaning up my mess while leaving a card saying its ok he’s with me? I don’t think so. We can’t control our struggles or strives when they pop up but we can control how we respond to them. If I cannot respond with the love of Jesus I want to know why. Something is wrong, now let’s fix it.

To be continued

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Testimonies of the 'Saints'

An aspect of being a pastor that I appreciate most is hearing people's faith stories.  Sometimes in the midst of being a pastor, I can become distracted from what exactly we are doing.  From a trustee meeting where we discuss plumbing issues, to a church council meeting where we discuss the next big project or ministry initiative to a Bible study to explain the Word of God, it is possible to forget that what we are all really doing is living our lives, seeking God in the midst of them, and discerning what it means to live our lives for God.  

To that end, there is nothing better than someone sharing how they came to know God, how God called them toward a particular ministry, where they see God at work in their family, or in their jobs.  It is a reminder that God is in fact working in the lives of those around us.

Lillian Daniel writes: 
Many people struggle with testimony.  We don't want  to shove our faith down people's throats.  We don't want to be pushy, obnoxious, or self-righteous....  [But] testimony is calling out that you have seen light in the midst of darkness.  Testimony is telling the story about how you met God, even when you have forgotten it.  (When Spiritual, But Not Religious is not Enough, p. 21).
Telling our God-stories is important because it helps all of us remember, and reconnect to God and one another.  Behind everything is a story.  If this week's message really hit home for you, you probably have a story to tell about why.  If, rather, the message was a struggle for you, rubbed you the wrong way, there is likely a story about that.  Whether you are "on fire" or exhausted, inspired or flat--there is almost always a life story about why, and God is involved.  Sharing such stories and testimonies of experiencing God in the midst of life is among the greatest gifts we can offer one another.  In this way we inspire one another to continue along the path that leads to life.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Changing a Nation

Pastor Nakov in Macedonia attended a conference in 2013 in Turkey. His heart ached when he saw many mosques in contrast with early Christian ruins. He wondered "Why is Islam flourishing?" and "What happened to the gospel witness?"

He returned home and during the night he sensed the Holy Spirit's presence. The Spirit asked him piercing questions that showed him he was not praying much, nor was his church. He was ashamed and convicted. He saw that the Imams were rising to pray earlier that he was.

He wept as he saw just how much they were playing church, and he asked God to change him.

The next Sunday he issued a call to prayer. They started with just one or two, then six. Finally about half the church responded. They were praying corporately and God was responding. Then pastors began praying together.

Now they are seeing answers as they pray not only for their own church but also for their nation to be in unity with others in the Balkans. Last year the Serbian president publicly asked for forgiveness for Serbia's past violence and bloodshed. Bulgarian officials have asked for forgiveness from its citizens of Turkish nationality who were expelled from their homes decades earlier.

"All of Europe needs to come before God and repent for the preaching of a cheap gospel that does not change lives; it is no gospel," said Pastor Nakov. "We in the Church must repent, ask forgiveness, and experience reconciliation. We now want only God's presence and His power to flow in us and through us."*

One pastor who asked God to change his own prayer life and who called his church to corporate prayer is changing his nation! God works when one leader obeys!  God is still looking for just one person who will take the lead.

Dear Jesus, please allow leaders to see their potential influence to turn our nation back to You.

"Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city" (Jer. 5:1).
- from Come to the Fire devotions by Aletha Hinthorn

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Urgent Call to Prayer

Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Billy Graham, usually has a full schedule of speaking arrangements across the country.  However, when her husband became ill, she took time to stop and just care for him.  It was in this period that she suddenly had more time just to sit and listen to the whispers of God's Spirit.  And as she listened, she heard God calling her to call our nation to prayer, because the time of judgment is coming.  Like in the book of Joel:  "Blow the trumpet... sound the alarm...  For the day of the Lord is coming, it is close at hand.  Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord..."

It is tempting when we read the warnings in Scripture to think of them as not applying to us or our country.  As if that is somehow unpatriotic.  But that is obviously silly.  God cared about how nations treated other nations and the poor within their own nation back then, but we are the United States.  We have permission to do whatever we want and God will bless it???  When I was reading Amos last winter, I was strongly convicted by the reality that a number of the clothes we wear were made by children in atrocious work environments overseas so that we can have more, more, more.  Whenever we turn on the television, ads and shows confront the audience with images and ideas that blatantly and intentionally try to stir up all kinds of greed, envy, and lust, and God has strong words to say about those things throughout Scripture. 

It is tempting to feel stuck.  What can I, just one small person, do about where the clothes available to me are made?  What can just one small person do about the culture that so blatantly disregards God and just doesn't care.

I can do what Scripture says for that one person to do: repent of my sins and repent on behalf of my nation.  

Anne is calling for our nation to do just that through the month of July.  As a part of this, she is organizing as many people as who will participate to fast for 7 hours (of the person's choice) on July 7.  In Scripture, when even just a few persons repent, God notices and hears.  She also has daily prayers of repentance to pray available everyday through July 7 here:


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Insane Sanity of Christianity

In setting up his explanation for how he came to an orthodox faith in God, GK Chesterton describes the "materialist" who relies ultimately on logic as a "madman."  For instance, Chesterton argues that a mad person might claim to be God--and the way one would work with such a person is not to deny that they are God but to point out that if they are indeed the creator of the universe, then what a small and insignificant universe it must be. Similarly, Chesterton argues that a non-believer who demands all truth claims meet the rule of logic, limits truth possibilities to a small circle. The basic argument is that Christian spirituality is more creative, less limited, and therefore more "sane" than materialistic rationality.  He writes:
Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it. In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like, but in the second, the road is shut.
Chesterton's argument is not that the rational skeptic is not rational--rather rational skepticism is infinitely rational, it just happens to be a small and limited infinity. "Their position is quite reasonable, nay, it is infinitely reasonable, just as a three-penny is infinitely circular... [it is] a base and slavish eternity." 

All this is to set up what I believe to be the best use of the image of the cross that I have ever encountered:
For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed forever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox at its center, it can grow without changing.
This image of the cross having a collision and paradox at its center is why we can know things to be true that may not fit our limited reason. Like, "The one who loses their life for my sake will find it."  This is not a rational statement, but in the cross it makes sense. Which is true: that God is sovereign over all and knows everything before it happens, or that God has given humans free will?  They are both true. Sure it is paradoxical but it works when our reasoning is not circular, but based in the cross. Do we seek righteousness or surround ourselves with sinners?  Both!  Are we holy or imperfect? Both!  Does God judge whether or not we are faithful, or is God's approach merciful?  Both!  Christianity makes the most sense when we allow for paradox, when we don't try to reshape the cross into a small circular logic.

"The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything becomes lucid." (GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy)