Featured

Telling Bob About the Pastorate

In preparing for this morning, I struggled for some weeks over what I should present in the way of a candidating sermon. I scoured the Word; I perused articles; I searched online; I sought the advice of pastoral colleagues, family members and friends; and I prayed and prayed and prayed. For whatever reason, the message to be delivered at a neutral pulpit before the church’s search committee had come to me with immediate certainty. Forgiveness. A no-brainer!

But what to offer today? This one didn’t come as easily. Should I offer a sermon on the Word and words? A message on spiritual awakening and revival? The I Am Statements of Jesus? The 23rd Psalm? Or, in the wake of Hurricane Florence? Perhaps a message addressing the question: How Could a Loving and All-Powerful God Allow the Catastrophic to Occur?

A mere 66 books, only about 800,000 God-breathed words to consider!! Narratives. Prophecies. Poems. Gospels. Epistles. Should I offer a topical sermon or a verse-by-verse message, mining each word for its breadth of meanings in the original languages? What to do! What to do!!

And then, while preparing my opening remarks for last night’s dinner and this afternoon’s luncheon, I felt led to Bob. Now, most of you who are here this morning likely know that I have served as a professor of evangelism and renewal and directed a doctoral program centered on the Renewal of the Church for Mission. In those capacities, I often served as a pastor to pastors or as a pastor to those preparing to enter the pastorate. And, over the years, many dear ones have asked me to speak at their ordination services and installations. As I am here this morning praying that you might call me to serve as your pastor, I thought it appropriate to return to a message I delivered at a service for one of my Master of Divinity students.

Now, Bob was one who’d been in several of my classes, and I’d even invited him to participate in a doctoral level course that I taught in Washington, D.C. Some years ago, he accepted a call to lead a church in upstate New York, and I was called upon to share key lessons from the Word on the responsibilities of the pastor; I was charged to bring a charge to him on the day of his installation.

I took a three-part approach. First, I looked to the passage in the Bible that has been called “the handbook for ministers.” Then I considered the temptations that face the pastor, and I concluded with an examination of what it means to be a servant leader, an under-shepherd of Christ leading according to the example set by Jesus. In creating the message, I built upon the reflections of other writers on these themes and passages that have ministered to me and have taken up residence in my heart.

One last bit of introduction, before we turn to the Word. . . a question that was once posed to me that still prompts a shake of the head, a moan and a good laugh: “I know pastors work on Sunday mornings but what do they do the rest of the week?” In the next few moments, I’ll convey a bit about what we do the rest of the week as I speak to Bob, to Bob’s congregation, to you and to myself.

MATTHEW 4:1-11 AND 2 TIMOTHY 4:1-5

First Timothy 4 (and that’s not a mistake, I do mean First Timothy 4) has been referred to and has served as a “handbook for ministers.” The chapter provides practical instruction for the one called to pastor the local church. The task: preach the Word, practice the Word, progress in the Word.

This passage, as rendered into contemporary language in The Message by Eugene Peterson, reads this way:

The Spirit makes it clear that as time goes on, some are going to give up on the faith and chase after demonic illusions put forth by professional liars . . . [But] you’ve been raised on the Message of the faith and have followed sound teaching. Now pass on this counsel to the Christians here, and you’ll be a good servant of Jesus. Stay clear of silly stories that get dressed up as religion. Exercise daily in God— no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever. You can count on this. Take it to heart. This is why we’ve thrown ourselves into this venture so totally. We’re banking on the living God, the Savior.

Get the word out. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching. And that special gift of ministry you were given when the leaders of the church laid hands on you and prayed—keep that dusted off and in use.

Cultivate these things. Immerse yourself in them. The people will all see you mature right before their eyes! Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don’t be diverted. Just keep at it. Both you and those who hear you will experience salvation.

Now, let’s bring alongside of this a portion of Paul’s message in 2nd Timothy 4 where he writes: “I can’t impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder . . . so proclaim the Message with intensity, keep on your watch. Challenge, warn and urge your people. Don’t give up. Just keep it simple. You’re going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching but will fill up on spiritual junk food—catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They’ll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages. But you— keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant.”

In both passages—1st Timothy 4 and 2nd Timothy 4—Paul addresses two of the great dangers within the church today: apathy and apostasy. Apathy might be defined, in the context of the faith, as unfaithfulness to the faith, a lack of concern, a lack of interest in the faith. Apostasy is an abandonment of the faith, a turning from the faith to a lie.

Both are all too commonly found in many who profess to be Christians today, and there is a great need for preachers who will boldly and unashamedly preach the Word without compromise. I hear too often today of folks who are in churches where the Bible is held in the hand and used as a prop, or where entertainment is the word of the day, or where messages are preached each week that are all fluff and no substance, barely milk and certainly not meat. Paul was instructing Timothy to set forth a banquet, and this is a word for all of us who preach today.

Over time, you must work out an entire Biblical menu, drawing from the Old Testament and the New. Doing book studies; character studies; thematic studies; offering sermons that address specific theological questions; messages that focus on special occasions or times of the year. You must make certain the messages preached are drawn out of the Word, are faithful to the Word, and offer practical applications to contemporary realities.

But it is not enough simply to preach. As Paul reminds us, we must also practice what we preach. Practice the Word. Your first call is to faithfulness to the Lord and to His Word. Immersion in the Word will spill out in faithful living and teaching. Commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit will be seen in your concern for the spread of the Gospel. It will be demonstrated in your concern not only for the welfare of your local community but for your region, your country, your continent, your world. Always keep your ministry of prayer and ministry in the Word first. Listen to the Lord and the rest of your responsibilities will be clearly laid out for you.

You are also called to progress in the Word, to mature in it, to be cultivated in it, to grow in it, to live in it, to move forward in and through and for it. Know that there will be temptations along the way to be diverted from your call. We draw lessons about what these temptations might entail from what Jesus experienced when He was taken into the wild for the Test. There were three parts to the test as we see set forth in Matthew, chapter 4.

These temptations of Christ speak to the temptations that face the pastor and, really, for that matter, all of us.

First there is the Maturity Test—The Test of Pain and Pleasure. When you are empty, hurting or confused, will you trust God to meet your needs or will you rush to satisfy them yourself?

Will you be as those who look to the fountain of living water or as those who dig for themselves cracked cisterns that cannot hold water? Will you trust in the Lord and walk in His light or will you try to live by your own light, try to warm yourself by your own fire?

Remember, your Heavenly Father knows all your needs and He will give you all you need from day to day if you live for Him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern. This we are promised in Matthew, chapter 6.

Then there is the Integrity Test—The Test of Popularity and Praise

Will you use your abilities to serve God and others or to gain praise for yourself? Keep in mind the lesson from the story of Rehoboam from 2nd Chronicles 12. At the height of his popularity and power, he abandoned the Lord, the people followed him in that sin, and the Lord then abandoned them to their enemies. Remember also Proverbs 27:21: “A person is tested by the praise he or she receives.”

To resist this temptation, we are told to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. If we do, we’re told in Galatians 5, we won’t need to look for honors or popularity and when the Lord blesses, we won’t be tempted to think we achieved everything under own power. Keep in mind that you will never please all the people all the time and you’re not meant to. We’re to focus on Jesus. In 1 Peter 5, we are told to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and, in His good time, He will lift us up.

The third test is the Priorities Test—The Test of Prosperity and Possessions. Do you, will you, value possessions on earth more than treasures in heaven?

In Matthew 16:26, the question is asked: “What good will it be for a person if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” And in 1st Timothy 6:18 to 19, we are instructed to use our money to do good, to give generously to those in need, always being ready to share with others whatever God has given us. By doing this, we are storing up real treasure for ourselves in heaven and living a fruitful Christian life here as well.

Trust in the Lord. Humble yourself before Him. Keep your priorities straight. And then lead like Jesus. Bosses boss. Dictators dictate. Servants serve. The pastor is called to servant leadership. In Luke 22, verse 26, we read: “The one who serves you best will be your leader.”

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to set an example, following the example that Jesus set. In John 13, we read the words of Jesus: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” In 1st Peter 5:3, the one called to lead is told not to lord it over others. Instead, to come alongside and lead by good example in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to challenge folks with a greater purpose. The popularity of Rick Warren’s book on the purpose-driven life drives home the great desire in peoples’ hearts for purpose, for meaning. We only grow when we’re challenged. God is at work in His people to will and to act according to His good purpose. We have each been made for His purpose. We have each been called according to His purpose. We must work according to God’s agenda and beware of substituting our own agendas for the Lord’s.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to affirm folks for their potential and you’ll need to be patient as each will grow as the Lord brings the increase. Remember Proverbs 12:25: A word of encouragement does wonders.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to trust folks with responsibility. Luke 16:10 reads: “Whoever can be trusted with a little, can also be trusted with a lot” and in 1st Corinthians 13:7 we’re told that if you love folks, you’ll believe in them and expect the best of them. If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will offer folks honest feedback, helpful correction, using only helpful words for the building up of others according to their needs.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will be open with folks, honest with them. You’ll look to folks as friends, you’ll love them and you’ll pray for them. You will let folks minister to you. If all goes as it should, you will become pastor of your church one person at a time. And when you find yourself introduced by one in your family of faith not as simply the pastor of the church I attend but rather— with a special inflection and tone—as “my pastor”—that precious gift will fill your soul with a joy that you will treasure always. The pastor has the honor of being present in the most intimate moments of people’s lives: at births, at marriages, at crucial turning points, as an individual breathes a last breath. What a privilege it is to be admitted to such moments! These are the treasures of the pastor.

What tears down the pastor, weighs down the pastor, and can ultimately burn out, chew up and kill the pastor are manufactured crises, perpetuated dramas, pettiness, nitpicking, infighting, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the stirring up of dissension, discouraging words, negativity and impatience. Warnings and chastisements against these are found throughout scripture. Beware of these, walk carefully through them, pray for wisdom and the strength of the Lord to use them for forward (rather than backward) movement, and pray that you will behave honorably when you encounter them.

One of the burdens of the pastorate is the guilt we can carry because we’re not given the gift of omnipresence. In any given week, there will be personal and family crises needing your attention, folks in the hospital or recuperating at home, homebound or folks in nursing homes urging you to visit. You’ll have a sermon to research and craft and Sunday services to prepare; committee and board meetings to attend; materials to select; short term and long range planning to do. You’ll have a budget line to watch; stewardship to promote. You’ll have dedications, baptisms, weddings, funerals and other events at which you will officiate.

There’ll be a website to update, advertising to consider, staff to nurture, a building to maintain, community and regional contacts to make and keep, classes to teach, phone calls to make, emails to write, a community to reach; mediation to perform. You will be a prophetic voice against the evils of the day. You will need to discern which causes to champion. And there will be seemingly endless adminis-trivia calling for your attention every day of every week.

In the midst of all of this, you must make the effort to maintain a healthy home life, paying attention to your family. You must make time for fun. You must rest. You must keep a Sabbath.

And, in the midst of all of this, there will always be folks who are certain they know far better than you how you should do your work. Some of these will not approach you directly but will attempt to make end runs around you. You will need the patience of Job! At times, you may become so enmeshed, so all-encompassed by the doing of the work that you may begin to lose sight of your first priority:  the being, the being in a deep and ever deepening relationship with the Lord. Put the brakes on when that happens and get yourself back on track.

Several years ago, Vernon Grounds addressed a gathering of pastors at a conference in Massachusetts. In his message, he looked to 1st Samuel 12:23 where these words are written: “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you.”

When he finished his presentation, I looked around the room and every pastor—myself included—appeared to have been cut to the heart by his message. If you remember nothing else from what I’ve shared today, remember this: Prayerlessness is a sin. It is disobedience to the will of God. Luke 18, verse 1, records that Jesus told His disciples that they should pray and not give up. Throughout the scriptures, we are told that prayer ought to be the habit, the rule, the discipline of our lives.

Prayerlessness is contempt for the fellowship of God. If we don’t have time for fellowship with God, we’re serving something wrong. In Rev. 3:20, we’re told that the Lord stands at the door and knocks and comes to anyone who will invite Him in. Sometimes we behave towards God as though we believe Him to be at our beck and call. We expect to press a button and have Him do our will. That’s disrespectful.

Prayerlessness is indifference to the purpose of God. We say we want to be molded in the image of Jesus. Well, Jesus, during His time on earth, prayed. And what is He doing now? Interceding on our behalf.

Prayer is a struggle, a battle on three fronts. Prayer is not always a matter of pure delight. It is a struggle with the physical. With our restlessness, our drowsiness. It is a struggle with the mental. Lack of concentration, a truant imagination. It is a struggle with the spiritual. Remember Ephesians 6. We are not engaged in a struggle with just flesh and blood but are wrestling with the powers of darkness. The enemy uses emotional, physical and spiritual weapons to battle against us. But Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint on his or her knees. So get on your knees. If you’ve got bad knees, then get on your knees in your heart.

Be concerned about your prayer life. Pray about your prayerlessness and ask the Holy Spirit to revive you in prayer. Give a thought to when you are able to give your undivided attention to God. The times may vary. Perhaps you’ll pray while you walk or when you’re in the car. Perhaps you’ll pray on your knees or prone before God. Perhaps you’ll get up earlier or stay up later when the house is quiet. Do whatever helps.

Be disciplined. With the Holy Spirit’s enablement, keep at it. Pray for the grace to be consistent in prayer. Someone once said that “ruts of routine serve as God’s grooves of grace.” Remember that today you are becoming what you will be the rest of your life. You’re laying the groundwork today for the Christian you’ll be tomorrow. If you have some lack, attend to it today. Teach us to pray, Lord.

Keep before you this prayer: as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for these who make up my family of faith. And if you want your church to grow in every way, encourage your folks to pray.

I ended my message to Bob and his congregation with a prayer that his family of faith might serve as a beacon of light in the place where the Lord had planted them. I prayed that Bob might serve faithfully and well, keeping his priorities straight and the Lord the Lord. I ended with the benediction from Numbers 6:25: May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

What I’ve presented this morning is that to which I aspire. I want to be a Christ-honoring, Bible-centered, faithful and faith-filled pastor and I pray you will call me to serve as your pastor. And the congregation did…by unanimous vote.

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

 

Featured

The Persecuted Church

In Ephesians 3:1-13, the writer Paul opens by telling us that he is a prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles to whom he had been called by the Lord to preach the gospel. This former persecutor of Christians had himself become a follower of Jesus, a protector of Christians, an apostle.  Now, it’s quite possible that Paul was under arrest and not in a prison cell. He may have been in a rented home where he would have been allowed to read and write and receive visitors. However, he would have been chained day and night to a series of Roman soldiers. In Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 20, he calls himself an “ambassador in chains.”

He was, in fact, the emperor Nero’s prisoner. But, though Nero might have had the power to incarcerate Paul, it was Jesus who commanded his love, allegiance and freely given service.

Paul was in prison awaiting trial because of his ministry to the Gentiles. The word Gentile refers to every non-Israelite, everyone outside of the Jewish nation. Paul was arrested in the first place because he was accused of bringing Gentiles into the temple in Jerusalem (we read about this in Acts, chapters 21 and 22) Throughout his ministry, Paul’s claim that God was creating a new people which included Gentiles—people from every tribe and nation—on an equal basis with Jews, aroused severe opposition.

This revelation of a new reality was not something that Paul had figured out on his own; it was given to him by God. Earlier in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks of the general nature of the mystery of Christ: that at the end of all time all things will be united under Christ. But this new configuration wasn’t to be just something for the future. This mystery also has a here and now reality to it. Everyone who receives Christ as Savior is united with and becomes one with all others who belong to Christ. We become a new reality, a new body, a new covenant people: THE Church.

These who once were enemies now share the same promised covenant blessings, the same body, the same benefits.

Paul, who had zealously persecuted Christians, is the same Paul whom we now see transformed by God’s astonishing power. Paul’s calling is to announce the good news that the enmity can end. Here and in the two chapters preceding, he preaches to the Gentiles the unsearchable, unfathomable, inexhaustible riches of Christ: redemption; forgiveness of sins; knowledge of God’s will; an inheritance; power; resurrection with Christ; enthronement with Christ; grace; kindness; citizenship in God’s kingdom; membership in God’s family.

Paul says he’s been called to make plain all of this, to turn people from darkness to light. Now, the mystery revealed—the manifold (the multi-colored) mystery of God is the Church: the multi-colored, multi-national, multi-ethnic Church, newly forged in Christ.

Then comes the central piece of the vision: that it is by means of this multi-ethnic Church that the supernatural powers themselves—the rulers and authorities—now see what God is up to in the universe. They watch in fascination as traditional enemies are drawn into the church and by this they learn about the manifold wisdom of God.

Because, though Christians have been persecuted throughout the centuries and continue to suffer persecution today at greater levels than ever in history, the Church is growing.

More than 1,900 evangelical churches have been planted in the Ukraine since 1991. Many are beginning to send missionaries to other parts of the world.

Christians in China continue to share the Gospel despite the great cost. One group’s church planter training seminars teach, in addition to basic church planting skills, these three things: (1) Never turn down an invitation to preach; (2) Look for a place to run when you are finished preaching; (3) Be ready to die that day.

In spite of the repercussions, it is increasingly common for Cuban Christians to gather as house churches. The church is exploding in growth, and Protestant Christians could number in the millions in a few years. But one Cuban pastor, earlier this year, said that “the sustained growth of the church unnerves a political system that needs a civil society as weak as possible to govern at will.”

In Indonesia where is found the largest Muslim population in the world, Christians are threatened and their churches are bombed. Yet, there is a great openness to the Gospel in spite of this persecution—the church is growing there at a rate of 5% per year. There are more than 25 million Christians in Indonesia, and more than 13 million of them are without a Bible. As more and more seekers come to Christ, the church grows, and the Bible gap widens.

We might note here that, without the Scriptures, Christians will not have the comfort they need to face persecution. Some of our dollars for the World Mission Offering goes toward this end, but this church has also put Bibles and other Christian resources into the hands of people in struggling parts of the world through a ministry called Love Packages. These materials, and others we might collect, are now being used to reach souls for Christ, to encourage and build up the church, and to raise up and train leaders to shine the light in dark places. In the coming weeks, as I unpack boxes of books to put on the shelves in the pastor’s study, I’ll also be culling to see what might be most helpful to send to those who have not had and do not have the resources to create such libraries.

In Nigeria, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the rising tide of aggression, the Christian Church is growing. People are curious about a Book whose beliefs some are willing to die defending.

Some years ago, when I was serving as a seminary professor, one of my students asked me a question that has remained indelibly etched in my mind. He prefaced his question by telling me that Muslims in an area of his home country of Nigeria had tortured and blinded eight pastors. This was just one example, he said of the continuing enmity between Christians and Muslims that dates back to the 1950s. Today, religious violence in Nigeria is dominated by Fulani militants and the Boko Haram insurgency which aims to impose Sharia law on the northern parts of the country. You may be most familiar with the latter as those who kidnapped 276 schoolgirls a few years ago. Boko Haram has burned down churches, destroyed Christian villages, and displaced millions. Sad to say, some Christians have retaliated, over the years, with similar acts of barbarity.

My student’s question to me—his renewal and evangelism professor? How can I love, how can I reach out in love, to those who are killing my people? How can I love them enough to share the gospel with them? How would you have answered him?

Well, often, Christianity grows in the face of persecution and in the midst of war.

The Bible League’s National Director says, “The positive thing of the war in Sudan is that many, many people are coming to Christ. We try to show the love of God through the Word of God.”

A young woman whose brother was killed for showing the Jesus film in this country offered the following prayer:

Dear God, I still believe in You.  One year ago today, my brother was martyred because he was a Christian. Because of that I have struggled with hatred, bitterness, and depression, but, I have also seen Your love, strength, and compassion.  It would be easy to say, “I do not believe in the Christian God anymore,” but it would not be better. I can honestly say that I have felt Your presence this year.  You are not the God of easy answers, magical fixes, or painless lives, but You are the God who meets us in the middle of our trials.  Thank you for being real to me, my mother, and our whole church as we mourn the death of my brother.”

On average, 171,000 Christians are martyred for the faith each year. Despite persecution, despite martyrdom, Christianity is growing rapidly…undergoing perhaps its largest expansion in history. BUT—more people take part in Christian Sunday worship in China than in the entirety of western Europe. The same is true of Nigeria and probably true of India, Brazil, and even Indonesia. Lebanon is 40 percent Christian.

More people have come to faith in Christ in the last 30 to 40 years than had come in all the years preceding.

Churches in India are growing at a 10 to 15 percent multiplication rate each year. There are now twice as many Christians (631 million) on the continent of Africa than there are people in the United States where 325.7 million reside. Some of the largest churches in the world are now found in the country of Colombia.

But, while the church is growing exponentially in Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa, it is dead or dying in Europe and in the United States. Up until 1955, most everyone in Britain, for example, was active in a church. Today, only about ten percent of Britons participate in ecclesial life. But friends there are now seeing great hope through initiatives such as Fresh Expressions, a movement that is planting new congregations different in ethos and style from the church that planted them because they are designed to reach a different group of people than those already attending the original church. Fresh expressions of church have been created for, among others, skateboard and BMX culture in Essex, café culture in Kidsgrove, artists and creatives in London, university students in South Hampton, surfers in Cornwall, British Asian people in Birmingham, people living in the city center of Manchester, and children in Portsmouth.

God is calling His people to think anew, afresh, and I am confident He will bless our efforts as do the same, as we go and make disciples.

Christian pollster George Barna, however, estimates that perhaps four percent of Americans actually live in ways that could be considered biblical. A study was conducted last year and, though 46 percent of folks in the U.S. say they have a biblical worldview, only ten percent of Americans actually think and act according to the most basic biblical principles. And only two of every ten adults believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith in Christ with others who believe differently.

Mark Mittelberg, in his book Building a Contagious Church: Revolutionizing the Way We View and Do Evangelism, says that if the question—What are we trying to do?— was asked in many churches, the response would be either a blank stare or an entire laundry list. He suggests, however, that by its very nature and purpose, the church ought to see itself first and foremost as a contagious group of people that is ‘infecting” more and more outsiders with the Christian faith, reaching more and more unchurched people and turning them—as empowered by the Holy Spirit —into fully devoted followers of Christ.

Mittelberg, writing in 2002, went on to note that people in our society are hungry for information about God. In the ensuing years, however, much that has come through the media would suggest to non-believers that Christians are pretty clueless about God. Spiritual interest is at a high level but so is bewilderment about what to believe and whom to trust. Evangelism. It’s one of the highest values in the church—and one of the least practiced.

Mittelberg states it plainly: “In most ministries very few lost people are being reached for Christ. Yet the words of Jesus in the Great Commission are seared in our minds: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:19-20). This mandate was given for all churches of all times, so it includes every one of us who is part of those congregations.”

In the United States, and especially in New England, we sit on one of the neediest mission fields in the world and we’ve been called to reach the lost for Christ. The Lord may never place us in real harm’s way for the sake of the gospel, but I think we each need to consider what risks we would be willing to take for the Lord Jesus Christ if He did. Many of our fellow Christians around the world do put themselves in harm’s way every day in service to the Lord. What risks can we take for the Lord this week?

We could start by inviting friends or family members or even folks we’ve just met to consider Christ We could open up to non-Christian about what our faith has meant to us. Consider: Who might we bring to worship next Sunday? Who might we lift to the Lord in prayer?

Featured Photo of Nigerian Christians in prayer: Open Doors.

 

Featured

Unforgiveness: A Loose Cannon Below Decks Redux

The first sermon I ever preached was based on the passage in this entry. Over the years, as I’ve grown in my understanding of this scripture, this core issue of the faith, this key to living a life of peace and hope, I’ve added to it. This is the most recent iteration.

_____

Colossians 3:12-13:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

_____

Quatrevingt_treizeFrench author Victor Hugo, best known for Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was also the author of the novel, 93, (Quatrevingt-Treize). The book is centered on the year 1793, Year Two of the French Republic, which saw the execution of Louis XVI.

In a chapter entitled, “Tormentum Belli,” which Hugo translates in the text as “war machine,” is the story of the corvette Claymore. The author tells us that the three-masted, square-rigged warship was in rough seas when suddenly an awful noise arose from below decks. Hugo tells us: “a frightful thing had happened.”

The vessel was equipped with thirty carronades, short smoothbore cast iron cannons able to fire large shot at short range. These had been fastened below deck by triple chains and the hatches above had been shut. Now, one of these cannons had broken loose and had become something akin to what Hugo calls an “indescribable supernatural beast,” rolling, pitching, rushing, and crashing into the ship’s sides. “Nothing more terrible can happen to a vessel in open sea and under full sail,” Hugo reports, for a loose cannon is “a battering-ram . . . [that] has the bounds of a panther, the weight of an elephant, the agility of a mouse, the obstinacy of an axe, the unexpectedness of the surge, the rapidity of lightning, the deafness of the tomb. It weighs ten thousand pounds and, it rebounds like a child’s ball.”

“How to control this enormous brute of bronze?” Hugo asks. “How to fetter this monstrous mechanism for wrecking a ship? . . . The horrible cannon flings itself about, advances, recoils, strikes to the right, strikes to the left. . . crushes men like flies.”

The whole ship was now in awful tumult as the cannon, which is said to have appeared to the crew as owning “a soul filled with rage and hatred,” tears apart the insides of the ship. Hugo tells us that often it is true that more dangerous to a ship is a loose cannon inside than a storm outside. And what is true of ships is also true of human beings. A loose cannon inside is more dangerous than a storm outside.

God’s Word invites us to go “below decks” for a look at the turmoil that can result when the cannon that is unforgiveness gets loose. And it is in the Word that we will find the help needed for taming this “beast,” this “battering ram” that—left uncontrolled—can wreak devastating havoc.

51FT3YfKAhL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgPerhaps we might begin our consideration of unforgiveness by looking at what acts can set the cannon loose. Author Lewis Smedes suggests these may be summarized as acts of disloyalty and acts of betrayal. Now, I’ve wrestled with whether that summary is sufficient. Disloyalty may sometimes be confused with honest dissent, and the saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from our enemies. So what about our enemies? Well, they fit under this summary as well for enemies are only revealed as enemies when they behave like enemies and their revelation as such may come at us like a betrayal.

Words like treachery, abandonment, double-dealing, forsaking, infidelity, letting down and back-stabbing are attached to acts of disloyalty and betrayal and these also capture the nature of the hurting involved:

When your spouse has an affair with your best friend.

When your mother or father fails to show up at your wedding or at a banquet at which you’re honored with a hard-earned award.

When you fully dedicate yourself for years to doing your very best work at your place of employment and a new manager moves into play and tosses you out on your ear.

When a tornado or a hurricane or other natural disaster sweeps through leaving your house in runs. When you return only to discover that looters have taken everything that was left that wasn’t nailed down.

When you’re diagnosed with cancer.

When you commit a colossal blunder or fail to follow through on a promise to a dear and trusting friend or when you speak a word you believe needs to be spoken and it’s received as an attack.

When your loved one contracts a debilitating illness that lingers on for years or when that loved one is unexpectedly taken in death in the blink of an eye.

When a gunman walks in and shoots a roomful of folks gathered for a Bible Study.

When faced with these challenges of life, we may feel betrayed by the spouse, the parent, the friend, the authority figure, the neighbor, our bodies, ourselves, God.

Bitterness. Bitterness is what you get when you leave anger out to rot. It’s what results when injury is added to injury. It begins to root when you go to bed angry, when somebody rubs you the wrong way and the rubbing turns to chafing. It grows in the fertile fields of jealousy, abuse, and vengeance. It hangs in the air. It’s heard in the “us and them,” in the “you did this to me,” in the “he said, she said,” in the “I can’t forgive myself for . . . ” You fill in the blanks.

Anger is a natural reaction to injury real or imagined. Bitterness, resentment, revengeful actions, and unforgiveness are the sins that grow out of unresolved, unhealthy anger. The antidote for these sins is forgiveness.

But who should we forgive? What should we forgive? When should we forgive? Why should we forgive? How do we forgive? Must we forgive the one who keeps sinning against us in the same way over and over? Must we forgive the unrepentant? And really—before we touch on those questions and we can only touch on them as I’m trying to keep this message to under five hours—what is forgiveness anyway? We throw that word around, but we may have radically different ideas on how to define it. And what does it mean to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us?

We’re helped toward a deeper understanding of unforgiveness through a story told by Jesus about a king who one day decides to settle accounts with his servants.

In Matthew 18, verses 21 to 35, we find our Lord sharing a parable about an unmerciful servant, an unforgiving individual. The passage begins with a question from the apostle Peter. “Master,” he asks, “how many times must I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.”

Jesus then relates the kingdom of God to a king squaring accounts with his servants. One man is brought before him. His debt? 10,000 talents which is the contemporary equivalent of about a hundred thousand dollars. This man was hopelessly enslaved to debt! Since he was unable to pay, the king ordered the man, his wife, children and everything be owned, be sold to repay the debt.

Ever been in debt? In debt now? Can you remember—or do you now know—the fear, the worry? Things can look pretty bleak, can’t they? Our passage is telling us that unforgiven sin is like those unpaid debts. They weigh heavily upon us whether we’re talking about a little sin, a great big sin, or a great many sins. Each of us, like the debtors in the text, must settle accounts with the king, God Almighty Himself for all sins are sins against God.

Well, the king, in our parable, calls his subjects before him and the one who owes the thousands pleads for the king to have patience and promises that he will repay the debt in full.  The king is moved to mercy and erases the debt!

One point of the parable is that God is like that merciful king and He is willing and able to cancel impossible debts. He is willing and able to forgive. As Stephen M. Crotts notes in his exposition on this passage, the Greek word for forgiveness may also be translated “let loose.”

“It’s like a terrible knot that suddenly gives and is completely untied. It’s like a horrible bondage from which there is sudden release.”

And what does this free man now do? He goes out and happens upon a man who owes him the equivalent of a measly few bucks. He grabs him by the throat and demands he “pay up!” And when the debtor says he can’t and asks for patience, the man throws him into debtors’ prison and folks who witness this go and tell the king.

What does the king do? He brings the man back, chastises him for his unforgiveness and says, “Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?”  Then he has the man tossed in jail where he will sit until the debt is paid. The point of the parable is clear. If God forgives us, we must forgive others. We must forgive as—because—the Lord forgave us.

But those of us who frequent church services know this—at least on some level—don’t we? So why do we see so little forgiveness in Christian circles when repentance and forgiveness are the very foundations of our faith? Amazing grace is what saves wretches such as we all. We, who have turned to Christ for salvation, have been the beneficiaries of amazing grace, amazing love. We’ve been set free. And yet too often we hold one another hostage with our own unforgiveness.

In an older issue of Leadership Journal, I found an article on grace and redemption entitled, “Going to Hell with Ted Haggard.”

The writer, Michael Cheshire, recalls sitting in a sports bar in Denver with a close atheist friend. During lunch, the latter pointed at a TV screen on the wall that was set to a channel recapping Haggard’s fall in a sex and drugs scandal. As he did, he said, “That is the reason I will not become a Christian. Many of the things you say make sense, Mike, but that’s what keeps me away.”

Cheshire assumed his friend was referring to Haggard’s hypocrisy but he was wrong. His friend laughed and said, “Michael, you just proved my point. See, that guy said sorry a long time ago. Even his wife and kids stayed and forgave him, but all you Christians still seem to hate him. You guys can’t forgive him and let him back into your good graces. Every time you talk to me about God, you explain that he wants to forgive me. But that guy failed while he was one of you, and most of you are still vicious to him.”

Then Cheshire says his friend uttered words that left him reeling: “You Christians eat your own. Always have. Always will.”

That prompted Cheshire to investigate what was being said about Haggard in Christian circles. Most folks with whom he spoke shut down and demanded he drop the subject while others dismissed as foolish or silly his question, “Why can’t God still use Ted?”

As he lived within close proximity of Haggard, Cheshire contacted him to see if he would be willing to meet with him and a couple of the people from his staff.  Cheshire found Haggard to be brutally honest about his failures, filled with a wealth of wisdom, deeply caring and pastoral. He learned that Haggard now had a growing church in the very city that knew him and knew about his failures. And God was causing that church to grow.

When some other Christians learned that Cheshire had reached out to Ted, they said they would distance themselves from him if he continued to do so. Several people in his church said they would leave. He was told that his “voice as a pastor and author would be tarnished” if he continued to spend time with him.

Cheshire concluded: “It would do some Christians good to stay home one weekend and watch the entire DVD collection of HBO’s Band of Brothers. Marinate in it. Take notes. Write down words like loyalty, friendship and sacrifice. Understand the phrase: never leave a fallen man behind.”

Where was the love? Where was the forgiveness?

In his wrap up, Cheshire wrote: “The Ted Haggard issue reminds me of a scene in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Huck is told that if he doesn’t turn in his friend, a runaway slave named Jim, he will surely burn in hell. So, one day Huck, not wanting to lose his soul to Satan, writes a letter to Jim’s owner telling her of Jim’s whereabouts. After folding the letter, he starts to think about what his friend has meant to him, how Jim took the night watch so he could sleep, how they laughed and survived together . . . Huck realizes that it’s either Jim’s friendship or hell. Then the great Mark Twain writes such wonderful words of resolve. Huck rips the paper and says, ‘Alright then, I guess I’ll go to hell.’”

And Cheshire decides that “if being Ted’s friend causes some to hate and reject me—alright then, I guess I’ll go to hell.”

You might recall here the chastisement Jesus received from the teachers of the law, the Pharisees, who disapproved of Him having a meal with sinners and tax collectors. How could He do such a thing, they asked His disciples.

In our passage from Colossians, we read: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

51zoZJQZV4L._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_In my library is a book entitled, The Sunflower. It’s a story, written by Simon Wiesenthal, a man with whom you may be familiar. He was well known and well regarded for his activities in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.

In the book, Wiesenthal tells us that he was a prisoner in the Maut-haus-en concentration camp in Poland. One day he was assigned to clean out rubbish from a barn that the Nazis had improvised into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Toward evening a nurse took Wiesenthal by the hand and led him to a young SS trooper. The soldier’s face was bandaged with rags yellow-stained with ointment or pus; his eyes tucked behind the gauze. He was perhaps 21 years of age. He groped for Wiesenthal’s hand and held it tight. He said he had to talk to a Jew; he could not die before he had confessed the sins he had committed against helpless Jews, and he had to be forgiven by a Jew before he died. So, he told Wiesenthal a horrible story of how his battalion had gunned down Jewish parents and children who were trying to escape from a house set afire by the SS troopers.

Wiesenthal listened to the dying man’s story, first the story of what he referenced as his blameless youth, and then the story of his participation in evil. As the man spoke, Wiesenthal’s thoughts drifted to the graves of the Nazi soldiers that he had seen nearby. Each one was decorated with a sunflower and so each one was visited by butterflies. Wiesenthal believed his place of interment would be different: a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of him. No sunflower for him. No butterflies for him.

In the end, Wiesenthal jerked his hand away from the soldier and walked out of the barn: No word was spoken. No forgiveness was given. Wiesenthal would not, could not, forgive. But he was not sure he did the right thing.

And some 30 years later he related the story in the book, The Sunflower, and he ended his tale with a question: “What would you have done?” Ten eminent persons contributed their answers in the original release, and when the book was reprinted ten years later, the responses of another 36 were included. Among these were Christian and Jewish theologians, writers, philosophers, and survivors of genocide; a dissident who spent 20 years in a Chinese prison; a son of Holocaust survivors; a former Nazi; the 14th Dalai Lama; and Dith Pran, a war correspondent for The New York Times who was starved and tortured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Most said Wiesenthal was right; he should not have forgiven the man; it would not have been fair. Why should a man who gave his will to the doing of monumental evil expect a quick word of forgiveness on his death-bed? What right had Wiesenthal to forgive the man for the sins he had committed against others? “Let the SS trooper go to hell,” said one respondent.

Now, there is a great deal more to the story and I would commend the book to you for its powerful wrestling with the themes of justice and forgiveness. But, for our purposes this morning, I want to acknowledge simply that many of us, truth be told, feel the same way when we or our loved ones are sinned against in far less horrible ways.

As Lewis Smedes rightly notes: “To the guilty, forgiveness comes as amazing grace. To the offended, forgiving may sound like outrageous injustice. A straight-line moral sense tells most people that the guilty ought to pay their dues: Forgiving is for suckers.”

So . . . What is the answer to the unfairness of forgiving? It can only be that forgiving is, after all, a better way to fairness. First, forgiveness creates a new possibility of fairness by releasing us from the unfair past. If we do not forgive, our only recourse is revenge . . . and revenge never evens the score, for alienated people never keep score of wrongs by the same mathematics. Forgiveness takes us off the escalator of revenge so that we can stop the chain of incremented wrongs.

Forgiveness brings fairness to the forgiver. It is the hurting person who most feels the burden of unfairness, but he only condemns himself if he refuses to forgive. Forgiving is the only way to stop the cycle of unfair pain turning in your memory and in your gut.

Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiving is not excusing. Forgiving is not smoothing things over. Forgiving is, what Smedes calls, “spiritual surgery.” When you forgive someone, you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You recreate that person in your thoughts. God does it this way too: He releases us from sin as a parent washes dirt from a child’s face, or as a person takes a burden off your back, lays it on a goat and sends it into the wilderness never to be seen again. (There you have the origin of the word, scapegoat.)

Mining the scriptures we discover more than 100 references to the concept of forgiveness and the first thing to remember from all of these is that forgiveness is God-initiated.

In Colossians 2:13 and 14, Paul writes: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code . . . He took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

Forgiveness is offered graciously and readily by God.

In the gospel of Luke, we find the story of the Prodigal Son who, having squandered his inheritance, returns home seeking forgiveness and finds there the open and loving arms of his father who welcomes him with great celebration.” So it is with our heavenly Father.

To receive forgiveness, we must desire forgiveness and honestly, wholeheartedly repent. This done, there is to be no limit to forgiveness. In the 17th chapter of Luke, verse 4, Jesus tells His disciples that, “if your brother sins, rebuke him and, if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” And, as we’ve noted, in Matthew 18:22, Christ carries this further by saying that even seven times is not enough, but seventy times seven.” But what if there is no repentance?

One of Jesus’ central teachings is that we love our enemies, pray for them, and do good to those who have hurt us. Interesting isn’t it, how many of us can read the Gospels over and over and miss that point. We might get the theology but not the graciousness that Jesus taught and exemplified. And you know, it’s astonishing how our view of a person can change when we begin to muster up some love for them, when we begin to pray for them, when we consider how we might do them good.

And you know something else? How much repentance do you suppose there was in the hearts of those who stood by the Cross while Jesus hung there? There was a complete absence of repentance in the hearts of the sinners who put our Savior on that Cross. But what did Jesus pray: “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Often, those who have hurt us don’t even think they’ve done anything wrong. Probably, nine out of ten of the people I’ve have had to forgive don’t think they did anything wrong to me (which suggests that I, too, have probably hurt people without knowing).

Now, please don’t mistake what I’m saying here. I’m not a Universalist. I don’t believe Jesus’s forgiveness extends to those who remain unrepentant, those who refuse to come to Jesus for salvation.

In praying “Father, forgive them,” Jesus revealed His infinite mercy; He still loved them and would forgive them if only they would humble themselves and repent. Now Here’s a crucial point:

When it comes to our relationship with God, repenting and asking for forgiveness are aspects of believing. We know that the forgiveness of Christ can’t help us unless we lay hold of it by faith. The same thing cannot be said about our human forgiveness. We offer our forgiveness to others purely in response to the grace we have already received from the Lord. If we are not willing to forgive, it is an indication that we have not fully understood or experienced the grace of being forgiven. This is true regardless of the “offender’s” attitude towards his or her actions. [Source: Focus on the Family: Forgiving the Unrepentant]

We should note as well that Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them” was answered in the lives of many people. The Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, upon seeing how Jesus died, exclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” One of the two thieves crucified with Jesus exercised faith in Christ, who promised him paradise. A member of the Sanhedrin publicly aligned himself with Jesus. And, a little over a month later, three thousand people in Jerusalem were saved in one day as the church began. On the cross Jesus provided forgiveness for all those who would ever believe in Him. Jesus paid the penalty for the sins that we commit in our ignorance, and even the ones we’ve committed deliberately. When we are born again we, too, become an answer to Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them.” [Source: Got Questions]

In our passage for today, we find the commandment to forgive: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Be willing to forgive. Create the climate for forgiveness.

71ZRN2XHMZL._SX295_BO1,204,203,200_So why, when forgiveness is at the very heart of the Gospel, do we see so little forgiveness even, and perhaps most sadly, within the church community? David Augsburger, in his book The Freedom of Forgiveness, offers us some clues. He says forgiveness is rare because it is hard. It is the hardest thing in the universe. It is hard because it is costly. The one who forgives, he says, pays a tremendous price—the price of the evil he or she forgives.

Forgiveness is costly because it is substitutional and this substitution was perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ substituted himself for us, bearing His own wrath, His own indignation at our sin. That’s what forgiveness costs. The sinner either bears his own guilt—that’s cold justice—or the one sinned against may absorb what the second party did—that’s forgiveness. And that’s what God did in Christ on Calvary.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is costly because it demands that kind of substitution, not the literal substitution of our physical lives on a cross but the willingness to relieve others of the burden of their sins against us as we reach out to them with loving and forgiving spirits.

God paid the immeasurable cost of our forgiveness. How can we hesitate to pay the infinitely smaller cost of forgiving our brother or sister—or our enemy?”

You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you no longer need to rerun over and over again the hurt you suffered, when you no longer need to punish those who hurt you by rehashing the details over and over again with whomever will listen.

You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you no longer have daily conversations, battles in your head, with those who hurt you.

You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you find yourself praying that those who hurt you will be blessed and will no longer have to suffer for the evil they did to you or to others.

Forgiveness can be a very slow process and, while we may come a long way in forgiveness, we may well find vestiges of bitterness many years post injury. C.S. Lewis learned how long the process of forgiving can take. He tells the story of a teacher he had as a boy. He hated what he described as “that sadistic person” most of his life but, a few months before his death, he wrote to a friend: “Do you know, only a few weeks ago, I realized that I had at last forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood. I had been trying to do it for years.”

With attention to prayer and with the help of God, eventually we can forgive. The Lord works the miracle in us as we yield to His transforming power.

And though this will make the sermon a tad longer, it needs to be said, that it is most often true that the ones we have the hardest time forgiving are ourselves.

Everett Worthington, in his Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free From the Past, notes that when you attempt to forgive someone else for an offense, you are adopting the viewpoint of the forgiver. The wrongdoer, of course, is someone other than yourself. However, when you try to forgive yourself, you have to operate from two points of view— both forgiver and wrongdoer, and it’s hard to bounce back and forth from one perspective to the other. We’re with our own selves and our own thoughts all the time. We can’t get away from ourselves and we have insider information about who we really are. We know we’re capable of repeating the same wrongs. We also know that, as much as we profess love for God, we are like Paul who wrote: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

But we must extend that forgiveness to ourselves and seek it from others. There is a marvelous example of the desire for forgiveness in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Capitol of the World.”

In this, a father traveled to Madrid to find his son Paco who had left the family farm after a misunderstanding. Keep in mind here that the name Paco is a very popular name in Spain. Well, the father, in hopes of reconnecting with his son, placed an ad in the newspaper which read, “Paco, meet me at noon Tuesday in the newspaper office. All is forgiven. Signed, your father.”

Hemingway reports there were 800 young men named Paco who arrived that Tuesday and stood in line, each one waiting to see if the man might be his father who had granted him forgiveness. 800 Pacos! How many of us, if such an ad had been placed at certain times in our lives, an ad that carried our name, wouldn’t have leapt at the opportunity for reconciliation with our own fathers.

Well, our heavenly Father offers that opportunity today. It is as though He has placed that same ad—the newspaper is the Bible—and when we answer and stand before Him, He is there like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, ready to offer unmerited forgiveness—the gift of forgiveness. He delights in enfolding each of His repentant children in His loving arms.

Have you called on God to forgive you? Your debt is impossible to pay, you know. Have you faced God and told him you’re helplessly a debtor to sin and have you prayed for mercy? You can be let loose from your sins in Jesus!

And God’s ready forgiveness stands also as an example for us in our relationships with others: forgive as the Lord forgave you.

If you’re harboring unforgiveness, harboring grudges and hatred, you’re playing with dynamite. You’re playing with fire. Just like the loose cannon in Victor Hugo’s story, unforgiveness can crash around inside tearing your guts out, terrorizing your mind, tormenting you!

In Victor Hugo’s story, the loose cannon had to be brought under control and chained so that it couldn’t do any more damage.

Right now, why not ask Jesus to take you below decks? Tell him that you are willing to forgive, willing to go with Him to take care of all the troubling things within. Tell Jesus you’re willing. Ask Him to give you power, power to repent, power to turn from your sins, power to say you’re sorry, power to forgive.

PRAYER OF RESPONSE

Gracious and Loving God, I want to serve you and honor you with my very life, and so I do pray that you might reveal to me those corners and cabinets, those closets of sin, that require cleansing and renewal. I confess my unworthiness before you and give thanks for your mercy which calls me from death to life, from lostness to salvation. I thank you for your love that knows no bounds, for your love that never lets me go. As I sit here quietly before you, I ask that you might hear me and might speak to me in the deepest recesses of my heart as I pray for the power to do that which is pleasing in your sight. Clothe me, Lord, with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and grow in me, please, a forgiving spirit grateful for the forgiveness extended to me. Open my eyes that I may see more. Open my heart that what I see may bring me to humility before you and to deeper worship of you, my great Savior, my giving Savior, my loving Savior, my forgiving Savior through whom I live and move and have my being, the One through whom I pray. Amen

ONE MORE STORY TO SHARE:

A week ago last Tuesday, I was rudely awakened—from a very sound sleep —at 4:45 in the morning—by a ruckus being raised just outside our windows. A Walker Coonhound had begun signalling that he’d treed some creature a few yards from our cottage. I could barely see the dog in the pre-dawn light, but I could make out that he was attempting to burrow his way under a barbed wire fence that serves as a line of demarcation between the RV park at which we’ve been staying and the property that adjoins.

After a good bit of digging, the hound shimmied his way through and began circling the tree and vocalizing (think of an insistent and deep carrying voice like a clear ringing bugle, punctuated by sharp chopping sounds). He kept circling and vocalizing for nine hours, driving me nearly out of my mind, making it quite the challenge for me to focus on my writing assignments. Animal Control had been called and two officers finally arrived just after 2 in the afternoon; the canine then escaped into the brush. The hound returned just before 10 that night and started vocalizing again.

By this time, however, Larry, a neighbor vacationing from West Virginia had returned to his RV after a day of sailing. Larry is a man one who has run hunting dogs and now, at 10 in the evening, he heard the hound, went to his truck, started it up, slammed the tailgate down, and yelled, “Load up, boy!” The dog immediately came running and leapt up onto the bed of the truck. Larry gave the malnourished animal a bowl of food, found the owner’s contact information on the dog’s collar and placed a call. A man came by to collect the animal and told Larry the dog had been missing for three weeks. The owner was relieved to have his dog back in his possession; Larry told us the man had probably paid between $10,000 and $20,000 for the dog. Evidenced by the insistently wagging tail, it was clear the hound was equally relieved and delighted to see his human.

Ok. So why am I telling you this story? I was astonished at the tenacity of this animal, and my husband and I learned from Larry that a well-trained hound will keep signaling and signalling, persisting until its master responds. This little guy was hoarse and exhausted after a day of calling out, but he never lost heart. He persisted. And his master responded.

I was astonished at the tenacity of this animal, and Larry said, a well-trained hound will keep signaling and signalling, persisting until its master responds. This little guy was hoarse and exhausted after a day of calling out, but he never lost heart. He persisted. And his master responded.

I learned SO much through my hours of listening to the tenacious dog. A friend observed, “that’s why they call it ‘dogged perseverance.'” She also recalled the words of Martin Luther: “Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat!”

If you’re having trouble forgiving, if you’re having trouble of any kind, if you have no troubles at all, persist in prayer, pray the way the dog watches the meat.

 

 

The Lord Can Change the Trajectory of Your Life: Billy Graham and the Supernatural Activity of God

Billy-Graham1Over the course of my days, my life has intersected again and again with the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham and ministries to which he was connected and/or had founded.

In 1982, my marriage was falling apart and I was falling apart. Friends, who’d been praying for me for some time, invited me to attend the Graham crusade at Nickerson Field in Boston and, on Pentecost Sunday, I went forward with thousands of others to accept Jesus as my Savior. I invited my husband, Gene, to attend the next night and he went forward as well, welcoming Christ into his life. Jesus saved our marriage and turned our lives completely around. In the days that followed, when I sensed a call to the professional ministry, I never considered studying anywhere but Gordon-Conwell: Billy Graham was one of the founders of what would become my alma mater and he was chairman of the school’s board during my years there. His signature is on my Master of Divinity diploma from that school.

ham-mainnew
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

As a student, I was given the opportunity to train in and engage in evangelism through one of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) phone centers that was activated each time a crusade aired. Some years later, when I was serving as a visiting professor in evangelism and practical ministry at Gordon-Conwell, I made participation in the BGEA phone ministry a requirement in my courses.

While at GCTS, I was also one of the first students invited to participate in the Arrow Leadership Program which was founded by Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, Leighton Ford. The latter had a desire to help those who were emerging as new communicators of the Gospel. Dr. Ford had created Arrow as a means through which strategic investments might be made in the character, calling, and competency of young leaders. The organization continues to make those investments today.

Around the same time, I was invited to serve as a delegate to Lausanne II (in Manila, the Philippines). This international congress was one in a series of events called by the Lausanne Movement to foster cooperation among evangelical leaders. That movement was founded by Billy Graham, and it was in Manila that I developed a greater understanding of the realities of the global Church.

Two years later, the Graham Association created a profile of my life and ministry for airing during one of its crusade telecasts. As this came in the early years of my work for the Lord, I was stunned to learn that my profile would be the second in a series that began with Major League Baseball player Dave Dravecky. Rev. Graham’s message for the program in which my profile appeared, was entitled, “Who Is Jesus?” I can still hear the voice of Cliff Barrows introducing my segment. And, of course, George Beverly Shea’s comforting bass-baritone filled and lifted the hearts of those in the stadium seats at the Meadowlands in New Jersey along with the hearts of those listening from their seats at home.

The list of life intersections with Billy Graham and the organizations he founded continued on in the years that followed. I was asked to contribute chapters to the Billy Graham Christian Workers’ Handbook and worked with the BGEA to create a film for use in the telephone training centers. I was invited to serve on the Ministerial Advisory Council to the President at Gordon-Conwell and was interviewed for the school’s Contact Magazine. I was one of about a half dozen graduates, serving in churches, who were selected to speak to the GCTS Board of Directors about what additional training I would suggest the seminary should offer. I also collaborated with three GCTS professors on a book that was honored as a Christianity Today Book of the Year. Billy Graham founded the magazine CT in 1956 and its panel continues to select the top books each year in about a dozen categories, ranging from apologetics to Biblical studies, fiction to history and biography.

Decision-Covers-11-2016-1As I have often said elsewhere, I am deeply indebted to Billy Graham. He and the organizations he founded set the trajectory for my life in ministry. This man of integrity, humility, generosity and faithfulness was used of the Lord in the transformations of millions of individuals around the world, including my own. And now, even following his passing, I continue to be blessed by “America’s Pastor” and the BGEA. I have just received a request from Decision Magazine, a publication founded by the Rev. Graham, that I tell the story of how I came to faith in Christ at the Graham Crusade in Boston and how that decision has impacted my life to this day. What I find particularly astonishing is that no single human being has orchestrated these connections over the years. Everything points to the supernatural activity of God.

I pray that anyone reading this might be led to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior by offering a prayer that follows that was often shared by Pastor Graham. Those who know Jesus, might also take this opportunity to rededicate themselves–through this prayer–to the Lord’s service.

In Reverend Graham’s last message in the 2013 video-recorded My Hope America, he shared his heart for our nation today:

“Our country’s in great need of a spiritual awakening. There have been times that I’ve wept as I’ve gone from city to city and I’ve seen how far people have wandered from God. I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross. Not the cross that hangs on the wall or around someone’s neck, but the real cross of Christ…With all my heart I want to leave you with the truth, that He loves you, and is willing to forgive you of all your sins. Sin is a disease of the human heart…There is no other way of salvation except through the cross of Christ.”

He then offered a simple, yet powerful prayer, along with a final reminder that if we are willing to come to Christ, Jesus has the power to change our lives and future forever. “Today,” he said, “I’m asking you to put your trust in Jesus.” Then he lifted these words:

“Dear Heavenly Father, I know that I’m a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins, and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins, I repent of my sins, I invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust you and follow you as my Lord and Savior. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

If you lifted this prayer, from your heart and with all sincerity, know that your life will be different from this day forward for you will now walk with Jesus. He can change your life as He changed mine, as He changed Gene’s.

“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).

Hearts of Stone Out of Touch on the Question of Human Life

topcrop
This is the image that was shared in 2013 when the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act was before the Senate.

I cannot begin to fathom how the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Bill once again failed to pass in the Senate! No one can look at a sonogram image and deny the presence of a life, a human life, a unique and separate being. Only an individual with a seared conscience and a heart of stone could have voted to continue legally and lethally injecting and dismembering highly developed, viable or near-viable fetuses.

In 2013, when the bill was first raised, I posted an article in which one commentator for Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams, shared her belief that “life starts at conception” but she added, “that hasn’t stopped me one iota from being pro-choice… Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always…the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.” I was reminded of Orwell’s Animal Farm here: All are equal, but some are more equal than others. A seared conscience. A heart of stone. Only a culture of death and deeply imbedded selfishness could support such cruelty, such an abomination! God help us!

Here is the article from 2013: https://donnafghailson.com/?s=seared+conscience

A dear and much respected friend Charmaine Yoest, who once headed Americans United for Life, had the words of Thomas Jefferson, scripted in large letters on her wall: “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” Charmaine’s conclusion: “You lose true north if you can’t defend innocent human life.”

sonogram-20-Week-Anatomy-Scan-example-best-detail-ideas-cool-free-close-USG

Following is a video of Sen. Ben Sasse’s (R. Neb.) motion to proceed with S. 2311, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Bill. Please take the time to listen to his words. I cannot understand how 46 human beings could have failed to be moved by his impassioned plea that 20-week old unborn babies–having been carried by their mothers for five months–might receive legal protection against abortion.

Sasse said, in part: “We all oooh and aaah over sonogram pictures of children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews — even sonogram pictures from a stranger on a bus or plane. We all look at those pictures and we love. We don’t have to be taught or conditioned to love. We don’t love because of economics. We don’t love because of politics. We love because they’re babies. You don’t need me to explain something that we’ve all experienced. But we should note that this love is backed with facts. The science is clear. No one seriously disputes that that little girl in that image is alive. We all know and understand that that little baby in that sonogram image is a unique and separate being.”

Sasse asked of his colleagues as they prepared to take the vote on the Senate floor: “Where will we draw the line? Have our hearts grown cold to truth? Beauty and compassion can stir our hearts. Science and facts still confirm the truth. These beautiful lives deserve our protection.” Forty-six Democrats and two Republicans would fail to draw the line.

 

“Two-thirds of Americans support a 20-week abortion ban, including more than half of Democrats and more than half of self-described pro-choice Americans. Though the Pain-Capable bill didn’t pass, the vote forced pro-abortion Democrats [and two Republicans] to show Americans how out of touch they continue to be on the question of human life — even as science and technology prove them wrong.” [Source: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/455883/abortion-ban-senate-vote-fails-pass-pain-capable-unborn-child-protection-act%5D

Compilation of 4D ultrasound videos at 20 weeks:

 

The Stranger in the Woods…So Much to Ponder

30687200I’ve just finished reading The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. It’s the compelling true story of a twenty-year-old who drove his white 1985 Subaru Brat into central Maine, dropped his keys on the center console, exited the vehicle, started walking without knowing where he was going, and disappeared into the forest. He had a tent and a backpack, but no compass, no map. Christopher Knight, who came to be known as the North Pond Hermit, would remain in the woods for the next 27 years, until he was finally captured by authorities and brought to account for stealing food and other provisions from neighbors who lived not all that far from his well-concealed camp. Never lighting a fire and making sure to obscure every shiny pot, pan, propane tank, and clothespin from the prying eyes of hikers or over-flying aircraft, he managed to survive and his camp remained undetected through the challenges of brutal winters, muddy taiga, and northern mosquitos and blackflies.

Interspersed throughout the tale are reflections on silence and solitude; noisiness and busyness; the restorative power of nature; and the need for or aversion to community. The experiences, shared by author Michael Finkel, of ascetics, solitaries, anchorites, recluses and introverts were illuminating companions to Knight’s story as were the observations from psychologists and biologists who have made a study of the alone ones among us.

In the coming days, I’ll be re-reading and reflecting upon the book, but for now, I’d like to share one passage (of a great many) that I found intriguing:

“In an attempt to gain some empirical understanding of solitude, a cognitive neuroscientist at New York University placed more than twenty Buddhist monks and nuns inside magnetic resonance imaging machines, tracking blood flow to their brains while they meditated. Other neuroscientists conducted similar studies. The results remain preliminary, but it appears that when the human brain experiences a self-consciously chosen silence, as opposed to sleep, the brain does not slow down. It remains as active as ever. What changes is where the brain is functioning.

“Language and hearing are seated in the cerebral cortex, the folded gray matter that covers the first couple of millimeters of the outer brain like wrapping paper. When one experiences silence, absent even reading, the cerebral cortex typically rests. Meanwhile, deeper and more ancient brain structures seem to be activated–the subcortical zones. People who live busy, noisy lives are rarely granted access to these areas. Silence, it appears, is not the opposite of sound. It is another world altogether, literally offering a deeper level of thought, a journey to the bedrock of the self.”

Shifting Focus to the Gentlemen

downloadA couple of days ago, I was so incensed over the barbaric conduct of some Philadelphia Eagles’ fans that I posted an article I have since taken down. I regret having shared it. The team shouldn’t be smeared by the brutish and boorish behavior of the few. Far better to focus on the gentlemen who are on the team who are worthy of respect.

The article, to which I link here, highlights the faith of quarterback, Nick Foles who has described himself as a “Believer in Jesus Christ, husband, father, son, brother.” After the play-off victory against the Minnesota Vikings, Foles said: “First and foremost, all glory belongs to God. I wouldn’t be here without Him and this is just very humbling and unbelievable…I’m blessed to have amazing teammates, amazing coaches.”

Foles took over the starting job in December when star quarterback Carson Wentz went down with a knee injury. Wentz has said, “I think the biggest thing that we’re always challenging each other with is just to not lose sight of the bigger picture. I think wins, losses, highs, lows, everything that comes with this game, it’s so easy to take your mind and your eyes off of the ultimate prize, and that’s living for the Lord.”

See more here:

https://stream.org/headed-super-bowl-eagles-qb/