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Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance

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James 5:7-12
Patience is defined as the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset. Persistence is a firm continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. Perseverance is steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.

Patience. Persistence. Perseverance. How desperately we need these in our rucksacks today. The coronavirus and the resultant efforts to stem the tide of its dissemination have upended our lives. Grocery shelves are emptying. Businesses are suffering. The stock market is wobbling. In Maine, nearly 90,000 individuals, or roughly 13 percent of the state’s workers, have filed for unemployment since March 15 . While some restrictions on public activities have been lifted, protests are increasing. People are sick of and sick of hearing about COVID-19. Tempers are getting shorter and shorter. Patience is wearing thinner and thinner.

Patience. Patience seems a hard commodity to locate and not just because of a virus. For other reasons, it is sometimes hard to be patient. Frank Luchsinger tells of a woman who telephones him one day, choked with emotion as she reports, “Ray walked away from Day Care this morning.” She is speaking of her husband, who is sinking into Alzheimer’s and is in a wonderful day program in a community center.

“It’s a very busy street. He’s headed west; he knows we live that way. They spotted him at the bank and at the hamburger stand. It’s been six hours. I’d have called earlier but I knew there was nothing we could do. Every time someone sees him, he’s gone before the police get there. It’s such a cold day. Do you think we could start the prayer chain?”
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.

A young couple wants one thing most in life—to have a child. They wonder why God has not chosen to bless them with a pregnancy. Both are successful professionals but this brings little satisfaction. Now their marriage is beginning to suffer under the strain.
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.

A family with several children sits in a fast food restaurant learning that Happy Meals don’t necessarily bring happiness. Children’s meals are all mixed up on the table and while a haggard dad tries to sort out whose meal is whose, the littlest one eats part of a meal that doesn’t belong to him. Tempers flare.
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.

I’ve heard it said, and I imagine my husband, Gene, would likely say it’s true that sometimes it’s hard to be patient with your spouse. Socrates wrote, “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher… and that is a good thing for any man.”

We’ve heard it said that marriage is a three-ring circus: engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffer-ring. It has also been suggested that marriage is not a—it’s a sentence; that marriages are made in heaven, but so are thunder and lightning.
Sometimes, it’s hard to be patient.

It’s hard to be patient with our vocations. Certain credentials are required, then experience, then a measure of the right timing and perseverance. Someone not particularly deserving is promoted to the job we want, or we receive damaging and unfair criticism or we are exposed to unrelenting demands resulting in unending stress.

And it’s hard to be patient with our health: that long illness we did not anticipate, medical treatment that doesn’t work out, conflicting opinions, escalating expenses, wear and tear on our loved ones.

And it’s hard to be patient in this time of COVID-19.

“Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” we read in Isaiah, but when you’re waiting and weary, it’s hard to be patient.

James writes, “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” Look to the example of the farmer who, in James’ day, waited for the fall rain in early October or early November that was necessary to prepare the hard ground for sowing and to enable the seed to germinate. Later the farmer would wait for the spring rains that would come in April and May; these were vital for the grain to ripen and mature.
Be patient like the farmer. Stand firm.  Wait on the Lord.

Patience: if you were to think for a moment about some of the synonyms for the word “patience,” what might come to mind would be words like: waiting, holding on, hanging in there, keeping up the fight, and persevering (though, in the Greek, perseverance is a more active word than patience). Patience, remember, is a capacity. Perseverance, an action.

Lyman Coleman and Richard Peace opine that, as Americans, we’re not very good at handling stress and demonstrating patience. Our tendency is to act, to think that we can deal with any challenging situation and make it go away. If we can’t, our next line of defense is to go away ourselves. Fight or flee. The idea of hanging in there, of staying in a challenging situation because that is where we are supposed to be, is not necessarily our strength. Of course, sometimes flight may be the only sane answer. We can’t say, without exception, that in all situations the best thing is to hang in there.

One must always attend to the Lord’s leading, wait for Him, and while waiting, stand firm, like Job.

That was James’ word to the church in 1st century Jerusalem and it’s the word to us today. Though Job was not a patient man and frequently expressed his exasperation with the Lord, James wants us to emulate him in his perseverance: despite the disasters and difficulties that came into his life and the relentless attack of his “friends,” Job kept his faith and did not abandon his trust in God. Job’s dependence upon and waiting upon the Lord brought him extraordinary results. Learn from Job.

James, in chapter 1, verse 2, tells us that whenever we face trials of any kind, we should consider these nothing but pure joy because the testing of our faith produces perseverance (steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success) and, if we persist and let perseverance have its full effect, we will wind up mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

John Ortberg in his book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, reminds us that any truly meaningful accomplishment will require perseverance.  “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, the writer of Hebrews said. In other words, just don’t quit. We might have to endure through times of confusion or doubt, times of loneliness, even times when all seems lost. And we should keep in mind that suffering alone does not produce perseverance, only suffering that is endured in faith.

James, in the verses preceding the ones for today, catalogued some of the Job-like misfortunes the folks of his day were enduring: failure to be paid for their labor, being used to bring opulence to a few while personally being forced to live in poverty, abuse in the courts and more. James counseled them not to retaliate, not to become like those who were oppressing them.

The Lord’s coming is near, he says to them. The Lord’s return will change everything.

Now we might note here that there are three words in the New Testament used to describe the Second Coming of Jesus. The first is epiphaneia (in the English, epiphany). It describes the appearance of God or the ascent to the throne of an emperor. The second word is apokalupsis (the English, apocalypse); this carries the meaning of unveiling or revelation. The third word—which is used here—is parousia. It describes the invasion of a country or the arrival of a king. Taken together, these three words give the sense of what will occur when Christ returns. Jesus first came to this Earth quietly as a baby in Bethlehem. When He comes a second time, it will be in awe-inspiring power as the rightful King. In great might and glory, He will claim His people.

While we wait, James said, look to the example of the farmer who knows he can do nothing to hasten the arrival of the rains. The rains will come when God sends them. We sow a seed, we pull the weeds, we do our part to protect the crop, but there is a limit to what we can do. God must do the rest. God must manage the growth. God must work all things together for our good.

While we wait, the temptation might be to slip into inappropriate survival modes or, more specifically, the temptation might be to adopt the ways of the world. Resist such temptations, James tells us. For one thing, don’t take your frustrations out in grumbling.

Now while groaning in the face of suffering may be appropriate, grumbling at one another is not. Bickering, fault-finding, back-biting, nitpicking, grumbling against others is a form of judgment. And here in James and elsewhere we are told not to judge or we too will be judged.

And grumbling is so often misdirected. We’re upset about something over here…but we take it out over there. In stress situations, it may work like this: we feel pressure but we’re powerless to do anything about it. It comes perhaps from someone we dare not cross. We can’t express our anger and resentment directly, so we do it indirectly. We complain to those around us, often to those dearest to us. We may walk around cranky. We may blame them. In any case, our grumbling does nothing but create tension.

What compounds this is that we can then become chronic complainers, chronic grumblers; we can move our attention away from praise. It’s like the big sheet of paper and the little smudge. You lose sight of all your blessings to focus on the little smudge. That little smudge may work into you in such a way that you become a chronic complainer, focusing always on what’s “wrong” and not on what’s “right,” focusing on the blisters, ignoring the blessings.

Someone who could have done that, someone who could have gotten himself bogged down in smudges was Abraham Lincoln.  If you want an example of someone who never got tired of trying, he’s your guy. Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout his life. He lost eight elections, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown. He could have quit many times—but he didn’t and because he didn’t quit, he became one of the greatest presidents to sit in the White House.

Once, after losing an important Senate race, he said, “The path was worn and slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other out of the way, but I recovered and said to myself, ‘it’s a slip and not a fall.’”

He didn’t blame others or use his tongue to tear down others, instead he spoke the truth of his convictions. This is what James is addressing in verse 10. Here he celebrates the men and women who have spoken truth—the prophetic word—in God’s name.

Lincoln, like those prophets, persevered—and because he did our nation survived a great crisis. Here is a litany of a man who never stopped trying:

In 1816—His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.
In 1818—His mother died.
1831—Failed in business.
1832—Ran for the state legislature—lost.
1832—Also lost his job—wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
1833—Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.
1834—Ran for the state legislature again—this time he won.
1835—Was engaged to be married; his sweetheart died and his heart was broken.
1836—He had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.
1838—He sought to become speaker of the state legislature—He was defeated.
1843—He ran for Congress and lost.
1846—Ran for Congress again—this time he won—went to Washington and did a good job.
1848—Ran for re-election to Congress—lost.
1849—Sought the job of land officer in his home state—he was rejected.
1854—Ran for the Senate of the United States—lost.
1856—Sought the vice-presidential nomination at his party’s national convention—got less than 100 votes.
1858—Ran for the U.S. Senate again and again he lost.
1860—He was elected President of the United States.

It was Abraham Lincoln’s belief in the providence of God that allowed him to keep his balance and turn repeated setbacks into eventual victories.

To be formed and transformed through trials, the place to start is with mini-trials. When someone interrupts you, you can practice graciously holding your tongue. When a co-worker borrows something and doesn’t return it immediately, you can practice patience. When you have a headache, you can discover that it is possible to suffer and not tell everybody about it. As simple as it sounds, the place to start being formed by trials is with the mini variety.

But we need to add persistence for the large trials. Perhaps you might identify the greatest challenge of your life right now, or a dilemma you’re about ready to give up on. Make a commitment that you are going to relentlessly persist through prayer.
Perhaps the challenge is relational. Is someone you love far from God and you’ve given up hope? Is it a pattern of sin in your life that you haven’t been able to break and you feel as if you’ll be in its grip forever? Is it a new habit you would do well to cultivate? Is it a family rupture that’s been going on for years?

You don’t keep the faith and attend to these things through sheer strength of will alone but through trusting in, relying on God.

So…what’s the scoop with the last verse in this passage?  It seems a bit oddly placed but it’s not.

The last verse in our passage has sometimes been taken to mean that we should not swear an oath of allegiance to a flag or an oath to tell the truth in a courtroom, but that’s not what James is addressing here. James is not condemning oath-taking of this sort: we find plenty of instances of people taking appropriate oaths all throughout scripture from Exodus to Matthew to Romans to Hebrews.

It would seem James had a two-fold purpose here. First, to warn against the flippant use of God’s name to guarantee the truth of what is spoken. Phrases like: “I swear to God that…” or “As God is my witness, I’ll…” are, in part, what’s in mind here.

Then there are the oaths, the promises, and the boastings we sometimes may be tempted to utter. An example to consider from scripture is found in the experience of Peter who once talked about how faithful he was going to be to Jesus: “Lord if everybody leaves You.  I will not leave You.  Lord, if I have to die to save You, I’ll die in Your place.”

Then when the crucial moment arrived, Peter said about Jesus: “I don’t even know the man.” This was the same man who had sworn to follow Jesus to death.  You see James is saying that, in the Christian life, patience, persistence, and perseverance are not manifested in grand verbal promises but by quiet talk that follows through. Our patient endurance will be shown not in words but in endurance through trials and testing.

So…bottom line: Remember that any truly meaningful human accomplishment will require patience, persistence and perseverance. Allow these to do their work in you, confident that if you do, you will wind up mature in the faith, complete, lacking in nothing. Keep going, stop grumbling, don’t quit. If you fall down, get up. Don’t be an empty talker; just run the race set before you. Learn persistence in the mini-trials and you’ll have greater strength to move through the larger trials. And remember that all of this is not done through the sheer strength of your own will but through trusting in God to use all things for our good to grow us up in Christ Jesus our Lord.
AMEN?
You might wish to lift the following as your prayer: Lord, I know that there is nowhere I can go where You are not and yet often I go about my days without ever giving a thought to Your presence, essentially turning a deaf ear to You, paying no attention to you, overlooking you, discounting you, neglecting you, ignoring you. I do so at my own peril. You are an ever-present help in the midst of troubles. You love me with a love that will never let me go. May I love you and demonstrate my love for you by using the times of discipline to move to greater depths of faith in you. May I embrace the week ahead, being diligent in my labor, kind to my neighbor, generous to the discouraged, patient with my family, loyal to my Savior. May I study the scriptures, be faithful in prayer and—in all things—trust the Lord. I pray in the name of my Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

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Contingent Contentment or Contentment in Christ?

Max Lucado, in the Anxious for Nothing Bible Study, offers two words that served as the inspiration for the message I’m posting today. “Contingent Contentment” is the kind of thinking that starts with the “I’ll be happy when…,” “I’ll be happy if…” I’ll be content when I marry. I’ll be happy when I have a child. I’ll be content when I get a new job. I’ll be content when I move to a new community. I’ll be happy when I get a new car. In every instance, contentment is based on circumstances.

Psalm 42 was composed by someone who is longing for the good ole days and lamenting his current circumstances. He is filled with discontentment. The writer, is a worship leader as well as a member of the Korahite choir. The Sons of Korah were the descendants of Levi who sang in the temple. The psalmist is now in exile in the land of the Jordan River. That river lies north of the Sea of Galilee and contains many waterfalls as it cascades southward. The psalmist tells us that he is feeling overwhelmed by the spiritual “waves and breakers” that have “swept over” him.

He recalls leading groups of people to worship, singing songs of thanks! Those were special times—but the psalmist is singing a different song today. Today, his heart is broken and he can’t seem to locate God. With this background, hear the beginning words of the psalm:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and meet with Him? Day and night, I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours? My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks—it was the sound of a great celebration! Why am I discouraged? Why so sad?”

Can you remember a mountain-top moment of worship? I can remember many. I remember a retreat on the Maryland shore with some Stephen Ministers I’d trained. We’d gathered around the Lord’s Supper, and all of us were taken to a place of deep emotion in worship that moved us to tears, bonded us together, and warmed us to our cores. I remember a Maundy Thursday service and the depth of intimacy and overwhelming love I felt for the Lord and for members of the congregation as I knelt to wash their feet. I remember blessed times when folks have come forward in services to receive Christ as Savior; I remember sacred moments in a baptismal pool. I remember my great joy and relief when I went forward to proclaim my own belief in Jesus as Savior at a Billy Graham Crusade in Boston, Massachusetts. I remember the moment I received spiritual assurance and tangible confirmation of my call to pastoral ministry.

There are moments while praying from the pulpit when the presence of the Holy Spirit has been so palpable that I’ve felt transported. There are moments even in nature when I’ve heard the Lord in the whisper of the wind.

All of these mountain top experiences have something in common: I could feel in every fiber of my being the presence of God. The moment, the time in worship, was good not because it was entertaining or emotional but because the Spirit of the Living God—His grace, His mercy, His mysterious majesty—surrounded me and often surrounded the assembly.

You may remember, as well, moments in worship, communion with God, like this. Perhaps you also remember days you didn’t bother to worship because you just didn’t have it in you. Not that you were lazy or wanted to do something else—no, you just felt numb and cold inside. No matter how loud you sang or how catchy the songs—even if the preaching was right on target—something was missing. Think of a deer in a desert, panting for water, crying as it looks for water, unable to find even a trickle of a stream to quench its thirst.

That’s the way the psalmist describes his spiritual state. He is dry and parched. He’s not thirsty for water but for God. His soul is thirsty. He longs to be near God—to experience a refreshing stream but instead he’s in the desert. Tears, salty tears, are the only drink he can find, but saltwater only increases one’s thirst.

No songs of praise come from his parched lips. His swollen, red eyes see no sign of God’s face. He is only blinded by the sun. And there isn’t even an edifying voice of a fellow worshipper speaking a psalm, hymn, or spiritual song to spur him on to love and good deeds. In the desert, his tragedies are instead exploited by an unbelieving world that taunts with sneering questions, “Well, where’s your wonderful God now?! Can’t you see how hollow all religion is? Give it up!”

But even more troubling questions can come from those who profess to be Christians: “Why do you think God abandoned you like this? Maybe it’s something you did? Maybe there is some unresolved sin or pride in your life? How is it that you’ve fallen out of favor with God?”

And then there’s another question that we sometimes hear: “If you don’t feel close to God, who do you suppose moved?” That last one is actually a good question. If you were to ask that of our Psalmist he might surprise you and say—well it seems to me that God did!

The psalmist feels abandoned and forgotten. Being forgotten is one of the worst feelings. Being forgotten means being alone and defenseless before enemies and the forces of nature. Being forgotten means losing stability and security— nowhere is safe, darkness surrounds.

The psalmist wants to know why God has thrown him aside. He is lost in darkness; enemies have taken advantage of his misfortune. And he feels shame—an embarrassment for God. He has praised God like an adoring child praises a Father— confident in the Father’s goodness and boasting that the Father can do anything! And then, in the moment He is needed most, it seems the Father isn’t there. And the child is—abandoned. All the praise and boasting about the Father becomes… embarrassing.

Whose psalm is this? Who are the children of Korah?

Any of us who feel thirsty for God’s presence. Anyone who hears people say, “Where is Your God?” because something terrible has happened. Those who find themselves in oppressive surroundings as family members or co-workers insult them for their faith. And those who feel stressed and disappointed because God hasn’t seemed to do much to help them out of a difficult situation.

“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!…Each day the Lord pours His unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing His songs, praying to God who gives me life…’O God, my rock,’ I cry, ‘why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief[?]…I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!”

This psalm and the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is for the thirsty, parched souls who long for God—those who long to be immersed in His mercy and rescuing grace.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Like the psalm, the song starts off with a little self-talk: Why am I discouraged? Why am I so sad?

Despair is a vicious thing. It’s a sort of auto-immune disorder of the soul. It attacks your soul, then turns your soul against you for feeling sad. But the chorus in both the hymn and the psalm yields to hope. The thirsty soul decides to become a pilgrim. Like the deer, the psalmist is going to sniff out the source of water.

I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him, my Savior and my God!

Being a pilgrim means accepting the wilderness, but settling for nothing on the journey except the deep waters of God. That’s why we need this psalm—to send us on our pilgrim journey, to prepare us for the spiritual life. Too many people settle for poison in the wilderness, contentment based on contingencies. “Feeling better has become more important to us than finding God.”

In his autobiography, When You Can’t Come Back, Dave Dravecky (a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who lost his pitching arm to cancer) says that he “learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop. On the mountaintop, we are overwhelmed by God’s presence. In the wilderness, we are overwhelmed by His absence. Both places should bring us to our knees; the one, in utter awe; the other, in utter dependence.”

Jesus once spoke to a thirsty woman in the wilderness of Samaria (John 4). She felt far from God and so it isn’t strange that she asked, “Where is God?” She had heard from her family—the generations before her—that God was on His holy mountain—Mount Gerazim. But she’d heard from her enemies that God lived in a big house in Jerusalem. “Where is God?” she asked.

Jesus wasn’t surprised by the fact that she’d had five husbands and that the man with whom she was then living wasn’t her husband. Like many of us who long for God, she’d turned to other people, other circumstances, other avenues looking for satisfaction. She was thirsty, and so when Jesus spoke of living water—deep water—that not only satisfies thirst but taps a spring of gushing water in the soul—she wanted it! Like a deer panting for water!

Scott Hoezee recalls having seen a bumper sticker that featured the picture of a telescope along with the words, “If you see God, tell him I’m looking for Him.” This psalmist would appreciate that bumper sticker. But in this psalm, as in so much of our experience, you can’t always find God with the “telescope approach.” Sometimes we try to scrutinize our present circumstances to see if we can locate precisely where God is, hoping we can zero in on Him the way a telescope zeroes in on a star. But it doesn’t always work that way.

To stick with the astronomy analogy for a moment: some of you know that when stargazing, the best way to see some stars is to not look directly at them. Because of the way our eyes are designed, faint objects can be seen best when you look askance from them. Look just to the side of a dim star and you will suddenly see it in your peripheral vision.

Sometimes faith is like that, too. It seems to have been the case for the writer of Psalm 42. Unable to locate God in the present moment of crisis and pain, he instead looks to the past. Not only was the psalmist able then to see God in the past, but somehow it energized his hope in the present moment too. By looking just to the side of his current circumstances God appeared in the “peripheral vision” of his soul once more. A simple act of remembering turns this psalm around and transforms this poem from an ode to despair into a statement of bold faith and audacious hope.

How does this work, I wonder? What’s the mechanism that can take a distant memory of something God once did and use it to re-tool the present? It is finally a mystery how God’s Spirit can use the past to give us hope for the future. But it happens.

It seems we sometimes struggle in knowing where to “find” God in certain moments, particularly in moments of great pain or uncertainty. We don’t always know what God is “up to” or why it seems our prayers are going unanswered—only the truly arrogant or impious would ever dare to claim they always know what God is doing and why. Often, we just don’t know. But perhaps the recovery of our hope doesn’t depend on making sense of each moment. Maybe in life’s darker, deeper valleys it is our memories of who God is and what He has done that can pump a little air back into our deflated balloons of hope.

We are on a pilgrim’s journey, and when trekking through the wilderness, aching with thirst, we must continue to trust the Lord is with us and that He will—as we seek Him—bring us to deep waters that will wash over us, soak us, and cleanse us. On the journey, we sing:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Why are you so discouraged, the psalmist asks? Why are you so sad? Put your hope in God! We will praise Him again—our Savior and our God!

But, you know, if we will not admit our pain, we can’t deal with its consequences. It’s no wonder that the first step in any twelve-step program is to admit the problem, whether it is alcoholism or drugs or something else. No pastor, therapist, counselor or friend can help those who will not admit their need for help. Folks can’t help if you won’t let them help.
Is there a sense in which you feel isolated from God and God’s purpose today?

Perhaps the problem is your sin, and the first step is honest confession and contrition. Perhaps, like the psalmist, you have been oppressed by others in their sin; now you are innocent of guilt but nonetheless suffering its consequences. Are you dealing with pain or fear that you feel God should have prevented or healed? Are you facing physical or financial setbacks that God has not remedied? Stress in your marriage or family that God has not lifted? In what way do you feel far from God today? Don’t wander off. Cling and pray specifically for what you need.

Cling to the memories of what God has done, cling to the unchanging, always loving nature of God. Cling to the Word of God, cling to other folks of faith, cling to what Jesus did on the cross, cling to hope.

You know, Christians have worshipped God not only in brightly lit sanctuaries, not only in soaring Gothic cathedrals or in the splendor of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. Christians have also gathered together in catacombs and prison cells, on the run from Communists in China, and on sinking ships in the Atlantic. Christians have shared the body and blood of Jesus not only while organs played fugues by Bach but also while air raid sirens cut the air outside the church with their shrill warnings of Nazi bombers over London.

Again and again, often in dark circumstances where they could no more see God on the move than could the poet of Psalm 42, Christians have remembered Jesus—they’ve glanced to the side of any present darkness to recall the cross and what that cross has meant throughout their lives. And as they’ve done so, they have again and again discovered that Jesus is no mere memory—He’s here! He’s alive!

And so, stop settling for contingent contentment, being happy only when all the circumstances have lined up according to your desires. Instead, trust God, hope in Him, and know that His is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

If you are depressed and feeling all alone, Psalm 42 validates what you’re going through as an experience well-known to all people of the faith, and it can help you express your honest pain to God. It can also remind you that God is with you, God uses all things for the good of His people and—like the apostle Paul—you can learn to be content regardless of your circumstances. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.

Keep this psalm and Philippians 4 close by you each day. And, finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received, do; and the God of peace be with you. Amen.

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He Knows No Fear; Fear Nothing While He is With You

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Today marks the fifth Sunday since I last gathered with others for in-person worship in the sanctuary of the Cape Neddick Baptist Church in Maine. It is very strange for our building to stand empty, but the church is its people, and the people continue to be the church outside of the building’s walls. We are reminded in Acts, chapter 24 that:

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’

I thought, in this entry, I might do something a bit different. Rather than sharing a sermon, I’ve decided to bring together some of the devotional messages, from sundry sources, that have been ministering to me over these days of physical distancing. Here you’ll find both the text and audio.

We begin with Matthew 10, verse 27, where we read: What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light.”

F.B. Meyer, meditating on this passage, wrote:

Our Lord is constantly taking us into the dark, that He may tell us things. Into the dark of the shadowed home, where bereavement has drawn the blinds; into the dark of the lonely, desolate life, where some infirmity closes us in from the light and stir of life; into the dark of some crushing sorrow and disappointment.

Then He tells us His secrets, great and wonderful, eternal and infinite; He causes the eye which has become dazzled by the glare of earth to behold the heavenly constellations; and the ear to detect the undertones of His voice, which is often drowned amid the tumult of earth’s strident cries.

But such revelations always imply a corresponding responsibility—that you are to speak in the light—that you are to proclaim upon the housetops.

We are not meant to always linger in the dark, or stay closeted away; presently we shall be summoned to take our place in the rush and storm of life; and when that moment comes, we are to speak and proclaim what we have learned.

This gives a new meaning to suffering, the saddest element in which is often its apparent aimlessness. “How useless I am!” “What am I doing for the betterment of humankind?” “Wherefore this waste of the precious spikenard of my soul?”

Such are the desperate laments of the sufferer. But God has a purpose in it all. He has withdrawn His child to the higher altitudes of fellowship, that s/he may hear God speaking face to face, and bear the message to those at the mountain foot.

Were the forty days wasted that Moses spent on the Mount, or the period spent at Horeb by Elijah, or the years spent in Arabia by Paul?

There is no short cut to the life of faith, which is the all-vital condition of a holy and victorious life. We must have periods of lonely meditation and fellowship with God. That our souls should have their mountains of fellowship, their valley of quiet rest beneath the shadow of a great rock, their nights beneath the stars, when darkness has veiled the material and silenced the stir of human life, and has opened the view of the infinite and eternal, is as indispensable as that our bodies should have food.

Thus alone can the sense of God’s presence become the fixed possession of the soul, enabling it to say repeatedly, with the Psalmist, “You are near, 0 God.”
“Some hearts, like evening primroses, open more beautifully in the shadows of life.”

Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exod. 14:13).

Charles Spurgeon, reflecting on this passage from Exodus, wrote the following:

These words contain God’s command to the believer when he is reduced to great straits and brought into extraordinary difficulties. He cannot retreat; he cannot go forward; he is shut upon the right hand and on the left. What is he now to do?

The Master’s word to him is “stand still.” It will be well for him if, at such times, he listens only to his Master’s word, for other and evil advisers come with their suggestions. Despair whispers, “Lie down and die; give it all up.” But God would have us put on a cheerful courage, and even in our worst times, rejoice in His love and faithfulness.

Cowardice says, “Retreat; go back to the worldling’s way of action; you cannot play the Christian’s part; it is too difficult. Relinquish your principles.”

But, however much Satan may urge this course upon you, you cannot follow it, if you are a child of God. His Divine fiat has bid thee go from strength to strength, and so thou shalt, and neither death nor hell shall turn thee from thy course. What if for a while thou art called to stand still; yet this is but to renew thy strength for some greater advance in due time.

Precipitancy cries, “Do something; stir yourself; to stand still and wait is sheer idleness.” We must be doing something at once–we must do it, so we think–instead of looking to the Lord, who will not only do something, but will do everything.

Presumption boasts, “If the sea be before you, march into it, and expect a miracle.” But faith listens neither to Presumption, nor to Despair, nor to Cowardice, nor to Precipitancy, but it hears God say, “Stand still,” and immovable as a rock it stands.

“Stand still”–keep the posture of an upright man, ready for action, expecting further orders, cheerfully and patiently awaiting the directing voice; and it will not be long ere God shall say to you, as distinctly as Moses said it to the people of Israel, “Go forward.’

From Spurgeon as well comes this:

It was but a little while ago that you were saying, “Lord, I fear I have no faith: let me know that I have faith.”

Was not this really, though perhaps unconsciously, praying for trials?—for how can you know that you have faith until your faith is exercised? Depend upon it. God often sends us trials that our graces may be discovered, and that we may be certified of their existence. Besides, it is not merely discovery; real growth in grace is the result of sanctified trials.

God trains His soldiers, not in tents of ease and luxury, but by turning them out and getting them accustomed to forced marches and hard service. He makes them ford through streams, and swim through rivers and climb mountains, and walk many a weary mile with heavy knapsacks on their backs. Well, Christian, may not this account for the troubles through which you are passing? Is not this the reason why He is contending with you?
—C. H. Spurgeon

“Be quiet! why this anxious heed
About thy tangled ways?
God knows them all. He giveth speed
And He allows delays.
‘Tis good for thee to walk by faith
And not by sight.
Take it on trust a little while.
Soon shalt thou read the mystery aright
In the full sunshine of His smile.”

In times of uncertainty, wait. Always, if you have any doubt, wait. Do not force yourself to any action. If you have a restraint in your spirit, wait until all is clear, and do not go against it.

The preceding is found in Streams in the Desert, April 19. From the same source, on April 18, comes this:

And He shall bring it to pass (Psalm 37:5).

I once thought that after I prayed it was my duty to do everything that I could do to bring the answer to pass. He taught me a better way, and showed that my self-effort always hindered His working, and that when I prayed and definitely believed Him for anything, He wanted me to wait in the spirit of praise, and only do what He bade me. It seems so unsafe to just sit still, and do nothing but trust the Lord; and the temptation to take the battle into our own hands is often tremendous.

We all know how impossible it is to rescue a drowning man who tries to help his rescuer, and it is equally impossible for the Lord to fight our battles for us when we insist upon trying to fight them ourselves.

And from the same day’s Our Daily Bread, this:

A feeling of being cared for and supported can help sustain us when we’re facing a challenge. An awareness of God’s presence and support can especially bring hope to encourage our spirit. Psalm 46, a favorite of many people going through trials, reminds us: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” and “Be still, and know that I am God; . . . I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord Almighty is with us” (vv. 1, 10-11).

Reminding ourselves of God’s promises and His presence with us can be a means to help renew our hearts and give us the courage and confidence to go through hard times.

And finally, from the April 16 Streams:

It is by no means enough to set out cheerfully with your God on any venture of faith. Tear into smallest pieces any itinerary for the journey which your imagination may have drawn up. Nothing will fall out as you expect. Your guide will keep to no beaten path. He will lead you by a way such as you never dreamed your eyes would look upon. He knows no fear, and He expects you to fear nothing while He is with you. And He is with you always.

I pray this day will find you—and me—cheerfully and fearlessly—embarking on this day, confident our Lord loves us, is with us and will never leave us. And now may the Lord bless you and keep you. 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. Amen

[Accompanying image: acj2blogspot.com]

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Reflections on Resurrection in the Time of COVID-19

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On this Easter, so often celebrated with delicate bunnies and fragile eggs, I want to speak  instead of Resurrection Day and the powerful, power-filled Jesus, the Risen Prophet-King, the Roaring Lion, the Holy Lord of Lords.

My dear friend, Tom Graffagnino, in his brilliant—and all too timely—treatise on the troubled No Border Land that is our Western World, reminds us that:

“Jesus was much more than the Nice Guy from Galilee with innovative, helpful hints for righteous living. Jesus stilled the stormy Sea of Galilee at one point with a word, but He made life-threatening, tsunami-like spiritual waves everywhere else. He came to rock humanity’s boat. He did so two thousand years ago, and He still does it today…We may first encounter baby Jesus, ‘meek and mild’ in the manger, but that is not where He would leave us. Obviously, the ‘All You Need is Love’ Jesus is very popular today. That Jesus fits the mold that the world cherishes and approves…This Jesus Much-Preferred is always agreeable, always friendly, ‘progressive,’ and fashionably up-to-date. [In centering on this innocuous, inoffensive Jesus]… much of the church in the Western world has been…swamped by the lukewarm waters of compromise and mesmerizing higher critical doubt…We expect our under-shepherds in the pulpit to coddle us with easygoing tales…We demand soothing half-truths…and have abandoned the teaching and preaching that brings sinners to their knees…Thinking ourselves wise (sensitive, caring and fair), we have become fools. For convenience’s sake, we have melted down the penetrating, razor sharp, double-edged sword of truth and fashioned for ourselves psychological, snub-nosed butter knives instead.”

And while all too many pastors have given in and have been serving up snacks of milk, cookies, and entertaining stories rather than banquets of deep spiritual truth and doctrinal meat, our society and even our natural world, of which we had been made stewards, have been dying slow and painful deaths.

In 1983, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian historian, who drew the world’s attention to the evils of the Gulag, lamented:

“As a survivor of the Communist Holocaust, I am horrified to witness how my beloved America, my adopted country, is gradually being transformed into a secularist and atheistic utopia, where communist ideals are glorified and promoted, while Judeo-Christian values and morality are ridiculed and increasingly eradicated from the public and social consciousness of our nation. Under the decades-long assault and militant radicalism of many so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ elites, God has been progressively erased from our public and educational institutions, to be replaced with all manner of delusion, perversion, corruption, violence, decadence, and insanity.”

Much of our world has endeavored to shut God out of the very world He created, and many—in so doing—have wound up in their own shaped-to-fit gulags, prisons of their own making.

We have been experiencing a famine of hearing the Voice of God.

Sensing our nation slouching towards Gomorrah, many have been lifting hands in prayer pleading, “God help us!! Help us turn from our wicked ways!! Restore our land!!”

Today, I believe, God is answering those prayers through the trials and isolation brought on by COVID-19. He’s been removing and/or shaking the supports on which we have long relied: jobs, homes, money, friends, families, full bellies, global markets, health systems…He’s made clear to us that we are not in control.

I have been praying for many years that God would bring a revival to rival any and all that have gone before. Never did I imagine God might do this by shaking us to the core with trials that are now encompassing the globe.

Charles H. Spurgeon, in his devotional Morning by Morning, suggested that some of God’s graces would never be discovered if it were not for trials. He wrote:

“Hope itself is like a star—not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity, and only to be discovered in the night of adversity…It was but a little while ago that on your knees you were saying, ‘Lord, I fear I have no faith; let me know that I have faith.’ Was not this really, though perhaps unconsciously, praying for trials? For how can you know that you have faith until your faith is exercised? Depend upon it. God often sends us trials that our graces may be discovered, and that we may be certified of their existence. Besides, it is not merely discovery; real growth in grace is the result of sanctified trials…Is not this the reason why He is contending with you?”

A few Sundays ago, I posted a sermon entitled, “The Reset Button,” and as the weeks of isolation have gone by, I’ve become even more convinced that God is using this time to reset our personal and corporate lives and to reset our world and all its components. Our personal and societal flaws have been laid bare, and we’ve been given eyes to see what we’ve become but also—what we might yet be.

God is resetting the biosphere and calling us to lament how cruelly we have treated the extraordinary world with which He, the Creator, has gifted us. As Julio Vincent Gambuto has well summarized: “A carless Los Angeles has clear blue skies as pollution has simply stopped. In a quiet New York, you can hear the birds chirp in the middle of Madison Avenue. Coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge. These are the postcard images of what the world might be like if we could find a way to have a less deadly daily effect on the planet.”

Robin Wright, in a March 23 New Yorker column noted:

“The novel coronavirus has swept the globe at a time when more people are living alone than ever before in human history. The trend became noticeable in the early twentieth century, among industrialized nations; it accelerated in the nineteen-sixties. In the United States, the numbers have almost doubled over the past half century, according to the research aggregator Our World in Data. In 2019, twenty-eight percent of households were single-person—up from twenty-three percent in 1980. Stockholm may represent the apex of this trend: in 2012 sixty percent of households in the Swedish city had only one person. Psychologists note the difference between living alone and loneliness.”

Wright concluded, “I live alone and have no family, and usually don’t think much about it. But, as the new pathogen forces us to socially distance, I have begun to feel lonely. I miss the ability to see, converse with, hug, or spend time with friends. Life seems shallower, more like survival than living.”

Many, in this time, are becoming increasingly anxious and depressed as they worry about the potential loss of homes, incomes, loved ones, and financial security. Ami Rokach, a psychologist in Canada, said she believes it’s a blessing that the coronavirus has hit the Western world. “For the past century,” she told the New Yorker columnist, “human life has focused increasingly on money and material belongings, which, especially with technology, has led to neglect of human relationships. Now that we’re suddenly stuck at home, the best means of surviving, psychologically and biologically, is to interact with people by whatever means available. She wonders if we might come out of this time of isolation with strengthened interpersonal bonds, having realized how important these are to our health.

I wonder if we might come out of this time of isolation with strengthened bonds with the person of Jesus Christ, having realized how important He is to our health. Isolation? Hmmm?

It was on the third day that Jesus rose from isolation, resurrected from the dead.

In Beyond Belief to Convictions, Josh McDowell, Bob Hostetler and David H. Bellis tell us that “Jesus broke the power of death by rising from the grave…[He] pierced the kingdom of darkness with a penetrating light.”

“Christ’s resurrection victory over death and despair not only broke the power of death for all of us who trust in Christ as Savior but also provided the means for us to receive a whole new perspective on life. Though we may endure pain, grief, and suffering here on earth, because Christ’s death was followed by his resurrection, we can know that such things are temporary—and that much greater things await us. Because of the Resurrection, we are destined to live forever in new bodies on a new earth, an existence that will be so enjoyable that anything ‘we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory [God] will give us later.’ For we ‘wait anxiously for that day when God will give us our full rights as his children, including the new bodies he has promised us’ (Romans 8:18, 23).

“We have the answer to where we are going in life, and in death…With a belief in the Resurrection, we can face life’s difficulties with the conviction that no matter what, ‘if God is for us, who can ever be against us?’ (Romans 8:31). We can be assured that God has not lost control and will not abandon us (see Romans 8:32). We can be confident that He is not punishing us or condemning us (see Romans 8:34). And we can know that He still very much loves us (see Romans 8:38).”

How long will it take us, how long will it take you, to rise to new life? We will never return to the old normal, and we should give great thanks for that blessing. The old normal wasn’t working.

F. B. Meyer reminded us that “Our Lord is constantly taking us into the dark, that He may tell us things. Into the dark of the shadowed home, where bereavement has drawn the blinds; into the dark of the lonely, desolate life, where some infirmity closes us in from the light and stir of life; into the dark of some crushing sorrow and disappointment. Then He tells us His secrets, great and wonderful, eternal and infinite; He causes the eye which has become dazzled by the glare of earth to behold the heavenly constellations; and the car to detect the undertones of His voice, which is often drowned amid the tumult of earth’s strident cries. But such revelations always imply a corresponding responsibility—that you are to speak in the light—that you are to proclaim upon the housetops. We are not meant to always linger in the dark, or stay in the closet; presently we shall be summoned to take our place in the rush and storm of life; and when that moment comes, we are to speak and proclaim what we have learned. This gives a new meaning to suffering, the saddest element in which is often its apparent aimlessness. ‘How useless I am!’ ‘What am I doing for the betterment of humankind?’ ‘Wherefore this waste of the precious spikenard of my soul?’ Such are the desperate laments of the sufferer. But God has a purpose in it all. He has withdrawn His child to the higher altitudes of fellowship, that he may hear God speaking face to face, and bear the message to those at the mountain foot.”

Meyer concludes his message with this: “There is no short cut to the life of faith, which is the all-vital condition of a holy and victorious life. We must have periods of lonely meditation and fellowship with God. That our souls should have their mountains of fellowship, their valley of quiet rest beneath the shadow of a great rock, their nights beneath the stars, when darkness has veiled the material and silenced the stir of human life, and has opened the view of the infinite and eternal, is as indispensable as that our bodies should have food. Thus, alone can the sense of God’s presence become the fixed possession of the soul, enabling it to say repeatedly, with the Psalmist, ‘You are near, 0 God.’”

If you have never welcomed Jesus into your life as Lord and Savior, I’d invite you to lift the following words in prayer that you may do so. Those who already have a relationship with Christ, may pray these words as well to affirm that blessed reality.

Dear Lord Jesus, I know am a sinner. I am sorry for any sins I have committed— knowingly or unknowingly—against you. I want to turn from my sin and follow you all my days. I believe you died for my sins and I accept your sacrifice in my place. I now come to you and receive you as my Savior and Lord. It is in the name of Jesus I pray. Amen

And now beloved of God, you must build yourselves up in your most holy faith; seek wisdom for the living of these days in God’s Holy Word, the Bible; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

Now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you without blemish before the presence of His glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all ages, now, and forevermore. Amen.

Sources:

Graffagnino, Tom. No Border Land: Finding Grace in a Dark and Dying World. Grand Rapids: Credo House, 2020.

Spurgeon, Charles H. Morning by Morning. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Gambuto, Julio Vincent. “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting.” Medium. 2 April 2020. <https://medium.com/@juliovincent/prepare-for-the-ultimate-gaslighting-6a8ce3f0a0e0>

Wright, Robin. “How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Own Toll.” The New Yorker. 23 March 2020.

<https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-loneliness-from-coronavirus-isolation-takes-its-own-toll>

McDowell, Josh, Bob Hostetler and David H. Bellis. Beyond Belief to Convictions. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2002.

Meyer, F.B. Streams in the Desert. 11 April.

<https://www.crosswalk.com/devotionals/desert/streams-in-the-desert-april-11th.html>

 

 

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A New Pattern

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Here is a devotional message from Streams in the Desert that speaks to how the Lord may “shut us up to something divine” wherein He can show us the “utterly new and unexpected.”

Praying, as you look to Him, you may be opened on to the miraculous!

“Then go inside and shut the door”—2 Kings 4:4

They were to be alone with God, for they were not dealing with the laws of nature, nor human government, nor the church, nor the priesthood, nor even with the great prophet of God, but they must needs be isolated from all creatures, from all leaning circumstances, from all props of human reason, and swung off, as it were, into the vast blue inter-stellar space, hanging on God alone, in touch with the fountain of miracles.

Here is a part in the program of God’s dealings, a secret chamber of isolation in prayer and faith which every soul must enter that is very fruitful.

There are times and places where God will form a mysterious wall around us, and cut away all props, and all the ordinary ways of doing things, and shut us up to something Divine, which is utterly new and unexpected, something that old circumstances do not fit into, where we do not know just what will happen, where God is cutting the cloth of our lives on a new pattern, where He makes us look to Himself.

DFG Hailson audio follows:

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The Reset Button

At the head of this page, you will find a Part One and Part Two of a message entitled, “The Reset Button.” I was having trouble uploading one file, so I made the division. I didn’t quite manage to trim the end of the first file, so—if you keep listening to the end of that—you’ll hear some of my gobbledygook at the end. Sorry about that. I’ll do better the next time.

Here as well is the text of the message.

I’m creating this audio to share with you a message that wonders, in part, if God has pushed a reset button in our day. At the beginning, I am speaking to the congregation I pastor in Cape Neddick, Maine, but the remainder of the message is for all.

I woke this morning to an opinion piece, by David Brooks that was published in the New York Times.

He opened with these words: “It can all seem so meaningless. Some random biological mutation sweeps across the globe, murdering thousands, lacerating families and pulverizing dreams. Life and death can seem completely arbitrary. Religions and philosophies can seem like cruel jokes. The only thing that matters is survival. Without the inspiration of a higher meaning, selfishness takes over. This mind-set is the temptation of the hour—but of course it’s wrong. We’ll look back on this as one of the most meaningful periods of our lives.

“This particular plague is hitting us in exactly the spots where we are weakest and is exposing exactly those ills we had lazily come to tolerate. We’re already a divided nation, and the plague makes us distance from one another. We define ourselves too much by our careers, and the plague threatens to sweep them away. We’re a morally inarticulate culture, and now the fundamental moral questions apply.”

Does it feel to you, as it does to me, like God has pushed a reset button? This time of resetting has found me returning to essential questions and wondering how this pandemic, this plague, might be used of God to call the wayward to the Way, the Truth and the Life who is the Savior Jesus Christ.

So many across the world have turned their backs on God, but perhaps they may now—while there’s time on their hands—perhaps now they’ll turn around. Now that turn around may start with some fist shaking: if you really exist God, if you’re so all-powerful and all-loving, how could you allow this to happen and why don’t you stop it…right now? Have you ever responded like this in years past when personal catastrophes have hit? Why, God? Why?

Why is it so that so often we must come to the end of ourselves before we’ll look to the One who holds the world in His hands, the One who has all the answers? When will we move each question from the Why to the Who?

On August 29, 2005 at 6:10 a.m. Central Daylight Time, Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States as a Category 3 hurricane bringing with it devastating floods, battering winds . . . catastrophic destruction. More than a million people came under evacuation order. Damage in dollars totaled 81 billion; a mere $40.6 billion of which was in insured losses. More than 3,000 deaths were—directly or indirectly—attributed to the storm. More than 400,000 jobs were lost.

The fall-out from the hurricane spilled out all over the United States in terms that were not only physical and material but also emotional and spiritual. Some folks expressed deepening fears about, concerns over, our safety as a nation. One blogger hinted that the storm was God’s answer to the gambling casinos in Biloxi and/or to Southern Decadence Day, an event scheduled in New Orleans for—what turned out to be—the weekend of Hurricane Katrina. Others, of course, saw the event as evidence that we were nearing the end of the end-times, linking the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean in which 200,000 people lost their lives and 9/11 wherein nearly 3,000 died, to the Luke 21:11 prophecy: “There will be great earthquakes, fearful events and great signs from heaven…”

But others wondered how New Orleans could have survived as long as it had, lying well below sea level surrounded by Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico with inadequate levees that were ripe for breaching, just waiting for the right conditions for disaster to be met. The human-made dimensions of the catastrophe, they insisted, had to be recognized in the middle of any discussion of Hurricane Katrina.

Others pointed fingers at the government. President George W. Bush addressed the nation and attempted to assure Americans that elected officials were concerned that people be safe. He also sought to assure the country that healing could be found not only from the losses of life and property but from the divide that was in evidence between the haves and the have nots. Relative to this, the question was asked by one New York Times reporter: “How could self-interested, shortsighted politicians put off reinforcing the levees?” The same reporter also asked, “How could God allow the negligence, racism, indifference or hardheartedness that long gnawed at the social fabric of New Orleans or the blindness or incompetence of officials who should have understood the brewing human storm, as well as the meteorological one?”

Natural disaster? Punishment for sins? A sign that the end is near? Evidence of human folly? A breakdown of leadership? God’s inattention?

Do those questions sound familiar? Does the finger-pointing sound familiar? Aren’t we hearing those same questions, seeing that same finger-pointing in the era of COVID-19?  How do we sort through the realities of evil, pain and suffering in the light of a good, gracious, and giving God? Why does God allow suffering? If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, can’t God stop both moral and natural evil? And, if He can, why doesn’t He?

As Will Reaves noted in a Christian News and Research article: “That these perennial questions arise in response to every tragedy, war, and disaster shows the enduring nature of our doubt and the magnitude of the question.” Both “natural” evil—such as hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, the spread of viruses—and “human” (or moral) evil— such as genocide, terrorism, various forms of injustice, human folly, human selfishness— challenge our ability to make the reality of an omnipotent, loving God sensible in the wake of suffering.

John Stott has said that “the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith.” There is perhaps no greater obstacle to faith than that of the reality of evil and suffering in the world. Even for believing Christians, there is no greater test of faith than this: that the God who loves us permits us, at times, to suffer.

[I should note at this juncture that, in this message, I’ll be looking to scripture, but I’ll also be borrowing liberally from notes I’d taken down in earlier years from articles written by Albert Mohler, Rick Rood, and others. My citations will be incomplete as my notes were incomplete.]

Now, the Bible clearly reveals God as omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). The Creator rules over all creation. Not even a sparrow falls without His knowledge. He knows the number of hairs upon on heads. He rules and reigns over all nations. Not an atom or molecule of the universe is outside His active rule. And the Bible is just as clear in showing God to be absolutely righteous, loving, good, and just.

So…could God prevent natural disasters? Absolutely. Does God respond to prayers regarding the natural world? Of course. One example is recorded in James 5:17 where we read: “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” Another example is found in Mark, chapter 4, where we find Jesus rebuking the wind, ordering the waves to be still, calming the storm.

Does God sometimes cause natural disasters as a judgment against sin? Yes. In the book of Numbers, chapter 16, we read how God caused the earth to open up. He used an earthquake to swallow rebels who had challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron.

Is every natural disaster a punishment from God? No. In Matthew 5:45, we’re told that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

In much the same way that God allows evil people to commit evil acts, God allows the earth to demonstrate the consequences that sin has had on Creation. Again, Romans 8:19-21 tells us: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

In these verses, Paul is looking back to the book of Genesis and reminding us that the fall of humankind into sin had an affect on everything, including the universe we inhabit. Everything in creation is subject to frustration and decay. We live in a fallen world that, like its human inhabitants, is waiting for renewal, waiting for the new heaven, for the new earth. Because of sin, throughout the ages, the world has been tainted. We experience illness, death, disease, natural disasters, all types of suffering.

God created us—not as robots forced to do His will—but as individuals with free will. He wants us to use that will to love Him and to love one another.

So why would a loving and all-powerful God allow the catastrophic—citing, for our purposes here, especially the plague of COVID-19—to occur?

Well, let’s go back to where we just were to a look at the possibilities.

Did this begin as a natural disaster? No, it began because of human folly and then it spread through natural processes. If it continues to spread, knowing as we do now, that social distancing can and does slow its progress, it will continue—in large part—because of human folly.

Can God bring great good out of a terrible tragedy? Romans 8:28 tells us, yes, He can. We may not know the reason for suffering in any given situation. But we can affirm, with relief and joy, that in “all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” The Psalms are full of cries for deliverance from trouble as well as the assurance that God is with us and will deliver us from suffering.

Could God use the COVID-19 plague for divine discipline? The Old and New Testaments make it clear that suffering can be an avenue of God’s discipline in our lives. Hebrews 12:10-11 illustrates this. There we read: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

Is the plague a sign that the end is near? It has been said that we have been in the end times since the days of Jesus. While we are told to be on the watch, we are also commanded not to spend enormous amounts of time speculating on when the end will come.

I don’t know why God would allow the Covid-19 pandemic, and I wouldn’t dare to assert otherwise. God may have a different reason for every individual, every family, every community, every nation, even the world. But, you know, as Charles Spurgeon explained: when we cannot trace God’s hand, we must simply trust His heart.

You might be surprised to learn that when a poll was taken of Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in shelters in the Houston area just days after the storm, eight in ten said that their faith had been strengthened through the ordeal. And 90 percent were hopeful for the future. More than half of their homes had been destroyed. Almost three-fourths didn’t have insurance to cover their losses.

The great hope that we have in the midst of suffering is that, in a way that is beyond our comprehension, God is able to turn evil against itself. And it is because of this truth that we can find joy even in the midst of sorrow and pain. We are even counseled in scripture to rejoice in trial, not because the affliction itself is a cause for joy (it isn’t), but because in it God can find an occasion for producing what is good.

And God is not only aware of our suffering. He feels it. As Paul Little has noted: “No pain or suffering has ever come to us that has not first passed through the heart and hand of God. Christians follow Jesus who the scripture reveals as the “Suffering Servant.” He understands our sorrows. He walks with us in our trials, in our sorrows.

Suffering can provide an opportunity for God to display His glory and to make evident His mercy, faithfulness, power and love, in the middle of painful circumstances. Perhaps you have a testimony to offer in support of that truth. It’s a testimony that must be voiced, that must be shared with those who are struggling in the darkness that is the world apart from Jesus Christ. He does not leave us alone.

As in the case of Job (who was tested through trial after trial and eventually came to offer an outpouring of thanks to the Lord for the lessons learned therein), our faithfulness in trial shows that we serve Him not merely for the benefits He offers, but for the love of God Himself (Job 1:9-11).

Trials also provide an opportunity for followers of Christ to demonstrate their love for others, to compassionately care for those in need. And, as we are comforted by God in our own afflictions, so we are better able to comfort others in theirs. Suffering also plays a key role in developing godly virtues, and in deterring us from sin. Oftentimes, we learn obedience in times of trial.

Suffering can also awaken within us a greater hunger for heaven, for that time when God’s purposes for these experiences will have been finally fulfilled, when we’ll understand far more than we do now, when all tears will be dried, when pain and sorrow shall be no more.

Maxie Dunnam, former president of Asbury Seminary, in a March 26, 2020 presentation to his fellow residents in a retirement community in Tennessee, echoed the poet Rilke in suggesting that we not seek the answers which cannot be given to us, but rather that we live the questions.

We do that, Dunnam says, by first telling God and others how we feel. “That’s especially at the heart of our praying. Tell God and others how you feel. When we do that it reminds us that God is near enough to hear and feel with us, even to hear our complaints. In Psalm 38, the writer, unburdens his soul saying, ‘my heart pounds, my strength fails me, the light has gone from my eyes.’ To express our honest feelings is like a valve that releases all the pent-up tension. Though the burden may still be there, the weight of it diminishes as we name it for what it is and release it to God. The unburdening of our spirits, honestly sharing with God and others, is an expression of trust. The psalmist expressed trust when he prayed, “Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me…Come quickly to help me my Lord and my Savior.’”

Dunnam advises that, “we must flavor our expression of trust with expectation. Our big problem is that we want something different to happen in our lives, but we really don’t expect it to happen…The Bible doesn’t merely hold up the possibility that things may be different; the hope offered by the Bible is that we can fully expect things to be different.”

Another way to live the questions is to “allow the questions to teach us. One lesson is that “life isn‘t fair, but life isn’t God.”

Dunnam reminds us that much of our pain and suffering is brought on by “decisions of unperfected persons exercising God’s gift of freedom in selfish, pleasure-seeking, immediate gratification kind of ways; and the fallout is destructive…But as we live the questions, bearing the pain, experiencing the loss, sharing the sadness—all in the fellowship of sorrow and suffering with others, encompassed by our faith commitment to Christ—the revelation will come in time, good will be recognized and glory will be given to God.”

He closes with this:

“Living the questions teaches us how fragile and how precious life is…Life is fragile and precious. But in a sense, that is a penultimate issue. The ultimate issue is that eternal life is ours through faith in Jesus Christ. Our life-giving hope is to know that our life is not bound by the years we live here, but is boundless because of the gift of eternal life from Jesus Christ. It really is inappropriate to speculate that God is the author of this pandemic; we can trace the human actors and sequence of events that caused it to occur. That said, we must boldly affirm that God reigns over all human activity. Whether He initiated it or permitted it, it is certain that God will be using this Coronavirus for His divine purposes.”

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Less Grumbling, More Gratitude

This message is centered on gratitude, on thankfulness, on the need for us to focus on the positives in our lives, rather than—what we might think of as—the negatives.

I have a couple of stories to share. But we begin first with Philippians, chapter 4, where we read: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. And remember whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things…And the God of peace will be with you.”

First story.

When our first grandchild, Katherine, was born, our daughter Brooke went in search of a second-hand dresser that she could paint for her. At a used furniture shop, Brooke located a two-drawer piece that she thought would work. She painted it all white and then applied a bright yellow to the drawers. In white letters over the yellow, she put the words to a song I had sung to her when she was a little girl: “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”

Katherine is now 10 years old. Two weeks ago, Brooke purchased a new dresser for Katherine, and the old sunshiny one was taken to a local transfer station where Brooke hoped other parents would find it and bring it home for their child or children.

But then, recently, Brooke and Andrew happened to take their youngest boy, four-year-old Gaelen, to the local fire station where there was to be a safety demonstration.

The department had created a simulation of, a model of a child’s room with a bed, stuffed animals, clothing, a lamp, and a toy chest. And there, in the middle of it all, was Katherine’s dresser. The firefighters had found the piece at the transfer station and probably realized the personalized, painted dresser would increase the impact they were hoping to achieve.

Brooke was stunned, shocked, floored…and overcome with heartbreak. She had to leave. She couldn’t bear to see the dresser go up in flames. And she called me immediately because, she said, she knew I would understand. And I did. And I cried with her. So much family history, so much love, so much caring, so much emotion, was in that dresser.

Now, why do I tell you this story in a message about gratitude? Because her heartbreak, my heartbreak, came from a place of love and gratitude. Neither of us could have cared as much—as we did—about that falling-apart, rickety, broken-down dresser if we hadn’t been invested in it, if we hadn’t been grateful for all the blessings it had seen. We couldn’t be heartbroken at its loss, if we hadn’t stored up in our hearts and minds and spirits the memories represented by that dresser. Now, we had a choice. We could stay in that place of heartbreak, and lament the passing of the years, or we could turn to refocus and reframe the moment to give thanks for the blessings the Lord had bestowed upon us over those years.

Gratitude pumps oxygen into our souls and helps us refocus and reframe our days so we can experience more joy and more peace.  Did you happen to notice in the passage from Philippians how anxiety is linked to how we think, where we put our focus. Too often we quote only verses 6 and 7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We don’t go on to verse 8: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things…And the God of peace will be with you.”

I have a confession to make.

Over some months, not all that long ago, I had allowed myself to become so depleted, so discouraged, so drained of energy, so focused on what was wrong, so discontented, that I had become a grumbler. I had become SO worn out, so worn down… I’d become a chronic groaner, a chronic complainer, filled to the brim, filled to the grim, with ingratitude. A grumbling machine.

But then one day, the Lord began to work in me an increasing awareness of my sin of ingratitude, and then He hit me between the eyes with the words of speaker at a conference I attended. I was reminded through these words that ingratitude is one of the great malaises of our society. Ingratitude is a form of idolatry. Some folks believe it’s the real root of all evil, the failure to give God thanks, and it’s tied to what we notice. Do we center on the flaws, the negatives, the missing, on what we think is not quite right? Are we plagued by a spirit of entitlement? Ingratitude can arise when we don’t get the respect, or the money, or the valuing that we think we deserve.

Years ago, author Paul Tournier observed that ‘no gift can bring joy to the one who [believes he] has a right to everything.’ While there is a healthy interpretation of entitlement that is tied to a sense of dignity and equality, when it is exaggerated, it brings continual dissatisfaction and an inability to be thankful for anything. If we think we deserve the gifts and blessings we have received, it is easy for us to become greedy for more benefits and to overlook the needs of others. We may cultivate a capacity not to notice when ‘our benefit has come at someone else’s expense.’ Dissatisfaction as a way of life is encouraged by a consumerist culture that feeds notions of entitlement. We want more, and we want better—better bodies, newer cars, bigger churches, more beautiful homes, finer coffee—a cycle of generalized dissatisfaction fuels envy, striving, and buying.”

Ingratitude can be tied to envy: wanting what someone has and not wanting them to have it. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Envy is sorrow for another’s good.” Henri Nouwen suggests we can only appreciate God’s goodness to others when we appreciate His goodness to us.

And you know what?  Ingratitude is contagious. It can spread and become terribly destructive.

So…what’s the cure? Gratitude. Focusing on the immeasurable goodness of God’s grace. Reframing our lives to center on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Strengthening practices of gratitude. Articulating our blessings. Beginning and ending each day with moments of thankfulness. Modeling thankfulness. Writing notes of affirmation and encouragement. Working to become more adept at celebrating what is good. Catching people at being a gift, and telling them, “You have been God’s grace to me.” Every night at dinner, sharing that for which you’re grateful. Each and every one of these acts adds to a reservoir of grace.

Now, gratitude doesn’t displace lament. There are experiences in our lives that can bring on sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration. But we are helped when times are tough in remembering that we are secure in the Lord. That God is still good, God is still with us, even when, especially when, times are tough. And even lament has elements of hope, promise and grace.

In a recent Streams in the Desert devotional guide was the following poem by Annie Johnson Flint:

They are HIS billows, whether they go o’er us,
Hiding His face in smothering spray and foam;
Or smooth and sparkling, spread a path before us,
And to our haven, bear us safely home.

They are HIS billows, whether for our succor
He walks across them, stilling all our fear;
Or to our cry there comes no aid nor answer,
And in the lonely silence none is near.

They are HIS billows, whether we are toiling
Through tempest-driven waves that never cease,
While deep to deep, with clamor, loud is calling;
Or at His word they hush themselves in peace.

They are HIS billows, whether He divides them,
Making us walk dryshod where seas had flowed;
Or lets tumultuous breakers surge about us,
Rushing unchecked across our only road.

They are HIS billows, and He brings us through them;
So He has promised, so His love will do.
Keeping and leading, guiding and upholding,
To His sure harbor, He will bring us through.

Author and pastor Rick Warren has suggested that, in happy moments, we praise God. In difficult moments, we seek God. In quiet moments, we worship God. In painful moments, we trust God. In every moment, we thank God.

From G.K. Chesterton we have this, “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or you take them with gratitude.”

“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us—and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him.”—Thomas Merton

God’s grace can appear like a blinding flash of lightning, splitting the sky on a dark night. Our gratitude is the thundering response.

The English poet George Herbert was born at the end of the 16th century into a powerful English family. His father held an aristocratic title and sat in Parliament. The son, who was educated at Cambridge and became a favorite of England’s King James I, seemed destined to a life of wealth, prestige, and political prominence before he decided to take orders as an Anglican priest in his mid-thirties. For three years, he labored as a country parson in a tiny parish southwest of London, before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine. “Gratefulness” is part of a collection of poems by Herbert that was published shortly after his death.

He wrote in part:

“Thou that hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.
I cry, and cry again; And in no quiet canst thou be, till I, a thankful heart obtain of thee: Not thankful, when it pleaseth me; As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.”

Hear the Word of the Lord:

Psalm 107:8—Thank God for His marvelous love, for His mercy and wonderful works on our behalf.

First Corinthians 1:4—I thank my God always on your behalf for the grace of God which has been given to you through Jesus Christ.

First Thessalonians 5:16-18—Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4— Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…(And remember) whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things…And the God of peace will be with you.”

From writer Mariel Davenport comes our closing story about resting thankfully in the Lord:

Closing the day as a family, lying on my youngest son’s bed and saying our good-night prayers, my son decided out of the blue that he wanted to pray tonight. This is a rare occurrence for him, especially at bedtime, as he tends to do more wiggling than praying; so we were thrilled at this opportunity to peek into his young heart.

“Thank you, Jesus,” he began, “for my brother, my mommy, my daddy, my house, my friends…oh, and thank you especially for my bunk bed. And, thank you, Jesus, for my toys and for the roof on our house and for our neighbor friends we played with today. Thank you also, for my covers, our food and plates, my cats…” My sweet son must have thanked Jesus for 10 solid minutes! He’s the one who never wants to pray when we do family devotions or bedtime prayers. It was like he was catching up with God. I smiled at the thought.

We finally kissed him and his precious big brother ‘good-night.’ We gently closed the door behind us and left the room.

Not even three minutes passed and we thought we heard our boys calling us, so my husband went to check on them. Everything was fine, but to his surprise our youngest was already sound asleep! My husband examined him closely, and sure enough the little guy was out. He had unloaded on Jesus and now was peacefully off to dreamland!

As I pondered his approach, Psalm 55:22 rolled over in my mind. “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you…” My young son had the faith to pour his little heart out to God in thanksgiving, for even the smallest treasures, and now could rest secure in the love of the Father. I wondered why I often fail to do the same.

Why do we allow the spirit of discontentment to rob us of true thankful rest in the Father’s care? Why do we focus too often on what we lack rather than what we have? This little one was able (for the moment) to glance around at his life and overflow in thankfulness for a God who abundantly provides.

Colossians 2:6-7 urges believers to do the same, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” What a beautiful example of this was demonstrated in living color through this little boy. He had absorbed the blessings around him to the point he could no longer contain them in his little heart. He spilled over with thankfulness and that thankfulness unveiled the lack of thankfulness in my own weary soul.

Too often, burdened by the cares of the world and life in general, we can focus on the negative rather than pouring out words of praise and thanksgiving to our God. Based on the example of this little one, I am seeking to empty pitchers of praise before the feet of my Heavenly Father.

In this season of Thanksgiving,  let’s be sure our focus is on praise and the positive, let us allow our own often weary hearts to be led by a child as we thank our faithful God for the many blessings around us… both big and small. Then we can rest peacefully in His care!

 

 

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.

 

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.

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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).

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/