Thursday, May 31, 2012

Recent Eclipse...Outside of the Box


Many of you may have seen some beautiful photos of the eclipse last week...just before sunset on the skyline.  Here is a view of the moon's shadow (top center) cast upon the earth as viewed from a satellite.  I thought it was an interesting perspective...

Blessings, Don

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Spiritual Recidivism


Behind Bars...In Chains...and Okay With It.  When seeing this statement, one might immediately think of Paul and Silas in prison in Acts 16, but this is not the case. Paul and Silas were truly at peace in their prison experience, because they knew the Lord was in control. Paul was familiar with being in bonds or chains…and endured it willingly for the sake of the cause of His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I have often wondered what it would have been like to be the guard who was chained to Paul…don’t you think he had a story or two to tell? :-)

Actually, I am writing for another reason. It is no secret...prison inmates have a difficult time staying out of prison after they have been released. Estimates vary...but one, accepted by many, says three out of four commit another crime or break parole and end up behind bars again. This is called “recidivism.” Why do released prisoners do this? Many of these men and women know how to get back into prison…what they don’t know is how to stay out. It is not a mystery as to why they keep going back in — often multiple times. It may to do with drugs, or with the rush of pulling off a robbery...but it truly is complicated by the fact that many have inadequate coping skills when it comes to living life "on the outside." In many cases, this is what these individuals have grown accustomed to…there is a significant comfort associated with it. Prison has become their life and they do not want to know anything different. Such individuals need to understand that they can actually be in a better place once they leave prison behind. Yet, this isn’t going to happen automatically -- there needs to be counseling, training, and conditioning.

The irony is that there are significant spiritual parallels. I was in prison for many years, spiritually. It wasn’t a prison with bars, but it was one that held my heart – it was a bondage to religious forms and traditions. I would try to escape it, only to find myself stuck back in the same situation. The primary motivation was fear – fear of being wrong…fear of offending someone or something…fear of the unknown. I thank the Lord for His grand and genuine deliverance not only from sin, but from this fear. He has replaced the fear with faith, hope and love…and I am ever grateful for this. Such fear leads to legalism, and legalism just perpetuates fear…and much of it is due to poor interpretation and to poor traditions in many places. If there is one thing that my particular fellowship of believers has struggled with, it is being regulated to death. In many places, there are so many rules, that those imposing them have, as Jesus said to the religious leaders of His day, “made void the Word of God” (Matthew 15:6) as far as its effectiveness in the life of a believer.

I wish I was making this up…but, I have known many Christians who have yearned for freedom from such negative attitudes and practices, and some of these individuals have even sniffed the fresh winds of spiritual freedom, only to be intimidated by certain ones...motivated by fear…to come back into the “spiritual prison.” Like those who go back to literal prison, many believers who yearn for freedom to be loose from the chains of whatever is holding them captive, simply cannot get away from what is comfortable…what it is that they know -- it is "spiritual recidivism." It is a hard and challenging matter to truly step out and be challenged by faith’s call to freedom. Satan confuses people's minds and convinces them do everything in their power to stay remain "in control."  Satan does not want spiritually vibrant Christians going about taking the message of Christ to those whom he already has, so he just convinces sit comfortably in the boat -- don’t rock it…to stay off the mountain – don’t climb it…to be content with the answers – don’t question it. As long as we are complacent in our comfort zone, as it relates to our presuppositions, faulty beliefs, traditions and the like, we are not going to grow, but be held captive…captive in a prison not made with bars, but a spiritual one of our own choosing. I hope and pray that more and more believers will come to understand what it is to be set free in Christ to truly experience freedom to be responsible to hold to God’s principles…not out of sense of duty or ought...but from the love that God grows in each one of us.

Blessings, Don

Walking with the Spirit (Considering Galatians), Pt. 3


As I shared at the end of the last message, the letter to the Galatians could have been concluded at the end of chapter two, such is the grand climax there.  Yet, Paul is not fact, he is really just getting started in his message to them.  Paul begins this chapter in a shocking way, continuing with some strong words, (as we have seen earlier) -- "You foolish Galatians.  Who has bewitched you?"  Why does Paul say this at this point?  It is because there is so much at stake, and Paul realizes just how important it is that he not only make his case, but that he win it, for the sake of the Galatian Christians.  He has to garner their attention.  He must, by the power of the Holy Spirit, convince the Galatians of the false nature of the Judaizers' teaching.  He must also convince them of the true spiritual nature of the Christian walk. 

He begins his introduction concerning what should be the genuine spiritual reality for the Galatian well as for all Christians.  It has to do with the Holy Spirit sent to them when they believed and were converted to Christ.  The reality is that it is the Holy Spirit who helps them to understand spiritual life and is not the law, and it is not their own human reasoning or understanding, either.  In fact, as we will see in the next chapter, the law hinders, squelches believers' understanding of the Spirit...and the leadership of the Spirit Himself.  This runs contrary to the message that the Judaizers have been giving to the Galatians.  They have been proclaiming that true spirituality comes from understanding Christ and the law, but this is not the case, as Paul has already shared.  The regulations that the Judaizers are enforcing are hindering their spiritual walk and the Galatians' walk, as well.  Once again, it is how the Spirit helps to develop our relationship with the Son and the fruit that is born in our lives as the result that is going to make the genuine spiritual difference in our lives (which we will discuss further in chapter five).  Believers are made alive according to what the Spirit is doing in their lives, which is a prominent theme seen in the letter to the Romans, the Corinthian correspondence, and in other places, as well.

The irony that Paul is making "a legal argument" in order to prove the critical importance of spiritual freedom in Christ is not lost on me :-)...and I am certain that it was not lost on him either.  But it is important...and he appeals to Abraham in order to make his case.  Paul stresses that Abraham was justified by his faith, and not law.  Why is this?  It is because Abraham was living according to faith in God before the law even existed.  Paul says that the Gentiles are justified by faith, just as Abraham was justified by faith.  It is a message that never changed...justification was never intended to be through the law, all it could do was be a teacher and a revealer of who people truly were -- sinful people in need of forgiving God (v.19).  The law did not replace the covenant that God made with Abraham...the covenant of promise through Isaac, that all mankind would ultimately be saved through Abraham's Seed.   It pointed toward the Seed, Jesus Christ.  Indeed, justification has been, and is according to faith, and this thought is captured in v.14, "He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit."  As if this was not enough information to win the argument, Paul goes to their own Scriptures to pull the trump card for his argument.  He appeals to their own law in order to show that justification is by faith and not the law.  Paul quotes from Deuteronomy, Leviticus, as well as Habakkuk in order to make his case.  (Once again, it is important to understand that Paul knew the law better than most, if not all, of these Judaizers. Some of them probably had even sat at Paul's feet to learn about the law at one time.  He likely knew the subject that he was discussing better than anyone, which would have been impressive in its own way). 

Paul concludes his argument by saying that if the law was able to bring life, then justification could have come by means of it.  But, instead, he says that that the law made men prisoners -- there could be no spiritual justification.  And it is no different today.  Christians cannot be justified by keeping law, regulations any more than the Galatian believers.  Our justification is in the same Seed, Jesus Christ, as it was for the early believers.  In fact, holding on to traditions, regulations too tightly makes believers into prisoners just the same as it did them.  The Judaizers were putting the Galatians into a "spiritual prison," and there are church leaders, teachers today that do the very same thing.  Spiritual freedom is a powerful principle...and it is frightening to those who have tasted it, but have not grasped it.  It leads to what I call "spiritual recidivism."  Often when a prisoner leaves prison, he will commit a crime that lands him right back in prison.  This is his comfort zone, or his "law" if you will.  When believers begin to get a whiff of..."spiritual freedom in Christ," Satan attackes with a mighty, negative spiritual version of "the fear factor," which causes said believers to retreat.  This makes it very difficult for genuine spiritual seekers to get any real understanding in relationship to spiritual freedom.  In fact, many of these people go to other places, that is churches, in order to find it.   It doesn't help that there is usually a tremendous peer pressure that comes from people who are like-minded in their "recidivism," that is if they have ever tasted freedom in the first place. The fear factor is very strong, as anyone who might "think or do something outside of the accepted uniformity standard" is reprimanded for such thinking or behavior.  In short, they are brought right back into prison.  As Paul says, someone has to break the cycle...the model must be broken and thrown away.  We must be able to taste of freedom, or our spiritual growth will be stunted, if it even is able to exist at all.  The Spirit of God sets us free, but we must be willing to trust by faith to live according to His guidance in order to break out of the prison of self-righteousness, regulation.

Blessings, Don

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Living and Ministering from Victory


Much of 2 Corinthians unfolds like a drama, because much of what Paul was dealing with in his ministry was quite dramatic.  In 2:12-17, Titus is sent to Corinth with a “severe letter” from Paul.  Paul is in Ephesus (Acts 19:22b) after a brief, painful visit to Corinth -- these are not happy times.  Paul then leaves Ephesus for all likelihood because of the Demetrius riot (Acts 19:23-20:1).  He already has been planning to leave Ephesus because he wants to meet Titus in Troas.  There are supposed to be great opportunities for ministry in Troas…"open doors" from the Lord, as it says.  In the big picture, the evangelistic work should proceed for some months in Troas.  Paul figures that he will be joined by Titus before long, but as the months pass with no news from Titus (he couldn’t get to his e-mail or Facebook, apparently :-), Paul has no peace.  He may have open doors, but no peace in his heart to walk through them.  Because of his concern for Titus and the difficulties involved, Paul is under great stress, particularly because of his inability to move the gospel forward there.  Paul trusts in the Lord in all that he is doing, so he decides to go to Macedonia where he hopes to meet Titus.  Yet, once again, Paul is forced to change his plans.  Even though he leaves unfinished work, he has faith that he is keeping integrity in doing the right thing (see Romans 8:28).  He is finally able to have a happy reunion with Titus in Macedonia.  Paul also receives encouraging news from Corinth, which brings him relief (7:5-16).

The good news is that the Corinthians respond favorably (at first) to his “severe letter.”  Paul sees it as a vindication of his apostleship as grace is working...literally "triumphing" the hearts of the Corinthian believers.  He shares a “triumph” metaphor (v.14)…which would not be unlike Jesus’ triumphal entry or a parade of Roman soldiers with the emperor after victory in battle.  Roman priests would carry burning incense to pay tribute to the victorious army.  The incense would affect people differently.  To the soldiers…it represented life and victory, but to the conquered enemy…it meant defeat and death.  Continuing with the image of incense, Paul pictures Christian ministry.  He sees believers as giving forth the fragrance of Christ in their lives…or as one of my professors shared one time, “We are to be smelly Christians.”  Well, you get the point.  Christian life and ministry affects people in different ways...for some it is a blessing, while for others it is a curse.  In this, the way that we live and work...our aroma...may very well mean life or death to those who need Christ.  Paul, the apostles…all Christians…benefit in Christ’s victory (Romans 8:37).  We are able to live and work from victory, rather than to victory...and this perspective is significant in our struggle to live the abundant life for Jesus. 

Paul concludes his message here to the Corinthians by saying that his motive is sincere and his heart is pure in his preaching and teaching.  He feels it is necessary to defend his apostleship, because he is continually being put on the defensive by false believers.  There are Jewish Christians who are burdening him, as well as innocent believers, with the need to keep regulations and traditions that hinder a relationship with Jesus.  He is willing to tell the Corinthians (and others...including us) of the unhindered life-giving remedy for sin, and they must do the same.  They can no longer take things for granted, but be purposeful in their pursuit of spiritual living.  As Jesus would say, we need to keep our “saltiness.”  We need to be a positive influence on those around us.  Our living for Christ propels our spiritual opportunity for growth, so we must be purposeful in how we live…our priorities must be in the right place.

Steve Smith shares this -- There was once a farmer who went to town to purchase seeds for his farm. As he was returning home one of the squash seeds he had purchased fell from his pocket onto the ground.  It happened that within a few feet was another seed of a different type. The place where the two seeds lay was rather fertile, and miraculously they took root.  After about a week the squash seed showed signs of growth. The second seed showed none. After two weeks the squash began to sprout leaves. The second seed showed none.  After seven weeks the squash began to show fruit. The second seed still showed no progress. Four more weeks came and gone.  The squash plant reached the end of its life bearing much fruit in that time, but the other seed finally began to slowly grow.  Many years later, the squash was all but forgotten, but the other tiny seed, an acorn, had grown into a mighty oak tree.  So many people want their faith to be like the squash. They want to experience it all right now.  But, spiritual training requires hard work and anything worthwhile does.  I had a conversation with a young person this week.  She was frustrated because God was not giving her what she wanted.  I do understand that feeling, and I am certain that you do as well.  We tend to want things in our time and according to our way...we allow our self, struggles, and sin to get in the way of our growth.  In our impatience, we do not understand that what God has in mind for us is something so much better.  As we grow older we better understand this, but even still, we are not perfect.  We have times where self and impatience want to run us down the wrong road. We need to cultivate a spirit of persistence, patience and endurance as we grow through life.  Paul probably knew this better than anyone…and he had to exercise it, as at perhaps no other time, than when he is dealing with the Corinthian believers.

We need to be purposeful in our living.  It seems like it is easy to get distracted by stress, struggles, and busyness from things that really matter.  It is probably not because we are being purposefully negligent…but, the evil one has ways of "lulling us to sleep", spiritually, even when we think we may be “doing just fine.”  We need to draw strength from the Lord and from each other through studying together, praying together, and fellowshipping together.  It is what helps the body to prosper and grow.  We need to continue “to be salty,” and “to be smelly”…in the right, spiritual manner, of course :-).  Continue to glorify God in your life through recognizing godly principles and practices…claiming, living and speaking victory in the name of the Lord!

Blessings, Don

(*Note...will return to the Galatians series later in the week).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Fascinating Little Graphic


Even though oceans cover 70% of the earth's surface, they are quite shallow in comprarison to the radius of the earth.  The image below (with credit to Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Howard Perlman, USGS) shows what would happen if all of the water on the surface of the Earth, relative to it's depth, was rolled up into a ball.  It would be able to fit easily in relationship to the area of the U.S...amazing. 

Blessings, Don

Monday, May 7, 2012

An Excerpt Concerning Spiritual Freedom (That Is So True)


I read an article recently by preacher, author, public speaker and friend, Al Maxey that is a very good summary of why people struggle to exit places where they have been bound spiritually.  I can especially appreciate his final two sentences, as I have experienced the same.

Blessings, Don

Here is the message from "Unchained, but Conflicted" --

"A significant aspect of the ministry of any spiritual leader who is involved in proclaiming freedom in Christ is helping those liberated from the bonds of legalism to learn to feel free. Until the reality of their position penetrates their psyche, their inner man may continue for a time to experience the fears and frustrations associated with their former state. Over the decades of my ministry (which is approaching the four decade mark), I have received countless letters, emails, phone calls and visits from people who, although physically removed from the sectarians who had shackled them spiritually, continued to experience emotional discomfort and even despair. While free in fact, they nevertheless didn't yet feel free. It's like the POW who, after returning to his homeland and family, may still find himself looking continually over his shoulder, reacting negatively to certain sounds or smells, and experiencing random moments of terror. Removing one from a source of tyranny is only half the journey to freedom; removing the sense of tyranny from the one liberated is the other half. In my ministry I actually spend more time on the latter than the former."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Walking with the Spirit (Considering Galatians), Pt. 2


When we come to chapter 2, Paul continues with his theme concerning dealing with false brethren.  Paul is sensitive to the issues of the day, having gone to Jerusalem some years before in order to minister to, visit with the Jewish Christians.  So, even though he has a mission to the Gentiles, he continues to establish that he was not ignoring the Jewish brethren.  He is fully invested in the cause of Christ to all peoples, races, and religions.  It is interesting that Paul insists that Titus not be circumcised at this time (v.3), because as we know, in Acts 16:3, Paul has Timothy circumcised, because it was important in relationship to his ministry to the Jews.  Here, Paul is not going to give in to the Judaizers who are insisting that circumcision is necessary in order to be a "true Christian" as they saw it.  Paul understands what is at stake, and if Titus is circumcised, it will give weight to the Judaizers' argument.  They could say, "see, Paul is giving in to us."

Paul continues with his strong speech, using a military expression in reference to the activities of the Judaizers.  He says that they had "inflitrated our ranks and were spying on us."  It is apparent that some of these Judaizers had been following Paul around and were making his life difficult.  At this point, the battle is on...and Paul is not going to lose.  What are the Judaizers spying on?  Paul says "their freedom in Christ."  This is very significant.  The Judaizers are trying to rob them and others of their spiritual freedom, their opportunity to grow in relationship with Christ Jesus...and this, by insisting that all believers keep the Jewish regulations (see last chapter).  Paul understands just how critical it is that he win the battle against the Judaizers, because there is much at stake...the souls of believers.  Paul talks about this subject of "spiritual freedom" throughout this letter, and particularly 5:1, because he knows that being in bondage is a bad place to be...whether physically or spiritually (and he would know). 

Paul is blessed to work with a number of fellow-workers who helped him in his ministry efforts, and some of them are mentioned in this middle section of this chapter.  Some of the ministry that they are undertaking is of great importance.  Many New Testament writers talk about how critical it is to take care of the poor.  Paul makes certain that this ministry is taking place.  He even may have had conversations with James, the brother of Jesus, concerning the issue, as James prominently mentions the subject in his letter (James 1:27).  One of those who worked with Paul was the apostle Peter.  It is shocking to see what happens as Paul says that he opposed Peter to his face, because of his hypocrisy.  It is apparent that Peter had given in to some "peer pressure" and went along with some of the Judaizers in their condemnation of the Gentile Christians for not adhering to the Jewish religious system.  We can understand the powerful impact of such pressure, as Paul even mentions that  Barnabas, "the Son of Encouragement," is led astray.  This is certainly a good lesson for people to pay attention to today.  This is all the more remarkable considering that in Acts 11:1-8, Peter shares an important message with the Jewish Christians concerning how the unhindered gospel needs to be taken to the Gentile Christians.  This experience has to be an important life lesson for Peter, as well as for Paul.

The whole letter could very easily have been concluded with the climax at the end of the chapter, where Paul shares the popular and meaningful statement, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!"  (Galatians 2:20-21, NIV)  The point he makes is critical and poignant -- we have our spiritual and eternal justification by faith, not according to law or regulations.  The Galatian believers have to come back to this understanding.  It is not Jesus plus is Jesus period, exclamation point! Life and godliness is about living according to faith in and having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Everything spiritually necessary is appropriated from this.

Once again there are alot of "well-meaning" Christians today that believe that we can be justified in Christ as long as we also keep certain "tightly observed" regulations.  And once again, what we come to understand with the believers in the first is not going to help people to be more righteous, rather it can hinder, perhaps even destroy, their walk with the Lord.   But, it is more complicated than that, because there are also some believers today who are just as militant as the Judaizers in the early church who "seek to take away the freedoms" of spiritual brethren.  These brethren do "spy on" and otherwise create havok for Christians, particularly of the younger set....and do not exhibit the Spirit of Christ in their attitudes or behaviors.  They often will write about certain popular speakers, preachers in their newsletters, publications, because they do not believe that these people are "staying true to the (their) cause," that is, keeping what they believe are the "understood" brotherhood norms or regulations.  In actuality, such popular preachers are truly living according to the Spirit and to their faith-full calling.  They share messages that help bring light and life into the spirit of believers.  What is grievous, though, is that many times, truly spiritual seekers become discouraged and leave our fellowship, or leave the body altogether.  This is often because they have dared to disagree with some "regulation(s)" or have promoted some good thought or work that "isn't it line with some particular group's list of do's and don'ts" (and there are usually many more don'ts than do's).  I have seen it happen all to often. 

We cannot do good enough or be good enough in order to gain salvation in any respect.  It is only because of the blood of Jesus and our connection with it through conversion that we are able to experience salvation.  Then rest of the other religious matters sorts themselves out.  If we have or keep the proper perspective, and recognize principle #1, "Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself" then we are not going to allow rules and regulations to be masters, but servants...which is where they need to be.

Blessings, Don