Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Journey of Joy


We certainly do not have an understanding of what lies ahead of us on the journey of life.  This is why we seek to walk by faith and not by sight.  I believe that our friends, Eddy and Jenny, may understand this better than a lot of folks, given what their family has been through in this past week (and over the last several weeks).  They knew that their grandson, Paxton, was going to have surgery to fix a hole in his heart.  But, once again, as it is with surgery…and as it is with much of life…we often do not understand what is taking place on the journey, just that we must trust in Him who can and will guide us on the way.  As the doctors, nurses and surgeons prepared to do surgery on Paxton, they discovered that the little man had another small complication that needed to be repaired.  Thankfully, all of this was able to be accomplished, and without any difficulty.  And now Paxton and family are recovering from the ordeal. 

But, what do the Ross’, their kids, and others gain from such an experience…an increasing faith and trust in the Lord that brings joy.  Is it any different when we experience situations in our lives that do not go as we have planned?  (And most of us have been there).  The hope is the same, as we remain focused on the goal of living by faith.  And the experience can and should be the same…that we can experience the joy and peace that the Holy Spirit brings into our lives.  We may not always understand or have answers as to why or why not a certain situation or experience takes place the way that it does, but trusting in Him who is in control is what is able to unleash joy for us on our journey.  And this is precisely what Jesus wants His disciples to understand in this section of John’s gospel (16:16-22).  All of their cumulative experiences with Jesus…the good and the bad…are intended to teach and train them to be His servant-people so that they can experience joy on their journey with and for Him.

This section of John deals primarily with some of the emotional struggles that the disciples are enduring.  Some of them are sorrowful because of Jesus’ words that He will be leaving them…others of them are simply confused…and yet others are afraid.  These disciples were real people with real feelings, and yet, Jesus was able to use them…which gives all of us hope, doesn’t it?  All of God’s servants have been ordinary people tasked with living according to extraordinary faith, purpose.  One of the recurring themes in this section is “joy.”  The disciples are not experiencing a whole lot of joy at this point, but Jesus wants them to understand that “joy” does not come in spite of our circumstances, but because of them.  Jesus’ illustration of the woman giving birth to the child makes this clear.  The same baby that caused immense pain also is cause for great joy!   He uses whatever situations we are dealing with to transform us into being His people in a better way.  Much like the child that comes to expect a new toy if one is broken, we cannot mature spiritually if someone is always substituting things in our lives in order to make us or keep us happy.  Transformation is able to accomplish what substitution is unable to do.  God is able to take seemingly impossible situations, add the miracle of His grace, and transform trials into triumphs and sorrows into joys.  Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave, and Potiphar put him into prison as a criminal…but, God transformed that hopeless situation into victory.  And there are dozens of others stories in the Word of God that we love, because we learn of the victory of grace and faith in people’s lives…including Jesus death on a cruel cross, burial and resurrection from the dead.

Jesus often uses figures of speech when He is making statements to the disciples, and verse 16 is such a case.  It has to be perplexing to them.  At the same time, He wants them to seek, to question…to grow.  He is likely speaking of His upcoming death, but also of the hope that they would experience in His resurrection.  It also could be that He is speaking of His ascension, and they would all soon give their lives for His kingdom, and they all will go to join Him.  Either way, the hope and joy of His disciples will be fulfilled by His presence.  This is the way it is intended to be.  The religious and the political leaders of that time expected that Christianity would die out, but such was not the case.  Jesus sends His Holy Spirit to them (and to us, His church), in order to continue to live and share the truth of the gospel.  There is no doubt that the world did not want Jesus then, and it does not want Him now. But, while the bridegroom is away, the bride longs for Him to return and take her home.  We who are in Christ await His return, as He shares with the disciples back in chapter 14:11…He goes away, only to return and bring those who belong to Him home with Him.  So, the immediate message He shares is with His sorrowing disciples, but the ultimate application is for all of God’s people…that there may be trials and tribulations that we face on the journey, but it is ultimately for “the joy set before us” as well.  While we work and wait, the process of transformation continues for each of us, that we become more like the Son.  And as we seek Him, we will grow and mature to be who it is that He wants us to be.

At first I saw God as my observer, my judge, keeping track of the things I did wrong, so as to know whether I merited heaven or hell when I die. He was out there sort of like the president. I recognized His picture when I saw it, but I didn’t really know Him. But later on when I recognized this Higher Power, It seemed as though life was rather like a bike ride, but it was a tandem bike, and I noticed that God was in the back helping me pedal. I don’t know just when it was that he suggested we change places, but life has not been the same since—life with my Higher Power, that is. God makes life exciting! But when He took the lead, it was all I could do to hang on! He knew delightful paths, up mountains and through rocky places—and at breakneck speeds. Even though it looked like madness, he said, “Pedal!” I worried and was anxious and asked, “Where are you taking me?” He laughed and didn’t answer, and I started to learn trust. I forgot my boring life and entered into adventure. When I’d say, “I’m scared,” He’d lean back and touch my hand. He took me to people with gifts that I needed, gifts of healing, acceptance, and joy. They gave me their gifts to take on my journey, our journey, God’s and mine. And we were off again. He said, “Give the gifts away; they’re extra baggage, too much weight”…so I did, to the people we met, and I found that in giving I received, and our burden became light. At first I did not trust Him in control of my life. I thought He’d wreck it. But He knows bike secrets—knows how to make it lean to take sharp corners, dodge large rocks, and speed through scary passages. And I am learning to shut up and pedal in the strangest places. I’m beginning to enjoy the view and the cool breeze on my face with my delightful constant Companion. And when I’m sure I just can’t do any more, He just smiles and says, “Pedal!” -- James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) pp. 247-248.

Jesus shares some words in 10:10 that fit with what he is sharing here, that His disciples should “live the spiritual life and live it abundantly.”  This is a message that is not far from me…much like “live a life worthy of your calling.” (Ephesians 4:1).  Why do these have appeal?  It is because they keep us honest.  They help us to realize in the spiritual battle that we not only have hope, but a continual obligation and challenge.  Jesus wanted His disciples to understand -- even though they did not understand much of anything…they needed to trust in Him.  It is no less with us.  As the Hebrews writer shares (12:1), we need to continue to put aside all of the things that seek to bind us and hold us back spiritually…and press on toward the goal of eternal life.  This perspective should help to keep us honest. If we have made a commitment to Jesus that He is Lord (Master, Ruler of our lives), then we need to be certain that it is so.  And if it is so, will be able to fully appreciate and experience the joy in the journey that He and the Spirit have in store for us…now, and forevermore. 

Blessings, Don

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Broussard Under Fire


I have been concerned for Chris Broussard since he made his statement in favor of Biblical truth in relationship to the Jason Collins story a couple of weeks ago.  I have thought he might lose his job, which would be unfortunate, because he is one of the better analysts at ESPN.  I want to share the following article from a Huff Post story released today in relationship to the recent Collins story -- "ESPN president John Skipper believes that the network made 'one mistake' in covering Jason Collins' announcement that he was gay. According to Skipper, who spoke with reporters in New York this week, that mistake involved NBA reporter Chris Broussard's comments about homosexuality during a controversial segment of ESPN's 'Outside The Lines.' Just hours after Collins became the first active athlete to come out in any major U.S. team sport, Broussard referred to homosexuality as an 'open rebellion to God.'"  There is more said concerning how disappointed (that is, opposed) the network is with Broussard's statement, but I think the point is understood.

What is taking place in our culture is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to have an "open dialogue" concerning any number of subjects...including a subject that is as complicated as the one in question.  I do believe Chris Broussard has every right to his opinion, and he should be able to express it.  ESPN has a significant bias in this case, which is their choice.  However, it is not a "sin" to take an opposing view and to express those beliefs...even if it is not in line with the political correctness of the network.  This is another example of how far off-center some in our society have become (particularly in the media) in efforts to pursue "reverse discrimination" of those with Christian beliefs, in particular, and any opinion opposed to the "militant opinion" being expressed by any number of special interest groups, in general. As one philosopher has shared..."I may not have a solution, but I certainly can admire the problem." 

Blessings, Don

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cultural Relevance


The following is an article written by Ed Stetzer a few years.  It is an article regarding cultural relevance with regard to the church...that is still culturally relevant. It is a bit lengthy, but hang with it -- it is worth it.  :-)

Blessings, Don

The scriptures are relevant to this and every culture. They do not need updating, correcting, or revisioning. On the contrary, what needs revisioning is our understanding and obedience to God’s word as we live out His mission in context. When we live a humble orthodoxy and humble missiology, we will be salt and light in contemporary culture—a biblically-faithful, culturally-relevant, counter culture. 

On the one hand, the church can be so focused on cultural relevance that it loses its distinctive message. Don’t think it won’t happen—it has happened to countless churches and denominations. On the other hand, it can decide that culture does not matter. That leads to a church whose message is indiscernible and obscure to those who are “outside.” Let me propose an alternative: our churches need to be biblically faithful, culturally relevant, counter-culture communities.  Not everyone buys into what I’ve just said. Whole ministries exist just to tell you not to pay attention to culture. To them, a virtuous church is one that is culturally irrelevant. In their view, a mark of holiness is not just being disconnected from sin but also being disconnected from sinners and the culture they share with us every day.

Preaching against culture is like preaching against someone’s house—it is just where they live. The house has good in it and bad in it. Overall, culture can be a mess—but (to mix metaphors) it is the water in which we swim and the lens through which we see the world. And the gospel needs to come, inhabit, and change that and every culture (or house).  Preaching against culture is not the pattern of the New Testament church (see Dean Fleming’s Contextualization in the New Testament), the historic church (see Ruth Tucker’s From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya), or today’s church (see Breaking the Missional Code).

Culture clearly does matter! For 2000 years, missionaries have courageously sought to take the message and make it understandable. Through these two millennia, changing cultures have impacted the church and its missional strategies. Conversely, in many cases, the church has also impacted culture. The reason ministry models have to change is because they have an unchanging message that must be conveyed in a changing world. That message is Christ, the gospel, and the Scriptures. Jude 3 says that we are to “contend for the faith once delivered for the saints.” That’s essential.

But, the Bible also clearly gives us a mandate to make the message understandable. We do more than just translate it into a language. We also have to translate it into a culture. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, “I have become all things to all men.” Why? Because the message needs to be contextualized. The “how” of ministry is, in many ways, determined by the “who, when, and where” of culture. That’s also essential.  We have to both contend and contextualize. This brings a balanced focus in our proclamation and practice. When we contend for the gospel, we remain biblically faithful. When we contextualize, we communicate the message effectively. When we contend and contextualize, our churches are biblically faithful, culturally relevant, counter culture communities.

Those who preach against culture are often unaware that they live in one. But the dynamic culture around them is often not the culture of their church. What they yearn for is typically not a scriptural culture, but rather a nostalgic religious culture of days past. The irony of this is that every church is culturally relevant. It is simply a matter of whether the culture of the church is in any way similar to the culture of its community or only meaningful to itself.

Contextualizing does not mean that your church needs to look like Northpoint (Atlanta) or Mosaic (LA). It may mean something very different, and a culturally relevant church in your community may look very different from culturally relevant churches in other communities. Yet, many of us miss that. Why? Because too many leaders pastor their churches in their heads and not in their communities. But the truth is, if you can’t pastor the people God has given you (not the ones He’s given Andy Stanley or Erwin McManus), then you don’t love them. John Knox said, “Give me Scotland or I die.” He had a passion for the people of Scotland. We need to have the same passion for the people where we are, and to love them and their culture (though parts of every culture should make you uneasy and call for a biblical critique—see Acts 17 and my message from The Resurgence conference).  The alternative to this kind of passion is “community lust” and “demographic envy.” Lots of pastors are lusting for someone else’s community. They want a church that is culturally relevant to Los Angeles, Seattle, or New York even though they live in Des Moines, Iowa. But that’s not the answer.

Biblically FaithfulBefore anything else, the church and its ministry must be biblically faithful. A lot of great conferences on creativity and ministry are helpful. But, we need to remember that our purpose is to apply that creativity in biblically and culturally relevant ways. The reason we engage culture is not to be cool, trendy, contemporary, or cutting edge—words that have become idols to us—but so that those who live in culture can hear the message of Jesus. That message is more than just “come to Christ,” it involves how we live and structure our lives, and it matters deeply. Our churches should share the gospel message wherever they are and whatever their cultural context. They should be known as people who love God’s Word and seek to live differently because of it.

Culturally RelevantChurches that are biblically faithful to Gods mission will work to relate to people in culture. We who are Christians should look similar to, but not be identical to, our culture. If we dont, people will assume that being a Christian simply means being different—dressing differently, listening to different music styles, and voting the same way. They’ll confuse Christianity with a change of clothes, music, and political party registration. That means that Christians should use language, dress, and live life in the “house” of culture, while living differently because they are in the family of God.

Counter CultureJesus said that we should be in the world but not of the world. Many churches today do just the opposite. They are “of” the world but not “in” it. We must teach people to look similar to the world, but live differently. Most churches in the U.S. today do just the opposite.  For example, born—again Christians divorce at a higher rate than the unchurched, while many of their church services feel like a trip to a museum. It’s like going back to a time when culture was more “holy” and divorce was unheard of. Today, we’ve kept the museum culture but jettisoned the biblical morality—the wrong choice. Rather, Christians should be counter culture—in family life, values, finances, and every other aspect of their lives. They should reflect their culture while living in contrast to that culture.

Why, if we have the timeless truth of the gospel, do we need to concern ourselves with culturally relevant ministry? Because if we don’t, the message of the gospel gets confused with the cultures of old. The unchurched think that Christianity is a retrograde culture rather than a living faith. Our job is to remove the “extra” stumbling blocks of culture without removing the essential stumbling block of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:23). Unfortunately, the stumbling block of the cross has too often been replaced by the stumbling block of the church. Most people aren’t being recruited by other religions; they are being confused by the practice of ours.

The easy route is to go to a conference, read a book, and create a great church “in your head”—a cutting edge, cool, trendy, and contemporary church. But the biblical route is found in Paul’s activities in Acts 17. Wander through your Athens. Look at the cultural idols. Let this break your heart and burden your mind. Let godly passion drive you to say “Give me Athens or I die.” Then confidently take the gospel to those who’ll see its uncluttered message, trust its validity, and receive its Savior—Jesus Christ.

Ed Stetzer serves as the Missiologist and Senior Director of the Center for Missional Research at the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, GA and co-pastor of Lake Ridge Church in suburban Atlanta. His most recent books are Breaking the Missional Code (w/ David Putman, 2006) and Planting Missional Churches (2006).  

Friday, May 3, 2013

Religion of the Heart


A man relied upon an experienced guide while crossing a dangerous African swamp.  The two stepped from one clump of grass to another as they crossed.  The clumps all looked alike to the man, but the guide repeatedly warned about certain clumps.  They all appeared to be secure…but, while some of the clumps were fastened to rocks, others were free-floating.  The native had learned by experience how to tell the difference between the two.  What the guide knew that his follower did not could very possibly save his life.  He had learned wisdom through his experience.  He knew that if he did not take care to attend to the things that truly mattered, that all could be lost.

This is, in essence, what Jesus is saying in this section of Matthew 15 (vv.1-20). Jesus is dealing with Jewish leaders who had become not only distracted, but corrupt -- their hearts were not right with God.  They had indiscriminately stepped, religiously, where they were not supposed to, and this led them down a path away from God.  What they needed was a right religion -- one based upon a genuine relationship with God -- that would help them not to please themselves, but to seek God with all their hearts.  At times, we believers can say the right things, do the right things, keep all of the correct regulations, traditions…and still be far from God.  Unlike the Pharisees, we have every opportunity to make good, spiritual decisions for our lives, and this will ultimately be the difference between whether we sink or swim.  As I shared from John’s gospel recently, the Holy Spirit is the Advocate and Helper that we need.  God, through the Holy Spirit, is the guide that helps His people to know where to step. 

Meanwhile, in an unsurprising development, some Scribes and Pharisees come to test Jesus.  They accuse His disciples of breaking “the traditions of the elders.”  These traditions (or Mishnah) were a significant number of extra rituals and regulations that the Scribes and Pharisees thought the Jewish people should do as a part of their belief system.  Jesus’ disciples were not adhering to the ritual purification cleansings before eating bread.  (The stone jars at the wedding at Cana in John 2 were those that were used for such washings).  To the Pharisees and Scribes question, Jesus asks a question of His own…and by so doing, tells them that they are violating the Word of God for the sake of their traditions.  In a similar situation (Luke 11:37-39), Jesus tells the Pharisees and Scribes that “they clean the outside of the cup, but the inside is dirty”…that is, that they look good on the outside, but that they are full of wickedness.  They looked good, sounded good, probably even used their Axe body spray, but they were corrupt in their hearts. 

Jesus tells them, in essence, that they know that a Jew is not to speak evil of his father or mother (as seen in the Ten Commandments), yet they neglect their parents by taking their Corban, “retirement money” (similar to social security) “committed” to them and give it to God (as a contribution).  In so doing these Jews were claiming to be doing “the righteous thing.”  But, they were taking away from their parents, thereby making void God’s Word.  (It is what we call “straining for gnats and swallowing camels”…or nonsense).  Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 and plainly tells these Jews – “you are of two minds” (hypocrites).  Their hearts are “far, far away” from God, and because of this, their worship is in vain.  Jesus goes even further to explain His words (vv.10-11).  "Listen and understand.  What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth…that is what makes him 'unclean.'"  The disciples see it as a parable (v.15), but it is a critical statement.  The key thought is that…it is an inner, spiritual religion that matters, not an outer “going through the motions” religion.

Now the disciples come back and tell Jesus…in one of the great “duh” moments in the New Testament…saying – “Do you know that you offended the Scribes and Pharisees?”  Yes, He knows.  In fact it was possibly a shock value statement for a purpose -- He wants them “to hear and understand.”  And not just the religious folks, He wants His disciples to understand that these religious leaders are not reliable as “spiritual” guides.  Jesus presents two more images --”plants without roots”, and “blind guides,” in order to cement what He is saying.  Peter, speaking for the others (nothing unusual there) expresses confusion concerning what Jesus has been saying.  And for His part, Jesus is amazed at His disciples’ lack of understanding.  So, He makes one final spiritual application – what goes in the mouth (food, drink) is not as important (in a spiritual sense) as what comes out of the mouth.  What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart.  The point is -- everyone has a heart condition (spiritual), and it is either good or bad.  Jesus goes back to the beginning of the discussion to make His final point…it is not the washing of hands that defiles, but an unclean heart, life, which is the condition of the religious leaders.  If our life and religion keep us from seeing Jesus…and more than this, having His heart, mind, living like Him…then something has to change.  God is not going to be impressed with our worship on Sunday or any other day of the week (Romans 12:1-2) if it is not from the heart.  We must consider Jesus’ admonition to keep the proper perspective and strive to be spiritually focused.

I know that some have seen the following video, but I think it illustrates well…especially concerning those in our fellowship…what Jesus is talking about in this message.

Blessings, Don

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Solomon's Prayer


Here is a passage that I was led to today that I thought was appropriate for this National Day of Prayer --

Blessings, Don


Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven and said: "O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below-- you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. You have kept your promise to your servant David my father; with your mouth you have promised and with your hand you have fulfilled it-- as it is today.

"Now LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant David my father the promises you made to him when you said, 'You shall never fail to have a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your sons are careful in all they do to walk before me as you have done.' And now, O God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David my father come true. 

"But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!  Yet give attention to your servant's prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day.  May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, 'My Name shall be there,' so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.  Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive. 

"When a man wrongs his neighbor and is required to take an oath and he comes and swears the oath before your altar in this temple, then hear from heaven and act. Judge between your servants, condemning the guilty and bringing down on his own head what he has done. Declare the innocent not guilty, and so establish his innocence.

"When your people Israel have been defeated by an enemy because they have sinned against you, and when they turn back to you and confess your name, praying and making supplication to you in this temple, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and bring them back to the land you gave to their fathers. 

"When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and when they pray toward this place and confess your name and turn from their sin because you have afflicted them, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel. Teach them the right way to live, and send rain on the land you gave your people for an inheritance.
"When famine or plague comes to the land, or blight or mildew, locusts or grasshoppers, or when an enemy besieges them in any of their cities, whatever disaster or disease may come, and when a prayer or plea is made by any of your people Israel-- each one aware of the afflictions of his own heart, and spreading out his hands toward this temple--then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Forgive and act; deal with each man according to all he does, since you know his heart (for you alone know the hearts of all men), so that they will fear you all the time they live in the land you gave our fathers.

"As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name--for men will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm-- when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.

"When your people go to war against their enemies, wherever you send them, and when they pray to the LORD toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name, then hear from heaven their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause.

"When they sin against you-- for there is no one who does not sin-- and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land, far away or near; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their conquerors and say, 'We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly'; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and pray to you toward the land you gave their fathers, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause.

(I Kings 8:22-49, NIV)