Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What Total Surrender Looks Like


Challenging, for sure - read on...

Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, describing how believers responded to the plague of 260:

"The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death...But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. And they cast them out into the streets when they were half dead, and left the dead like refuse, unburied."

(Taken from an excerpt in the book The Externally Focused Church)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Above All Else

I am reading the book "Spiritual Leadership" by J. Oswald Sanders. I've read it before and let me tell you, I wish I wasn't reading it right now. To say it is challenging is an understatement. The chapter I just finished is titled "Above All Else" as in, above all else a leader must be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led. This begs the question, what does it mean to be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led? Sanders' answer:

"To be filled with the Spirit means simply that the Christian voluntarily surrenders life and will to the Spirit. Through faith, the believer's personality is filled, mastered, and controlled by the Spirit...To be filled with the Spirit is to be controlled by the Spirit. The Christian leader's mind, emotions, will, and physical strength all become available for the Spirit to guide and use."

I read those words and quietly say "amen," as in "I agree." However, I am also painfully aware that I move in and out of this level of surrender. To live in a state of surrender is counter to everything I am; and yet I know that it is an inescapable destiny if I'm ever to fully become the man of God that He so desperately wants me to be. It's a constant battle. As a pastor friend of mine puts it; "God wants us to offer our lives to Him on the altar. Our problem is that we crawl off the altar, and constantly have to put ourselves back on it."

To be sure, it's hard, it's a battle, and it isn't always fun or easy; but it is God's will for us - total surrender.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Grief

"Blessed be Your name, on the road marked with suffering, though there's pain in the offering, blessed be Your name..."

I found myself singing through that chorus in my mind as the tears were welling up in my soul and my eyes. Life isn't easy. I attended a funeral on Monday for someone I grew up with; someone with a Mom & Dad, a sister, a wife, three beautiful daughters and so many more friends. Someone whose life had touched so many people...someone who practiced those "random/anonymous" acts of kindness...someone who had a strong faith in Christ and yet, whose life ended prematurely. He had somehow reached the pit, and saw the only way out as taking his own life. He had so much more to offer, so much more to give, so much more...

Nothing prepares you for moments like these. It is hard to deal with your own grief, but even harder to watch others try and deal with their grief. Times like these render the "Christian cliches" meaningless; cliches that we and I are so quick to offer others. Times like these cause us all to question; to look deep inside ourselves and search for answers and meaning.

I was sharing the car with someone, driving from the cemetary to the place the reception was held and was asked the question; "We always hear that [believers] go to heaven when they die and are there with Jesus, but how do we know that it's true?" In my head I had a million ways to answer that question; verses to quote, Scriptures to recite, things I could have said. Instead, I said nothing. The person who asked the question already knew all those answers that I could have given, and, I sensed, was asking that question rhetorically.

Through all my tears, all my questions, after searching my own heart, these thoughts stuck out to me more than others;
1) How do you process grief if you don't have a relationship with Jesus? He is what gives me what no man or woman can live without; HOPE.
2) When you boil it all down, all of Christianity boiled down to one single word, it is this; FAITH.
3) God grieves. John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible; "Jesus wept" - but in these two words, we catch a glimpse of God that we don't often see or stop to consider; God grieves too.
4) It all boils down to this; TRUST. Do we trust God enough to let Him be Him when what is happening all around us doesn't make sense? Do we trust His wisdom, His Sovereignty? Or, are we quick to turn on Him, blame Him, curse Him?

There are seasons in life; seasons of unspeakable joy and happiness, seasons of unbearable grief and anger. Seasons of extreme faith, and seasons of grave doubt. I leave you with this exhortation:

"Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful." (Hebrews 10:23)

Friday, July 20, 2007

So What About Good Works?

In a previous post I wrote about the Freedom we have in Christ and how many believers, myself included, seem to be trapped in a way of living and thinking that would probably be viewed as a "works based" salvation. In short, we bind ourselves up with rules and lists of proper behaviors, attitudes, and actions and somehow we think that if we can just do everything on that list, then God will be obliged to act a certain way toward us, or love us more, or answer our prayers. While I believe this is true, that doesn't mean that what we do doesn't count. For a great message on this topic, click here and listen to pastor Bill's message titled "Why Good Works are Important."

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:8-10).

It has always struck me how many believers know the first part of this passage, but never read on to the second part. Grace saves us, no doubt, and grace sustains us. We were hopelessly lost, separated forever from our Creator, when Christ stepped into our world to save us...that is called grace. Grace only requires 1 thing from us; faith. Faith in Jesus Christ, which is the only pathway to God. However, we weren't saved so we could sit around until we die and then go to heaven. No, we were saved FOR something; for a purpose. What is that purpose? To do good works. There's no getting around it. God DOES care about our behaviors. What we do with our time, our money, our gifts, matters. Faith and Good Works are inseparable. They're like tea and sugar, italian food and garlic, baseball and steroids (oops, did I just say that?).

"You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." (James 2:20-24)

So how do we reconcile the two? I think many Christians make this too complicated. Faith and Works are inseparable, but they are a "paradox." The Bible has other paradoxes; (a seemingly contradictory statement that still may be true). A great book I've read on a difficult to understand Christian paradox is called The Grace and Truth Paradox by Randy Alcorn. Still, this is not too complicated. Let me see if I can boil this down;

1. We are saved by grace, through faith
2. Good Works prove our faith (and can be evaluated as good fruit)
3. Good Works do NOT earn God's approval or love, nor do they save us
4. They will know we are Christians by our "love"
5. Love is a verb, not a noun.

In John 15 Jesus summarizes things pretty well;
"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other." (John 15:9-17)

Last word: so, how do we reconcile the two? How do you live in freedom while also knowing the need to do good works, and doing them? I cannot answer this question for you except to do what I endeavor to do;

"Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (Phil 2:12-13)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

No Guarantees

I know, I said the next post would be "what about good works" and that post is coming. However, I have to write a big "amen" to the message that pastor Bill preached here at Northlake on Sunday. Click here if you missed that message. This was an outstanding message and explanation of James 5, where we are instructed on prayer. Rather then recount the message, which you can listen to on your own, I just want to add a couple thoughts.

In Christianity, there are no guarantees. I see many believers, including myself from time to time, trying to find the right "equation" that will guarantee a certain outcome. We may not believe this outright, but many of us believe this "internally." We live with many variations of the following;

If I do ____, then God will do ____.
If I'm good enough, read my Bible enough, pray enough, pray with eough faith, if only I had ____ or could ____ then God would have ____.

The problem? God is a mystery and cannot be put into a box. As 1 Corinthians 1:25 states, "the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." The bottom line is this; there are no guarantees. Yes, there are principles we are commanded to live by; yes there are things we can do that will bring us closer to God and things we can do that will separate us from Him. However, even if you do everything right, that will still not guarantee a better, easier, pain-free life. Why? Well who says that "easier, pain-free" is actually better for us? As believers we always have to remember that what's actually best for us may not be what we would choose. I write that last sentence with a bit of fear, but it is also with the knowledge that it is a true statement.

I have a friend of mine who's brother owns a business. The business was going well, but he, as the owner was doing a ton of work himself. He was doing the work, the hiring/firing, finding the jobs, running the crews, balancing the books, writing the checks and more. This meant many days up past midnight. One day he had a bad accident that forced him to be bed-ridden for months. What looked like a terrible tragedy turned out to be one of the best things for him as he was, for the first time, forced to delegate and look for ways to get his work done that didn't require him to personally be involved in every aspect of the business. The result? The business has actually grown incredibly fast, and he now has a much more manageable schedule.

I share that story simply to illustrate the point that what looks bad for us from our perspective may look entirely different from God's perspective. So given that truth, I say this; I don't want the power that would come to me if all my prayers were answered. Thats too scary. I'd rather leave that power with God.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Freedom

There's a great song out there by Darrel Evans called Freedom that has this lyric in it where we sing "I'm free." The song is based on 2 Corinthians 3:17; "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." What does it mean though, to be free, and do we actually live in that freedom? Personally, I often feel rather restricted and bound in my day to day Christian living, and often resonate more with Paul's words in Romans 7; "I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing..." And yet I know that it is true that Christ has set us free. So, what does this freedom in Christ look like?

We all know that Galatians 5:1 says "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free," but free from what? Look at Galatians 4:8-10. Here, Paul is stressing the point that it is useless to pursue principles over knowing God. In fact, in verse 9 he states, "But now that you know God - or rather are known by God - how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?"

God's will was never for man to follow a set of rules and principles. I just came across this book called 101 Things You Should do Before You Go to Heaven. Now I confess, I've never read this book and it may be great. However, just the title alone seems to be misguided. Christianity is not meant to be a "system of living" or a "code of living." This is one of the things that sets Christianity apart from all other religions. God is after a relationship! So why does the law exist? The law is simply there to show us our sin and our need of God. Now that doesn't give us license to sin (5:16b) but it should free you from the yoke of "principle centered religion." God wants relationship.

Later in chapter 4, Paul tells a story of Hagar and Sarah which is meant to be taken figuratively (verse 24). The purpose of this story is stated in verse 31; "Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman." Immediately after that, we read, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." Paul continues on in chapter 5 to speak against those who elevate the keeping of the law, (circumcision in this case), above knowing God. He sums things up in verse 6 when he states "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."

The point is this! Our justification does not come from "keeping the law" or from "things we do." It doesn't matter how good you are. Let me say that again; IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW GOOD YOU ARE! Our justification comes from Christ and following after Him. My prayer for you is that you would know who you are! You are free! "You, my brothers, were called to be free" (5:13). Live in such a way that you passionately pursue an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, and live in freedom.

Coming next: "so what about good works then?"

When it comes to worship music...

...our goals should be simple, and in this order.
1) Music that honors and glorifies God
2) Congregational Unity

Here's the thing with unity...we want it, we know God wants it, we know it's important; after all, it is by our "love" that they'll know we are Christians. Still, it's not easily attained in the church today, especially when the issue is music. Why, I wonder? I have a few thoughts on why unifying a church around it's music and worship is so challenging;

1. We forget the purpose. I think the number 1 reason we struggle with unity is we put "me" before "Thee." The extremely popular Matt Redman song, The Heart of Worship, addresses this issue head on...especially the lyric, "I'm sorry Lord for the thing I've made it [worship], it's all about You, it's all about You, Jesus." When discussion of musical preferences arise, you can be sure that the "heart" of the issue has been lost; that heart being to glorify Jesus and bring an offering to Him.

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship." - Romans 12:1

2. When unity is the goal, we all must move towards the center. If the goal is to unify in music and worship, that means all of us moving towards a central place; a common goal. That goal we already identified in the point above. However, it must be noted that in moving towards the center, we all must give up some of our personal preferences. This is never easy, but it is important; especially as we, in humility, consider other's needs above our own.

3. We wrongly forget that music issues are "subjective" (opinions) and not "objective" (matters of right/wrong). Now to be sure, there are some who would disagree with that statement; some who would argue that there is a "right way" and a "wrong way" to worship. However, most of those arguements fall apart when examined with Scripture and with our own church history (see Good to Remember for more on this). This is a common thing for all human beings. When we are passionate about something, we "feel" like it's a matter of right and wrong when really, it probably boils down to a preference. When it comes to worship, it's all about our relationship to God. Once you realize that, it follows that no two people relate to God in the same way. Thus, if we are all relating to God in different ways, then it follows that when we come together for congregational worship, we're not all going to connect to God the same way with every melody.

It's time for the church to rise above the "worship wars" and seek unity. There are lives at stake; lives that will spend eternity separated from God and that should be the church's focus.

I pause to say "thank you"

As Independence Day just ended, I am aware of a number of thoughts and emotions;

Our Country's Freedom was bought at a steep price. Hundreds of Thousands of lives have been sacrificed to gain, protect and further the cause of Freedom and Human Rights. Regardless of your political views, on this day we should join together to say "thank you" for all those lives that gained this freedom.

My Grandfather, who was full blooded Japanese, served in the US military. I remember with a smile his recounting that early in his tenure, his CO asked if anyone could cook? He volunteered that he could cook a little and just like that, he joined the "cook staff." Due to a number of reasons, mainly that he suffered from terrible migraines, he was granted an honorable discharge. Then Pearl Harbor hit and all of a sudden the "Japanese Americans" became the enemy. My grandfather was able to keep him and his young family out of the internment camps but that too, came at a steep price as he lost property, possessions and peace of mind. He changed the family name from "Nishimura" to "Weston" to help protect his loved ones. If anyone had a right to be upset with the country he loved, he did. And yet...to his dying day, he remained the most patriotic man I know, and I never heard him once complain of the treatment he received during the war.

There are a million stories like this one - lives that were lost, sacrificed, some voluntarily, some not - all contributing towards gaining and keeping the freedoms we have in the United States. To all of those men and women, this young man and his wife say "thank you." It hardly seems enough, but let us never forget the price that was paid as we celebrated Independence Day on Wednesday.

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