Christmas Means Nothing if Not True

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It’s that time of year again when the whole world will cease from their labors to ponder and celebrate this thing we refer to as Christmas.  It is of all days of the year, a most honored and sacred tradition, especially for those who still consider the wonder of the first Christmas and the significant history changing impact it had on a world, and individually to all who choose to believe.  Sadly, however, there are still those who refute the story and indeed the entirety of Scripture as wholly fictitious, a collection of handed down fables and legends, if you will, with no credible evidence or factual basis.  While each of us are guaranteed the right to our beliefs, or lack thereof, it is sad to consider how many are missing out on something so wonderful and life changing simply because they refuse to accept the preponderance of evidence that exists to the contrary.

This week I was privy to such opinions as expressed on social media.  The overwhelming number of original copies of Scripture and many archeological finds show sound support for many of the stories recorded in the Bible, too many to blindly disregard if one is truly being objective.  First, let’s measure the accuracy and legitimacy of the Bible based solely on literary standards accepted by scholars who define historic credibility.  Homer’s Iliad, long recognized as an accurate and accepted historic document, can only produce a little over 600 original copies, with the amount of time between the original writing and the first known copy being well over 1,000 years.  Much of the original Iliad is filled in because of missing original texts.  In contrast, there exists today over 6,300 original copies of the Bible, with the amount of time between the original writing and the first known copy being not 1,000 years, but a mere 60!  In addition, out of 31,103 original verses that make up the Bible, all but 11 are accounted for!  This then  makes the Bible 99.965% complete! So by any literary standard, secular or otherwise, the credibility of the Bible and it’s stories can not be challenged.

In addition to the staggering number of copies available, there are also non-biblical references made to the stories by early and recognized historians.  From Tacitus in the first century:

Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. .

From Pliny the Younger in 112 AD:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.

From Josephus’s writings, Jewish Antiquities:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate . . .condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life. . . . And the tribe of Christians . . . has . . . not disappeared.

So you can see just from these three examples that Jesus and his life and movement have nonbiblical documentation by accepted historians.  There are many more such nonbiblical recordings available for review and accepted as accurate. But let’s go further and examine some key archeological finds that support Biblical stories.

In 1968 in Jerusalem contractors discovered an ossuary (bone box) containing the remains of a man aged between 24-28. A spike was discovered driven through his left heel with  piece of the olive wood cross still attached.  To date this is the only evidence found that supports the Roman crucifixion as described in the New Testament, and proof that criminals were not left to rot on the cross but buried, just as scripture indicates took place with Jesus.

In 1986 a severe drought caused the Sea of Galilee to drop to record lows, revealing the remains of a well-preserved 27′ fishing boat buried in the mud, dating back to the days of Jesus. It was discovered near Migdal, or Magdaline in ancient times, from where mary Magdaline was from. Pots and pans found next to the boat, along with radiocarbon dating confirm its age.  The boat easily holds 15 grown men, which would be enough for Jesus and his 12 disciples.

In 2004 near Hezekiah’s water tunnel near Jerusalem archeologists discovered the lost Pool of Siloam mentioned in the recording of one of the many miracles of Jesus. Coins found intact within the pool walls date the pool to years immediately before and after Christ.

In 2009 archeologists found the first and only known housing structure from the ancient city of Nazareth, a city some suggest never existed because there is so little mention of it in historic documents outside of the Christmas story.

In 2012 the Israeli Antiquities Society announced the find of a 2700 year old bulla in the city of Jerusalem.  A bulla was a clay stamp used to seal a document or container.  On this bulla was stamped the insignia for the town of Bethlehem, the first known discovery from the city of Jesus’s birth, again significant because so little is known or recorded in history about Bethlehem outside of the Bible story.

Biblical archeology is fascinating and there are many finds, too many to list here, that support stories, cities, and people described within the Bible.  So, we have discussed accepted literary standards supporting scripture, nonbiblical records of its stories and tangible, hold-in-your-hands archeological finds-all evidence of the credibility of scripture and the Christmas story.  But is there more?  Only if you choose to believe.

It is hard for a believer to adequately explain to an unbeliever that undeniable sensation that wells up within the heart and soul when we see the miracles of love, of restoration, of release from the guilt of a sinful life-the joy and tears of singing a song of worship with other believers.  It’s hard to describe the peace when going through life’s most difficult moments or the true hope of all Christians of being reunited with beloved family members who have passed on.  These things require faith in things not seen, not recorded, not found in digs.  And yet, this is the magic and wonder of Christmas!  It remains a time when all the world,  regardless of religion, race, creed or nationality, feels at the same time, the charitable expressions of love, peace and goodwill, a day, if you please, when God opens up heaven to remind us all, believers or not, that he and all he stands for and represents, is real, that his Son existed and exists, and that the hope of the message of God With Us, Emmanuel, is wrapped up in this one very special, very sacred and holy day we celebrate, Christmas!

I want to wish each of my followers a very Merry and Blessed Christmas this year.  It has and will always be a pleasure writing for you and I am truly honored and humbled that you choose to follow me from literally across the globe.  My books, My Soul Cries Out and Sex Begins in the Kitchen are available on Amazon.  Christmas love to you all!

 

Politics-“Be Not Entangled…”

2 Timothy 2:4; “a good soldier of Jesus Christ does not get entangled in the affairs of this life or he would fail to please his commander (Christ)”.

A good friend asked me earlier why I don’t get as worked up over politics as some of my other friends do.  I took it as outward evidence of my maturing, at least in this area.  I’ve posted about it many times before, the ugly partisan nature of the binary political war that so many are so passionate about.  The name-calling, the stone casting, the Unfriending sometimes necessary for peace-all a juvenile embarrassment when observed from the outside, and yet without it, there would be virtually no cable or internet news stations, and only about half of the daily social media posts or tweets .  And, dare I suggest it, far too many professed Christ believers have become “entangled” and ensnared in all the ugly behind the scenes drama that is American politics.

Let me clarify, lest I too be on the receiving end of a few cast stones-I am all for political activism as it pertains to our voting privileges and supporting candidates in elections who mirror your feelings on certain issues.  I am grateful to live in a country where we have the right to be ugly over politics-it could be much worse.  Many good men, women, blacks, whites, Americans and foreigners, paid a high price so that we might be a part of a representative form of government wherein we can choose who we want to represent us.  One can never be faulted for exercising their individual right to vote, and neither can, or should, anyone be faulted for abstaining from voting, regardless of the ridiculous arguments zealous activists will use to guilt you for abstaining.  But from the beginning until now, polling has been a highly personal and discreet process.  Hell, even on Survivor, the ballots are kept secret.  It is a sacred process that should be carried out according to true personal conviction and not popular social pressure.  But we have turned that process into a post-election feud worthy of Hatfield-McCoy status.  Why?

This is just one reason why I no longer get worked up over political banter.  In the past two thousand years of recorded history, has anything really changed?  Are people still murdered in the U.S.?  Have burglaries and theft been halted?  Do certain people still discriminate because of ethnical differences?  Are people still hungry and homeless? Is the quality of education the same for all or equal to income brackets?  With all the elevated blood pressures, nothing has really changed in 2000 years.  If you were obese and unhealthy under Clinton or Reagan, you are probably still the same under Obama or Trump.  If you were financially successful under Carter or Nixon, you are probably still successful under Bush or Ford.  The truth is, if we are to be honest, our individual lives are never really impacted due to who or what is in office.  If one relies on the government to be their only source and recourse for everything good in life, they will never be adequately cared for, and if one is self or God sufficient regardless of political affiliation, they will always be okay.  Does that make any sense?

“Oh, Papajoe, but Romans 13 says God ordains all government!  And moreover, God puts all people in power according to his will.”  Uh, no, that’s just bad religion.  It’s funny that so many are convinced God puts US Presidents in place, but not Hitlers or Hussains or Castros, as if America is now the chosen nation.  God, because of our lack of total trust in him, instituted a human form of oversight for civil protection.  However, God would never have endorsed all the deal-making, finger-crossing, back-stabbing  entanglements that are the very nature of the political machine we have now.  In almost every aspect, this slaps in the face of everything the Gospel is all about, as do many of the current policies.  We are to obey the laws of the land as long as they do not conflict with the laws of God.  But if you are a good political soldier, you can only love your neighbor if they are not aliens.  You can demand that the government take care of the poor and hungry so you can feel you fed them vicariously through the system of taxation and no more. We can deny basic humanitarian medical aid to someone if they can’t pay or have no state-sponsored insurance.  We can profess our faith, but not in a way that would make it in any way superior to any other religion-tolerate all views as equal.  Everyone gets a participation trophy when your time comes. What we have done to religion, we have done to politics, by touting bad religion as justification.

To be blunt, whether the person at the top is black, white or orange, the importance doesn’t resonate with someone fighting through a terminal disease.  Red or Blue means little to someone who goes through life feeling like an invisible vapor due to loneliness.  Left or right, liberal, moderate or conservative, is the last thing on the mind of someone dealing with a spouse or child with addictions or that person who just can’t find a decent job, or worse, the one who has lost all hope and is having one last drink before they down a bottle of sleeping pills to put their misery to a final rest. This, my good friend, is why I am no longer a political standard bearer who loses sleep over social policy or world affairs.  Yes, I want peace, but “in as much as it is within you, live at peace with your neighbor” is my God-standard, not world summits. Yes, I want to end hunger, but “when you give to the least of these my brothers” is my policy, not entitlements.  Yes, I want to see an eventual end to hatred and bigotry, but “love they neighbor as thyself” is a God thing, not a social media thing.  It matters not to me who is in office, my daily mandates come from a much higher commander-in-chief than one who is mistakenly elevated as the appointed one we may or may not have voted for.  But when we begin to see each other and moreover, formulate unjust opinions about their character, just because of who they support politically, we have become the blind leading the blind, discarding the truth for a bit of an increase in personal mammon. There is a reason you can’t serve both!

This cruel life has way too many existing webs to navigate without getting entangled in civilian affairs we may never change.  My political apathy is a personal choice.  Your opinion of that choice is your choice.  I don’t have nightmares over childish tweets or the latest missteps of a polarizing POTUS.  I don’t dread tomorrow because of which “side” has control of Congress.  I have many issues right now with God-he knows, but regardless of how I vote or whose in charge down here, God is my constant, my boss, my CO.  I’ll do well to continue to take my direction from him and avoid the entanglements of the political arena.  That, is why I no longer get caught up in the façade of political policy.

“He Will Wipe Every Tear From Their Eyes”

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It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon.  It’s Valentine’s Day and your shift is just about over.  Your thoughts are on sharing some simple tokens commemorating the day with your family and reading the hand-made cards your kids always make for you each year. It’s one of those simple traditions that you embrace and hold dear. But then, the unthinkable-that phone call you always heard about but hoped to never receive.  There has been a shooting at your child’s school and you need to pick them up at a designated safe place as soon as possible.  You leave without even clocking out and rush to the scene while battling the invasion of images from similar events that have played out before, and praying with all your might that your child is safe and waiting for your arrival.

The first bus of students arrives at the designated rendezvous sight and you anxiously wait for your child to exit.  They aren’t on this bus but that’s ok-it’s a large school and it may take several busses to vacate them all from campus.  The second bus arrives but they aren’t on that one either.  Then the third, the fourth, and so on until all the students have been located and reunited with their families…except your child.  There must be another explanation, you tell yourself-maybe they escaped into a local neighborhood or retail store and are on their way home.  But, there is no response to your calls or texts.  Perhaps in a panic they dropped their phone-it’s ok-surely they are safe someplace and just need to be picked up.  You wait-you pace-you talk to your child’s classmates to see if they know anything.  One of them breaks into uncontrolled sobbing as they try to utter the words, “they are still in there”! Your day, your life, your entire universe just changed forever. Your child isn’t coming home today.

I have tried to put myself in the shoes of a parent living out this nightmare as yet another tragic school shooting unfolds.  I can’t comprehend the emotional trauma of losing a child to such a senseless act of cowardice and evil at the hands of a person who is less than human and has no business carrying a weapon onto a school campus.  Whenever possible I strive to use my blog to encourage others with positive words of hope as we all deal with real-life challenges and tragedies we can’t adequately explain.  But on days like today, even a writer and artist of written expression has no words that will make any sense or remove any of the thousands of tears that will be shed over the coming days.  As a resident of Las Vegas and witness to our own similar mass shooting just last October, my heart goes out to the families, the friends, the first responders and all who are and will be forever changed by yesterday’s malicious and hateful act of evil.

I’m haunted and troubled by the early reports that the unnamed gunman had been reported to authorities on more than one occasion prior to yesterday’s attack.  I’m haunted and troubled that social media posts from this person showing guns, hate symbols and red-flag signals were ignored or unreported by the usually vigilant social media police.  I’m haunted and troubled that in an age where we have already seen 18 school shootings since the beginning of 2018, not even two months, that anyone could have walked onto a school campus in any city America with an AR-15 Assault rifle, entirely unnoticed and unchallenged.  And I’m haunted and troubled by a society whose cries for tolerance and rights and political correctness are given more consideration than the cries of grieving parents or their lost children, who although born with the same rights, will never appreciate or experience their individual liberties because we adults did a poor job of protecting the defenseless.

I don’t want to use my blog for this purpose-there is enough sadness and grief in our world to have to stop and address this, but today I am compelled to lend my small voice to advocate for my grandchildren, your children and grandchildren-our kids.  We will have our moments of silence for the departed, we will offer our “thoughts and prayers” like a “God bless you” after a sneeze-we will pretend to hold special meetings behind closed doors in an appearance of real concern or policy change, but nothing – absolutely nothing will be done to protect our children.  Profit trumps controls; rights trump accountability; civil liberties trump common-sense safety measures; lobbyists trump grieving family members; fear of being labeled as a hater trumps fear of loss of life due to inaction or alerts, and the beat goes on.  If the blood-bathed bodies of dead first-graders resulted in non-action, we have become no better than the worst third-world terrorist country.  God helps us.

And yet there must be some words we can cling to in these times of senseless tragedy.  In the Biblical book of John, Jesus is called to the tomb of his departed friend Lazarus.  Jesus knows that he held the power of life and death in his divine hands and that his friend was going to miraculously live again.  And yet we are told in the passage that when Jesus saw the sorrow and the tears of friends and loved ones mourning over the death of Lazarus, he too wept with them.  Jesus was deeply moved at the brokenhearted cries of mourning that resulted from earthly death.  I am convinced that he still mourns with us and indeed is shedding tears even now as he welcomes many of these victims into paradise but sees and hears the tears of those they left behind.  There is little else we can hold onto in times like these when words and expressions are woefully inadequate and ineffective.  We are to mourn with those who mourn, and to comfort those with the same comfort we have received, and we are to fervently pray for all who are affected by this, another unexplainable tragedy.  The peace and solace that these grieving families need today and over the next few difficult weeks can only come from God, who sees our tears and mends broken hearts.  But, it’s time we force our leaders to hear our cries for radical change.  If I have to go through a metal detector to go to a club, a government building, an airport or even a local high school football game, our school campuses where our children attend each day should be no less safe and monitored.  We need to scream over the voices that would silence us so that we can look forward to and expect the safe return of our kids at the end of any school day in America.  We need to put names and faces with the victims so that they are more than just a meaningless statistic.  We need to view these victim lists as if the name of our own children are among them and act and respond accordingly.  It’s not someone else’s problem-it doesn’t happen just in Detroit or Chicago or Vegas or LA.  Please, please, stand up for our children-the lives we save may be those who share our own last names!

Father, we humbly and sorrowfully implore you today to comfort the grieving families and friends of all affected by yesterday’s events, and to compel us to take action in protecting your children.

 

Hatred and Rejection, a Love Deficiency

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As I witnessed the events of the Virginia Riots this weekend, coupled with issues I’m dealing with on a personal level, I am left with an overwhelming sorrow at the realization of a world where proactive and unconditional love are becoming as outdated as hand-written letters and leather-bound Bibles. My heart aches at the display of violence and hatred based solely on a person’s melanin or what country they were born in or who and how they worship.  Who are these people that they would hijack an entire ethnic group and claim supremacy as if they accurately represent us all?  The widespread wounds of racism will never heal because of the radical ideology of a relative few, but a few too many.

My stomach turns when I hear the term Christian Nazi or I see KKK members carrying the cross of my Savior as if He would ever endorse such hatred or twisted theology. You absolutely can not hate your neighbor, your brother, your ex, your boss, a nation or an administration and wear the sash of Christianity!  It is inconsistent with all we believe and all the words left behind by Him whose name we bear.  If you are marching for any movement claiming superiority over any other group based on skin color, gender, religion or nationality while claiming Christianity, STOP IT-you are a liar and are deceiving yourself.  And if you are endorsing such hatred, either actively or passively by non-action, then you too need to check yourself.  Christians are called to abhor all evil, hatred and injustice.  “To he who knows to do right but does it not., it’s a sin”.

Perhaps it’s hitting a bit close to home because I know the pain of rejection, when those who should love you suddenly reject and turn away from you.  Pure, unadulterated love is such a precious commodity in this age. Loving just because, loving others especially when they are somehow different, honoring vows meant for a lifetime are not stories that make headlines.  Whether you have been rejected by a spouse, a parent, someone of a different color or anyone close to you, the hole left in the heart knows no bottom. When I see these violent protests, or lonely people on the street I see a complete deficiency of love.  Love eradicates hate-love gives comfort to a lonely heart-love frees the soul held captive by evil ideology-love truly can conquer anything, if and where it exists.  Sadly, in too many situations, the perfect love that casts out fear is being crushed and compacted by the overwhelming weight of a dark heart doing the bidding of an evil ruler bent on our destruction by way of starvation and deficiency. When a person or a group of people have been beat down so many times their will to fight back eventually becomes compromised and the light of their love lamps so desperately needed is soon extinguished.  What are we doing to each other? It ought not to be this way.

I may or may not be around for any long period of time-only my Maker knows for sure. But when my time comes, I want to be remembered as someone who loved, someone in whom no hate was found or in any way manifested. I want to know I did something positive or left something behind for my kids and grandkids that showed them love still wins out and is not something to be feared but rather embraced. There will be a day, whether you choose to believe it or not, when we will have to stand before the author and the perfector of love and give an account on how we distributed the sacrifice of love He freely provided us.  Every word, deed, action of lack thereof will be recalled and an explanation will be demanded.  If you count yourself among any hate group, I fear for you on that terrible day. Scripture says that many will say “Lord, Lord” but will be turned away.  If you claim a cross but carry a Nazi flag, God have mercy on you!  If you claim the name of Christ but hide behind a sheet or a hood, Lord have mercy. If you take up space behind a pulpit but shout hate against your brother or sister, there will be a special place reserved for you.  If you claim righteousness but have hatred for anyone, you can not take part in any eternal reward or kingdom.

I wish with all I have that love always won, that love always lasted, that rejection and abandonment never existed, that differences could be celebrated and not marched against.  I wish my heart was not so heavy at the reality of hurt, of fear, of loneliness, of being isolated because you are for any reason not worthy of love. I wish I could hold all those who feel as I do just to say, “me too”.  I wish I had the power to stop hatred dead in its tracks and reverse the damage done when any one person is rejected by any other person.  But all I have are my words, this small platform, a few faithful followers who for whatever reason choose to read my musings each week. So I will use that which I have to disavow myself from any appearance of hatred on any level and I encourage you to do the same. God sees the brokenhearted and hears their cries and heals all their wounds. Let our will be to be used as a healing instrument in His hands whenever and wherever hatred is rampant.

The Church and Politics-The Great Polarization

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Hello.  My name is Joe and I’m a former ditto-head (hello Joe).  I’ve been politically sober now for almost two years. (Applause, yada, yada).  I was a proud follower of all things Rush Limbaugh but I have since given away my personal copies of The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So.  However I still enjoy a good Arturo Fuente cigar, which Rush turned me on to.

It is that time again, you know the one, when many of the faith for whatever reason put aside all thy have learned, or should have learned about their eternal status in Christ and take up arms and soap boxes in support of their favorite candidate and make claims based on social media memes and the usual talking heads of the propaganda machine that is the American political system.  Yes, thank God for every brave man and woman who fought for or died that we might live in a country where we can openly campaign for and support the candidates of our choice-this is in no way a knock on our freedom to cast ballots and select leaders.  We are much more fortunate in that respect than most countries around the globe.  But I can’t help but feel that many of us play right into  the hands of those running for office who have little real concern for our religious affiliation or core beliefs, and why should they, when we leave them at the doors of our local balloting locations.

Yes, not long ago I was a devout ditto-head (that’s a supporter of Rush Limbaugh for those in Yorba Linda).  I couldn’t understand how my Christian brother or sister could call themselves Christian but vote for this person or that person. I dreaded what would happen to me if this person was elected or how my relationship with those of the other side of the aisle would be impacted once the elections were over.  But then an amazing thing happened at about age 52-I Grew Up!  I realized that I had lived through several Presidents that I didn’t support, but I was still the same-my personal situation had not been affected in any great means at all-amazing.  But I was so sure that the country would go to hell in a hand basket if this guy won office-what happened? I didn’t have to move to Canada, change churches or renounce my political views, and I was still here and not in a bread line-wow!

Here’s what I finally came to understand-I am a proud citizen of the USA, born in the State of Indiana.  However, my REAL citizenship as a follower of Christ is not of this world. While I need to understand and choose to take part in the political process, my fate is not held in the hands of a Republican or a Democrat, a socialist or a conservative, the red side or the blue side. I am constantly reminded through the Word that God is my protector and provider and He directs my path and dictates my future, not the Senate Majority.  Here are a few verses that we all quote but somehow disregard during campaign season:

“And My God (not the POTUS) will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus”…Philippians 4:19

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying “what shall we eat?” or “what shall we drink?” or “what shall we wear?”. (or what if so and so wins office) . our Heavenly Father knows what you need”   Matthew 6:31

If you then who are (Dems or Repubs) know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good things to those who ask him”…Matthew 7:11

“Consider the ravens; they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!…Like 12:24

“I am Lord-Open your mouth wide and I will fill it”..Psalm 81:10

(parentheses mine)

And I could fill pages with such promises.  And yet there seems to be nothing that so greatly divides the church as a good political campaign during an election year.  I sit back now and read (without jumping in) the posts and heated debates that go back and forth on social media.  I hear stories about clergy surrendering their pulpits to candidates turning a worship service into a political town hall meeting. I read with my own eyes the names and sometimes visceral that comes from the posts between Christian siblings who share differing views and the worst of all, groups of clergy rallying behind the efforts and campaign of a chosen candidate and laying hands in agreement but demanding separation of church and state whenever the church tax-free status is questioned.

This I my newly enlightened approach-not saying it’s the only approach, just the process that I am comfortable with in making my ballot choice.  My number one criteria above all else-can I justify my vote before God?  I know exactly through His Word what He desires from my life, how I should live and the precepts I should espouse and support in voting.  My new motto, and unfortunately more true each election-a vote for the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil. I can’t in good conscious cast a vote for anyone who believes anything contrary to God’s laws and desires-period!  If that means I have to write in a name not on the ballot, I will do so and not worry that it’s a “wasted” vote. Second, I don’t put much stock in what is said during a campaign-I follow the money and the voting records.  Who supports them-why-how did they vote on this issue-what bills have they sponsored on another issue?  And the big one for me, perhaps the hardest of all-I rarely comment on political posts and refrain from sharing baseless memes, unless they are too funny to ignore!!  I don’t even pray that God puts the “right” person (pun intended) in office.  Instead I ask God to help me cast the right vote for me.  I finally get it-I will be just fine if the other guy or gal wins.  My provisions, my security, my future don’t lie within the hands or policies of the current administration-I am a child of the eternal President, the supreme ruler and he is the one I need to please and rely on for my welfare, not whether the country remains red or blue for the next four-year term. Sure I will vote and encourage others to exercise the freedom to do so, a right bought with a high price. But I will no longer fret over who controls the House or Senate because neither control me, only my God.  It may not be popular, but I think I’ll stick with my new strategery! 

 

 

 

Should We Really Expect to Reverse America’s Decline?

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Birth pains-women will understand this, men, not so much.  Birth pains are the physical sign that the time is near for a woman to bear a child and that the wheels in motion for this event can not be stopped or reversed.  Jesus refers to the signs of the end times in Matthew 24 as the beginning of birth pains. This post is based on that analogy and may not rest well with many.

It would be intellectually dishonest from a spiritual perspective to deny that our great nation, the United States of America, has been on a great decline for many years now. We can still love her and prefer her over other countries, cheer for her at International events and proudly display her colors as patriots on holidays while relishing her freedoms. But we can’t deny the moral and spiritual decay she is suffering. That decay is like a spreading cancer slowly eating away at those elements which have always made America a strong and healthy nation.  As with most cancer the treatment, or response, is often worse than the disease until it becomes a matter of waiting for the inevitable.  Sounds hopeless, I know.

As I read the story this week of a beloved Pastor and University Professor who got caught up in the Ashley Madison profile leaks who decided to take his own life, it hit me just how far we have fallen.  Don’t get me totally wrong-there are saints preserving the Gospel, saints feeding the hungry, rescuing the enslaved, taking mission trips to help the helpless-all attributes of a healthy church.  Our Lord though His Spirit continues to use His people to do His work to help those with sincere and hungry hearts and real needs.  But when you step back to view the big picture, the lines are becoming blurred and the colors once brilliant are fading.

There is no better time than at election time that one can hear how bad America is, though campaign speeches should never serve as a true State of the Union gauge. In any debate we will learn that our defenses are down, our economy is bankrupt, our schools are behind internationally and we are heading to Hell in a hand basket.  Our natural and gut reaction is to climb onboard the bandwagon of the candidate we are sure is going to turn America around again and fix all our ills. And if he or she is evangelical, that’s even better.  And while we should always have hope and be proactive in making the world around us a better place, can we honestly in view of New Testament prophesy concerning the signs of the end times, expect for a sudden and miraculous reversal when all indications are that the birth pains have begun?

In the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy he lays out for us some signs of the last days.

“There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves (Kingdom entitlement?), lovers of money (prosperity doctrine?) boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy(lacking spiritual discipline?), without love(prayer with no works?), unforgiving, slanderous(social media gossips?), without self-control (abusive priests?), brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than God(Congress?), having a form of godliness but denying its power, swayed by evil desires, always learning but never grasping the truth.”

I’m sure you would agree that in reviewing the list above we can see all these characteristics in our society today, and sadly even in the Church. We are told in the NT that God removes His spirit from such people and lets sin run its course.  The traits mentioned above are running their course.  Granted, there will always be individual stories of rescue by grace and God’s spirit will continue to be worked out in the lives of those who seek in earnest so that “none may perish”. But again, in light of the big picture view the fig leaves are falling and the signs are apparent.

A day closer to the return of Christ can be nothing short of Good News for the believer.  We should be able to with hope and confidence view the events around us and look up with eager anticipation knowing that however many days, weeks, months, years or decades, we are getting closer to that day. That is not to say we should become oblivious to the world around us or throw our hands up in surrender opposed to being active and making a difference when and where we can.  God defines true religion as loving Him, loving our neighbor, and taking care of the less fortunate.  There things carry on regardless of the surrounding circumstances.  Love good, hate evil, love everybody.  All Souls Matter! But in doing so we must be cognizant that birth pains don’t stop and that the process the pains represent is in full motion. We may never again see the America we love and remember.  We are certainly in a post-Christian America and I don’t see us going back. Scripture spells out what lies ahead for us.  There will be suffering, persecution, a falling away from the Church, false teachers and weak followers getting their ears tickled each week. But to those who see and understand the grand plan and correlate these times to the script left for us to follow, we will become less geographically oriented and more Kingdom oriented as we await the return of Christ in the midst of falling fig leaves as Summer comes to an end. .

 

Meekness-It’s Not for Wimps

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We just returned from our favorite spot on Earth-the Pacific Coast of Southern California.  Each year my wife and I make a point of vacationing and beach hopping from Huntington Beach to Newport to Laguna to Dana Point. When it comes time to plan our trip we weigh and consider our vacation options and always choose to go back to what we love most.  If Heaven is no better than our beaches, we will be most content with our reward!

The waves in Huntington Beach are particularly powerful.  It is called Surf City for good reason; the US Open of Surfing is held there each year because the area produces some of the best scoring waves for competitive surfing.  It is not unusual for my 6’4″ 200+ pound frame to be standing in two feet of surf and be taken down by a powerful wave that seemingly developed from nowhere.  The best total body workout I could come up with would be to stand or walk against the power of these small waves as they pound the shoreline.  After my first day back on the beach I could barely walk that evening.

People visit the beach for various reasons and each one takes away something different from their experience.  For me, I feel close to God when I see the force of these waves and hear the thunder of their voices as they break on the beach.  But this year I took something a little different away from my visit.  I was impressed with the concept of meekness.  One may have a hard time understanding the meekness of a wave that can knock a 300 pounder off their feet, but that is because we have a misconception sometimes of that word.  Meekness is often defined or understood as being lowly, humble, subservient or gentle in spirit-all attributes perhaps.  But a better understanding of this term is to control or restrain one’s own power or strength. When I see how the waves that have historically capsized ocean liners and large sailing vessels lay themselves down under restraint and submission as they reach the shorelines comprised of tiny insignificant grains of sand and curtail their strength as they reach the toes of a toddler enjoying their first beach experience, I see for myself the full living definition of meekness and I am in awe!

All of us have a spirit of pride within us that is not always healthy and which constantly wages war against our spirit. Social media has made all of us experts on everything and we constantly look for ways to prove our debate skills and intellect on matters that, well, don’t really matter. I write this blog each week with the sincere desire of speaking words that offer advice and give glory to Christ, but I often find myself checking to see how many likes or shares it gets or how many different countries it reaches with each new post-a result of a prideful spirit, and certainly not the essence of meekness.  In Matthew 5 Jesus speaks to those assembled to hear Him and tells them “Blessed are the meek For they will inherit the earth”.  Other versions say Blessed are the humbled or those content with who they are, no more and no less. These aren’t hapless individuals who are the walking mats of society He is referring to. On the contrary, these are those who get slapped in the face and can stand tall like a grizzly, flex their muscles  but take another blow.  Jesus showed all of us who pay attention what meekness looks like when they came to arrest Him and when asked if He was Jesus, his response of “I AM” knocked everyone off of their feet-just the words from his mouth-restrained power-submissive strength-displayed superiority, meekness defined.

The author of Philippians describes meekness by citing the example of Christ for us:

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,[a] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[b] being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord-MEEKNESS!!!

This is how I want to live my life.  I want to be a meek gentle giant, strong enough to defend, meek enough to submit and wise enough to know my strength comes from God who has much larger muscles to flex than I do. Yes, that’s what I received from my visit this year to the beach-that and a nice Summer tan.

 

Unseen Pain

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On July 4th I was walking on the top floor of a local casino parking garage to get a panoramic view of the city’s fireworks displays. I noticed a strange pain in my left foot but kept walking. The pain intensified and by evening I was wrapped in a blanket with chills from the intense pain (it was 105 outside). The next day I could barely walk and by the third day I could put no weight on the foot. Reluctantly I went to the local Quick Care for treatment but multiple x-rays revealed no injury.  When offered pain medication I declined, thinking I could just live with it if it didn’t get any worse. It got worse. A couple days later I was back at the quick care begging for drugs.  It’s amazing what strong narcotics can do for pain relief. The pain had become so severe I could not think-I could barely communicate-I could not function normally-it was crippling!  Upon administering treatment I was back to some level of sanity and could focus on something other than the pain.

We live in a world full of hurting people. Their pain may not be obvious but the hurt is no less severe. We encounter them everywhere we go unaware-unaware because we seldom take the time to notice. The pain they endure may be from a broken relationship with a mate or close family member. They may be that teenager who just can’t seem to measure up to their parents’ expectations. Some suffer the pain of acute loneliness that could be relieved with a simple conversation or visit. Some carry the burden of failed marriages or businesses.  Psychologists agree that a man responds to a failed business much the same as he would to the loss of a loved one.  I know that to be true. The wife who gives her all to her husband and kids but never receives appreciation or affection from them walks in silent pain. The incarcerated serving time in a lonely cell for one bad and costly decision or act suffers a pain we can’t comprehend. The young girl who thought aborting or giving up her child was the right decision may now be carrying the pain of guilt and regret. The man who lost his family over indiscretions and now sees another care for what was once his suffers a dull pain that may never go away. These are the pains that left untreated can cause one not to think clearly-not to be able to communicate-to not be able to function normally-the unseen pains that are crippling.

How I wish I had the time-the capacity-the reach to embrace these who suffer silently. We all know how our hearts ache when our kids or grandkids cry. We don’t need to know why the tears-we just want to hold them until they stop flowing. How much more does our Savior react to our pain. How cool is it that we have someone to call out to who lived the human experience in the Earth He created so as to empathize with our hurts and our feelings.  Psalm 34 tells us that the Lord is always near to those with broken hearts and crushed spirits. Sometimes in the midst of our pain we can’t see or accept the relief that comes from calling out to God for mercy, so we go on through life thinking like I did, that we can live with the pain if it doesn’t get worse.

There are no quick fixes to deep emotional stress carried unseen by so many.  However that is no excuse to not be engaged or aware of those around us who may be hurting. It is surprising how many of these people worship with us each week in our churches!  I am always on someone’s schedule, running here or there, but I am trying to remember to ask God to help me see others who need a word, a hug or a meal. If you know of individuals who suffer in silence, get involved, go out of the way, send a card, make a phone call, buy them coffee-whatever it requires to just be a presence at a lonely time.  We don’t need answers-we don’t  need to bombard them with Bible verses. We just need to let them know we are aware of their hurts so some healing process can begin. It’s not about deeds and works and righteousness-it’s about love, about caring, about sharing the burden of pain that is too great or someone to carry alone.

Father, help us see the pains in others that you see and respond as you would with love, with empathy and with presence.

The Static Nature of Change-Lessons From the Chameleon

Cape Dwarf Chamaeleon

The ability to adapt to an ever changing environment is never so evident as when observing certain species of chameleons. As seen in the image above they can change to camouflage their appearance to avoid detection by would be predators. However they can also change to signal to others of their species as in flirtation or simply to display their current mood. It was long thought that process was achieved due to numerous pigments beneath the skin but studies as late as 2014 proved this to be false. Instead they found that some species actually have a sub layer lattice of nanocrystals that can be manipulated by the chameleon to affect the way wavelengths of light are reflected or absorbed to create various colors. As for mood swings highly agitated chameleons will appear as red, dark or even black while calm, relaxed or non-threatened ones will appears in the softer blue and green shades.  So in essence it is possible to know the mood of your pet lizard just by observing their color.

There is at least one thing about life that never changes, and that is that life will always change!  Change does not discriminate-it comes to us all.  Many times those changes are welcomed and embraced-you get that promotion you worked for-you meet that special someone-you recover form an illness-you move to that location you always dreamed about-you attend the wedding of your child-you escape an abusive relationship-you change your hairstyle.

And then there are the unwelcomed and unsolicited changes we dread-you become unemployed-your spouse asks for a divorce-you receive bad news from your doctor-your financial and credit status take a major hit-you fall off that trail you’ve navigate before in a foreign country and shatter your leg-you lose your hair. Like it or not, good or bad, a change is a comin’.

Much of the Christian world has been in a panic over recent decisions by our courts that are contrary to our belief system. They feel the church is heading for disaster or even that our standard, God’s word has been compromised or forcefully changed. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have an assurance from Christ Himself that His words would never change or pass away.  The Gospel is an absolute static truth.  What will change is how we effectively use it as a weapon of defense in these trying times.  The face of our enemy will change-the strategy against the family unit and the church will change-the effective polarization of the church will change-the increasing test of our resolve and relationship with Christ will change. Like our chameleon friend, we have to be ready and able to adapt to our new surroundings, and we have to determine how that change needs to take place.

There is a passage familiar to many in the Book of Habakuk, chapter 3 which reads like this:

Though the fig tree does not bud  and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LordI will be joyful in God my Savior.

Many use this passage as an affirmation of faithfulness and devotion to God, and rightly so. But when I read a bit closer, I see an assertion that faith will remain in spite of the pending season of change.  In fact the verse preceding this one eludes to pending calamity. Just for my benefit, this scripture carries much more meaning when I read it as when the tree doesn’t bud and when there are no grapes and when the crops fail and there is little food. Why? Because few of us will escape this world of troubles without facing these seasons of change. Season by definition eludes to something different than the now. If indeed there is a season for everything as written in Ecclesiastes 3, then our expected norm should be the expectation of change, or the change of life’s seasons. If we live our lives prepared for the possibility of change, then change can’t possibly come when we least expect it.

God in His sovereignty is the source of much change in the life of a growing and maturing believer. In every area of life where we ascribe for something higher, whether a higher degree, a higher job title, a higher belt or certification, there is a time of testing that is required to see if we have satisfied the requirements to obtain that higher level. As faithful followers of Christ we should expect nothing different. I have never gone through so great a season of testing than when I asked God to take me to a higher level-a season of spiritual change. I’m not sure I’d do it again, but the change was for my good. Be careful the sincerity of what you ask for!

Thank God for the NEVER changing Word that we an fall back on in our EVER changing lives. And thank God for lessons from the most unusual of His creation. I wonder what it would be like to be purple for a day.

One Christ, One Destination, Too Many Roads

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If you have ever used Mapquest for directions, you know that when you identify your starting point and your destination, this man developed program app will give you one way to get from point A to point B with explicit instructions on where to turn, how many miles for each new direction and the approximate travel time to complete your trip. Navigational systems in newer cars are similarly programmed and even give you cute little sound bytes when you correctly follow directions. So how is it that man can so easily identify and navigate the best routes for geographic destinations when there are always multiple ways to reach them, but offer up so many routes in religion when there is only one absolute truth and path?

A wise woman recently asked me a serious and deep question, one that has been submitted to much more deeply rooted theologians than I could ever hope to be, with no consensus. If there exists One Christ and One Inspired Holy Bible, how is it that there are so many denominations since the inception of Christianity? It is truly a question that is not foreign to me as I have traveled my own faith journey for these forty-six year now. Perhaps for me it is because I have been exposed to all levels of the Christian Faith.  There exists three primary faiths in Christianity-Eastern or European Orthodox, Catholicism and Protestantism. I have all three in my blood.  I was raised and introduced to Christ in a Pentecostal church and have remained in the Protestant faith through my adult years.  However, I attended a Catholic High School and learned the practices and traditions of their faith through education and required attendance in Mass.  My younger brother went a different direction as a young adult and is now a Greek Orthodox Priest in AZ.  I have attended his church and sat through many liturgies and he and I engage in discussions about the Orthodox faith and practice virtually every time we converse-it is a beautiful and historical faith and remains as the oldest purest tradition most closely related to the early church.

So the question remains-why so many roads to one place and do they all eventually lead to Christ? Are all denominations so different?  A denomination defined is a sub group or sect of people who share a common belief, interpretation, name and organization.  A denomination is easily formed when a group of people have a different view of scripture or practice than the wholly shared main group, resulting in a split from the larger group and the beginning of a new identity. How many times over history has this happened?  To date 43,000 times and counting.  At it’s core belief system, there may in fact be only about forty main traditional denominations, but cultural upbringing, geographic locations, worship style preferences and historic vs. contemporary practice has caused people to venture out in ways that would put Mapquest out of business if they navigated under the same rules. It should come as no surprise that the un-churched world around us scratches their heads when viewing our mass confusion.  We have the message of hope and can accommodate any preference you may have in receiving it, like your local TCBY-just pick the toppings you want-thousands of possible combinations.

But here’s the real scoop (pun intended). Denominations are largely man made, not God intended. how do we know?  Just examine the words recorded in the New Testament;

1 Cor. 1:10; I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

Eph. 4:6; There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 

Phil. 2:1: So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Romans 15:5; May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Eph. 2:19; So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together…

I am fully aware of the over simplification I am suggesting in Christian unity, however, these verses are absolute truths and inspired recordings.  Any deviation from and absolute renders it as not an absolute, correct? This was clearly addressed by Paul in the church of Corinth when he heard reports of some claiming “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Paul was disturbed at how the focus was shifted from Christ to men and made clear that this was not acceptable.

The follow up question from those of you mature in the faith with an understanding of how the Holy Spirit works to reveal God’s Word to us, is how can the Holy Spirit of Christ yield so many differing interpretations of the same Holy Scripture and the same Gospel? The obvious answer is it can’t. Christ is not divided-He is not inconsistent, He does not author confusion or make exemptions for bad exegesis or uncomfortable truth. Man alone does that, through pride, arrogance, stubbornness and even disobedience.  God is all about unity-a man and a woman shall become one-I and the Father are one-there is one body, and so on and so on.

So what is the truth? For believers it is black and white. There is one God, the Father of us all, One Son and One Holy spirit. Man is sinful and should receive the death penalty for sin but our salvation was paid for by the Blood of Christ, who rose from the grave after three days to sit at God’s right hand and allow us access to His Father and to eternal life when we confess Him as Lord.  Everything else is just fluff and confusion. Jesus said “I am THE way” Everything about that statement is singular and exclusive!  It is man who has turned One Way into 43,00 ways. Are they all 100% Biblically accurate or properly interpreted?  Most likely not.  Will they all lead to the same place? Most likely so. So why the confusion?

The Purpose of Memorials

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One of the most solemn and eerie memorials we ever visited was the Pearl Harbor Memorial situated over the sunken Arizona in Hawaii. From the deck you can easily view the remains of the lost battleship that serves as the final resting place of hundreds of brave soldiers. You can see and smell the still leaking oil from the steel tomb rising to the surface. The legend is that as long as there are survivors of that attack the oil will continue to rise to the surface as a reminder and a sign from their shipmates below. It’s an experience that pierces the hardest facades and causes one to remember the tragic losses of that infamous day.

April 14th, 1984. We received a call at the office to return home immediately-there was a fire. Upon pulling into the parking lot of our apartment complex we were in shock to see the burned out frame of what was just an hour before, our home. We were left with the clothes we wore to work that day. Nothing survived-except one sole box that held a collection of ribbons I had won in High School during my Track and Field Days.  I still have that box tucked safely away in my garage.  It is my reminder of the events of that day.

Our lives are built around a series of markers, or memorials, some of pleasant events and others of painful experiences.  They are left behind to tell us that something significant happened in our lives on this particular day or at this certain location. We may not even recognize the markers that we encounter.  Our mates are a marker of the day we entered into the marital commitment, a pleasant day for most.  Our kids are walking markers of the day love brought forth shared life. April 15th is a marker that reminds us that it’s time to pay our increasing tax burden for the freedoms we enjoy. The American Flag is a constantly waving reminder that even though she is sick and maybe not what she used to be, she is still the greatest country in the world.  No one is trying to escape our borders.

As believers we have several memorials left behind for our observance. The rainbows that appear after a heavy storm are God’s reminder to us to never destroy the earth for our sins and disobedience to Him. The communion we receive is done in remembrance of the love and the sacrifice of our Savior as He gave up His body and blood for our good. Christmas and Easter and the Passover are calendar memorials that commemorate the events of the Bible that are central to our faith. The cross we wear around our neck or tattoo on our body is a memorial of the ultimate expression of love that is just as fresh to day as it was over two thousand years ago.

On This Memorial Day we pay tribute to the brave men and women who served, who lost limbs, who suffered tragic burns in explosions and who paid the ultimate price of their lives so that we could bicker over religious freedoms, argue over Constitutional rights, blame everyone but ourselves for our current status and yes, even stomp Old glory and burn the Holy Bible. The freedoms we were blessed by God to be born into did not come cheap. There was a heavy toll paid for our freedom.  We must never forget that.

And the eternal life and salvation that we were born again into also came at a heavy price-we must never forget that either. God bless you this Memorial Day, God bless and have mercy on America.

Praise Him for Roses-Thank Him for the Thorns

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Have you ever been stuck by a sharp thorn?  Why do some of the most beautiful flowers, shrubs and even fruits, have thorns?  When you think of roses, how can something so beautiful and desired and something so painful and unwanted grow together on the same vine?  These are the types of things I think about-questions few ask.  So I did some research on plants with thorns, briers, or other prickly appendages.

There are three specific functions of the thorns on plants. The first one involves protection.  Specific to the rose, thorns offer protection from larger plant eating animals that may otherwise prey on the flower for food.  The large pointed thorns tell would be herbivores to leave this plant alone for their own good.  At the same time, the thorns are large enough that smaller bugs or insects can easily maneuver them and carry on their task of pollination, assuring that the plants will produce beautiful blooms when the time is right.  I had a pyracanthia tree in my back yard and the thorns are deadly, but when that tree was in full bloom, it was magnificent. Thorns are vital in the protection and the growth process of the plant.

Psalm 91:14 says “I will rescue those who love me.  I will protect those who trust in my name.

There are a variety of flowers that are pretty to look at but are easy to pick or snatch up.  They have no protection that would cause predators to turn away. But smart people don’t grab a rose and try to snatch it up like you might a tulip or daisy because they know they will come away with a bloody hand.  Christ is our protector-He prevents our devourers from snatching us up. 

John 10: 28  No one can snatch them away from me, 29 for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else.[d] No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand

The second function of thorns in certain plants is to direct water to the stem for growth.  They take in moisture in the form of fog, dew or rain, and direct them to the root of the plant’s water table to help the plant grow.  You can imagine how important this is to the life of cacti which typically live in hot dry climates.  You can say that without the thorns, the cacti would not survive the heat and drought.

In Job 38:26 God is speaking to Job after he complained to God about the troubles he had just gone through.

Who do you suppose carves canyons  for the downpours of rain, and charts the route of thunderstorms that bring water to unvisited fields, deserts no one ever lays eyes on, drenching the useless wastelands so they’re carpeted with wildflowers and grass? And who do you think is the father of rain and dew, the mother of ice and frost? 

God provides us with those things we need for growth in Him, even though at times the process is painful and we question His methods.

The third purpose of thorns, particularly briers, is that they offer the plant support and the ability to reach toward the sky for sunlight.  Plants like these are typically low lying berry plants.  I will never forget the many weekends when I was young when my dad would load us up in the car and drive far out to the country looking for wild blackberry and raspberry plants.   The plants that were the tallest were always the one with the biggest berries because they were closer to the sun’s nutrients.  These briers allow the stems of the plant to hook on to each other and give them support or stability from falling.  If you’ve picked blackberries, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  It is virtually impossible to separate these vines or branches from each other because they are so intensely entwined with each other.  Without briers, these plants would lie flat to the ground and would not produce fruit.

To me this scenario is the easiest to compare to the thorns that come our way.  More times than not, we view the troubles in our life as thorns that are painful and unwelcome.  Life today is full of these thorns-losing a job, failed marriages, unexpected sickness, deaths of loved ones, bankruptcy, being victimized by crime, and the list goes on.  Like Job we would question God as to why these troubles come our way, as if we’re above trials and tribulations, or worse, that God is picking on us for some reason.  We fail to recognize that these thorns of life are meant to make us grow, make us stronger, give us protection, and keep us close to the Son.  We forget that Psalm 23 says the God is with us when we walk THROUGH the valley of shadows and death, not around it.  We believe the mis-teachings of those who would tell us that the Christian walk is easy if we living right.  But that’s not what Christ taught us-He said that in this life we would have troubles!

But we gain strength and endurance in these thorny situations.  The process of building and gaining muscle in weight lifting happens in the strain of the lift.  The muscles are actually torn down and they regenerate as stronger and larger muscles.

Romans 5 says We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

When we’ve been through these trials and survived, we become support for others who are going through similar situations.  Those who are the most helpful and supporting in bad times are the ones who have already been through the same situations.  There is strength when people get together who have similar thorns in their past and together they can help and support the weaker vines or people who now need to reach the Son.

If you’re like me you’ll never view roses again without noticing the thorns and understanding their importance in producing something so beautiful and so sought after. Remember, it’s the thorns we don’t see that help create the beauty in each of us through a divine process we don’t need to understand, but one we should accept with thanks.

 

My Worship Music is Better Than Your Worship Music

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I know when a post is bound to get me into hot water with some.  This is one of those times. I am often amused, bewildered, confused and disappointed at the comments I hear or read about various styles of musical worship in the church. The common complaints are:

The music is too loud; The music is too contemporary; The music is too old; I wish they would sing hymns; We changed churches because we didn’t like the music; God doesn’t move through that kind of music.

We choose churches many times like we choose which concerts to attend, based solely on the quality and genre of the worship music.  We want to attend where we receive the best worship experience and where we feel God’s presence over other locations. Even worse than this, many still view the Worship time of a church service as simply a time to allow stragglers to get there before the sermon begins. Even while composing this I can’t believe the arrogance we display when we approach corporate worship. Are we really that self-centered a church that we use worship style as criteria for membership?

We are all products of our upbringing and exposure when it comes to church attendance.  Of course we naturally have certain preferences of music styles when given an opportunity to choose.  Many churches actually offer worship experiences either at different times or simultaneously to accommodate all preferences, but that can lead to separation within the church, or an Us vs. them mentality.  I only know the people who attend my specific worship service, about a third of the total church. The problem with this ongoing debate over worship preferences is that by definition, a preference is reflective of a personal, inward “what I desire” attitude vs. an outward expression and contribution to worship of an all inclusive God. That, in my opinion is where we miss the boat in this debate.  There are at least two big problems with the way in which we approach musical worship.

This is the first problem as I see it. I have been involved in heated discussions with some of my Christian siblings regarding which style is more conducive to the moving and freedom of the Holy Spirit of God.  It makes me want to scream and run naked King Davis style at how self-righteous we sound when trying to argue one style being more “spiritual” of “Godly” than another.  Lets take a look back at the history of music as we know it.

Western hymns began with the Homeric Hymns written around 700 BC in Greece and sung to ancient Greek Gods. Their origins are clearly founded in idolatry, not Christianity.

Byzantine or Chant music is an ancient traditional music style that involves a series of tones used to put poems and prayers to worship.  It is vocal only and can be traced as one of the original musical worship forms of the early church.

Gospel music, the basis for Black Gospel, Southern Gospel et al, can be traced no further back than the 17th century as a poetic call, response style set to rhythm with hand clapping and foot stomping.

Jazz is another African American style dated to late 19th century but hailed as an American Original art form.  It gain popularity in 1910 in the New Orleans area with heavy brass influence and has evolved into modern jazz, southern jazz, jazz fusion and the like.

Rhythm and Blues, or R & B, dates to 1940 and combined blues, jazz and urban influence into a new style. R & B bands might consist of piano, guitars, bass, drums, brass, and background vocalists.

Country and Western can be traced to Atlanta, GA in or about 1920 and is easily identified by its guitars, banjos, hillbilly lyrics and all things Apple Pie and Chevrolet. There is no need to further describe Country music.

Rock and Roll emerged in the 50’s as a style influenced by gospel, Jazz, Blues and Country.  It started with Bill Haley and others and now includes Heavy rock, garage or Seattle rock, alternative, rock, pop, grunge and more.

The 70’s introduced us to Contemporary Christian Music, banned on radio stations and picketed at church or concert events.  The list of pioneers who paid heavy prices is too long to list.  Some include Andre Crouch, Petra, Larry Norman, Barry McGuire and the Rez Band. They were booed and protested but they endured and we enjoy CCM as one of several worship styles today.

Here is my problem with arguing the effectiveness and spirituality of worship styles used in the church today.  All of these music genres have one glaring fact in common that can’t be debated.  It’s quite simple but so often overlooked in our arrogance.  Are you ready-wait for it-grab a seat!

THEY ARE ALL MAN MADE!

We are in essence arguing that the music my great-grandpa invented is better than the music your great-great-uncle invented.  We are speaking for God in saying He only moves through a hymn but not an urban rap song.  We are limiting the move and the power and the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit by suggesting this style is more worshipful than that style.  As it relates to corporate worship we are catering to the inward receiving attitude of worship and enabling divisions in the church over worship preferences. We are defining God by time signatures, instrument selection and tradition within styles that are still in their infancy in the great time table.

The second problem and perhaps the greater grievance is that somehow we have made worship all about us and not about God.  We have actually created denominations based on worship genres. We have adopted the attitude of coming to a worship service to receive from God, opposed to coming together to corporately join and offer our outward expressions of love, devotion and gratitude TO God. To put it simply, we paid for a good show when we should have been in the band! We have made it clear that we want to worship this way-we are only receptive to this style-we can only feel God with a 2/4 back beat or a Hammond organ and not with a fiddle, a harp or an acapella choir.

I researched all the verses pertaining to worship music that I could find in scripture and this is all I could determine:

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord: Praise him with songs, psalms and spiritual songs; praise him with drums, stringed instruments and cymbals; make merry melody from your heart; enter into His courts with praise!  Play skillfully with a loud noise; Sing your praises to Him.

i can’t determine a defining genre or style being suggested anywhere in the OT or NT. I can’t find where one man-made style is more honorable than another.  I can’t see where God’s spirit was moving until someone hit a bad note or plucked the bass too loud or used an out-of-tune piano as their only backup. I can’t find where the whisper of a shy child singing a song was any less received than the most beautiful operatic voice. In fact I find just the opposite. I’m no saint-please don’t presume otherwise. I have just come to adapt an attitude of grateful praise in whatever environment I am in.  I attend a service where Rock and Blues is the theme and love it.  When I visit my brother’s Greek Orthodox church I relish in the ancient and reverent tonal chants they use that date back centuries.  When I am alone on the weekend I show my age by singing along with the old quartet hymns. When I’m on the beach I listen to the incomparable praise of His created waves-something no man can duplicate, and am moved to awe in worship.

Don’t go to church to worship-bring the worship to church with you. Don’t attend to receive-attend to be part of the two or three gathered in His name.  Don’t go to church to play worship Simon Says-worship god in Spirit and truth from the heart whatever that looks like for you. And please, don’t get caught up in the arrogant self-centered debates over how God decides to respond to His people. Just go and join in a unified response to Him! It’s not about styles, instrument selection or volume levels-it’s about uncontainable and inexpressible reverence, fear and awe from forgiven sinful felons who have had their sentences commuted! But if you want to mic the drums that’s okay too!

Red & Yellow, Black & White-ALL Lives Matter

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If you were raised in Sunday School as I was you will remember this song we all knew:

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world

     Red and yellow, black and white-they are precious in his sight.

A simple little tune composed for children but perhaps one that should be revisited by us adults for it’s purity as it is the core of Christianity. There is a conspicuous hypocrisy in the protests and riots covered recently by news media like piranha circling a bloody corpse in murky water.  Lest I be stoned or my car set on fire, allow me to explain. We have a civic right, and some might even suggest a duty to voice our strong opposition to what are deemed social injustices when and where they occur. We are indeed protected under our rights for peaceful assembly and protests. In recent cases made known to us by media outlets and social sites that show rogue cops asserting unreasonable force, the resulting protests should not be surprising. Officer Friendly is taking a social beating like the one some of his comrades appear to be dishing out. The rush to judgment and the indignation leading to burned out cars, looted businesses and destroyed housing complexes is covered and the flames fanned by news media and modern social activists, seemingly to bring light and change to the situation.

But in my charge of hypocrisy I must ask the question-do all lives really matter or just the ones that fit into certain social agendas that serve to boost ratings?  Does the unjustified death of an individual really spark rage with us or are we merely reacting to controlled media feedings like Pavlov’s dog?  Does violence, blood, and death really affect us as it once did?  Consider for a moment the #1 selling video game of the last few years, Grand Theft Auto, now in it’s 5th release. The player can choose from one of three characters in a no-rules games that glorifies crime.  You gain points and power for more intense violence by dragging people out of their cars and by beating street civilians to death.  Almost as popular is another game called Watch Dog, set on the fictional streets of Chicago, where you gain points and access into private homes through events that involve violence, blood, nudity, sexual acts, drugs and alcohol. Video games have come along way since Pong and the desensitization of crime and death is instilled in our youth right under our noses, yet we march and protest when we perceive the wrongful death of someone caught up in these acts.

To further support my hypocrisy charge of indignation over death I want to introduce the following statistics of other unjustifiable deaths that few media outlets find newsworthy enough to report.

Year-to-date abortions in the us for 2015 are at 380,000.  There were over 1.06 million last year.  Year-to-date abortions in the world are already at 14,100,000 and expected to top 30,000,000 by years end. Where are the protests?

The Homicide rate in the U.S. last year was over 15,000.  5,000 of those were kids and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24 years old. Around the globe over 437,000 murders were reported with over 95,000 of them being children under legal age.  Where are the picket signs and posters?

This year 1.5 million people will die from starvation-75% of them young children, you know, the ones that are precious in His sight. In fact in the time it will take you to read this post 84 children will have passed away from simple lack of food. Where are the burning buildings?

Although numbers are often exaggerated, there were over 2100 documented deaths last year of persons killed for their religious beliefs and that number however calculated grows each year, with many more going unreported due to lack of proper documentation. Where are our pastors-turned-activists for them?  Do their lives matter?

Last year in the U.S. alone, there weer 466,949 reports of missing children; half will never be found.  Most will end up in the sex trafficking industry in Third World countries where the U.S is too busy hammering out policy to protect oil concerns than to focus on the evil of child sexploitation that includes many kids, mostly girls from our own country. Where is CNN, FOX and MSNBC on these stories?

In the 18th chapter of Matthew Jesus makes it very clear to us how He regards children, and what our responsibility is to them in His kingdom:

Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

“And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

The fact that so many take to Facebook and other social sites to voice their two cents worth over sensationalized media stories, however true they may be, but overlook the real atrocities being perpetrated on our kids every day without one comment is the epitome of hypocrisy in my humble opinion. Sending your funds to a Go Fund Me account for the criminal defense of a charged assailant or supporters of social protests but not sending a penny to organizations feeding children around the world seems equally hypocritical. Back in the day many wore the trendy WWJD bracelets that stood for What Would Jesus Do.  If He were here today in body would He be in the streets of Baltimore or in shanties of hungry kids in India?  Would he be in a courtroom trial of an officer or would He be in the streets of Nigeria holding the hands of those being martyred for His namesake?  Would He be marching with a picket sign or would He be crying over the lost innocence of a girl taken from her family and forced to work the streets in Thailand? Would Jesus be found in the church meetings of preachers working up their congregations over police shootings or would He be found in the midst of the souls of the millions of children who never saw the light of day but are just as precious in His sight?

What enrages us today? What makes the hairs on our heads stand on end? What events bring us to tears? What in all the hyped up footage really causes our hearts to break? If we are more outraged at the thought of a same-sex couple than we are at the images of lifeless corpses of dead children we are hypocrites. ALL lives matter-the faceless-the nameless-the inconvenient-the abandoned-the homeless-the incarcerated-they are all precious in His sight.  May they all be precious in ours as well.

 

The Healthy Fear of a Sovereign God

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As a young boy much bigger for may age than average, there was little I was afraid of, at least from my peers. I got into very little trouble growing up. It might have been that I was in church so much there was little down time to get into any mischief. Or it may have been the one thing I did fear-those six words that evoked the fire of God whenever I heard them-“just wait until your dad gets home”. You see, at 6’8″ and 300 lbs my dad too was bigger than average! For greater impact I would hear my mom relaying the details of my latest waywardness to my dad when he called while on break, so I knew he would be planning my punishment for several hours before ha came home and played the role of disciplinarian. In every single case the wait was more dreaded and effective than the punishment.

As a believer I am grateful for a God who we can approach as Abba Father-one who is often described as loving, gracious, merciful kind, forgiving, patient-all attributes which are scriptural and true. We are told and can bet our life on the scriptures that tell us nothing can separate us from the unconditional love of God.  But, I wonder if the church, both the institutional church and the body of believers that make up the church, have so embraced the message of grace that we have completely disregarded the unchallenged sovereignty of God. We don’t want to consider the Old Testament God of jealousy , vengeance and wrath because it doesn’t fit into our 2015 definition of a more tolerant, sociable, politically correct, changing with the times God that we have created to better fit our conscious-one that allows us to fit in and be more widely accepted and considered for office, for promotion and for more likes on our social media outlets.

It’s ironic that those who oppose or deny the concept of God are first to point out accurately that God killed people in the Old testament simply because they did not follow His commands. The Mega-churches have apparently lost that section of the Bible. Don’t get me wrong-I believe that those who are looking for the truth and for eternal hope should not be scared into salvation at the thought of an angry God just for eternal insurance purposes alone. The message of the cross is one of forgiveness, of hope, of reconciliation and restoration of a sinful people to a loving, caring God whose desire is that none should perish needlessly. But to properly appreciate the loving and merciful side of God one must balance it against the judging, jealous and total rule of the same God who created a race of people to worship Him and Him alone and to fear Him who has no equals.

The stories of God’s wrath against an unruly people are too numerous to list. There were complete cities destroyed for their shameless disobedience. The armies of Israel were often decimated when they turned their backs on God.  Even Moses was prohibited from entering the Promised land because of a procedural error.  God was and is a stern God who demands fear, allegiance and obedience-nothing has changed in His expectations.  The difference today is God’s gift of His Son who took our sin punishment on the cross and acts as our advocate by covering us who accept Him with His righteousness so that the wrath of God is thwarted before being administered.

We are living in a time of great arrogance and brazen boldness as a church in general and as a nation as it relates to the issues and spiritual challenges of the day.  In order to boost attendance and keep our nonprofit status we have put forth a God who more resembles a Disney character than a God who is described in Revelation having hair white as wool and eyes blazing like fire-with feet like burning bronze and a tongue like a double edged sword. When I was younger and in church I hated always hearing sermons about hell-about how you could leave the church building and be struck by a car and enter into eternity.  The message left me uncomfortable and uneasy about the true motive for following in the path of Christ.  But the message was and is that God can’t be ignored forever just because His ways and laws are inconvenient to us or socially irrelative to the current culture.

In Him there is a life of abundance. But outside of Him, there is danger-there is peril-there is judgment. Some might ask “why would God do that” or how does a loving God allow this or that”. And my answer would be simply, I don’t always know.  He is God, I’m not. He’s in charge-I’m under His loving rule. I don’t try to argue with God.  I have many questions, but who Am I to demand answers or justification from God. I accept my role and love the promise of what is waiting.  And yes, I fear God.  Not in a panic fear but in the realization that apart from Christ, I am worthy of no less than the punishment I read about in the Old Testament.

We are living in perilous times. The Word of God is being dissected and voided of all hateful appearing verbiage. The Government is trying to tell us how we can interpret and practice our faith in complete defiance of the first Amendment to practice without interference. The entertainment, educational and political systems are lining up against the church in what will eventually play itself out as a major war for the saints that may change the face of the church as we know it now.  It is time like never before to have or develop a healthy fear of God, His word, His commands and His judgment.  The popular t-shirt is so right on-“Only God Can Judge Me”. What a horrible notion for those living in opposition to His nature and His sovereignty.

Stories Behind the Songs We Love

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I have always loved the progression of Contemporary Christian Music and the impact it has had on sharing our faith with music that appeals to the younger crowd.  Just this past weekend I attended a Worship Experience here with Tenth Avenue North and Chris Tomlin, the Bill Gaither of our generation and had an amazing time of praise and worship. However, I grew up on the Hymns of the church and they are ingrained into my memory as much as the multiplication tables I learned in school.  While I may never relinquish my love for Contemporary Christian music, I am finding that the older I get the more I love and appreciate the hymns from my past.  It’s funny how I can be going about my daily business and out of nowhere an old hymn that I haven’t sung since I was a kid will start playing in my mind as if I had been singing it over the past weekend. Some would call that dementia; I call it wisdom.

There is a purity and an integrity in the lyrics of songs written before our days that is hard to find in their modern successors.  You can almost hear the intensity and the depth of the relationships these authors had with their God, one that is envious to me.  But even beyond the depth of their faith are the stories and the tragedies behind some of the most popular hymns that make the songs even more inspiring if possible.  I wanted to share a couple with you on this post.

Horatio Spafford was a wealthy Chicago Attorney with a successful practice in the mid to late 1800’s. He was a devout Christian and counted among his friends Dwight Moody. But money doesn’t protect one from tragedy.  Early on he and his wife Anna lost their young son, devastating to the most faithful of men. Shortly thereafter in the Great Chicago fire of 1871 Spafford suffered a great financial loss when most all of his real estate investments went up in smoke.

In 1873 Spafford scheduled a boat trip to Europe for his wife and four remaining daughters where they could relax and recover from their recent losses. Spafford would be joining them and then helping Moody with an evangelistic campaign but last minute business detained him in Chicago. About 4 days into the trip the Ville du Harve collided with a Scottish Iron vessel and within 12 minutes the ship sank into the deep Atlantic taking 226 passenger down with her, including all of Horatio’s daughters.  A fishing boat near the scene spotted a woman clinging to some boards.  It was Spafford’s wife Anna-she had survived. She sent a wire to Spafford which simply said “I alone survived.  What shall I do?”

Devastated and in mourning Spafford boarded a ship to meet his wife in Wales.  About 4 days into the trip the Captain of the ship came to Spafford’s cabin to tell him they were over the area where the Ville du Harve had sunk. Spafford went to the deck to view the spot and reflect on his loss. It is there and at that moment that Horatio Spafford penned these words:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet and trials should come

Let this blessed assurance control

That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate

And has shed His own blood for my soul

Chorus:

It is well with my soul,

It is well, it is well with my soul

It would be the only hymn Spafford would ever write but one that brings hope to everyone who hears it haunting but beautiful lyrics. What an amazing and incomprehensible testament to the faith of a truly Godly man, to compose such a timeless classic in the midst of the most horrific tragedy.  This is the purity and integrity of lyrics to which I referred.

Louisa Stead was born in 1850. At a very young age Louisa felt a call to ministry but she suffered from frail health and was unable to go into the mission field. At age 25 Louisa married the love of her life and later gave birth to their daughter Lilly. But just a few short years later her beloved husband was attempting to save the life of a drowning child and in his attempt lost his own life.  Louisa was devastated beyond grief.  It was in her sorrow that she penned these now famous words:

‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
And to take Him at His Word;
Just to rest upon His promise,
And to know, ‘Thus says the Lord!’

I’m so glad I learned to trust Thee,
Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend;
And I know that Thou art with me,
Wilt be with me to the end.

Chorus

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
O for grace to trust Him more!

Who was the “wretch” in Amazing Grace? John Newton, born in 1725 grew up with no religious training or conviction and was often in trouble.  he was forced involuntarily into the military and the service of the Royal Navy where he learned his navigational skills. After leaving the Royal Navy he became a major figure in the Atlantic Slave Trading business.  During one of his trip his ship was hit with a violent storm off the coast of Ireland that battered his boat so severely he instinctively cried out to God for rescue. It is while his boat was being repaired that he penned the first verse to this Anthem of the Faith;

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost but now I’m found

Was blind but now I see

In 1755 Newton gave up slave trading and entered Seminary. He went on to a vocation of Christian ministry and completed the song Amazing Grace.  It is estimated that this tune is sung more than ten million times annually in churches across America yet today. It’s a story of redemption from past sins, of hope for the lowliest of creatures and of our future glory, When We’ve Been There Ten Thousand Years.  It has truly become one of if not the most recognizable hymns in history.

There are so many more stories like these of the circumstances behind the hymns we love-not all of them as tragic but just as inspiring. They say the greatest love songs ever written come from a broken heart.  It can truly be said that the most inspiring hymns of the church today come from tragedy and broken spirits.  But oh how we are the benefactors of the situations that birthed these awesome anthems that we relish and still sing today.  I’m not getting rid of any of my contemporary CD’s just yet, but When the Roll is Called Up Yonder and With a Thousand Tongues to Tell we sing Holy Holy Holy and How Great Thou Art to our Fairest Lord Jesus, I’m not sure how I’ll be able to contain the overwhelming joy and gratitude, or express any better our adoration to Him than these and others have already done decades ago.  The older I get, the more precious these hymns.

Politics and the Church-Our Filthy Rags

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We as the Church in America are about to embark upon what has become a heated, sometimes hostile, divided and downright nasty debate that leaves those outside the church scratching their heads as they observe. With the onset of the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, candidates are throwing their hats into the ring and announcing their intent and the Church is rolling up their sleeves and forming battle lines that would intimidate Navy Seal teams.  They will back their candidate and prepare for a war that will play itself out in embarrassing fashion on social media with misquotes, creative memes and misguided scriptural support that will be at least as muddy as the campaigns themselves. It has always been this way but with the transparency of social media outlets the debate within the Church is now exploited for the world to see like a window dancer in the Red light district.  It’s shameful, divisive and heartbreaking to witness and the resulting battles divide the American Church more than any other social event or issue.

We all have different ideas and expectations of those we elect to represent us both at the State and Federal level of Government.  Foreign policy, local economy, Government spending and taxation, entitlements, education, healthcare, social agendas, all have different weight and priority to the individual voter, which is completely understandable. We all come from different backgrounds and carry with us varying ideals formed from our own unique personal experience and upbringing. Some vote Red or Blue because that’s just what their family has always done; some vote one way or another strictly on a single issue.  Some approach their decision prayerfully while others approach it based on the good of their personal bank account.  Some are very private and secretive in their balloting while many will use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin and other Social outlets as their soapbox for all things holy and political.

I am so grateful to be born in a country where we can cast a vote in a democratic process to elect leaders, to be able to voice opinions or displeasure with the administration with little or no repercussion, and to be engaged at whatever level of activity we choose in the process.  And I can appreciate that just as there are apparently 35,000 different Christian denominations of the Same Gospel there are also at least the same number of opinions and criteria for voting in elections. What is hard to accept is the vile and the tone of speech and posts from siblings in Christ displayed with each other who don’t come to the same political conclusions as others believe they should.  I have actually seen the following comments displayed on my page over the years from confessed believers:

“How can you call yourself Christian but vote for that person?” 

“A real believer wouldn’t be part of that party”

“If you vote that way your an idiot”

“Just shoot them all”

So in considering what is about to be played out for the unchurched public, I have to approach this with my eyes open from two points of view; 1) What does the Word say, if anything, about casting our vote, and 2) What does the Word tell us about being an example to a world who is watching us or looking to us for real hope and solutions?  For me, these are the only things that should matter.

First, what scriptural references do we have for elections or for those we elect?  Not surprisingly, there are several passages dealing with this subject:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful;” Psalm 1:1

“Moreover you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.” Exodus 18:21

“He who rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. ” 2 Samuel 23:3

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols?   2 Corinthians 6:14

“Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is the reproach of any people.” Proverbs 14:34 –

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord…” (Psalms 33:12) 

However you approach your ballot, there are fundamental truths laid out for us in scripture that should guide your decision. Contrary to what is being sponsored as truth, God’s laws are not to be disregarded. The welfare of widows, children, homeless, sick-the integrity of life-these things should always trump the welfare of our net worth, the protection of our retirement or any other non-Kingdom criteria used in making a voting decision. Sometime the best vote is not the one that benefits you.

Second, how should the world view us during this process-should we be boisterous in our arrogance and piety which only serves to emphasize our divisions? Or should Christ be glorified in our speech, in our debate, in our tones, in our posts and in the words we choose as we label each other Red or Blue?  So back to the Word we go:

Matthew 5:16 “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

Romans 13:14; Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy 

Ephesians 5:7-14 Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light

Acts 13:47 “For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I HAVE PLACED YOU AS A LIGHT FOR THE GENTILES, THAT YOU MAY BRING SALVATION TO THE END OF THE EARTH.'”

I can only speculate that God may question the motives behind our voting habits and our public expression or our political affiliation.  But based on the passages above, I can pretty much guarantee we will be judged by how we let our light shine before the world or what fruit they saw in us during political seasons. When the Church takes on the appearance of the world in our political bantering and the mud bombs launched at each other over Presidential candidates, to the point we are no longer distinguishable as the Church of Christ, our magnified division and ultimate demise will be thunderous and catastrophic to a world looking for something we possess but lose focus on at times-the hope of the Gospel, the evidence of “love thy Neighbor”.

We have a long journey to November 2016. I fear that the potential for much harm will be realized before it’s over. I pray that we in the Body of Christ hold to our right to vote but live our lives in the process in a way that does not divide, that we disagree with reason, sobriety and respect, and that above all else, Jesus is glorified in our actions and not defiled in our debate.

The Twice a Year Husband

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I must say I’ve been blessed with a pretty amazing, forgiving, gracious and still attractive wife. Ours may not be the perfect relationship. We have weathered some storms that few know of and can only boast that we survived. But I can’t imagine sharing my earthly life with anyone else.  She keeps me grounded, motivated, inspired and loved, and I strive to do the same for her.  To quote an old song, Me and Mrs. Hill got a Thing Going On.

As important a role she plays in my life, I’ve tried to imagine what our relationship would look like if I only acknowledged her two or three times per year, maybe on her birthday or our anniversary or Valentines Day. What kind of a marriage would we have if I only spoke to her, wrapped my arms around her, acknowledged her or in any other way interacted with her only on certain annual occasions? What would the state of our marital bliss be if she waited for me to come home from work so we could be together but I completely ignored her as I headed for the dinner table or to my room to relax?  And heaven forbid, what if she tried talking to me each day but I only responded to her communication attempts twice each year?  I think I can say with all certainty that we would be just another divorce statistic.

Last week most of us celebrated Easter. Churches cleaned up and put their best foot forward in anticipating the larger than normal attendance of biannual visitors.  Facebook and social media was lit up with memes and images and the traditional posts that go along with the Easter reflections. Retailers offered sale prices for those who would buy that once a year dress or suit for church.  Television offered up the usual King of Kings, Ten Commandments, The Robe, The Passion and other Easter themed programming. Even CNN got in on the act with their series on Jesus.  And oh the goodies and specials given at Easter at the local eateries, knowing there would be long lines waiting to dine after the Easter services. Don’t get me wrong-I am grateful anytime Christ is glorified and acknowledged-He is surely worthy of our accolades and so much more.

Revelation 5:12-  And they sang in a mighty chorus: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered–to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.”

In considering the implied ramifications of being a twice per year husband as it relates to the marital relationship, how can we defend biannual reflections on our faith or expect any different results if we choose to be twice per year believers?  Are we just as guilty of acknowledging the divine work of redemption and the ultimate sacrifice of our Savior at Christmas and Easter?  Are we too engrossed in our lives to take a few minutes to converse with God each day?  Do we forego the opportunity to unite with our brothers and sisters in corporate worship each week? Do we boast of the various Bible translations we have on our shelves but rarely spend time in devotion of scripture?  If we tended to our wives or husbands the way we tend to church would our relationships be stronger, or much weaker?  And if we tended to our faith in the same manner we do our mates, would we be weaker or much stronger?

Being engaged in your faith and in the universal and local church is critical to the health of your spiritual walk. The Bible is not shy about church attendance and involvement:

Hebrews 10:25-Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near

Matthew 18:20-For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them

Colossians 3:16-Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God

Psalm 92:12-The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

I can’t imagine how I would get by if I only interacted with my beautiful wife twice each year. I am so grateful for the knowledge that even on less than perfect days, she is there and I can approach her, speak to her, spend time alone with her and enjoy the fruits of the relationship we have with each other. There is no greater joy in my earthly life than pleasing her and being in her company.  How much more, given the world we live in and the continuing martyrdom that we hear of daily, am I grateful in knowing that I can commune with God daily, and that He cherishes the time I devote to Him.  My faith, though still weak at times is strengthened through engagement and my soul is nourished in corporate worship.  What a mess I would be if I only met with God at Christmas and Easter.

I AM HE-The Proven Submission of Jesus

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Most of us have seen various depictions through movies of the events leading up to and including the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Some may have even felt a tinge of hostility toward the religious leaders and Roman rule who so viciously had Jesus beaten, tortured and put to death, as if they were actually in control of the events. The accounts of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and trial are similarly recorded in the four gospels.  But the account John gives us has one added observation, one that leaves us with no doubt that the only person who had total control of the events that night was in fact Jesus.

This account aligns perfectly with the intent and theme of each of the four gospels, not to be viewed as inconsistent, but as different perspectives of the same story.  Matthew writes to Jews familiar with the Old Testament presenting the genealogy of Jesus and proof of Old Testament prophecy that Jesus in the expected Messiah. Mark’s audience is more to the Romans not familiar with the Old Testament prophecies.  Mark provides more stories of the miracles of Jesus as proof through action of His deity. Luke’s objective was to point out the human element of Jesus through various and detailed physical descriptions, including the anatomical aspects of the death of Jesus-fully God in the form of human man.  John on the other hand wrote in a way to show us from the very first verse that Jesus was the human expression of the eternal God-“In the beginning was the Word-the Word was with God and the Word  WAS GOD!”  So it’s only natural that John would remind us that even in death, Jesus God was present. This is how John reveals this to us in his gospel:

John 18:1-5;   18 After saying these things, Jesus crossed the Kidron Valley with his disciples and entered a grove of olive trees. Judas, the betrayer, knew this place, because Jesus had often gone there with his disciples. The leading priests and Pharisees had given Judas a contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple guards to accompany him. Now with blazing torches, lanterns, and weapons, they arrived at the olive grove. Jesus fully realized all that was going to happen to him, so he stepped forward to meet them. “Who are you looking for?” he asked. “Jesus the Nazarene,” they replied. I am he,” Jesus said. (Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.) As Jesus said I am he,” they all drew back and fell to the ground!

Jesus God invoked the very name He had given in response to Moses when asked “who should I tell them has sent me?”  God said “tell them I Am has sent you”. At the very verbalizing of the name ‘I Am” all who came to arrest Jesus were given full disclosure if they had any doubt of who Jesus really was-God!  Who was in the crowd that came that night to arrest Jesus?  The gospels give us enough information to determine that it was a mixed crowd of select religious leaders, the guards of the Jewish temple and Roman soldiers-Jews and Gentiles alike. It is given through Peter’s response in slicing off the ear of one of the religious leader’s servants that even the disciples were shaken at the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, so His response of “I Am” and the resulting “we all fall down” that they witnessed served to assure them too that Jesus was in total control.

I can’t help but imagine the reaction of the religious leaders when they found themselves on the ground at the mention of the name “I Am”. How long did they sit there? Were they in shock?  Did they begin to question their authority or Christ’s deity? How could they just get up, shake the dust from their cloaks and continue in this arrest?  What about the Roman guard?  They were strong and feared men who ruled by force and intimidation.  They were reportedly carrying swords on their person.  But at the mentioning of the name “I Am” they too were knocked backwards to the ground by the power of Jesus’ words.  There should have been little doubt to all who were present that night, the religious leaders, the Roman guard and the followers of Christ that this man was God in the flesh and in charge of the situation.

Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus portrays this very nature of total control of what’s coming ahead.  In John 10:14-18 Jesus spells it out for us very clearly:

 14“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

In Mark’s gospel, chapter 8, Jesus is again recorded as predicting to His followers what must come.  From the Message Bible,

30-32 Jesus warned them to keep it quiet, not to breathe a word of it to anyone. He then began explaining things to them: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.

Those who heard these words at the time perhaps did not fully grasp what Jesus was predicting.  I’m quite certain that given the crucial role the disciples would eventually play in the birth of the new church and the new gospel, Jesus needed them too to be reminded that night that His betrayal and arrest was prophetic and being orchestrated as part of the plan of salvation set forth from the beginning of time, when Jesus was the Word and was with God and was God.

For good measure, Jesus reminded even Pilate of His power and control, recorded again by John in chapter 19;

He took Jesus back into the headquarters[a] again and asked him, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. 10 “Why don’t you talk to me?” Pilate demanded. “Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you?”

11 Then Jesus said, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above.

In no way is this a suggestion that Jesus laid aside the physical aspects of His humanity as to not suffer pain. Any inferred implication that this was the case is not supported by scriptural texts. Jesus was fully God with complete power and control but yet fully man, responding to the torture and pain as any mortal man would. Luke is quick to record for us the physical elements of Christ’s suffering. Jesus was clear and deliberate to everyone present at the time and all who choose to observe His recorded words today that He voluntarily surrendered His life-laid it down and relinquished physical control, suffered the humiliating torment of suffering and death ascribed to the common criminal of that period out of a pure love we can never fully comprehend.  Jesus God allowed Roman guards to beat Him about the face, pull out his hair and beard, spit on Him, mock him, discriminate against Him and publicly bully Him. He didn’t demand his rights-He didn’t sue for defamation of character or false arrest-He didn’t accuse the leaders of profiling or religious bigotry. He simple gave us His life of His own free will as the ultimate and supreme sacrifice for all mankind for all time to come, because He wanted to, because He could and because He loved us that much. The Great I Am proved His submission to us. How unworthy I am for such a sacrifice.

True Relics, True Gospel, Changed Lives

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This post may be summarily dismissed by many Protestants who don’t accept, acknowledge or understand the existence of historic Christian relics or the miracles attributed to them.  Relics are simply the remains of saints, i.e. bones, hair, skin, etc., or items closely associated with them or that may have come in contact with them.  There has always been a reluctance in the Western church to acknowledge or venerate these relics for fear that they would somehow be guilty of their misunderstanding of the constitution of idolatry. However for us to dismiss the stories and the miracles reported in association with some of these relics is to dismiss portions of Holy scripture in both Old and New Testaments that document similar miracles. Consider as a basis of Biblical support the following verses:

2Kings 13:20-21  Elisha died and was buried.  At the time, bands of Moabites used to raid the land each year.  Once some people were burying a man, when suddenly they spied such a raiding band.  So they cast the dead man into the grave of Elisha, and everyone went off.  But when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet. 

Matthew 9:20   Just then a woman who had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding came up behind him. She touched the fringe of his robe, 21 for she thought, “If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed.”

Acts 19:11-12  So extraordinary were the mighty deeds GOD accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.

14 And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number, 15 to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them.16 Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed.

Upon reading these passages it would be intellectually dishonest to deny that God released His power indirectly through dead bones, clothing, personal items and even shadows. The items listed were never the object of worship. They were used to show that with God nothing is impossible and not everything is explainable.

The stories of miracles associated with relics are countless and can easily be researched for study by anyone with internet access.  One miracle involves the death of St. Nectarios.

On September 20, 1920 one of the nuns took him to the local hospital, in spite of his protest. He was convulsing in pain from a long-standing ailment. He was admitted, and placed into a ward reserved for the poor and unwanted. There he stayed for two months among the sick and dying. At 10:30 in the evening of November 8th, although in the midst of terrible pains, in peace and at prayer he gave up his spirit unto God at the age of 74. As soon as the Saint gave up his Spirit, a nurse came to prepare him for transfer to Aegina for burial. As the nurse removed the Saints sweater, she inadvertently placed it on the next bed, on which a paralytic lay. And O, strange wonder!, the paralytic immediately began to regain his strength and arose from his bed healthy, and glorifying God.

The oil from the sacred lamp of St. Nectarios continues to be used for anointing with resulting healing reported frequently.

Another of my favorite relic stories involves the discovery of the cross of our Savior, referred to in research as the True Cross. St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, is said to have discovered three wooden crosses under a pagan shrine that had been built on the site of Golgotha. She ordered the shrine to be leveled and was led to the spot by a man in Jerusalem claiming to know the burial place of the crosses. Upon the discovery it was not clear which one was the cross of Christ, so a Bishop who was with her suggested they bring a lady from the city who was known to be critically ill.  Upon the lady’s exposure to the True Cross she was immediately healed.

Other stories are associated with those who possess just small pieces of the True Cross, like this one of Fr. Stavros. When Fr. Stavros was young, he accidentally fell from a height, and his injuries were so great that even the doctor acknowledged that he had died. Everyone was preparing for his burial, at which point his mother remembered the Precious Cross that was in her possession, and she crossed him. A few hours later, he was brought back to life. Fr. Stavros is now in possession of this relic of the True Cross and continues to witness miracles as a result. When Fr. Stavros or another priest places the Cross on the bare skin of a sick person, it adheres or sticks like a magnet where there is sickness or illness.  When the person is healed, or when the sick person is about to have an operation which will heal the person, it no longer sticks to them.  Here is another reported miracle of this particular relic. When Fr. Stavros brought the True Cross to the Monastery of St. John Chrysostom in Wisconsin, Many sick people came seeking healing. One of these was a Native-America woman with a large, malignant tumor on her chest. With fear and faith she approached and was blessed with the Cross, and a few days later, her tumor had totally disappeared.

As you might expect any sacred items that people seek out for various reasons become prime targets for forgery for profit. You can buy your very own piece of the True Cross on various Ebay stores today for $9.99. Many medieval merchants brought back wood from the Middle East and passed it off as True Cross relics. CNN has documented cases where carbon dating on certain acclaimed relics, including the supposed finger of john the Baptist, cast heavy doubt on their authenticity.  So what, if anything, is the true measure of the authenticity of a relic? It’s actually quite simple.  Those who come in contact with it and release their faith are changed. The lady who touched the robe of Jesus was healed by her faith response.  Those who wanted to be in the path of Peter’s shadow were healed by their faith response. Those seeking miracles at the exposure to Christian relics are healed through their faith response.  False relics do not result in dramatic changes.

There is a direct correlation to be made between true relics and the true Gospel. From the day the Gospel was first preached lives were changed and miracles were performed. People heard of the healing and redemptive powers of the message being delivered and they journeyed for days to hear, to see and believe. The early church grew quickly and in great numbers because of people’s faith response to the true Gospel. And at the same time and even so today there are a myriad of false or forgery gospels being preached, and yes many of them just for profit. Many modern day evangelists are being exposed for teachings that are contrary to the Gospel.

Galatians 1:8 – Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you.

So what is our measure for the authenticity of the Gospel? Just as with relics, no one can come in contact with it and not be forever changed. And herein lies the beauty of the True and authentic Gospel; you don’t need the capacity to understand the entire Gospel in order for transformation to begin. The Holy Spirit of God can pierce the soul with a single verse!  That may not sell well in some evangelic churches today. But who among even the mature and life-long students of the Word can claim to grasp in full the context or the mysteries of the Gospel or expound upon the message of God’s grace and mercy with the finite capacity that is the human mind?  While we are exhorted to study and rightly divide the Word, none of us have to score 100% to ascribe to the benefits hidden therein.  The life altering transformation of our spirit can begin with the initial exposure to just a fragment of the Gospel, just as those who are healed at the release of their faith and exposure to just a fragment of a relic.

If you want to know if an evangelist is authentic or a forgery, look at their fruit.  Are lives made better?  Is Christ glorified? Is the integrity of the Holy Scriptures maintained? Jesus said a bad tree can’t produce good fruit and a good tree can’t produce bad fruit. Our great commission as followers of Christ and representatives of the true Gospel is to be vessels of change ourselves and in our lives and conduct, share that change with others-to become individual relics of the life-changing Gospel of Christ for a world seeking even the smallest fragment of hope so that their faith response to our relic of grace may manifest a miraculous and eternal change in their lives.

Judas Syndrome-Subtle Betrayals

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The character Judas Iscariot has always fascinated me for some reason. Not much is written about him in the New Testament and little else is available through tradition or other writings. The theories about his life and motives span both sides of the spectrum. Some consider him to be the seed of the devil for his betrayal of Jesus while other sects look to venerate him as a saint, crediting him with putting into motion the chain of events that is our redemption and reconciliation. And yet others believe his role was to be viewed as an example that no one is safe from the snares of personal greed and temptation, even an Apostle of Jesus. Whatever your view, Judas Iscariot makes for controversial study.

We know his name in Hebrew means “Praised”. We know that he was from Judah, the only one of the twelve with all others being from Galilee. We know he was the treasurer of the twelve, responsible for the money and necessities of the group.  But what else do find in Judas that may be shockingly familiar?

In Matthew’s account Peter, in his explanation of how prophecy was fulfilled by Judas’ betrayal, describes Judas as “being numbered among us and having a share in the ministry”.  This does not suggest a passive but a hands on involved role, the evangelizing, the bearing witness to the miracles of Jesus first hand, the intimate instruction by the Master and even possibly the faith and partnership with the Apostles as they performed their own miracles in Christ’s name. We have no reason to believe that Judas started out as anything but a fully engaged “on fire” Apostle of Jesus. But along the way Judas fell prey to greed and temptation that he chose not to resist. Judas had a love for money.  We see that in his false narrative as he protests the anointing of Jesus with the expensive perfume.  We are told that he stole from the group treasury funds.  Materialistic greed is a powerful and addicting cancer that even the strongest can’t always escape.  The character of Judas is not one void of all redeeming qualities doomed from the start but one that in spite of the knowledge of Christ fell victim to his own desires.

It is possible that the act of the betrayal itself was merely motivated by profit and greed? Consider how many times we are told in the New Testament that Jesus “escapes” through the crowd because it wasn’t yet His time.  Did Judas believe that Jesus would simply escape again as in times past and that he would reap a reward of silver with no harm being done?  One has to wonder at the remorse Judas displays when he realizes that this time Jesus is indeed apprehended and taken into custody.  His immediate response is one of sorrow and regret as he returns the money and takes his own life feeling unworthy to carry on as an Apostle. The act of his suicide suggests to us that in the end he did not believe the words of Christ pertaining to resurrection and eternity so even his faith and intimate knowledge of Jesus was overcome by his greed and desires. Throughout all history perhaps no one individual was ever elevated to as high a status and yet lowered to a more detestable state than Judas Iscariot. How can one hear first hand the teachings of Christ,  share everyday life and fellowship with Him, observe Him as he heals the lame and raises the dead and even partakes in the initial ministry outreach of Christianity and still fall with so great a fall?  How could one man chosen to be one of the twelve that would see and hear things the rest of us can only imagine, one who literally sat in the presence of God in the body of Jesus who basked in His glory for a three year period, betray Him for any price, let alone a paltry thirty pieces of silver?

And now for a tough question-are we any different than Judas Iscariot? Judas did not harbor the typical hatred of a traitor but rather loved Jesus to the end, betraying Him with a kiss of brotherly affection. Do we openly proclaim our love and devotion for Jesus while in possession of an unforgiving spirit?  Do we praise and worship on the weekends but cuss out drivers throughout the work week? Do we hold onto every possession without thought for the desperate and needy? Do we practice subtle betrayal in our actions when no one else is around?  Do we have an intimate enough knowledge of Christ that compels us in holy awe and exhorts us to acquiring the character of our namesake or do we hang our Jesus outfit in the closet until the next weekend?  Do the thoughts we fail to take captive, the desires we allow to exist in secret or the actions we take when angered serve as betrayals of God’s grace and Christ’s redeeming work? I wonder, and I shudder at the thought. God have mercy on us.

Scripture is full of good news and hope for everyday life, but there is one passage that tends to be haunting to me.  Matthew 7:21-23 says this:

21 “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. 22 On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ 23 But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’

The Message Translation spins it this way:

21-23 “Knowing the correct password—saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance—isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’

Subtle willing betrayals-secret sinful desires-dormant but breathing temptations, just like Judas. “Father, observe and restore our motivation to be like your Son Jesus in all we think and do, and to genuinely reflect His character in our lives so that we are not deemed guilty of His betrayal through our actions and unbelief”

Peace.

Prayer for Dummies-A Simplistic Privilege

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I’ve often heard of prayer being described as a spiritual discipline when in fact, it’s a holy privilege afforded us by the brutality and suffering of our Savior which we will be remembering in a few weeks.   There seems to be misconceptions about prayer, who prays better, what catch phrases to use to get God’s attention, the secret tricks to getting your prayers answered and so on. There is no mystery in prayer, no seeds of faith that must first be planted, no prayer hankies to purchase, no holy water from the Jordan River. It’s not snake oil, it’s simple and honest dialogue between us and our Father. Yet many remain intimidated at the concept or waiver thinking they don’t know how to pray.

What exactly is prayer?  Simply put, prayer is nothing more than communicating with God.  It isn’t something you have to study and learn, it’s not a dialect you have to master.  All my life I’ve heard people say they are not good at praying, or say something like “I wish I could pray like that person”, or “you pray, I’m not very good at it”.  I walk away scratching my head.  So, for all of you who may feel you don’t know how to pray, I’m going to give you the real secret.  If you can put words together is some recognizable form, whether vocalized or in thought, you have mastered prayer!

Do we fully grasp the privilege we have in approaching God directly in prayer? How did we came to acquire this privilege?  Before Christ, only High Priests were allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies, a special place within the temple, to offer up prayers and sacrifices on behalf of the people, and then, only at certain times of the year.  After Christ’s death and resurrection, we read that the temple veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was torn completely from top to bottom, symbolizing our new direct access to the throne of grace, by anyone and at anytime! We can instantly be in the presence of God, on holy ground.

In many of the Catholic, Orthodox and other faiths, you won’t find a schedule of services-you’ll find instead a schedule of liturgies.  Liturgy  comes from the Greek leitos, the people of God, offering up their ergon, or energy and efforts to God in prayer.  There should be a compelling desire on the part of all Christians to be a people of prayer, to want to stand in the presence of our Lord and spend time with him daily in our personal life, and corporately in our churchesMartin Luther King Jr. said that being a Christian without prayer is like life without breath.

When I met my wife, I wanted to be in her presence all the time.  It wasn’t enough for me to stand in front of a picture of her and think about her, or call her up on the phone once a week for 30 minutes or read a biography about her written by someone else.  My days were brighter because I knew I could see her and spend time with her everyday.  And when I was with her, I wanted to talk to her, and to listen to her talk back.  I wanted to know what she thought about things-I wanted to know more about who she was.  I put in the time and energy to make this happen.  God desires our time alone with Him more than we could fathom.

In Luke Chapter 11, verse 1 we read “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place.  When he had finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray”. What do you think the disciple was asking him?  These disciples did life with Jesus-they watched him perform miracles-they listened to his teachings, and they observed his prayer habits.  They didn’t just want to know how to pray-they wanted to know how to pray like He did!  They watched as he spoke to his Father-they witnessed him bask in the glory of God’s presence.  The disciples wanted their prayer life to have the same impact on them as they saw on Christ.

At that point Jesus responded by giving us one of the greatest gifts we could ever ask for-the model prayer.  He responded to the request by saying, “when you pray, pray like this”.  After that, we read the Lord’s prayer, recorded both here in Luke 11 and in Matthew 6.  Note here that Jesus didn’t say, “pray this prayer”.  Jesus understood what the disciples were asking him, and he gave them a model to fashion their prayers around.  Let’s take a look at that model we call The Lord’s Prayer.

The prayer can be broken down into 5 parts, all important ingredients for powerful and effective prayer.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

  “Our Father in Heaven, hollowed be your name”.

It’s important that we recognize the deity of God.  It’s a beautiful thing to know that by virtue of the cross, we have been given the right to call him Abba, or Father, on the same level as our Brother, Jesus Christ.  But, oh, how important it is to remember that we are in the presence of Holiness when we approach God, and we need to express that gratitude reverently and in awe when we pray.

Any of you who have kids or in my case grandkids, especially girls, can relate to this.  When your little girl, daughter or granddaughter climbs up in your lap and throws her arms around your neck and says I love you Dad, or I love you Papa, you know that at that moment there is nothing in the world you would not do for her if she asked.  Why-because she just got your undivided attention.   Jesus said,” if you dads on earth know how to give good gifts to your kids when they ask, how much more does the Father want to give you good things when you ask of him”.

SUBMISSION

Your kingdom and your will be established on earth just as it is in Heaven”.

It is important that when we approach God, that he knows we want and seek his will for our lives, first and foremost-that regardless of what we are about to petition him for, we submit to his perfect plan for our life.  That’s a tall order.  Whenever we talk about “God’s will for our life”, we almost always assume it’s different than our will for our life, and few of us want to know that.  We need to remember Christ’s example when he prayed in Ghesthemane before his arrest.  He knew what he was about to endure and asked if there was any other way for this plan to unfold, that he wanted the choice, but prayed, “nonetheless, not my will but yours be done”.  If we are to be like Christ, we have to submit to God’s will.

In the very same chapter where we find The Lord’s Prayer, in verse 33, we read “seek first the kingdom of God, and then everything else will be added to you”.

PETITION

Give us our food for today

AFTER we have acknowledged God and his deity, and AFTER we have requested his will over ours, then can we make our requests of God.  Let’s go back to our little girl for a moment.  If you’re sitting there reading the paper and she comes in and knocks the paper out of your hand and says “Daddy, why won’t you buy me a new pair of shoes”, your immediate response would be for her to step off and remember who she’s dealing with.  But if she comes over and climbs in your lap and gives you a big kiss, and then asks you, you give in, even if you recognize the ploy, because she’s your little girl and you love her that much.  Remember, our emotions are God given-if it works for us, it must work for him.

Note that in the model, we are to ask for our provisions for the day.  I think sometimes our petitions look more like a Christmas wish list than daily necessities.  Yes, James 4:2 says we have not because we ask not, but this is not to be understood as a blank check promise, but willingness to be blessed as God sees fit to better serve Him and His kingdom.

REPENTENCE

Forgive us of our sins as we forgive others”

This is a prerequisite to effective prayer.  Mark 11:25 says “But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in Heaven will forgive your sins too”.

Some in the body have been led astray by a false presentation of the work of Grace and eternal salvation.  The Apostle Paul had to address this even in his day as many thought they had a license to do anything because of a grace covering.  Paul said, “should we sin more so that grace may abound more?  No Way”.  A humble and repentive spirit is required for effective prayer. God’s mercies are made new and fresh every day because we need them every day!

DIRECTION

Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from the evil one

Psalms 19:13 reads, “Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.  Then I will be blameless and innocent of great transgression”.

God does not put stumbling blocks before us-that’s the work of the evil one.  Sometimes, however, we put ourselves into positions or situations where we are tempted or attracted to doing what we know is wrong.  Prayer is a great weapon against the daily onslaught of the tempting situations we face. In Ephesians 6:11, we read “Put on all God’s armor so that you’ll be able to stand firm against all strategies and tricks of the devil.” It then tells us in verse 18 to “pray at all times and on every occasion in the power of the Holy Spirit.” God knows what we’re up against, and has given us all the weapons we need, working together in prayer.

There is a final key to developing a reverent fear of God through effective prayer.  Quite simply, there are times when we need to know when to just shut up!  Psalms 46:10 says “Be still and know that I am God”. It may be coincidence, but again maybe not, that both times in the New Testament when the Lord’s Prayer is recorded, there is no modeled ending to the prayer, no “amen”, etc.  I see this as my invitation to sit patiently in the Lord’s presence and listen for his voice.  His voice may come as a peaceful holy silence; it may come as an inner voice in your heart; it may come as an urging or sudden thought or inspiration.  One thing is for sure, it won’t be detectable unless you are giving God an opportunity to speak as you wait and listen.

“Pray without ceasing”; “in everything give thanks”. What an awesome privilege to spend time alone with the creator of the universe in intimate prayer.

 

 

LOL-It Does the Heart Good!

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Actual Church Bulletins:

The Fasting & Prayer Conference includes meals.

—The sermon this morning: “Jesus Walks on the Water.” The sermon tonight: “Searching for Jesus.”

—Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Bring your husbands.

—Don’t let worry kill you off – let the Church help.

—For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

—At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be “What Is Hell?” Come early and listen to our choir practice.

–Potluck supper Sunday at 5:00 PM – prayer and medication to follow.

—The ladies of the Church have cast off clothing of every kind. They may be seen in the basement on Friday afternoon.

—This evening at 7 PM there will be hymn singing in the park across from the Church. Bring a blanket and come prepared to sin..

—Ladies Bible Study will be held Thursday morning at 10 AM.. All ladies are invited to lunch in the Fellowship Hall after the B. S. is done.

—Low Self Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 PM. Please use the back door..

—Weight Watchers will meet at 7 PM at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use large double door at the side entrance.

—The Associate Minister unveiled the church’s new tithing campaign slogan last Sunday: “I Upped My Pledge – Up Yours”

An Internet site advises this Wellness Tip: “Go on and laugh! Whether your preference is giggle, chuckle or guffaw, here are a dozen well-being benefits of laughter: Increases antibodies in saliva that combats upper respiratory infections. Secretes an enzyme that protects the stomach from forming ulcers. Conditions the abdominal muscles. Relaxes muscles throughout the body. Aids in reducing symptoms of  rheumatism. Has positive benefits on mental functions. Reduces blood pressure and heart-rate. Helps the body fight infection. Releases endorphins which provide natural pain relief. Tightens stomach muscles. Helps move nutrients and oxygen to body tissues. AND, it makes you feel good!”

“Why, Joe, we’re Christians and we must take seriously the business of building the Kingdom and saving souls and making disciples-we don’t have time to laugh”.  

And to that I would say look at how many empty seats there are in any church on any given Sunday-maybe we should try a different approach?  Perhaps it’s time to let the joy of our salvation show just a little more on the outside. Besides, if you really don’t believe God has a sense of humor, just look around you! 

There is something to be said about having a joyful attitude and demeanor when spreading what is supposed to be GOOD NEWS.  I wrote a song called The Dead In Christ Blues that addressed the over-seriousness of so-called Christians.  One verse says “There’s joy in our salvation-we’re all sinners saved by grace.  So if you’re saved and you know it, then why don’t you tell your face?”

God has a holy sense of humor, as the following stories from the Bible will plainly illustrate.  Consider this story from Acts chapter 20.  In this story the Apostle Paul is preaching, and he preached for a very long time!  I’m talking, a really long time.  I’m not going to make any correlations to any long-winded preachers we know, I just think this is a hilariously funny story, of course I’m twisted that way  Again, from the Message Bible:

7-9We met on Sunday to worship and celebrate the Master’s Supper. Paul addressed the congregation. Our plan was to leave first thing in the morning, but Paul talked on, way past midnight. We were meeting in a well-lighted upper room. A young man named Eutychus was sitting in an open window. As Paul went on and on, Eutychus fell sound asleep and toppled out the third-story window. When they picked him up, he was dead.

 10-12Paul went down, stretched himself on him, and hugged him hard. “No more crying,” he said. “There’s life in him yet.” Then Paul got up and served the Master’s Supper. And went on telling stories of the faith until dawn! On that note, they left—Paul going one way, the congregation another, leading the boy off alive, and full of life themselves.

Now we can laugh at this story, first off because we can all relate to falling asleep during a long sermon, and secondly because the story has a happy ending.  But try to picture this scene-Paul is preaching and goes on for hours, and finally this guy falls asleep and falls out of the window. Paul goes down, brings him back to life, and then picks up where he left off and continues preaching!  I’m twisted, but somehow I see this as the kind of skit Tim Conway and Harvey Korman would have done on the Carol Burnette Show.  This is funny.  I can almost hear the young man saying “Geez, what’s a guy have to do to give a hint.  You killed me once already-don’t do me anymore favors.”

So you’re still not convinced?  Let’s try one last story found in I Samuel chapter 5.  And this is the story you will only hear here this morning-I can pretty much guarantee it!

Let me set the story for you.  The Philistines have stolen the Ark of the Covenant from Israel, a big no-no in God-eyes.  And they take it back and place it next to the image of their God, Dagon, another big no-no.  Let’s pick up the story from the King James version, just because it’s funnier.

 2When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it next to Dagon 3And when they arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again.  4And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him.  5Therefore neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that come into Dagon’s house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day.

So the first part of the story, God knocks over their little image of Dagon so that he’s flat on his face, then after the Philistines set him back up, the next day he’s knocked over again, but he was missing his head and hands.  God could have destroyed the whole place or burned the image up entirely or struck it with a bolt of lightening, but instead, He toys with the Philistines by just slapping their little god around a bit. But it gets better!

 6But the hand of the LORD was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with emerods, (Hemorrhoids) even Ashdod and the coasts thereof.  7And when the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for his hand is sore upon us, and upon Dagon our god.  8They sent therefore and gathered all the lords of the Philistines unto them, and said, What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel? And they answered, Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried about unto Gath. And they carried the ark of the God of Israel about thither.  9And it was so, that, after they had carried it about, the hand of the LORD was against the city with a very great destruction: and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts.

I’m sorry, but that’s funny stuff!  You Gotta love God’s sense of humor. But wait, there’s more.

2And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, What shall we do to the ark of the LORD? tell us wherewith we shall send it to his place.  3And they said, If ye send away the ark of the God of Israel, send it not empty; but in any wise return him a trespass offering: then ye shall be healed, and it shall be known to you why his hand is not removed from you.  4Then said they, What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him? They answered, Five golden emerods, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines: for one plague was on you all, and on your lords.  11And they laid the ark of the LORD upon the cart, and the coffer with the images of their emerods. 15And the Levites took down the ark of the LORD, and the coffer that was with it, wherein the jewels of gold were, and put them on the great stone: and the men of Bethshemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices the same day unto the LORD.

Now you know why hemorrhoids always burn!  It’s the Philistines fault.  So it begs to question-they were told to make golden images of their hemorrhoids and present as a sacrifice.  How could they possibly have known what they looked like?  I leave that up to your imagination. The Bible is full of humor, especially if you tend to have a twisted sense of humor like mine.  It is the only book that is an historical document, a love story, a mystery, a tragedy, a comedy, a how-to manual, a motivational book, and on and on.  But you’ll never know the wealth and diversity of The Bible without spending some serious time in it, including, as we’ve just demonstrated, the Old Testament. 

So what’s the point?  Was I just trying to be a comedian today and get you to laugh-ABSOLUTELY.  Most people who know me would say I need to laugh more myself.  Here’s the essence of today’s message.  When Christ ascended into Heaven, He gave us a commission to spread the Good News of love and peace and hope and forgiveness.  There should be something beautiful and attractive and compelling about the Gospel to those who hear it and see it for the first time.  But instead of joy, we hear fiery sermons intended to literally scare the hell out of people-we see others standing on street corners with signs that say repent or burn.  We hear legalists condemning everything from tattoos to dancing to having a drink to showing your knees and elbows in public to staying up past 10 PM.  What kind of model of Christianity is the un-churched world seeing from us, and what are we showing them that would attract them to the cross of Christ?   The message of Christ should not be preached and presented solely as an insurance policy to avoid hell-it is much more than that!

When other see us at work or out and about or even in church, they should see something in us that makes them say “Whatever they have, I want some of that too”, like the TV commercials-I’ll have what she’s having!    Anything less is not in keeping with the true character of Christ, our namesake.  I’ve seen bumper stickers that say “Lord, deliver us from other Christians”.  It would be funny if it weren’t true!  There are far too many Christians who take up their cross daily and have sucked all the life out of their Christian witness.  They misrepresent the Gospel of Joy and Peace in a way that would turn anybody off or away from the message we’re supposed to deliver.  Our Christian lives should be Christ like in every aspect.  It’s as though we are walking mirrors so that when God shines His light down to us we reflect the exact image of God without any distortions unlike mirrors in a funhouse, twisted, out of shape and hard to determine.

Listen to the words in I John 1 and ask yourself if your Christianity looks like this:

1 John 1  3-4We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy!

This is why we laugh-this is why we enjoy special occasions in life-this is what our faith should look like to others who need to know the whole story.  There is a time to be reverent and to wait on the Lord-a time to be on our knees and faces in holy respect of our King, but there is also a time for joy and music and praise and yes, laughter.  It’s ok to enjoy your faith and to do so in a way that draws others who want to know more about our joy and our hope.  The world should be envious of the hope and joy we have, to the point of wanting some for themselves.  If there is joy in Heaven when one sinner repents, then there should be joy on earth as we reflect Christ in our lives.

 

Looking Up When You’re Feeling Down

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If you are one of those who are always on top of your game, you wake up and kiss the sky and your kitchen sings to you while you make breakfast, this post isn’t for you. It’s for the rest of us who don’t live in Disney World, those who strive to live a positive life but still battle the demons of failure, sin and worthlessness-real people.  I am one-I’m with you-those days when you wonder if you really matter, if you are really loved, if you would be missed if you were gone, if you are having any positive impact on those you love and pray for. Those small doubts become large gaping holes of opportunity for attack. Each day is a new war to wage against the dark, spiritual and tangible forces that are well trained at knocking us off course.  If you aren’t the target of such attacks, you aren’t fully engaged in life or your faith. The following are excerpts from a sermon I wrote years ago but still as relevant as it was then.  There are key weapons at our disposal to aid us in our daily battles against weariness, depression and discouragement.

“There are times in our faith walk when we find ourselves in a spiritual funk.  We are on a straight and narrow road, running this race-running like Forest Gump-running and running and running. There comes a time when I just want to stop running.  I see a little spot off the beaten path and I pull off the road just to stop running.  The place I find myself in here isn’t necessarily attractive-it’s isolated-it’s disconnected-it’s quiet.  It’s not lively, it’s not dead-it’s just hereHere is a place where my prayers don’t seem to travel far.  Here is a place that is under the radar from the dark forces of life.

Eph. 6:12 reads “For we fight not against people made of flesh and blood, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in heavenly realms”.

The enemy is highly trained to target those who are engaged in their faith.  But as long as I’m here, no one cares.  As a Christian, I know all I need to do is call on Jesus for help and get back on the road.  I can even see the road from here, but it is just easier to stay here.  This is my spiritual funk.

Now that I’ve painted you a picture of spiritual funk, how many of you have been here too?  How can we get there from here?  I have come up with 5 easy but vital steps for Christians to follow to avoid these funks.

Step 1-Guard your thoughts.

We are so easily led astray by our own thoughts.  We haven’t mastered the art of bringing every thought into captivity. I have struggles with reassurance issues.  In my mind, I tend to put myself up here more than I should.  The problem is that it doesn’t take much of a parting shot to knock me down to here-an unhappy customer, something the kids say, a series of unlucky events, any form of rejection.  If I believed in blind luck, I would be the one person he can’t see.  When things don’t go your way, or the people around you point fingers, you start to believe that maybe you are the problem. Job’s friends told him he was the reason for all the calamities God allowed in his life, and Job tended to believe them.  We completely disregard every positive thing scripture has to say about who we are in Christ. This is the ultimate trick of the deceiver-he wants to remind us of all our past mistakes, all our failed relationships, all our closet skeletons, and we buy right into this trick.  The result is a feeling of inferiority, insecurity, and unworthiness, all contrary to what Christ thinks of us.

Philippians 4:7 says this; “Tell God what you need and thank him for all he’s done.  If you do this you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.  (Vs 8). Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right.  Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable.  Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise”. 

Step 2-Seek out positive nourishment

There are several good sources of Christian nourishment available to us.  One of my favorites is Christian music.  I’ve always loved music-it is the one medium that can completely change your attitude or actions.  For example, when the classic rock song “I can’t drive 55” comes on, amazingly, I really can’t drive 55.

Music can be uplifting-I’m always amazed how a piece of music that was recorded years ago on electronic media can still become a worship experience in your car.

Our brains are complex recorders-we can recall every good or bad thing we’ve seen or heard in the course of a day.  If that’s the case, we should expose ourselves to positive influence, whether music, or a good book or a good TV program.

Romans12:2 says we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind.  This is a daily process if we are to avoid spiritual funk.

Step 3-Choose your friends wisely

This one is interesting to me.  I don’t personally believe that as Christians we are only supposed to hang with other Christians.  That’s not the model Christ gave us.  In fact Jesus, according to scripture, was quite a party animal. But his closest friends were believers.  When we socialize it is important to spend time with those who share your faith-they will become a great help and support to you when you’re in trouble.  And be very careful about those you hang with who are not Christian-they can easily lead you down a different path.  Our non-believing friends need our influence, but we must not yield to theirs.  It is too easy in the course of having a good time to let your guard down or compromise your core values after prolonged exposure.  The friends you confide in will ultimately be advising you.

Psalm 1:1 reads “Oh the joy of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.”

Step 4-Know your weaknesses

I have weaknesses.  I am not alone.  It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a Christian, we all have kinks in our armor.  The enemy always knows your weakness.  For some maybe it’s lust, for others maybe pornography.  Some may have a substance addiction-maybe you gossip-maybe you eat too much-maybe you have a gambling problem-maybe you’re just plain crazy.  Having a weakness is not necessarily the problem, especially if you’re honest enough to admit it to yourself and to God. However yielding to your weakness over God’s strength  can put you in your own spiritual funk.  Putting yourselves in situations where you could stumble is just not responsible as a Christian.

1 Peter 2:11 says “Dear brothers and sisters, you are foreigners and aliens here.  So I warn you to keep away from evil desires because they fight against your very soul”.

What does this mean?  It’s simple really-if you can’t hold your liquor, you should stay out of bars.  If you have an eating disorder, the Carnival Buffet is not for you.  If you can’t get on the internet without migrating to a porn site, stay off the computer.  If you’re down to your last $3, don’t spend it on Megabucks.  If you like spreading rumors, don’t listen to any new ones.  Are you starting to get the picture?  Don’t give our enemy any advantages against you.

1 Peter 5:8 says “Be Careful. Watch out for attacks from the devil, your enemy.  He prowls around like a roaring lion looking for some victim to devour”.

Step 5-Spend time alone with God

Perhaps one of the hardest things to do when you’re in a spiritual funk is to spend time alone with God.  Part of being in this place is the feeling of disconnection you feel.  When you cry out to God, it’s as if you hear the echoes of the canyons, but when you pray, you almost feel the prayers bouncing back off the ceiling.  It is in these times that it is most imperative that you habitually seek God out, remembering he hasn’t gone anywhere, even when we don’t feel his closeness.

James 4:7 says “Humble yourselves before God.  Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw close to God and God will draw close to you.  (vs. 10).  When you bow down before the Lord and admit your dependence on him, he will lift you up and give you honor.”

Sometimes our path is dark and cold and each step is just another step of faith into the unknown. But God promised to be with us in the valley of shadows and death, not to take us around it as some might suggest but to be our guide and companion until we can navigate through the density and the turns. Our yellow brick road to Oz may seem more like a muddy trail through an endless swamp but in Christ, we can be sure that our final destination will be worth the hazards of the journey.

 

Humbly We Bow-What Worship Should Be

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Of all the aspects of the Christian experience perhaps the act of corporate worship is the most misunderstood, misappropriated and most divisive of them all. In our arrogance we actually seek out the church that offers US the best worship experience, the one that WE can get the most out of.  We will actually change churches when we leave feeling like we didn’t get anything out of the worship service. How much more puffed up and ass backwards can we be?  This post will be using excerpts from a sermon or mine some years ago addressing the heart of Worship as I understand it.  It’s not about us or what we “get” out of it-it’s always about Christ and our sacrifice of praise to Him.

Consider this definition of worship as given by William Temple, one of the great Anglican Theologians.  He said, “Worship is the submission of all our nature to God.  It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of our heart to His love; the surrender of will to his purpose”.

While we do come to church to worship, we should not feel that worship starts when we arrive.  As Christians, we should always be in a state of worship.   We do not come to church on Sunday to worship-we come to church already worshiping.  We are merely joining other believers in a spirit of communion to join our worship together as one united.  It’s like singing-you come to church as a soloist and join others at church to form a choir.  If you’re coming to church, hoping that a good worship service will suddenly break out, you probably aren’t worshiping when you come, and a worship experience will not happen for you. “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go unto the house of the Lord”

Corporate worship is not about you, nor is it for you.   It is all about the acknowledgement of our smallness compared to God’s bigness and the resulting epiphany of His never ending love and mercy for us in lieu of what our sinfulness rightly deserves. We bow as if pardoned from a death sentence and humbly surrender our whole and unworthy being to His sovereignty and goodness.  We sing the song Heart of Worship-consider the lyrics.

When the music fades, and all is stripped away, and I simply come, wanting just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart-I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself is not what you have required.  And the 2nd verse, King of endless worth, no one can express how much you deserve-though I’m weak and poor, all I have is yours-every single breath-I’m coming to the heart of worship because it’s all about you. 

Worship is not an option for the Christian.  The Lord demands our worship.

1 Samuel 12:24 says “You must obey the Lord-you must worship Him with all your heart and remember the great things He has done for you”.  And again in Deut. 11:13, it says

“The Lord your God commands you to love him and to serve him with all your heart and soul”.

These are not suggestions or strong recommendations, nor should they be subject to your current frame of mind or emotional state.  As humans we tend to worship or ascribe worth to those we love-our kids, our parents, and our spouses.  In addition to showing our love, we speak it over them.  We say things like I love you, or I adore you, or you are special or precious to me.  These are natural expressions of love and worship.  How much more is our Heavenly Father deserving of even more adoration and worship, just for who He is and what He has already done for us!  Our worship of a loving God should be automatic and second nature-He doesn’t owe it to us-we owe it to Him!

There is a renewing strength in worship. 

David is a man who had many issues in his life; he was guilty of everything from adultery to murder, but he had an intimate relationship with God, and he knew where grace and forgiveness came from, and he knew what total worship was.  David knew that even in the worst of times when he was alone in a wilderness, he had power over his enemies because he had God on his side.  The more he was pursued, the more he worshipped and praised God for deliverance.

Another great example of the strength in worship is Paul and Silas.  They were ministering in Philippi and being harassed by a fortune teller who made lots of money for her employer.  Finally Paul and Silas rebuked the spirit that was in her so she would leave them alone.  This enraged her owners and they had Paul and Silas put in prison for disturbing the peace.  The story picks up in Acts 16, starting in Verse 22.

“A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods.  They were severely beaten and then thrown into prison.  The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape.  So he took no chances but put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet into stocks.  Around midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and all the other prisoners were listening.  Suddenly there was a great earthquake and the prison was shaken to its foundations.  All the doors flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off!  The jailer woke up to see the prison doors wide open.  He assumed the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword to kill himself.  But Paul shouted to him, “Don’t do it-we are all here”. 

When you praise and worship the Lord, He hears and responds.  Scripture says the God inhabits, or takes His residence within the praises of His people. When Paul and Silas were praising God, they weren’t trying to bring God down to their level and circumstances; they were elevating themselves through worship to the Heavenly realms where God dwells.  Worship is an uplifting event.  Worshipping the Lord takes you far above sickness, doubt, problems with your family, problems with your marriage, problems with your finances, problems with the events of the day. 

THERE IS HEALING AND COMFORT IN GENUINE WORSHIP

Some of the greatest love songs ever written were inspired by tragic events in someone’s life.  There is something about tragedy that begets inspiration.  Just listen to the lyrics of any country song.  But for the Christian, tragedy turns our focus on God, which is the essence of worship.  Consider Job-he was one of the wealthiest men of his time.  Yet in a matter of hours, Job lost all his wealth and fortune, and eventually even his children.  As recorded in Job 1, “While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came from across the desert and struck the four corners of the house and it fell on the young people, and they are all dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you”.  Then Job arose, tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped”.

There was a modern day Job-you probably won’t know the name of Horatio Spafford.  Horatio was an active and faithful member of the Presbyterian Church, and a successful attorney in Chicago in the late 1800s.  He was also a good friend and supporter of evangelist D.L. Moody.  Like Job, Horatio was quite wealthy, investing in commercial real estate in Chicago.  Horatio’s first tragedy came when he and his wife lost their only son at the young age of 4.  Not long after, the Great fire of Chicago occurred, and Horatio lost all his real estate holdings, and most of his wealth to that fire.  When Moody and his associate planned a series of church meetings in Great Britain, Horatio thought it might be a good opportunity to help Moody with the services, and at the same time lift the spirits of his family by taking them on vacation to Europe.  In November if 1873, Horatio was detained on business, but sent his wife and four daughters on ahead to Europe on the SS Ville du Havre.  Horatio would catch up to them after they arrived in Europe.  Halfway across the Atlantic, their ship was struck by an English iron vessel, and in 12 minutes, the ship sank to the bottom of the ocean, killing 226 people, including all Horatio’s remaining children, his 4 precious daughters, just like Job.  Horatio’s wife survived, and when she arrived in Wales, she sent Horatio a telegram saying the girls were lost at sea and she alone survived.  Immediately a grieving Horatio boarded ship to meet his wife in Wales.  When the captain told him they were crossing over the coordinates of where the ship sank, Horatio, filled with both sorrow and inspiration, observing the rolling waves of the sea, penned these words, which we’re all probably familiar with:

When peace like a river attendeth my way-when sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.

Only through inspired worship could Horatio truly be comforted at his tragic loss.  There is healing and comfort found in God when you open your hearts and worship him in your vulnerability.  It’s tremendously easy to worship and give thanks when you have a hefty bank account, your job’s going well, your kids aren’t in jail, your health is good and you still love your wife.  It’s much tougher to worship in the midst of chaos, confusion and doubt.  But raising yourself out of your despair to a higher level of awareness of God through worship, placing yourself in that Heavenly realm, brings a comfort and healing that nothing and no one on earth can offer.

Psalm 147:1 & 3 Praise the Lord. How good it is to sing praises to our God; how pleasant and fitting to praise him…. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

There is community in worship

Webster’s defines community as a unified body of individuals.

Another definition describes community as a kinship.  If you put these two together, I think you have the perfect definition of the body of Christ-a group of people of one mind with family ties-bound in blood by Christ.

 Galatians 3:26-“So you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have been made like him.  There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for you are all Christians-you are one in Christ Jesus”.

I would imagine most of you have been to a concert sometime in your life.  But no matter how good a concert may be, there is no comparison to being in the midst of thousands of people gathered together for one purpose-to lift up the name of Jesus in praise and worship.   I’ll never forget witnessing 10,000 teens in Las Vegas experiencing something they can’t get from MTV, as they listened to Michael W. Smith and Third Day and Max Lucado speak and sing of God’s love and how it could change their life.  When you get a large number of people together and they begin to sing praises and worship, community happens-everyone seems to know everyone else because they are bound by love in Christ and by purpose to lift up His name.  And when you get people of faith truly worshiping together, it’s electrifying and highly contagious.

When community happens, it doesn’t matter what race you are, what religion you were brought up in, how big your house is, what kind of car you drive, whether you have a Masters degree or you dropped out of high school, single, married, divorced, clean record or police record-we are all God’s children, and co-heirs with Christ-we are kin. Our past is covered, our present is hopeful and our future is guaranteed!  If through worship we could develop that kind of atmosphere, we would never again have to worry about empty seats or church budget deficits!  We would not be able to contain those who wanted to come and experience what it’s like to be unified in God’s presence.

There’s a day coming when we will join literal millions of believers in a Heavenly place around God’s throne in an everlasting worship.  When John had his vision on the island of Patmos, he described his futuristic vision in Revelation. In Chapter 7, starting in verse 9, John describes a scene hard to fathom.

“After this, I saw a vast crowd too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before The Lamb.  They were clothed in white and held palm branches in their hands.  And they were shouting with a mighty shout, “Salvation comes from our God on the throne and from the lamb!”  And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living beings.  And they fell face down before the throne and worshiped God.

Wow-I can only imagine.  I guess the whole point of this message is this-if we really love our Lord even remotely the way he loves us, we shouldn’t have to wait until we are literally around His throne to worship him-we should be on our spiritual faces before him every time we have the opportunity.  There’s been a lot of preaching and books about blessings and prosperity and receiving all the good things from God-living your best life, keys to the kingdom and so forth-all benefits of being Christian.  For the most part, these are all well and good, and certainly popular teachings.  But, it’s high time we remember who God is and what he’s already done for us, and acknowledge his holiness, and turn our hearts and our focus for a change on what we can offer him-and the only thing he wants is our worship and devotion-that’s why he made us-that’s why we’re here!

Love Stories-God’s Gift for the Heart

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It was a warm and sunny day as always in Las Vegas on September 15th, 1996. I was heading to our newly opened motor speedway for the inaugural race with an extra ticket in hand. As I pulled away from the apartment, there she was, getting out of her car. Her short shorts revealed the most beautiful long legs I’d ever seen. Her blonde hair blowing in the light breeze served as the perfect frame for her crystal blue eyes that were captivating even from many yards away. It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed her-she lived in the apartment across the lot from mine. But even in my arrogance I would never have had the courage to approach her-she was from heaven and I a mere mortal. Only in fairy tales and Hollywood movies do such unlikely unions take place. Ah, but I did have an extra race ticket-a reasonable excuse to at least see her up close and say hello. So I did-she was even more breath-taking standing just a few feet away. I offered her the ticket assuming she would have some friend who would enjoy the race.  She graciously accepted and thanked me and I drove off, forgetting for a moment where it was I was heading and grateful to God for my brief brush with one of His angels.

Just a few minutes before the drop of the green flag a shadow was converging on my seat but the background of the bright sun prohibited me from identifying the figure, until the figure took the vacant seat next to mine-it was her, the angel. Her friends had dropped her off and left her in my custody for the race and the balance of the day. Wondering if this was a cruel trick from God or if not, how I came to deserve to spend the afternoon with this creature, I just went with it. We enjoyed getting to know each other over the roar of the open wheel engines and as the race ended, I was pleasantly surprised as she asked if she could ride with me back to our apartments.  As luck or fate or divine providence would have it, the 20 minute trip took over two hours due to the unexpected attendance and the city’s clueless efforts to direct traffic from such a large event, an amount of time that gives ample opportunity to become intimately acquainted. When we finally returned we met at the pool, ordered pizza and spent the rest of the evening together.  As it turns out she had previously and secretly noticed my legs as well-who would have guessed!  On September 27th of the following year I married my angel and have been blessed of God to spend the last 18 years with her as we shared life together.

Love Stories-most of us have them.  Some may be epic and worthy of Hollywood screen plays and others more simple but no less cherished.  I’ve heard many people argue that there is no such thing as love at first sight, or that two people don’t “fall” in love but grow slowly and comfortably into a relationship like breaking in a new pair of jeans.  I couldn’t disagree more. Countless are the stories retold of eyes meeting from across a crowded room or chance encounters on a busy street or mall when the individuals knew from first glance that there was something special in the gaze worthy of investigation and closer review. God creates each of us with a special set of interests and features that form a uniquely shaped profile, and only He knows for sure who He created with the complimenting and opposite profile that when joined with ours, fits perfectly together like two pieces of a puzzle.  God’s cool like that!

The concept of two souls joining together for a lifetime has certainly been subjected to the modern day devaluation of eternal commitment. Some seem more sure of the longevity of a tattoo than the covenant of marriage. To be willing to stand before friends, family and God and vow to each other and to God to remain loyal and joined to this one person for the balance of your life causes fear and trepidation with many young couples, while others take the vows flippantly, knowing if they get bored or “fall out of love” they can always proceed with divorce and find another. Just this past weekend I was privileged to be among the witnesses as my niece married.  In her tradition, Greek Orthodox, the words “til death do us part” are never used because they believe that marriage does not end with death but rather transitions to our ultimate marriage to Christ as His bride. In the ceremony two crowns, one each for the bride and groom, are placed on their heads and blessed by the priest.  These crowns are connected by one ribbon and guarded throughout their marriage.  Upon the death of one of the partners the ribbon is cut and the departed is buried with his or her crown while the survivor retains theirs and is then buried with it upon their own death.  What blessed symbolism of eternal love, of lifelong commitment and of honoring the sacred vows made to each other in the presence of their Lord and eventual groom Jesus Christ!

And if you think for one moment that God did not establish and ordain the beauty and rapture of romantic love between two people, consider the words from the fourth chapter of the Old Testament Book, The Song of Solomon, taken from The Message translation:

1-5 You’re so beautiful, my darling, so beautiful, and your dove eyes are veiled
By your hair as it flows and shimmers, like a flock of goats in the distance
    streaming down a hillside in the sunshine. Your smile is generous and full—
    expressive and strong and clean. Your lips are jewel red,
    your mouth elegant and inviting, your veiled cheeks soft and radiant.
The smooth, lithe lines of your neck command notice—all heads turn in awe and admiration!
Your breasts are like fawns, twins of a gazelle, grazing among the first spring flowers.

6-7 The sweet, fragrant curves of your body, the soft, spiced contours of your flesh
Invite me, and I come. I stay until dawn breathes its light and night slips away.
You’re beautiful from head to toe, my dear love, beautiful beyond compare, absolutely flawless.

You have captured my heart, dear friend. You looked at me, and I fell in love.
    One look my way and I was hopelessly in love! How beautiful your love, dear, dear friend—
    far more pleasing than a fine, rare wine, your fragrance more exotic than select spices.
The kisses of your lips are honey, my love,  every syllable you speak a delicacy to savor.

God saw that it wasn’t good for His created man to be alone and created from his own flesh the perfect compliment, woman. His ideal from the beginning was for these two newly created beings to enjoy and be filled and fulfilled with each other and to share a long and happy life together, learning new things, blazing new paths and being one in life and in worship to their creator. You can tell that a woman loves her husband by looking into her eyes and seeing her expression; you can tell how much a man loves God by how much he loves and dotes over his wife!

A word to the men-we are not naturally gifted in all things romantic and some of us lack the art of expression or sentiment.  There is a day approaching, you know, the Hallmark holiday, that as cheesy as you may think it to be, provides an inexcusable opportunity to shower your beloved with love and attention, and to thank God for the beauty and grace of such women who put up with us when we are at our worst. DON”T BLOW IT-MAN UP-LOVE YOUR WIFE AND MAKE IT KNOWN LIKE A MEDAL OF HONOR OR A TROPHY PROUDLY DISPLAYED IN YOUR CASE. BY HONORING HER WE ARE HONORING GOD HIMSELF!

As I close this week’s blog, I think it would be an amazing tribute to your spouse and God’s greatest gift to reply or comment and share your love stories. Let’s exchange each others epic tales  and glorify our creator in reliving those moments when you just knew that God shined his light of favor on you and His spirit slapped you on the back and said “go get ’em”.  “God, thank you for the gift of romantic love, the blessing of eternal union and the hope of our ultimate heavenly marriage to the Lamb of God, your son and gift to us, Jesus Christ”. 

You Can Create Nothing More Precious Than Memories

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As I write this week’s blog I’m about to embark on a weekend wedding for my niece. Camera, check. Kilt, check. Greek dance lessons, check. I’m not exactly sure what all is in store but of this I’m certain-lasting memories will be made. Some will be suitable for print and framing while others will simply be etched forever in our minds. Truly, there is little more precious that one can create than a memory of a happier time. They cost nothing but are priceless.

I’m not old by any means but I’m certainly getting older every day. While I try not to linger on things past or regrets just yet, I do already regret that I didn’t make the effort to create more positive memories, especially with my boys. I’m sure many who thought they took advantage of every opportunity can look back and say much the same thing, especially as your kids grow into adulthood. Don’t get me wrong, I carry with me plenty of precious memories of their childhood and school years.  I can still remember my oldest son’s cap and gown kindergarten graduation. I recall my middle son playing Little League baseball-I still have his gear. I recall my youngest being a chubby version of his current model like appearance. I remember taking all of them to a small Indiana amusement park no longer there; I remember wrestling with them on the living room floor and sledding with them on cardboard boxes down snowy banks during Indiana winters. These are things I won’t soon forget. But, I didn’t spend nearly enough time with them as I should have.  For every opportunity I took advantage of there are two or three or more I missed. And sadly there is no way to go back in time and recapture lost moments or forfeited opportunities-once lost, they’re gone forever. And I’m just as certain that if you were to ask the boys they would say the same thing-I could have done more.

My wife takes pictures of everything-every event-every occasion; we must have 50 photo albums waiting to be filled that we haven’t started because we have 100 albums worth of photos to go through. Each photo is a moment in time-an image captured that can be revisited and for a brief moment relived. There seems to be nothing so insignificant or unworthy of a photo opp with her-I love that about her. One thing we have learned as grandparents is that moments are fleeting.  We want to be sure not to miss anything we might have missed in the first round as a parent. And besides, who can resist pulling out embarrassing baby pictures on certain occasions just because we were smart enough to keep them handy for such times.

There are many things we do in the faith to remember special occasions-things we should never forget. In the Jewish custom Passover is celebrated as a reminder of the Exodus. We partake of Communion at the Lord’s command to remember His broken body and shed blood on our behalf. We celebrate Christmas to acknowledge the Incarnation, the day the Word became flesh.  We likewise celebrate Easter or Pascha and give thanks for the glorious works done through the cross and the Resurrection. We refer to scripture to revisit the historical roots of the early church and acknowledge the lives of certain Saints for their works and contributions to the traditions of our faith. To us of the faith these are indeed precious memories of eternal existence that will continue to be celebrated in our Heavenly home. 

Creating lasting positive memories is vital to enjoying life because all of us will unfortunately have our share of not so positive memories that must somehow be offset. There are the memories of past relationships that couldn’t be repaired.  There are the memories of broken homes and reduced visitations and forever lost bonding time. There are the memories of tragic events, auto accidents, violence, the unexpected loss of a loved one, the crippling illness that one never recovered from. I recall a fire in 1994 that destroyed all our photos.  Life is not always kind and some painful memories will be created by circumstances beyond your control and without your consent. Such is life.  They too are forever etched in the recesses of your mind and can pop up randomly without explanation. It is for this reason that we must have an inventory of deliberate memories to fall back on that can push out the ones we don’t cherish as much.  This catalog of mental archives can sustain us through the most difficult situations. It is in times of distress that we can be grateful for moments captured and embossed in our memories.

This wasn’t intended to be overly spiritual. All of us, regardless of faith or race or income bracket have equal opportunities to latch on to memorable occasions and relish the value of time-stamped memory making. If I could offer any advice for my children that they would actually adhere to, it would be to never take for granted the small seemingly insignificant events of your life when laughter is shared and family and friends are gathered.  And never think that time stands still for you or that you will pass this way again at some point in the future. Don’t let “if only I had known” be a regular part of your vocabulary. Don’t look back at times in your life and have regrets that you didn’t do more to exploit and savor the moments. Take advantage of every opportunity you are given to create something that costs you nothing but can’t be purchased for all the money in the world-precious, timeless memories.

Sex Trafficking-the Ugly Truth We Need to Know

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This post will be difficult-difficult to write without tears and surely difficult to read without compassion and conviction. The sex trafficking and exploitation of young children and teens in our country is a harsh and relevant reality. The numbers are staggering, the stories heart breaking and the victims often unheard. It is easier for us to turn a blind eye to the crisis or throw a buck or two in the direction of organizations on the front line of this war than to take the time to ponder the dark facts and undeniable truths associated with the sexual exploitation of child-sex for profit. The best of bloggers can not come up with the right vernacular to adequately describe the horrors these kids face on a daily basis. But we can no longer turn the other way.  We can’t choose the safer arguments of worship styles, denominational differences or Biblical prosperity theology and ignore the victims of these heinous crimes, those which our Savior eluded to in his description of “true” religion. We need to endure the pain of knowledge and the sting of disclosure so we can respond with compassion and tearful prayers for the rescue of these precious souls.

A good friend of mine, Mike Bartel, and his wife operate an organization called F.R.E.E. InternationalFind, Rescue, Embrace, Empower.  This week he and his team are in Phoenix working in conjunction with the local F.B.I. to locate and recover young girls who have been reported missing and are expected to be “working” the Super Bowl. The miraculous and yet tragic truth is each year many of those they fear will be on hand are indeed found and rescued. F.R.E.E. actively engages the local High Schools by educating them on the issue through Say Something assemblies.  Their street teams are working the surrounding areas and hotel districts handing out cards with missing girls pictures on the front and their bios on the back, hoping someone will recognize them. I have worked with F.R.E.E international and wholeheartedly endorse their work and their efforts. They are one of several organizations who have seriously taken up the call and subsequent challenges of finding these kids and making a difference in their lives through their rescue and their restoration.

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The stats above need no explanation. Upwards of 300,000 young people and kids are sexually exploited each year for profit, just in the U.S.  It is 2nd only to drug trafficking in illegal profits, a whopping $32,000,000,000.00 industry-yes, that’s billions. The average age of girls forced into prostitution slavery is 14, and they have been rescued through sting operations at the age of just five years old! Imagine for just a minute that this isn’t some impoverished girl taken from a run down city park on the wrong side of the tracks, but this is your daughter or granddaughter, your flesh and blood, kidnapped on her way to school or church. The tendency is to believe these girls and this issue is a foreign crisis, choosing to ignore that this is happening in our backyards, under our noses to parents and grandparents we may actually know or worship with each week. Cities where children are routinely kidnapped and put into sexploitation include Miami, Las Vegas, L.A., Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York, Dallas and others.  If you think your children are safe, you are deceived.

So why am I writing this article now?  There is a big game coming up this weekend.  Major sporting events are proven to be hubs for the trafficking of minors.  Read this excerpt from an article put out by Global Centurian regarding the Super Bowl:

From scantily clad cheerleaders to groupies to VIP parties, sex and sports are linked in contemporary society.   With no wives or girlfriends in sight, the adrenaline and alcohol fueled fans has the potential to create a concentrated demand for commercial sex. Unfortunately, this demand is sometimes being met by trafficked persons. Some of these victims will be underage — as young as 11 — who have been trafficked into prostitution, as well as other young women who have become ensnared in sexual servitude for a variety of reasons. A case in point: earlier this year in Florida, a number of arrests were made on charges of sex trafficking. In one case a Hawaiian man was caught trafficking an 11 year old child. As more cases are uncovered, the correlation between commercial sex trafficking and major sporting events is being documented.”

It is estimated that solicitations for sex will be equal to the number of tickets sold for the game, with many involving under aged children. Many of these kids have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution against their wills. Many were kicked out of their homes or ran away and left homeless with no resources to rely on but the offering of their bodies just to be able to eat.  Some ran away and were befriended by those who at first provided them with basic needs and then guilted them into paying back the “kindness” shown by working the streets. Don’t be naive enough to believe they have chosen this lifestyle, at least not initially.  Do many remain after being forced into it?  With no family support, with no formal education, many with no high school diploma or G.E.D. and having known no other life, the sad answer is yes. They are slaves to their condition as much as anyone can be.  The thought of one of my granddaughters existing in this manner tears at every fiber within me and should tear at you as well if you have a heart. Books could be written describing the facts, the statistics, the horror stories of those fortunate enough to be rescued, and sadly the staggering number of our kids taken from our country and solicited abroad never to be seen or heard from again. Our hearts cry out, God have mercy!

So now that we are aware of the evils of this industry from both the supply and demand side, let’s choose to be active in aiding and supporting the efforts to find our kids and restore them to normalcy through rescue and empowerment campaigns, through donations of time and money, and through keeping them in our daily prayers.  If you want to be involved, find an organization in your city where you can volunteer.  If you know of none, let me recommend F.R.E.E. International.  You can find them at

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http://www.freeinternational.org

God, help us to be aware and active and diligent in aiding the children you love so much.  May the things that tear at your heart tear at ours as well and spur us to activism in your name.

State of the Church Union

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Last night the President gave his State of the union address.  When not used as a campaign platform this address is a disclosure speech to inform us of the current state of the things that matter to most of us, the economy, jobs creation, tax reform and the like.  Going back through the history of the address it tends to be more of a pep rally than a reality check.  If you really want to know how the country is doing you have to do some research beyond the political rhetoric.

So in keeping with the theme of the week I thought it appropriate to offer my version of the State of the Church address.  The health of the eternal church hits much more close to home with me than the state of a temporal country. I don’t wish to go into denominational statistics here but rather offer some general observations referencing some research data easily confirmed by personal research. The church is sick. Recent surveys (Gallup and Barna) show that 40% of People in the US claim to attend church, but when questioned further the truth is only 18% actually attend church at least two times per month, leaving over 80% as non or hardly ever church attenders. Further studies show that in recent years one thousand churches are planted in the U.S. but four thousand will close in the same amount of time for a net of 3000 less churches per year. Why is that?  Why are the faithful not being, well, faithful? The following are just my thoughts and not intended to be all inclusive as to some possible reasons church attendance is dropping.

TECHNOLOGY

With the advances of the smart phones, the Tablets and streaming services, many prefer to “get their religion” in the comfort of their home. If you miss a message you can always download it from the church website as if you were there. Some even make their worship services available online which is great for being able to listen, record and play over again, but does little for the encouraging and exhortation that results from personal fellowship with your sibling believers. Can the Lord bless through technology? Of course He can, but He designed us for fellowship and encourages us through Paul to “not forsake” the opportunity to gather.  It’s just not the same.

Radical Acceptance

In today’s society, this is huge. While the church teaches unconditional love, is it always expressed by those in the church or felt by those who desire it most? Does the man who struggles with attractions to other men feel at ease in any evangelical congregation? Is the young mother who is feeling the guilt and pain of a recent abortion ashamed to be seen in her community church?  Do people still whisper when a racially mixed couple comes through their doors?  While the church is founded on the tenets of sound and unwavering Biblical doctrine, we sometimes forget that the greatest commandment is to love one another even as Christ loves us!  If the church is to be a true refuge or hospital for the sick, as Christ eluded to, then we have to not only welcome but embrace those who are sick and love them to Christ.

Competing for our Time

Let’s be honest, especially us men-there are always things we would prefer to be doing on any Any Given Sunday than go to churchFootball or other televised sports, fishing, concerts, the all-you-can-eat- breakfast bar that closes at 11:00 AM-you get the picture. Even moms appreciate a day when they don’t have to bathe and dress the little ones and get them out early on Sunday morning.  Compared to many of our European counterparts American work entirely too many hours in a week, some 60 to 70 or more.  Sunday may be the one day to catch your breath or take a nap and get recharged.  It’s entirely understandable.  The informed churches make other weekly service times available for those who have alternative work schedules common to the times.

Lack of Man Time

Speaking of us men, it is no secret that the local church has somewhat forgotten about us-let me clarify. It is great for churches to sponsor men’s prayer breakfasts or Men’s fellowships like Promise Keepers attempted to do-opportunities for men to grow spiritually, to practice the art of iron sharpening iron.  But many men feel they have to check their man card when they come to church.  Sometime Christian men just want to go play golf together, or basketball or maybe enjoy a camping weekend or attend a sports event, and just kick back and, dare I say it, enjoy a beer or a good cigar with other Christian men being men.  The effemination of Christian men not only tends to isolate some from becoming or remaining regular church attenders-it does little to attract new men into the church.  Ladies I love you but we men need to fulfill our godly roles in our churches and the church needs to recognize ways to encourage fellowship without turning in our man cards.

Contemporary Church

I know this will get stick as many of us, me included, attend the local large contemporary church as shown in the image above. Again, technology has allowed us to create a modern interactive church experience complete with large screens, special lighting effects and yes, even fog.  While we embrace the freedom to worship God in this manner, for many it has the appearance of little more than your typical rock concert, void of any resemblance of a traditional church atmosphere. I participate in a Worship team on such a stage and I relish each week I’m privileged to be one of the Lead Worshippers.  That said, I am still in awe when I enter a traditional church with pews, stained glass windows, a cross, divine images and other things that resemble church. I can’t fully explain it but when I enter a chapel or a cathedral or hear a majestic pipe organ with a choir or chanters there is a feeling of humility and smallness before God that I don’t always sense in a contemporary sanctuary. In our attempt to reach out to a modern world we have in some cases left every visual reminder behind in our efforts, and the seeker looking for something other than what they find in the world doesn’t sense that they have entered into a holy place when they see the coffee shop before they see the doors to the sanctuary. Again, this is just my personal observation and experience.

Marketing

Yes, marketing. I’ve been in business for a long time and I know first hand from unfortunate experiences that if you don’t market yourself or your product you will fail and close up shop very quickly. Let’s be honest-some see this as commercialization and contend that the church having a marketing strategy equates to little more than being in the church business.  What a glaring misconception of the role and purpose of marketing!  What better “product” can one offer than Jesus? What more can the local church consumer be offered than forgiveness and hope and eternal life in Christ? We have something that no one else can offer-there is no competition for our product-no one can beat or undercut our price-no one else offers a legitimate Lifetime Guarantee that can compare to the message of salvation available each week in the local church. In the story of the marriage supper the servants were encouraged to go out into the highways and byways and to compel them to come in-MARKETING 101!  If no one knows your church exists, if no one knows what your church offers, if they haven’t been fully sold on the benefits of your product and retained as a local attender and participating contributor, your church will ultimately fail.

I’m sure there are other contributing factors to why church attendance is decreasing each year-who can fully know all the reasons many choose to stay home on the weekends. I’m certainly not the expert on the subject, just an observant bystander wanting to see a healthy local church and a healthy universal church. It should be of concern to all of us who see the empty seats and pews each week.  It shouldn’t take another 9/11 to get people in our churches if we are doing all we can to attract them through our lifestyle, to compel them through our marketing and to retain them through proper acknowledgement of individual and demographic needs and expectations.  I pray that we as the body of Christ seize the opportunities to reach and embrace our world in a time when they need us more than they might realize.

God help us to be Christ to the lost, love to the hurting and a beacon of light to those searching through darkness.

Put on Christ-The Ultimate Wardrobe Malfunction

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Romans 13:14 tells us to “clothe ourselves with Christ”.  Some translations read “Put on Christ”.  When we consider wardrobe malfunctions we may think of various pictures we’ve seen of celebrities getting out of cars or even Janet Jackson’s famous “slip” that leave certain body parts exposed.  But wardrobe malfunctions also occur when clothing is worn in ways the designer had not intended.  When we consider this in light of the passage in Romans, many of us are guilty of similar malfunctions when it comes to putting on Christ.

I did a sermon on this a few years back and I used a sport coat to illustrate the various ways some of us choose to wear Christ. In one example I put the coat on inside out.  This would be representative of those who want to wear Christ in such a way that it’s not visible to others.  Perhaps they are embarrassed to be labeled Christian or are afraid they would be ostracized by their social and professional groups if Christ showed.  Or maybe they are the ones who feel faith should be personal and no one’s business.  So they wear the coat inside out so no one can see that they are wearing Christ.

Then I put the coat just half way on with one arm hanging out.  This would be for those who are indecisive or uncommitted to wearing Christ.  They want to have Him handy in case of emergencies so they could quickly put the other arm in the jacket and complete the wardrobe but they don’t feel the need to wear Him all the time.  Or maybe they are still trying to figure out how to wear Him.  They are new to the faith, or they have been in situations and trials that have left them with more questions than answers and they leave one arm out in rebellion or protest, remaining completely noncommittal.

Then the coat was put on all the way but buttoned wrong with the collar up and one sleeve rolled up.  This would represent those who are so eager to put on Christ that they wear Him in haste and with piety.  I liken these to the Church police, the legalists, or the eager but still learning new believers who grab the coat and dash out with it everyday without first checking the mirror to see how others will be seeing you.  I argue with people like this on a daily basis.  They are quick to throw a scriptural stone at anything that looks or smells ungodly, they carry the largest Bibles and condemn anything that seems out of line with their finite definition of all things holy.  Their intentions are good and their heart may even be in the right place but they haven’t been properly discipled to effectiveness and accuracy concerning the Word and the faith.

And then these was my favorite.  I just casually threw the coat over my shoulder like a model in Esquire magazine.  This is the person who has no real faith in Christ at all and no desire to be counted among genuine believers.  This person just wears Christ like a fashion statement, completely off the shoulders and carried around for show but not a part of the wardrobe ensemble. This describes a lot of people.  It might be the gang banger who gets a crucifix tattoo or the business professional who places the Christian Fish image on his business card in order to increase sales with the Christian community. This would be the award winning artist who has a questionable lifestyle but thanks God for his or her award.  It would most certainly cover recording artists who put our a song that eludes to deity among other cuts that glorify darkness.  This person treats Christ like a fad or a trend and carries Him because it’s the in thing to do but has no regard whatsoever with the words, the teaching of the life that Christ calls us all to live. Just bling, no more.

And then there is the one who puts on the coat, straightens the lapel, pulls the sleeves down so they are both even, makes sure the buttons are lined properly and that the coat is free from lent or debris, and checks himself in the mirror before venturing out.  He wants to know what he looks like and how others are going to see him before he leaves his place.  This is the one who properly “Puts on Christ”.  They know that if worn correctly He will be seen and they are concerned with how he will be viewed, so they do all they can to wear Him properly.  If the wind blows, they hold the coat snug and together.  If something is spilled on it, they are quick to blot away the spill and clean the soiled area.  If the coat is snagged they quickly and cleanly make repairs.  This person is not afraid of wearing Christ everyday-they are more afraid of keeping the Christ they put on from becoming a major wardrobe malfunction that leaves them embarrassed or exposed to others.  They don’t wear the coat with anything that would clash with it or anything that would take away from it’s intended design.  They wear it so much that if they show up some place without it others notice immediately that it’s missing and they ask them about it.  It becomes a part of who they are, their known identity.  The one who wears the coat this way enjoys the warmth and the comfort of the proper attire and they would never consider any other outer wear than their Christ coat.

Let’s be real-many of us are not fashionistas. Even among us “mature in the faith” there are days when we haphazardly throw on Christ as we leave our homes.  We don’t pray or study, we don’t “check” ourselves in the mirror.  We get our coats dirty and are not quick in getting them cleaned.  we are of the human nature and wearing Christ accurately 24/7 is a high calling that few can boast with any real success.  The beauty is that God provide through Christ an all day dry cleaning service, an all day alteration for rips or snags and a world of mirrors so we always have an idea what our sphere of friends see when they look at us.  When the winds howl and the rains come and soak us, we can still be wearing Christ at the end of the day and feel warm in his comfort and the knowledge that we have worn Him effectively another day.

How do you put on Christ?  Inside out so no one sees?  Half on half off in indecisiveness? In haste and judgement? Over the shoulder simply for fashion but not protection? Or the way intended, fully clothed, neat and cleaned?  Let us strive to be the latter so the world will be able to easily recognize Him when they see us walking in Him.  Blessing and peace.

BACK TO THE ROCK-A Tribute to Petra

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This week I want to veer off course a bit from my usual topics to discuss the band who, in my humble opinion, broke all the barriers for the contemporary Christian Bands we enjoy today.  That band is none other than the incomparable, Petra. First formed in 1972 Petra endured the abuse of the would be Christian Music Police and holy music standard bearers as they incorporated “worldly” rock music into a ministry that reached tens of thousands and still touches lives today through the stamp of approval by the Holy Spirit.

I was blessed to see Petra live in 3 concert tours-More Power To Ya, Not of This World and Beat the System. I was blown away at their talent, the special effects uncommon to a “Christian” concert, but more importantly their passion for ministering the message of Christ through their music.  Though Petra has evolved and had many versions due to members coming and going, to me Petra will always be the founder, Bob Hartman on lead guitar, Mark Kelly on Bass, Louie Weaver on drums and the golden voice of Christian Rock, Greg X. Volz on lead vocals. These four men would be my Mount Rushmore of Christian Rock, and if we had our own CCM Hall of Fame, they would be the face of the brand.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s a movement out of Southern California emerged that would come to be known as Jesus Music.  To many this was just a bunch of Woodstock like young Christians playing soft rock/pop music to the likes of Larry Norman, Barry McGuire, Love Song, Second Chapter of Acts (another of my all time favorites I’ve seen multiple times) Randy Stonehill and the late Keith Green.  They drew little attention because they created little controversy.  But out of this movement came a belief that there was a large demographic of young people who not being church attenders, were not hearing the Gospel through traditional methods but were responding to this new music movement. Out of this movement one of the bands formed was Petra. Most churches refused to allow Petra to playing in their churches, voicing strong opposition to using the world’s music in worship or ministry.  Christian radio stations refused to play their music on the air-only a select few campus stations dared to “Beat the System”.  Yet Petra moved forward unintimidated and their popularity began to grow through their work in local coffee houses and word of mouth.

But is was in the 80’s that the Petra I came to love exploded onto the scene. It was then that they introduced synthesizers and keyboards into their Guitar rock genre, and a custom designed stage that resembled one of the space ships on their album covers, as well as special effect lighting.  Imagine the convulsions the church police were having over a Christian band concert looking like an Aerosmith concert!  While wildly popular and well received by those the Lord had laid on their hearts, it was not unusual for the band to arrive at a venue and be greeted by protesters with signs telling them they were going to hell because of the music they played.  We may find it hard to believe that going to a typical Third Day experience would garner any such response, but this was the reality for a band breaking all traditional barriers at the time. Because of the theory that many rock groups were incorporating backward masking messages into their recordings (a message heard when an LP is played in reverse) there were actually “ministers” playing Petra albums backwards and suggesting to churches that there were demonic messages there if you listened closely.  This ridiculousness caused Petra to actually record a back masking message intro to one of their songs Judas’ Kiss.  Played forward it actually sounds demonic but the message played backwards says “why are you looking for demons when you should be looking for the Lord?” What a brilliant way to respond to their critics.  To Petra music fans that backward message is immediately recognized to the beginning of one of their greatest hits.

Petra went on to receive ten Dove Awards, the Christian alternative to the Grammys.  And they also received thirteen Grammy nominations, receiving four.  They released 20 albums with sales of over 10 million worldwide.  I can’t begin to elaborate on their discography but they will be forever known for such greats as The Coloring Song, Why Should the Father Bother, More Power To Ya, Not of This World, Grave Robber, Praise the Lord, Beat the System, Blinded Eyes, Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows, Occupy, Second Wind and soooo many more! To me it is a shame that many of our young people today will never be exposed to such great music from a band instrumental (pun intended) in breaking through the ceiling for the bands they do listen to now. Mercy me, DC Talk, Newsboys, Third Day and the likes would not be here if it were not for bands like Sweet Comfort, Love Song, Resurrection and yes, my favorite, Petra. When I hear the mature Christians among us speak on how the Holy Spirit only moves through “church” music I want to regurgitate at their ignorance. Having played in Christian bands myself from High Schools to Prisons, I can testify that there is no such thing as unholy music when God and His agenda and will are involved and made welcomed.  Many of the pioneers of CCM have already gone to their reward.  How I would love to introduce the generation of my kids and grandkids to the music of Classic Petra so that they too can develop a love and appreciation for what the band endured and accomplished through their obedience and perseverance, and the call to accept their savior Jesus Christ at the end of every concert!

As I post this I join in celebration of the reward another of our great CCM Pioneers is finally receiving. Andrae Crouch suffered a heart attack this past weekend and has entered into his final rest.  I was privileged to see Andrae and the Disciples when I was younger.  As with this post volumes could be written on the ground-breaking contributions he too made to the Christian music scene. He will be greatly missed but his music will live on as one of the most re-recorded Christian artists of all time!  Eternal Memories Brother Andrae.

Year End Inventory-A Personal Assessment

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As I begin my last blog of 2014 I want to take a minute to thank those of you who have signed up to follow papaswords.com this year. It is humbling anytime anyone is interested enough in what a person has to say that they choose to follow your weekly posting.  Your interest, your comments and your sharing on topics and the every day struggles of living the Christian faith are always welcomed.

Having been in business and retail in the past I’ve taken many physical inventories.  While some businesses take quarterly inventories the big one is always the one taken at the end of the year. In business much can be learned from the inventory left at year’s end. It can tell you what items you sold or distributed the most.  It can tell you how well you forecasted your annual needs.  Inventory can identify current trends and it can help you better judge which items you will need to restock or liquidate for the upcoming year.

Each year at this time many of us do similar personal inventories.  New Year’s Day is the day when resolutions are made usually for the betterment of our personal lives based on habits or trends of the previous year. There are the standard quit smoking, eat better or lose weight commitments and maybe the read the Bible and pray more resolutions.  However you do it and whatever it looks like, this is the time of the year when most of us swear to make some kind of change in our personal lives. That is unless you have come to the stage where past failures in keeping these year end decisions deter you from taking such personal assessment tests ever again. Like you, each year I too consider what I did wrong the previous year and what I need to do to live better in the year ahead.

2014 was not a kind year for me.  After much effort, sleepless nights and negative health effects, I lost my business.  Some reports in the medical field read that losing a business is as traumatic for some as losing a close family member.  The grieving process is much the same. As a result my personal year end inventory tells a story that isn’t necessarily a pretty one. I am left with many boxes of good inventory that should have been distributed and I have little left of bad inventory that should never have left the building.  Here is what I’m talking about.

The Bible is clear about the inventory of good items that every Christian believer should posses and distribute.  Galatians 5:22 says this;

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

“By our fruit they will know us”.  I’m not sure if I displayed enough of this fruit or inventory in 2014 to convince some of my faith. I certainly didn’t display much peace as I struggled with the business. I can’t say I demonstrated much kindness or goodness to others as I was a bit too focused on my own issues at the time to consider others. While I tried to remain faithful through the process there were many days when I lost control.  These items listed are inventory items that should be replenished at the end of each year because we distributed and shipped all the inventory we had to others throughout the year.  Sadly I still have quite a bit of unused inventory still sitting there on the shelves at year’s end.

On the other end of the scale are those inventory items that each of us are born with because of our sinful nature that should be stored in a part of your warehouse for slow moving items.  The Bible lists these as well. They are listed earlier in Galatians 5:19;

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

I am convinced that God enabled me to be a business owner.  I could not have accomplished purchasing a business on my own accord or with my limited resources. So naturally I had a difficult time understanding why through prayers and fasting and blessings God was taking the business away from me so soon. I depleted all my strife inventory. I certainly had my fits of rage and shook my holy fists at God more than once. Through selfish ambition I tried desperately to hold on to something that was being taken from me. And on more than one occasion my blood alcohol count might have exceeded the legal limit while wallowing in despair in the midnight hours of my home. As I count the various items that one should never be giving away I find that some of these boxes have been emptied and others are shamefully low. Many elements of my personal inventory are reversed.  Like the Apostle Paul, those things I should have I am out of and those things I don’t need are in abundance.

What a blessing it is that with God you can start new inventory habits every single day.  Thankfully His memory is shorter than ours is. We can start each year, each quarter, even each day with a clean slate and fresh start.

Lamentations 3:23 says Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.

As you consider on this the last day of 2014 those things you want to achieve in 2015, your good inventory, and those things you wish to change, the bad inventory, prayerfully seek God in humility and ask Him to supply those items He deems necessary for the purpose He has for your life this year. Be prepared for trials-Christianity ain’t easy! But never forget that God forgets! Fresh everyday are the tools and the inventory He sets aside for you to accomplish his will in your life and to bring you through to complete peace and joy.  It’s a long learning process, longer for some of us than others, but well worth the lessons. And don’t forget to inventory your blessings along the way!

I prayerfully wish all of you a blessed, a peaceful and God fulfilled Happy New Year!

The Heart is Compelled to Celebrate Christmas

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In just a few days the world will pause to remember the day when God the Son laid aside His Heavenly Kingship and entered into the world He created to set into motion the divine plan of redemption and reconciliation conceived from the beginning.  But sadly too many will get caught up in the wrappings of the holiday through business, through commercialization and even through religious debates as to the validity of our commemoration, and will completely miss out on the heart and the reasons we pause. Defense over “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” will stir indignation and false piety; the worn argument over leaving Christ in Christmas opposed to those who use Xmas; the ever aging debate over the pagan roots of the holiday and why like Halloween, “Real” Christians would never participate in such secular distractions.  I’m confident Christ is pleased at how diligently we defend Him and promote the model of love He displayed by coming into our world to save us from, well, us.

Christmas brings back so many joyful memories for me from my younger years, and most all of them center around the central figure of Christmas, the Christ Child. I can’t tell you the number of times I played Joseph in the annual church Christmas play.  I recall being part of a multi-level living Christmas Tree set up outside in the cold parking lot of an Indiana mall as we sang carols about none other than Jesus in near zero temps.  I remember as a teen in our youth group taking part in a Madrigal Dinner performance complete with costumes and yes, even tights (because back then I made tights fashionable for men).  I did the Santa thing with our kids and enjoyed every minute and memory made.  The snow, the songs, the plays, the animated Christmas displays downtown, the lights-all part of Christmas memories no one can take from me or diminish through theological orations of gross holiness infractions served up by some who are guilty of brutality through overbearing policing. We get through deeper study that the birth was most likely not a December event.  We understand that the shepherds being outside with the flock indicate a season other than Winter.  We know the timing of the Census and the calendar of Jewish festivals create doubt for a December nativity.  But are these things really essential on our choice and reasoning to remember?

Throwing off the wrappings, the controversy and the distractions, let us merely examine the wonder and the reason of the Incarnation of the Christ child on that Holy night. Jesus, the Word and creator of all things made according to John 1, saw His creation in turmoil. Mankind had perverted everything good about life.  Sin had separated us from Him and there was not enough time or livestock available for the continuing of sacrifices required according to Jewish custom to atone for our sinful ways. A promise had been made to never destroy the population as in the days of Noah, so a new covenant had to be established, one that was final, all inclusive and everlasting, and yet still meet the requirements of bloodshed. Enter Jesus-literally! The time was right and the need never greater. God’s entry into our planet was done in the most unusual, abnormal and uncharacteristic way possible.  He didn’t come into existence suddenly in the synagogue-He didn’t just appear before Kings and religious leaders. He picked a young teen aged girl from a city of poverty and disease and a man who had many of the same struggles we do today, fear, doubt, jealousy, weakness, to be the earthly vessel and parents of His Son. The news of his birth was not proclaimed to the rabbis in the temple-it was proclaimed to the shepherds, the outcasts of society, the indispensable protectors of flocks from wild predators who had little family or means.  Jesus didn’t come with prenatal care in a lavish facility worthy of  king’s birth, but rather a holding stable for animals-the local kennel if you will for all the visiting guests from other countries who had converged on Bethlehem that night. But in that blessed event is the fulfillment of all the carols we sing to this day recalling His birth. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining til He appeared”. “Peace on earth and mercy mild-God and sinner reconciled”. “Come and behold Him, born the king of ages”. “Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping”. The plan was set into motion.

While we rejoiced, God the Father was broken, knowing that in the blink of an eye this baby boy so innocently portrayed in a manger would be maliciously beaten and scourged and left to die on the Roman cross of crucifixion. In order for the perpetual sacrifice to be made for us, God had to become one of us-the Word becomes flesh and lives among us. The Lamb of God was born only to die. The virgin birth secured His separation from all things sinful so that He who knew no sin, could become the flawless sacrifice-the lamb without any blemish, to die blameless just as he was born. There was no other way for us to be restored to our creator because of our sin, than through the death and blood of one of us who was perfect-Jesus the Christ child. It was truly a cradle to the grave implementation of a divine plan by which we would be forgiven, redeemed, restored and made spotless before Him who made us.  At last we who were made in His image could once again appear like Him, reconciled into the lineage of Christ. We sing “Glory to the newborn king” so that we can sing “my sin, oh the joy of this glorious thought-my sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more”! This my friends is Christmas!

I am a wretched man, like Joseph, who struggles with pride, impatience, temptation-living everyday in a sinful world. The message of Christmas is that He who knew me before I was conceived made provisions for my shortcomings and afforded me forgiveness, salvation and everlasting life with Him in a kingdom yet to come, and it all started on that first Christmas morning 2000 years or so ago in Bethlehem, whatever night it was. You’re damn right I’m going to celebrate it-I’m going to sing songs about it-I’m going to enjoy a special church service to reflect on it-I’m going to have my family over and share in a great feast and offer up prayers in remembrance of it and even exchange gifts, remembering that the greatest gift of all was given freely on that first Holy night to all who choose to receive it. There are lights on my house, angels on my tree, a nativity in our family room, and Christmas shows on the TV. I will live according to the book of Romans knowing that some keep certain days as more holy than others but all being acceptable when done to the glory of God.  My only regret is that we only mark one day each year to remember the essence of our faith.  If it were left to me the lights would never come down, the carols would never cease and the magic and joy felt in December would never diminish in January. “For unto us a savior is born-unto us a Son is given, and He is called Jesus”.

It is my heartfelt wish and fervent prayer that my family, my kids, my grand kids and friends find in their hearts this season the wonder and the joy and the core of all things Christmas, and that they make merry in full acknowledgement of the hope born to us on that special night.

Merry Christmas to all!

Oh Holy Night-an Unlikely Composition Makes History

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All who know me know that Christmas is my absolute favorite time of the year. Being a native of the snowy mid-western state of Indiana I cherish the memories and traditions of Christmas past and have tried my best to create similar memories for our family in Las Vegas, sans the snow and cold temps. For me Christmas was always ushered in by the seasonal carols-I knew the holiday was close when the radio began playing Joy to the World, White Christmas, Silver Bells, Silent Night, and all the carols that have survived through the decades.  But no carol moves me to this day more so than Oh Holy Night. Of all the carols this song does more to transport me back to what must have been a magical night all over the earth as God the Son and Creator became flesh to dwell among us. This carol has been covered by the best voices in the world, each adding their own touch, from Celine to Groban to Crosby, and my favorite, Transiberian Orchestra.  There is no carol that sets the mood for Christmas among believers more than Oh Holy Night.

What many people don’t know is how God orchestrated the most unlikely characters and unusual circumstances in the composition of this song.  The lyrics were written by a man who would later walk away from the church to join the socialist party, and the music by a Jewish man who did not believe in Jesus the Messiah.  I was fascinated when I first read this story.

Placide Cappeau was a well known poet and commissioner of wines in France but not so well known as a church attender.  It was in 1847 that the priest of his parish asked him to compose a poem of religious origin that would be appropriate for Christmas Mass. Cappeau relied on texts from the Gospel of Luke and his imagination of what that blessed night must have been like and penned the words to Cantique de Noel on a stage coach ride to Paris. Upon its completion, Cappeau was so moved by his own composition that he decided these words should be put to music but music was not his strength.  So he called upon his good friend Adolphe Charles Adam, equally well known for his musical compositions.  Adolphe was Jewish. It was miraculous how the words to Cappeau’s poem moved Adam so much that he composed perhaps the most beloved and recognizable hymn about an event he did’t celebrate and personally didn’t believe in. Oh Holy Night, words by a socialist and music by a Jew!

The score was performed for Mass just three weeks later and quickly accepted across France.  However its fame was short lived as Cappeau joined the Socialist Party and the Catholic Church discovered that a Jew composed the music.  Oh Holy Night was banned for lack of content and musical taste for decades after, that is until John Sullivan Dwight, a struggling Unitarian minister and publisher of Dwight’s Journal of Music found the words and was moved by the composition.  You see, Dwight was an abolitionist and when he saw the lyrics, “for the slave is our brother”, he was inspired. It was Dwight who translated the lyrics into English and first introduced it to America.  But wait, there’s more!

In 1906, six decades after the song was composed by the most unlikely sources, another miracle was about to take place. The alternator-trasmitter had recently been developed allowing voice to be transmitted to ships and newspaper publishers by radio waves produced as a result of the high spinning alternator. Radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden, a former employee for Thomas Edison, first tested this new radio device by reading the first few verses from the Christmas story as recorded in the Gospel of Luke chapter two. Fessenden, also a musician, then picked up his violin and played Cantique de Noel, Oh Holy Night!  This beloved Christmas carol made history and is acknowledged as the very first song ever broadcast over radio, and all at the hands of a socialist, a Jew, a failed Unitarian minister and an Anglican through the orchestration of events by an all inclusive God!  Awe inspiring and yet, not at all surprising-He is after all, God!

Christmas is all about inclusion, and in light of recent events revolving around police actions and injustices, what a better time to reflect on the commonalities of our races and status and not the differences. Dwight, being a witness to the evils of slavery, fell in love with the lyric “change shall He bring for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease“. Paul would write in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ”.  You see, if you read the story carefully you will see that the young are represented by Mary, thought to be no more than fourteen years old when she gave birth, and the old are represented by Simeon, who would die shortly after seeing his Messiah. The rich are represented by the Wise men from the east bearing gifts for the Savior, and the poor by Jesus own parents who could barely afford doves for their sacrifice at the temple. The women are represented by the Theotokos, Mary, the bearer of God and her cousin Elizabeth who bore John the Baptist, while the men are represented by Joseph, a hard working everyday man chosen by God to be the earthly father of Jesus. And the outcast are represented by the shepherds, the lowest of the low deemed indispensable enough to guard the flocks against bears and other predators. This was God’s plan all along-unity through love and a common hope and equal inheritance.  We are to blame for creating the racial, societal and even the religious divisions among us. God’s gift of His son was to unite us and reconcile all of us, each different but all the same in Christ, to Him.

So this Christmas season, when you hear or sing this beautiful and beloved hymn Oh Holy Night, I want to challenge you to consider each other as you sing, the poor, the homeless, the black or the white, the Republican or Democrat, the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Atheist, the immigrant-those who would never come to mind normally, and imagine a time and a place two thousand years ago when the world for one night was at peace and as one as they ushered in with great celebration and Holy awe the creator of us all, the Christ child Jesus.  Surely, it must have been one holy night!  When you do, I can promise you that the spirit of Christmas past present and to come will dwell richly within you and the world around you will seem just a little less hostile, and each other a little less different.  God Bless you and Merry Christmas.

Thou Shalt Love thy Neighbor,,,Unless

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Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I expect too much. Maybe I’m too idealistic, or as my black brothers have often implied, I just don’t get it because I’m white. So I went to the local Christian bookstore to buy the White Bible.  Couldn’t find it-maybe they were just out of stock,  So I looked instead for the Black Bible. Same thing. I asked the clerk to check stock for me and she laughed at me. “I’ve never heard of the Black or White Bible”, she exclaimed. “Why would you believe there was such a thing”, she asked. “There has to be”, I replied. “We aren’t all reading the same thing”.

My heart aches over the rhetoric of hatred being spewed on both sides of the recent Ferguson shooting. I’m not shocked by the violence of those who don’t live a lifestyle of brotherly love.  Hell, cities burn when a major Sports Championship is won. What saddens me most is how some of the religious leaders have, in lieu of taking a stand against hate and reminding their congregations of the words of Christ, turned their pulpits into platforms that have only served to widen the barriers between races. Love thy neighbor, unless they are a cop, unless they have a different skin color, unless they have more money or drive a nicer car or attend the wrong church or have the wrong political sign in their yard. I’m amazed at the disclaimers we have added to God’s word because surely He must have accidentally left them out.  In many of my dialogues with my black Christian brothers, many of whom are clergy, I have been relegated to an unsympathetic and out of touch white man who couldn’t possibly understand discrimination or challenges because of the color of my skin.  There will always exist an element of racism and hatred because of sin-I can’t deny the ugly existence of racism and I would never intentionally dismiss as foolish the incidents made known to us that display blatant racist behavior. But to dismiss my concerns because I’m too white to understand is by very definition, racist. I too have had my share of issues because of the color of my skin.  While I don’t wish to draw comparisons, allow me to share some of my experiences.

I grew up on the west side of Indianapolis during the onset of bussing kids into school districts for racial balance in the 60’s and 70’s. I was always the tallest white boy in the school, so naturally I became a target to the blacks who wanted to show superiority, especially since I was, well close, to their girlfriends. On a specific day it was made known to me that I was going to “get me ass kicked” after school off premises.  I asked a few of my closer friends to have my back but all declined. True to their word I was jumped about 4 blocks from the school by a gang of black schoolmates wielding bricks, masonry blocks and belts. When the police arrived I was put into the back of the squad car because I appeared to be the aggressor.  I also took the blunt of the punishment by the school because an example of “fairness” to the entire community needed to be displayed.

In High School I was the starting center on our basketball team and third leading scorer. I lived and breathed basketball.  In my Junior year I was cut from the squad and replaced by a black student who couldn’t dribble out the side of his mouth or hit one free throw out of 20 attempts, because the Catholic school needed to show some “diversity” on the squad and to the teams we played on our schedule. I was devastated and to this day remember the feelings of being cut to make room for someone else because of skin color.

In my early adult years I had decided to pursue my dream of becoming a police officer in Indy.  The testing process was hard but I studied and passed the test with flying colors, only to be informed I wasn’t going to be accepted.  Chin up, I took the test again when open hiring was announced. Same scores, same results.  I went through this process one more time only to be told by the recruiting officer that I was wasting my time. Affirmative Action required that racial quotas be established in law enforcement departments and that I, being white, did not stand a chance of being hired as a result. Once again I was discriminated against due to my skin color-sounds familiar.

Upon moving to Las Vegas with my young family we rented an apartment on what turned out to be the wrong side of the city. We always tried to look out for our three sons.  I was informed that there was a drug pusher working the apartments giving out free drugs to kids and teens.  One day I spotted them, just feet from our oldest son and I gave chase to them, a truck load of blacks who in turn fired back at me with loaded handguns. Luckily for me their aim was much like that of many metro officers-they missed.

Most recently as a business owner in Las Vegas dealing with the largest gaming corporations in the world I was once again discriminated against in bidding on large contracts.  Seems just like I experienced in the 80’s, racial diversity needed to be displayed in vendor selection, and even though I had the best products, the best pricing and established relationships, my company was overlooked in favor of minority owned companies. I was too white.

Are these fair comparisons-maybe, maybe not.  What is common is that I was targeted because of the color of my skin and have legitimate reasons to be biased because of that discrimination.  The difference is that I have not let these incidents define me or my character.  Am I just a good Christian-hardly.  Most who know me will say I’m a gentle giant but my wife will tell you I’m an angry and impatient man with many issues. But I can’t escape my knowledge of the things written in scripture that deal with love, hate and true faith. Regardless of your individual life experiences, the Word of God is very straight forward and transparently clear when it comes to love and forgiveness:

1 John 4:20 ESV 

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.

1 John 3:15 ESV 

Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

Leviticus 19:17 ESV 

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.

John 13:34-35 ESV 

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

1 John 2:9 ESV 

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness

 

“But Joe, you don’t know what we’ve been through.  You can’t understand how I feel and how I’ve been wronged”.  Well maybe you are right.  All I can do is defer to Scriptures regarding forgiveness.

 

Ephesians 4:32 ESV 

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Mark 11:25 ESV 

And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

Matthew 6:15 ESV 

But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 18:21-22 ESV 

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

Luke 6:27 ESV 

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,

Colossians 3:13 ESV 

Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

Luke 6:27-36 ESV 

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

 

Maybe my friends are right about me.  Perhaps I’m too naive in my beliefs that Christians should be the torch bearers that heal racism instead of the fuel that keeps the flames of racism burning bright. Maybe the deep seed of prejudice is just too much for the common man to overcome, even in Christ. And most assuredly there is too much water under the bridge of racism to believe that somehow some way Christians can begin to live in a Kingdom fashion while still inhabitants of earth. But of all the words that have been used to describe me, stubborn stands out.  I will continue to hope for better, pray for better, live for better and speak up for better while it is within me to do so. None of us can play God, but none of us can deny God’s words or His commands because our life experiences justify our disobedience. Christianity isn’t a black or white man’s religion, but God’s word is clearly Black and White. Peace.

 

For These and All Thy Blessings…

Thanks-Wordle

It is sad to me that the traditions and celebrations of Thanksgiving have been folded into the Christmas holiday and has lost its uniqueness in many aspects. We are all guilty.  Each year I debate over whether or not to have the Christmas tree up and the house decorated in time for the Thanksgiving gathering.  We use the occasion to discuss the details of Christmas, who’s hosting, who’s buying gifts for who, what the menu should be, etc. Don’t get me wrong-I absolutely LOVE Christmas and all it means to me, and am an advocate of making Christmas last all year.  But the beauty of Christmas begins with an appreciation and an understanding of the incarnation of Christ, and that epiphany should be ushered in with great Thanksgiving and rejoicing rather than Black Thursday shopping deals.

Perhaps the older I get the more reflective I become. Or maybe it’s a maturity of faith that sheds a greater light on just how blessed we are as a people and as a church, that with all our faults we can be referred to as Children of God. In the midst of all our struggles, in view of all our differences, in spite of the divisions and barriers of our own making, we still have more to be grateful for than we could ever express in the short time allotted us here on earth. This is the week we look back on where we’ve been, what we’ve endured and what we are left with, and raise our voices to say Thanks God. So in the spirit of the day, I have a list of my own. I trust you do as well.

*I don’t have perfect health-I’m out of shape and maybe just a little overweight, yet God has granted  my fifty three years of a good life. 

*I experienced a painful divorce long ago but God blessed me with an angel that I’ve been with now  for eighteen years.

*Our kids aren’t perfect-they are all alive and doing well and a blessing to our family.

*Our grand kids are perfect! They can’t comprehend how precious they and their love is to us. 

*I lost a business this year-painful, but ended up in a perfect situation orchestrated by God alone. 

*Our house needs repair and updating but our home is strong and blessed and welcoming.

*We have to drive twenty miles to and from work. In twenty two years in Las Vegas we’ve never been      involved in any serious accidents. 

*Our church isn’t perfect because we attend there. But we found a home where we can mature and be a  blessing as we grow up in our faith and salvation.

*Our country is not what it used to be but we are still free to disagree, free to pursue happiness, free  to worship as we please, free to peacefully demonstrate and free to move about in relative safety.

*I’m not wealthy by the world’s standards, but I couldn’t ask for anything more than I have. What price  can a man give in exchange for his soul?

I love  Psalm 103 taken from the Message Bible.  It drives home the point, lest we forget, of just how truly blessed we are by God.

 O my soul, bless God.
    From head to toe, I’ll bless his holy name!
O my soul, bless God,
    don’t forget a single blessing!

 He forgives your sins—every one.
    He heals your diseases—every one.
    He redeems you from hell—saves your life!
    He crowns you with love and mercy—a paradise crown.
    He wraps you in goodness—beauty eternal.
    He renews your youth—you’re always young in his presence.

As high as heaven is over the earth,
    so strong is his love to those who fear him.
And as far as sunrise is from sunset,
    he has separated us from our sins.
As parents feel for their children,
    God feels for those who fear him.

What can anyone add to that?  What more can we ask for in order to be grateful-we already have it all!

There is just one more thing I’m grateful for this year. Since I was a young kid in school I’ve always loved to write.  Now through the technology of social media I am a blogger, writing each week about my experiences as a man striving, sometimes unsuccessfully, to live the Christian faith. The greatest praise one can receive is for another to want to hear what you have to say.  I am but one of countless millions of internet bloggers contributing to the ever growing blogosphere each week. If five of you wanted to follow me and my posts, I’d be truly blessed and would feel like I was making a positive contribution to your state. However I have a few more than five.  To have your posts read by those in countries like the UK and Italy and the Netherlands is humbling beyond words. I am thankful for each of you who have chosen to follow papaswords.com since its onset, and for those who have shared the posts and offered comments and critique. My prayer is that you find commonality in our struggles, our doubts, our fears and our victories as we live out our faith in a world unfriendly and sometimes even hostile toward the Gospel. You are among my greatest blessings-a heartfelt Thank You. May God bless you and your family with joy, laughter, memories and a revelation of these and all thy blessings!

Papa Joe

Eye Has Not Seen…

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It is called by many names, the city where I reside.  It is most commonly known as Sin City. Not sure why we get that exclusive title with the implication that other cities are sin-free.  Maybe it’s that whole ‘what happens here stays here’ campaign. Some call it Lost Wages after a weekend of losing money in casinos where the House usually wins. Some know us as the City of Lights because of millions of colored lights always on display down the Strip.  Some have referred to us as the city that never sleeps, although we share that title with at least one other city.  However you refer to us, you can’t deny we are one unique metropolis known around the world as the number one party destination.

I moved here from Indiana and have been here almost twenty-two years now.  Personally I can take it or leave it.  To come for a weekend visit one can get lost in the twenty-four hour culture of lights, gaming and entertainment.  There is literally something here for everyone-yes, everyone.  If it exists, it can be purchased here.  It’s a town built as an adult playground with each property trying to outdo another to capture the tourist attention and revenue. Nothing is too big, too extravagant or too expensive here if it leads to gaming revenue.  Just consider some of these lesser known facts about Las Vegas.

*Fifteen of the world’s twenty-five largest hotels by room count are located here on the strip, and     represent 62,000 rooms.

     *There are a total of well over 150,000 rooms here between the Strip and downtown Las Vegas.  On most major holidays, we are sold out!  

     *We have an average of over 40 million visitors come to Las Vegas annually.

     *It is estimated that there are over 15,000 miles of neon tubing just on the strip.

     *The beam from the Luxor is one of two man made features that can be seen from space, with over 1 million candle power light.

*The Venetian-Palazzo has over 8000 rooms alone. Yes we build it big.

Las Vegas is in the middle of nowhere, the high and dark desert.  I do have to admit that driving in to Las Vegas at night from out of town is breathtaking. We are surrounded by mountains so the two major roads leading in from the north or from the south are secluded from seeing the city until you reach the apex of the terrain.  On either of the routes at night you feel like you are driving through an eternal tunnel of darkness until you reach that point where the road clears the hills and suddenly, laid out before you is this spectacular blanket of sparkling lights that looks like Oz.  As far as the eyes can see there are lights and a glow that against the desert black night is hard to put into words.  After all these years of living here I’m still impressed when I see the lights of the city at night.  It is like strings of colored diamonds laid out on a black velvet spread.

I’m certainly not trying to impress you with our fair city-I’m laying out a backdrop for something far greater than even this for the believer. I have seen some beautiful places and visited some of God’s best works of creation.  As awestruck as I have been in these places there is coming a day when these places will be no more. Jesus, creator of our universe and all that is in it, told hid disciples “I’m going away to prepare a place for you”. We aren’t told where this new place or heaven is.  We are only given a glimpse of how spectacular our new home will be.  1 Corinthians reads this:

“It is Written that the eye has not seen and the ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love him.”

When I saw Las Vegas for the first time I could not imagine a place more spectacular.  But this city can’t compare with God’s city, our new home.  The Bible gives us some clues as to what we can expect.

Revelation 21:18-19; “The material of the wall was jasper; and the entire city was like pure gold, like clear glass.  The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with every kind of precious stone.”

Verse 21; “And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, with each gate being made of one single pearl, and the streets of the city were pure gold, like clear glass.”

Revelation 22;1; “The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb.”

NEW-JERUSALEM-COMING-DOWN-IN-GLO-1

I have quite the imagination but I can’t fathom pure gold being used for building materials and paving! Nor can I fathom the size of the oyster that produced a pearl large enough to create a city gate!  The things we count as precious and valuable here in our earthly quest for riches and success and portfolio security will be common and ordinary in our new home, putting even Las Vegas to shame.  But even more spectacular than this is the promise of what life will be like.

Revelation 21;3-4; “And I heard a great voice out of Heaven saying ‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and their will be no more death, now any sorrow, nor crying; neither will there be any more pain, the all the former things (that we are accustomed to here on earth) will be no more.”

Now, I’m impressed! I truly believe that God never grants us complete satisfaction or contentment here on earth so that we will be constantly looking forward and yearning for that which our eyes have not seen and our ears have not heard of, but our spirits have confirmed for those who love God and live lives committed to Christ the Lamb!

There was a popular movie out years back titled Heaven Can Wait.  What a farce! I can’t wait for Heaven!

See No Evil

See-No-Evil-Know-No-Evil

We live in an evil world. We always have. Perhaps it is more so now, or maybe we are just more aware through social technology. When I was a boy (can’t believe that just came out of my mouth) I remember Harry Reasoner and Walter Cronkite being our major source of World News, in addition to the printed newspaper. If they didn’t report on it, the American public didn’t know about it. My how times have changed!

Now with the advent of the internet and social vehicles like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the likes, we are made more aware of the atrocities that are taking place all around the world in real time. The only people who can claim ignorance to world affairs are those with no TV, no computer, no smart phones and no newspaper service.  With all the advances in communications technology, you just can’t avoid the flood of available information on any current issue unless you are a hermit. To some the news is a sad story; to others it becomes a burden to help bear.

Consider some of the news stories in recent months:

* 276 girls abducted from a Nigerian school, yet to be found, feared sold into slavery or sex trafficking

* 500 children age 2 to 18 found living in a Mexican refuge among rats, cleaned only to be abused then returned

* 25 Children killed in Elementary school bombing in Syria

* 250 Christian girls gang raped in villages near Chibok in the name of Allah

* 48 Christians shot in head in Kenyan village while watching World Cup

The list is intense and overwhelming. To the Christian believer, it is a burden to heavy to bear. Galatians 6:2 exhorts us to carry each others burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ”. Romans 12:15 asks us to “mourn with those who mourn”.  The question becomes how can we be made aware of these end times atrocities without being brought to our knees in prayerful lamentations on behalf of the victims and their families.

We each have our own dose of issue to deal with in this life, sickness, unemployment, relationships, finances, etc. There are no shortage of burdens to go around. But Christ compels us to love our neighbors and pray for our enemies, in the midst of our own battles-to be spiritually and socially conscious of the plight of our brothers and sistesr in the Lord and the innocent children so precious to God. We can not afford to claim ignorance given the aforementioned media outlets at our constant disposal.  We are to be the arms, the legs, the feet, the heart and the tears of Christ when confronted with these stories and to bear in prayer the burdens of our neighbors, regardless of their religious or political persuasion, or their nationality. They are no longer a world removed-they are are backyard neighbors.

I am so discouraged when I see a story on Facebook for instance, about Hobby Lobby policies getting 1000-2000 likes or comments or anti Government posts receiving hits all day long, but a Christian pastor being jailed or kids being abused in another country going unnoticed as if we have closed our eyes to the real evils of our world in order to engage in the superficial and non-eternal affairs of hollyweird gossip or political stone throwing.  The body of Christ needs to be more engaged in the injustices being perpetrated on the innocent and the voiceless.

Father of all mercies, give us a heart of sincere compassion with eyes wide open for those who suffer and make us ever mindful that your Son died for the salvation of all!  Help us understand the eternal value of a life lived and a life lost. Forgive us our complacency and heal our eyesight and our hearing so we may see and hear the cries of the hurting and respond in kind with the love of our Savior.

 

 

Give us This Week our Weekly Bread

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Would you be content with having but one good meal per week? With the unlimited availability of  food in our country, should you have to? What if that one meal per week was just meat or just desserts or worse yet, just junk food?  Most of us would develop ailments from malnutrition, suffer fatigue and leave our immune systems vulnerable to any infectious disease it couldn’t fend off through proper nutrition.

I was recently involved in a discussion with some church folk friends of mine about mature believers who change churches when they feel they aren’t being adequately fed by the pastor or priest.  When I hear this I envision a nest of chicks with their mouths wide open waiting for the pastor to drop in a nugget of spiritual truth, then flying off to gather more food while the chicks wait in their nest for their next meal.   This approach to church is wrong on many levels  and deeply disturbing to me.

In too many instances the burden of spiritual nutrition is laid upon the local pastor with little or no responsibility borne by the believer.  The expectations placed on the local church and its clergy do not line up with the primary function and purpose of the church as described in the New Testament.  Scripture is clear that we gather together corporately to worship God and encourage each other-period.  Of course a good sermon or homily aids in exhorting us on to good works and falls under the function of encouragement. We all love to hear a message that moves us to do something that enables us to more accurately reflect Christ.  But just as our bodies require daily nourishment so too our spirits require daily feeding.

I reside in Las Vegas, perhaps the capital of the world’s best and biggest buffets.  I admit that I love going to one place where I can choose to eat from Mexican to Italian to Asian to American cuisines with no limit on how much I eat.  I can even have just desserts if I choose. But no matter how delicious the food is or how much of it I eat in one sitting, I’d be in bad physical shape if I only relied on that one weekly meal for my overall health.  I had to learn how to cook for myself and provide daily meals the other 6 days of the week or I’d starve.

Church members are no different. Expecting your pastor to provide your weekly meal and complaining that you are not being fed is equivalent to eating out once a week and not knowing how to feed yourself in between. We have at our fingertips the Word, our daily bread, the exact same bread our pastor distributes on Sunday. The responsibility of our own spiritual fitness is not the pastor’s but ours. We are encouraged to “study to show thy approved”, to “rightly divide the word of truth”.  We can’t do that on one meal per week by neglecting our own accountability.

The best clergy are the ones who through their weekly homilies whet the individual appetites of their parishioners for spiritual meat to the point that the parishioners can’t go a single day without personal study and devotions.  And those who are taking in their daily bread will never complain about their pastor not feeding them.

There are numerous reasons for changing churches as the Lord leads, but malnutrition through personal apathy should never be one of them.

Bon appetit!

Fan Into Flame the Gifts Inside

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There is an episode in my childhood I will never forget. We were at a church function and the boys were picking teams for a basketball game. I was tall for my age, about twelve at the time, and being born in Indiana, the basketball capitol of the world, you might think I slept with a basketball, ala basketball Jones. Nothing could be further from reality. I couldn’t dribble except while eating and I threw the basketball like a baseball, and usually over the backboard.  I was picked dead last-I think I heard the comment “I guess we’ll take him”. Ouch. That hurt a lot. That night I made it my goal to never ever again be the last person picked by a team forced to take me. I bought a basketball and headed to Park Lafayette on the west side of Indianapolis every single day.  I spent four to five hours a day or more watching players, playing with those who were bigger and better than I was, practicing the fundamentals of dribbling, jump shots, bank shots, free throws, blocking out and rebounding (the NBA might find these fundamentals useful). In two short years I was a starter on the grade school basketball team and I continued working to become a starter in high school.  I had the size and the skills but I had done nothing to discover or develop then into ability.  I had to grow into my given skill set.

When I was younger my parents and friends noticed I was always tapping on things, tapping to music, tapping to anything that had a beat. So one Christmas they bought me a blue metallic Ludwig snare drum.  I played that thing in the basement every day until bedtime. In high school I decided to buy my first drum set, a used 5 piece Pearl set.

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Like with basketball I soon discovered that having the right equipment didn’t make me a drummer.  But the gift of rhythm was already inside me so all I needed to do was practice, study and observe others who were better than I was.  One year after purchasing the set I was in a Christian band and playing weekly around the mid-west.  In both instances, I did not create my own talent or gifts, but rather I developed that which was already inside me and did what I could to bring it out for my use and enjoyment.  I have seen seven foot men who couldn’t hit a layup and I’ve seen kids with 12 piece drum kits who couldn’t keep a straight 4/4 beat. We each have to discover our gifts and develop them through practice and patience.

The New Testament speaks about spiritual gifts we all receive when we come to accept and follow Christ. We are each given differing abilities so that we can serve each other in the body of Christ. 2 Timothy 1:6 says that we are to “fan into a flame the gifts that we have received”.  Accepting Christ and deciding to live your life for Him does not make you a minister, a Bible scholar or a small group leader anymore than buying a Bible makes you a believer.  Some in the body have not yet learned this. In working out our salvation with “fear and trembling” there is a learning process that must be accepted and endured. God does not give us developed spiritual gifts, but rather the seeds of these gifts that are ours to cultivate or fan into flame. 

There is something about fire that is captivating. I can sit around my fire pit at night and just get lost in the flames-something just draws me in and holds my attention. It is alive, ever glowing but changing color, always changing while remaining the same. The properties of these gifts God has placed within each of us should have that same affect when others see them at work in our lives. They should be compelling and inviting, showing the love and the way to Christ, opposed to the approach that much of today’s church has taken through Bible weaponry and hatred. But these gifts will remain untapped and dormant if we ignore them or rely on our favorite TV evangelist to somehow reach through the screen and zap us into super Christians through miracles prayers and a generous seed offering. 

Jesus’s parable of the talents comes to mind here. Three individuals were given talents based on their respective abilities.  Two of the three fanned into flame their gifts and doubled them while the one buried his deep with no thought or intent of growth. The two were deemed good and faithful-the one, not so much!  What are we doing to fan into flame that which God has planted in us upon our election?  Can we keep a beat or connect on a jumper, or would we be the last one picked because we have no apparent skills?  While age has decreased my ability to jump or ball the way I once did, spiritual gifts do not decay with age and remain eternal for the benefit and edification of the body of Christ.  God teach us to develop what you have richly given.