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A Stroll At Leisure With God

Tim Tebow and Jason Collins

Marilyn pointed this out yesterday. She is so right.

If you want a clear indication of where things are in our culture, look at what happened in the lives of two sports figures. The contrast is stark.

First, the New York Jets released Tebow. Now, before I go further, I will say upfront that I am a fan. I respect Tim because of his open Christian testimony, and I think he is a better football player than people realize.

Sure, he is not Peyton Manning, but I think the Jets totally mishandled him. When they started losing last year and Coach Ryan benched Sanchez, why didn’t they at least give him a shot? What do you have to lose at that point? Instead, they skipped over him to start the third string quarterback and then they signed a quarterback and drafted another in this offseason.

The Jets released him yesterday.

He never had a chance. They never gave him a chance. Why? Sure, his football abilities had something to do with it. I’ll give you that, but I think the major reason is because of his out-spoken Christian beliefs and the controversy they create.

An article I read in the Denver Post this morning quotes so-called experts who basically say the same thing. There might be teams that would be interested in him, but they just don’t want to deal with the “circus.” If there is a circus around Tebow, whose fault is that? Tim doesn’t put himself in the spotlight. The press does that!

I don’t know. I hope a team gives him a shot, and I hope he does well. That win streak the Broncos went on with him at quarterback ranks up there as some of the most exciting football EVER. I will never forget the 2011 season.

So, as Tim walks out of the door of the New York Jets football, another guy rises in the spotlight. Jason Collins, a back-up center, “comes out” and admits he is gay. George Stephanopoulos has an exclusive interview with him. President Obama calls to congratulate him.

Here is the thing that insults me the most. In the Denver Post article I read this morning, the line reads, “A trailblazer, like Jackie” (“Veteran NBA Center Jason Collins announces he is gay,” www.denverpost.com, accessed April 30, 2013). Are you kidding me? Comparing what Jason did to what Jackie Robinson faced and overcame? I can’t believe it!

Jason made a choice about his lifestyle; Jackie Robinson faced opposition and racism of an unbelievable degree simply because he was black. These two situations are not even on the same planet.

But somehow, in our culture, we have redefined heroism, and someone who is a genuine hero (Tim Tebow) gets kicked to the side, while this other guy gets lauded and applauded.

I am deeply appalled and angry.

When Tebow was released, he tweeted Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take” (NLT). But of course, THAT gets very little press.

But the intricacies of someone’s perverted sexual behaviors get the spotlight and an interview and a phone call from the President.

I wonder what Hosea would say to all of this. What he faced in his day was very similar. The worship of Baal, the god of fertility, involved a lot of sexual immorality and perversion. Speaking out against it in chapter thirteen, he utters these words: "When the tribe of Ephraim spoke, the people shook with fear, for that tribe was important in Israel. But the people of Ephraim sinned by worshiping Baal and thus sealed their destruction. Now they continue to sin by making silver idols, images shaped skillfully with human hands. ‘Sacrifice to these,’ they cry, ‘and kiss the calf idols!’” (Hosea 13:1-2, NLT)

By the way, I watched a great movie last night. Helen gave it to me Sunday. It is about Hosea and Gomer, and I thought it was extremely well done. Check it out. Go to this website for a summary of the plot, reviews of this movie, and a link to buy it. http://www.christianfilmdatabase.com/review/amazing-love-the-story-of-hosea/

Lord, I acknowledge you this morning as the one true God. There is no other god but You. There is no other way but your way.

Have mercy on us as the United States of America. I think we are far exceeding the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are living on borrowed time before you wipe us off the face of the earth. One nuclear bomb could do it.

I pray for Tim Tebow. He will land on his feet no matter what happens. Encourage him and continue to give him boldness.

I pray for Mary Ann’s mom who is in the hospital.

I pray for boldness. I pray for revival in the church and spiritual awakening in our land before it is too late.

“What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms”

(BH 2008, 453). Amen.
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I am God and Not a Mere Mortal

The verses the Holy Spirit landed me on today remind me of something that I heard or read years ago. As I went to Google, I figured it out. Dennis Jernigan, the singer, songwriter, and author has written a song entitled, “You are God and I am Not.” Somehow, I think he has written a book with a similar title.

How about this as a way to start every day? An affirmation, a praise, and an acknowledgement to the God of the Universe: You are God and I am not.

This is the phrase that came to mind as I read these verses in Hosea 11: "Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah or demolish you like Zeboiim? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows. No, I will not unleash my fierce anger. I will not completely destroy Israel, for I am God and not a mere mortal. I am the Holy One living among you, and I will not come to destroy" (Hosea 11:8-9, NLT).

A couple of things about these verses: I also looked up the names “Admah and Zeboiim.” What is the deal there? These were two of the five cities of the plain that were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah—perhaps the most famous example of judgment, judgment on evil, in the Bible.

These verses in Hosea pull back “God’s shirt,” as it were, and expose his heart. His compassion overflows. He is literally torn and even though He does bring about destruction, it is not total or absolute.

Why? Because He is God and not a mere mortal.

I’ll tell you what: for folks who have experienced the pain and agony of marital infidelity, I would imagine that it is a very tough pill to swallow. Well, I know it is from the experience of sitting with couples in my office. One couple in particular—the man fell on the floor sobbing. I will never be able to get that picture out of my mind. The wife, on the other hand, sat there placid and devoid of any emotion.

Oh, man. It still pains me to think about it. After that visit, I never saw them again. I wonder what happened to them. It probably isn’t good.

Sure, I’ve seen couples deal with it but it causes such damage in a relationship. Try as hard as we can, we still cannot forget. We can forgive and the Word commands us to do (no matter how we have been wounded or offended).

But only God can forget. Only God.

Well, there is one other thing that I want to share this morning.

It didn’t take me long after I arrived at church yesterday to get very irritated. Our church building felt like an oven. It was almost unbearably hot.

What’s the deal? Well, last Wednesday, as I went downstairs to the fellowship hall to eat my lunch, my teeth started to chatter. It was about 52 degrees. Someone had turned off the heat!

This tends to happen on occasion. We do have four congregations using the building.

The problem is that when someone does that, and it gets below freezing over night, it could lead to a far worse problem: we could have some pipes freeze and burst. This happened a few years ago, and our basement flooded with water. I won’t go into detail but it was not pretty, and it wasn’t cheap.

Back to the middle of last week—I had Betty type up a little note, and we taped it above the thermostat in the basement. The note read, “Do not turn off the heat under any circumstances. Check with the office to modify the temperature.” Something like that.

Well, when I arrived Sunday, I figured out why someone or some group of folks was turning off the heat. It was going full blast! The temperature got up in the seventies on Saturday, but the heat in our building continued full-bore!

I’m sure there is some sort of problem (a brilliant deduction on my part, right?), and I know Duane or someone will take care of it, but again, it was almost unbearable. We opened windows and tried to make it more bearable.

Again, it made me mad. I was griping at the Lord. “Lord, don’t we have enough to deal with? No one can get to our property from Washington. We are struggling in so many ways. Why does this have to happen also? Why does it have to be so hard just to have church?” 1-800-whine. John’s other phone number.

Well, in the course of the message yesterday, I was talking about the fact that ultimately and finally in our eternal home in heaven, God will prove just and fair. As a part of making that point, I used a vivid contrast. I will try to post these pictures somewhere so you can see them.

One was a picture of a small, broken down sheet metal church building in Swaziland in Africa. The other was a picture of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. The contrast could not have been more stark.

But as I was showing that picture of the church building in Africa—I wondered, “I bet that sheet metal heats things up pretty well in the summer in Africa, and I bet something else: no one complains or gripes.

And here I was—mad all morning because it was a little too warm in our brick church building as I sat on our padded pews.

The Lord has interesting ways of making points, doesn’t He?

Again, You are God, and I am not. Teach me, Lord, to keep my whining mouth shut.

Thank you for forgiving and forgetting all my sins—it is an ever-growing list. Thank you for the privilege of worship. I’ll do it with your people anywhere or any time. The conditions don’t have to be perfect.

I confess my bad attitude and griping spirit.

“Hiding in Thee,
Hiding in Thee,
Thou blest Rock of Ages, I’m hiding in Thee”

(BH 2008, 452). Amen.
Comments

A Relationship with Jesus But No Church?

I had a conversation yesterday with a guy named Jim.

Once people find out I am a pastor, I’m always interested to hear what comes next. I’ve learned to be ready.

When Jim found out, he said, “I’ve been baptized three times.”

“Oh, really? Why three times?” I responded.

“Well, the first time was in the Catholic church when I was a baby, but that doesn’t count. I’ve been baptized twice. Actually, I’ve been born again twice.”

“Really, where do you go to church, Jim?” I asked. I’ve learned that if I can just keep people talking, it leads to more talk. Questions are always better than declarations, at least at first.

All of a sudden in this conversation, however, things took a turn. “I don’t go to church. I don’t need to and I don’t need a lecture from you to tell me I should go. I am fine.”

Oh, okay. No problem. We talked about some other things as he asked me about the church and if I lived in a parsonage and if we owned or rented our church building and a few other questions. He was obviously interested. He just didn’t want to talk about his church relationship or lack thereof.

I seem to meet more and more people who espouse Jim’s views of church.

Now, let me be clear before I go further. One’s personal relationship with Jesus is THE crucial element for salvation. “Going to church” never saved anyone.

However, and here is the question of the hour: can I genuinely grow in my relationship with Jesus without church? And what does that mean, really?

The other day, I was talking with Rob. His wife Judy has begun to teach an online class through a university in Texas. Somehow, as I asked him about how she was doing with that, our conversation progressed onto the subject of “online classes and learning.”

I believe this is going to be more and more prevalent as schools try to make it financially by reaching more students who cannot travel to a brick and mortar building at a university to take classes.

I think this is a reality for the church as well.

Going back to my blog the other day about Wednesday nights—one idea that came to mind is to put my Wednesday night Bible study on the web through YouTube or some other avenue. I have about five adults who come regularly right now. I wonder how many other folks in the church could benefit from an online class.

They could watch it at 9:00 PM when they get home from work or 2:00 AM or whenever.

As I was thinking about this, I also realized that we should stream our services online for that very reason. It just allows the possibility of more exposure.

Having said all that, someone might go a step further: why not just sell the building we have and take the church totally online? I mean the building we use is a blessing but it is a money trap, as all church buildings are. I wonder what we could do with the money we spend on that building to advance the kingdom of God in other more effective ways?

But back to my point: a totally online church? Would that work?

My categorical answer to that question is NO!

Why? There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. There is something about physically being with other believers in the body of Christ that meets a crucial need and provides unique opportunities that can be fulfilled in no other place.

If I am believer, then the Lord intended for me to be a body part. And I finger unattached to a hand is useless.

If Jim is indeed saved (no matter how many times he got wet in a church building), then he is an unattached finger. Ultimately, God is the judge of these things. But I doubt he is saved. No genuine believer can stay out of church forever. As imperfect and flawed as it is (because it is comprised of imperfect and flawed people), there is no substitute for it.

So, just to put everyone’s mind at ease who reads this: we are NOT going to sell the building. Don’t worry. But the point here is that the gathering of the body of Christ is absolutely crucial AND I think it is important to explore other ways to get the message OUT THERE.

I tend to believe that there is a fairly sizable number of Christians who will sit at a computer or watch a church service on television this morning (I’m NOT talking about people who are physically unable to come to church), and then pat themselves on the back when it is over and say to themselves, “I have worshiped God.”

Maybe so but these folks have missed the full experience of worship and a crucial aspect of our relationship with Jesus—worshiping with others in the body of Christ.

"I said, ‘Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you’" (Hosea 10:12, NLT)
Lord, I thank you for giving me the health to go to church this morning. Thank you for the fellowship of very flawed and imperfect people at First Southern. Their pastor is more flawed and more imperfect, but thank you that people love him nonetheless.

I pray for Jim today. And for countless others who are living under the delusion that they can have you without your body.

Take care of the sermon and services today.

“In moments like these, I sing out a song …
Singing, ‘I love you Lord. I love you”

(BH 2008, 451). Amen.
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Same Song, Different Nation

As I was reading this morning in the ninth chapter of Hosea, I began to recognize some similar terms.

"The prophet is a watchman over Israel for my God, yet traps are laid for him wherever he goes. He faces hostility even in the house of God. The things my people do are as depraved as what they did in Gibeah long ago. God will not forget. He will surely punish them for their sins. The Lord says, “O Israel, when I first found you, it was like finding fresh grapes in the desert. When I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the first ripe figs of the season. But then they deserted me for Baal-peor, giving themselves to that shameful idol. Soon they became vile, as vile as the god they worshiped. The glory of Israel will fly away like a bird, for your children will not be born or grow in the womb or even be conceived. Even if you do have children who grow up, I will take them from you. It will be a terrible day when I turn away and leave you alone” (Hosea 9:8-12, NLT).

Did you notice it? Two things in particular. The Lord says that the prophet is a watchman over Israel. And, in verse eleven, He contends that if Israel doesn’t straighten up, the glory of the Lord will fly away like a bird.

This parallels the ministry and message of Ezekiel!

What is incredible about that? Well, the capitol city of Samaria fell to the Assyrians and Sennecherib in 721 B. C. This was the downfall of the northern kingdom of Israel.

A little over a hundred years later (586), some song, the city of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and Nebuchadnezzar. The same thing happened to the southern kingdom of Judah!

In fact, through the book of Hosea, there are repeated allusions to Judah. Back in the seventh century B. C., everything was peachy in that kingdom. They watched, I am sure, as their compatriots to the north fell, and probably, many of them said, “Well, that is never going to happen to us.”

And it did.

Why is it so hard for us to learn from the lessons of national history? I wish I had the answer for that question even on a personal level!

I remember years ago a definition of preaching that Ron Dunn shared in one of his sermons. It makes a lot of sense. “Preaching is reminding people what they already know to do but haven’t done yet.”

Someone else said that, for any pastor, his preaching ministry is sharing the same message over and over. Every prophet or pastor really has only one message.

I think there is truth to both of these statements.

This is certainly born out as one reads the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament. Each one of them, whether it is Ezekiel or Hosea or whoever, called people to turn to God in repentance and faith. Same song, different verse.

The differences come in the life stories of the guys whom the Lord used to preach that message. Hosea’s life message was certainly unique. He was called to preach out of his own painful experiences with Gomer. He knew firsthand the devastation of unfaithfulness.

It wasn’t much different with Ezekiel as he preached to the exiles in Babylon about 140 years later. The Lord asked him to do some weird stuff and gave him some outlandish visions.

Both guys preached and lived on the cusp of the fall of their nations. Hosea was closer to the action than Ezekiel, but they, like their predecessors, had to endure the pain of people blowing them off.

I honestly wonder where we are as a nation? I wonder what history will show us when we get down the road from these days and are able to look back?

I hope and pray that we are not in a similar situation, but I am afraid we are. Are we really looking at the final days of the United States of America as a nation? Do we even want to think about that?

No one does. I don’t. But maybe we should consider it as we pursue our idols with passion.

I want to provide prayer resources for people to pray for our country. Stay tuned and look for them on my Pastor John Talbert Facebook page.

Lord, I thank you for your relentless pursuit of your people—the stories of Hosea and Gomer bear this out. Over hundreds of years and hundreds of messages, you called your people back to yourself. You used all sorts of drastic measures and means.

But very few listened.

I want to be different, Lord. Save us as a nation before it is too late!

“Thro’ the storm, thro’ the night,
Lead me on to the light—
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home”

(BH 2008, 450). Amen.
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No More Calves

I will tell you—this is a commentary on my faith in God. It really is. But why is it that I am always surprised when God answers prayer.

As I shared about my frustrations with Wednesday night services at First Southern and posted my comments on all three blogs as I do every day, it honestly felt as if the floodgates started to open and the Lord was pouring stuff into my mind and heart.

It became more and more evident to me as the day wore on that the Lord is indeed at work in many ways, some of which I will share and other ways I will not.

But here is one thing the Spirit impressed me with today as I was reading Hosea. First the passage: "O Samaria, I reject this calf— this idol you have made. My fury burns against you. How long will you be incapable of innocence? This calf you worship, O Israel, was crafted by your own hands! It is not God! Therefore, it must be smashed to bits" (Hosea 8:5-6, NLT). I have not done research on this calf, but somehow, worshiping calves was a part of the history of Israel from the days of the wilderness wanderings.

Remember what happened when Moses was up on the mountain receiving the commandments? The people got antsy and nervous, and Aaron failed totally as a leader in his place. The people gathered all their valuables together and formed an idol. Do you remember what it was? That’s right. It was a calf.

And after they formed it they had something like a sex orgy.

When Moses came down from the mountain and found all this nonsense going on, he asked Aaron about it. Here was his flimsy answer as he explained with he said to the people and how they idol formed: “’Whoever has gold or jewelry, take it off.’ When they brought it to me, I simply threw it into the fire—and out came this calf” (Exodus 32:24, NLT).

As we would say in the modern vernacular—“Yeah, right!”

But if I am not mistaken, this is the first incidence of the Israelites worshiping a calf. The Lord points it out in Hosea’s prophetic ministry as well.

Some idols die hard, especially “Christian idols.”

Here is one that is a perpetual idol for pastors. The church is struggling and so he goes to his “bag of tricks” to pull out something that “will help the church grow.” Whatever that is—“exciting worship” (as Peterson calls it), a new children’s program, or whatever. THAT is an idol.

If I try to run to anything or anyone other than the Lord, then I am idolater.

Here is my deep conviction: let God show up and the parking lot will not contain the cars. People will park blocks away.

God—that’s who (not what) First Southern Baptist Church of Northglenn needs.

Thus, I am crying out to the Lord and I am going to depend on Him totally to turn things around.

Having said that, the Lord laid some other things on my heart as well. I feel rejuvenated.

One more thing: I know some churches do decline and die. Some on the north side of Denver have gone that route in recent days and months. But I just can’t believe that the death of a church is ALWAYS God’s will.

Lord, thank you for the way that you answer prayer. Just sharing, just being honest, just letting those words out in the fellowship of the body of Christ—has a powerful and immediate effect. You have showed me that once again.

I pray that you would bless and encourage everyone who is reading this blog today. I pray that all of us could experience YOU in the church.

God, I am smashing my bag of tricks full of golden calves. I’m done. And I am casting myself, hurling myself on you.

“But greater still the calm assurance,
This child can face uncertain days because He lives”

(“Because He Lives,” BH 2008, 449). Amen.
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Wednesday Night Services

I have to be honest at this point. I’m really struggling with Wednesday nights at our church these days.

Don’t get me wrong. I am teaching a group of adults. We have been looking at the whole issue of worldview. It has been a fascinating study. I appreciate the fact that Jay got me focused on this study. I have learned a lot.

We are making a segue into a study of the New Testament Kerygma. You might be wondering, “What is THAT?” Well, I don’t want to get into it right now. But I am excited to pursue this avenue of study as well. The whole point of all of this is NOT some dry as dust doctrinal study (I hope) but equipping the saints for ministry.

In a year where we are focusing on relational evangelism as our primary outreach methodology, I’m trying to help people with this.

I appreciate the folks who are coming. It is worth it just for them.

However, my deep realization is that the church is simply not responding.

As much as I like it (I always have), I think the whole concept of “Wednesday night services” may be going out the window.

This is a pet peeve of mine: I think churches get stuck in ruts very easily. They just keep doing the same things over and over, expect a different result (the good ole’ definition of insanity), and they keep doing these activities or programs or ministries for years. Why? Well, it is easy. We get used to schedules and routines. I’m the worst at all of this.

When I started as pastor of First Southern back in 1989, it seemed as if we had a crowd on Wednesday nights. I led a Bible study and then we had prayer time. And it wasn’t a token five minute “Lord, you have heard all these requests” type thing either. We had a list. We prayed specifically for all kinds of needs, local and international.

Over the years, our Wednesday night ministry grew when we started AWANA. We had a lot of kids and leaders. It was great. On Wednesday night, we also had a very vibrant and active youth ministry as well.

For several years, we actually visited people on Wednesday nights. For a few of those years, we took the boys and girls with us. I know that sounds crazy, but it was fantastic. They learned how to visit, how to share Christ, how to sit in people’s homes, et cetera.

Then, as “visitation” kind of faded off the scene (I could say a lot here as well), we morphed back to prayer for adults. We have tried all kinds of approaches there, including just opening up the auditorium and asking people to come and go as they please.

This was actually my favorite approach. I loved talking with Jesus in the silence. Most people, however, did NOT like it. Betty and I were usually the only ones who came.

Not too many months ago, we went back to more of a traditional looking group prayer time. We had a few adults who attended and were committed, but then that started to dwindle a bit.

That’s when we started the studies again. At first, they were well attended, but over the past few months, people have dropped away.

This same trend has continued with our children and youth ministries as well.

What is the bottom line of all of this? Well, I think it gets discouraging for the folks who make the effort to lead a group when no one seems to be responding on that night.

Actually, the seniors have a Bible study in the afternoons on Wednesday. This is very well attended. I applaud them for this effort since it is difficult for many of them to get out and drive at night. No problem. Great.

I guess what I am saying is that it is up to us to find some other way to minister to the younger people of our church during the week because it sure looks as if “Wednesday night services” are not meeting a need any longer.

I have to remind myself that a lot has changed since 1989. Think about this: cell phones and personal computers were just getting off the ground. Wow. Is that really true? It is hard to believe. Come on. 1989 is not THAT long ago, but so much has changed since then. So much. Technology is just one of the huge cultural shifts that has occurred.

I can think of so many more. Many of the people in our church work long hours. They don’t even get home in time to come for a Wednesday night service.

But let’s go back further than 1989.

I wonder what the origins of the “Wednesday night service or prayer meeting” are? I’m sure it began in rural settings where people finished work at 5:00, went home to eat dinner as a family, and then loaded everyone in the horse and buggy to come to a mid-week service.

Those days are long gone, even in rural settings, I would imagine. It is just a different world than it was in the 1950’s. Think about all the changes since then!

Anyway, my point in all of this is that I don’t want to be a typical pastor in this regard. The “typical pastor” (again this is a broad generalization) sits in his class or prayer meeting on Wednesday night, as the numbers of people dwindle and diminish, and rails against the lack of commitment on the part of folks in the church.

I’m sure there is some of that going on in our fellowship. Don’t get me wrong. But I am not going to bash people in our fellowship who are just overwhelmed and busy.

Plus, going to church on Wednesday night is no unique measurement of spiritual maturity! Some very committed folks just can’t be there for a lot of reasons. That doesn’t make them bad. That just means, in my opinion, that we might need to consider another way of ministering to the folks in the fellowship.

Please pray for us in that regard. Change is difficult, especially for me, but I think we need to change.

Here is what I say often: we NEVER change what we teach or believe. The message NEVER changes but methods must change, often and again. We’ve got to keep finding ways to get the truth about the one and only God out there to folks in the fellowship and outside of it.

Why? I love this metaphor that the Lord uses for the flighty people of Hosea’s day. I don’t think we are much different. "The people of Israel have become like silly, witless doves, first calling to Egypt, then flying to Assyria for help. But as they fly about, I will throw my net over them and bring them down like a bird from the sky. I will punish them for all the evil they do" (Hosea 7:11-12, NLT).

Lord, I thank you for bringing me to one of those points where I know you want to change us. Change is another word for growth.

Thank you for Betty, Scott, Al, Jim, Bob, and Debbie as well as the few boys and girls and one youth who came last night. Thank you for each every one of them. They are valuable to you and the kingdom.

But I lift up all the other folks, who for one reason or another can’t make it on Wednesday night. Many are overwhelmed with the demands of daily life and don’t need another obligation or they just don’t care to come—whatever reason.

Lord, move us, move me, out of my ruts. I am available to you. Guide us in this process.

“That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul”

(“It Is Well with My Soul,” BH 2008, 447). Amen.
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"Christian Idols," Continued

As I was looking through some electronic files yesterday, I came across an article I had downloaded from a website. The address is www.livingspirituality.org. Check it out. Some good stuff there.

The title of this article is “Christian Idols,” and there is a rather extensive quote from Eugene Peterson’s book Living the Resurrection:

“There are books, videos, and seminars that promise to let us in on the Christian ‘secret’ of whatever we feel is lacking in our life – financial security, well behaved children, weight loss, sex, travel to holy sites, exciting worship, celebrity teachers.
It isn’t long before we’re standing in line to buy whatever is being offered. And because none of the purchases does what we had hoped for, or at least not for long, we’re soon back to buy another, and then another. The process is addicting. We become consumers of packaged spiritualities.
This also is idolatry. We never think of using this term because everything we’re buying and paying for is defined by the adjective
Christian. But idolatry it is, nevertheless. It’s packaged as a product – God depersonalized and made available as a technique or a program. The Christian market in idols has never been more brisk or lucrative. The late medieval indulgences that provoked Luther’s righteous wrath are small potatoes compared with what’s going on in our evangelical backyard.”
These words sting a bit, don’t they? I tell you: there is so much in American church life that is formulaic. What I mean is, the so-called experts (and these are usually pastors of mega-churches) say, “Well, if you want your church to grow, you need X, Y, and Z.”

Once again, we fall prey to the whole “making my experience someone else’s standard.” This goes back to Blackaby’s comment in
Experiencing God. I am paraphrasing here, but basically he says, “It (meaning some program or ministry or whatever) doesn’t work; God is the one who chooses to work through certain things at certain times, but IT doesn’t work.” (parentheses mine in this paraphrased quote).

Music is only one thing that falls in this category. There are many things we cabbage onto and try to emulate because it has “worked” in other places.

Again, I submit that this is idolatry. Rather than doing the hard work of seeking the face of God, we go to the store and buy hope. It is kind of quick fix. It is an elixir we hope that will cure whatever ails us.

Now, before I go further, I want to make a couple of statements. First, my comments are generalities. The key issue of idolatry is that ANYTHING that I put above God in my life is an idol. This is an individual issue. Some things that are idols for some are not for others. But I do think Christians in general in churches deal with idols.

Second, I do not believe that this means that everything we do should not be done with excellence. This is no excuse for shoddy music or programs or anything. We ought to do the best we can.

But again, when we elevate anything above the Lord, it is an idol. And it is wrong. I am talking about music, but it is just an example of one idol in the American church but it is significant because it typifies a lot of things.

Let me quote this famous verse in Hosea again.
"For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6 NASB).

What dawns on me as I read this verse today in a different translation is that God is speaking to adulterers here. Right? The whole point of this book and Hosea’s life and marriage is that fact that the people were unfaithful to God, and yet, as you would observe their behaviors, you probably wouldn’t know it. Why? Because the ritual of worship continued unabated! They continued to offer sacrifices and go through the rituals.

Or, to translate that into our American church parlance—they continued to go to church and do their thing.

God is saying, “I don’t care anything about the ritual. What I care about first of all is the heart. I care that you love me and demonstrate that love in your daily transactions with other people. THAT is what I care about.”

I guess as I ponder all of this: what bothers me is that we have turned things on their head in the contemporary church. We have twisted things so that we fall in the same categories as the nation of Israel in Hosea’s day. (Again, I am talking in generalities here in my observations as a pastor).

We have made our relationship with Jesus all about how we feel when we sit in the pew at church. If I have a good feeling, then it is all good. I can leave and pat myself on the back. If the preacher preaches a good one, then I can have a good worship. If the music is good and I like it, then I feel good and I have had a good worship experience. Or whatever, take whatever a church does.

Here is where things have twisted. My worship is not dependent on what someone else does, right? It is solely dependent on my response to a Holy God from the heart. I can give that response to God in a service where the music is “fantastic” or sitting on a couch in a room by myself. I don’t “need” anything external to “help” me worship God.

Now again, I’m not saying that these externals are not important—music, preaching, et cetera. But at the core—what is REALLY important here?

And, we like to make it about how we feel about what goes on as I sit in a pew in a church building, but the Lord wants to make it about me and what I do when I walk out of the church building and transact with others.

Option A is momentary and exalts feelings; the other is lifestyle and puts the spotlight on worship as a corporate experience (yes, again, very important) but Option B--biblical worship is a LIFESTYLE outside the church building AS WELL. Right?

I’ll tell you what: something is stirring in me. Rather than get discouraged about the church, I’m going to focus on fighting for the true and unadulterated worship of God while striving for excellence in everything I do and the church I serve does. It is both/and, not either/or.

God, today, in all my talk about “the church” and others, I know that the main issue this morning is ME. I have to be careful that I don’t substitute one idol for those I rail against.

Lord, my primary goal today is to love you with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength AND love my neighbor as myself. Plus, as a pastor, give me the grace to teach and live true worship, no matter what is going on or not.

“I worship You, Almighty God, there is none like you” (BH 2008, 16). Amen.
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A Modern-Day Idol in the American Church--Music

How about THAT for a title for today?

Of course, I need to preface things a bit. First, I love music. I have all of my life. I grew up with it in my family. My dad had every Glenn Miller record there was. We still have them. My mom still retains her collection of 45’s. I developed a love for jazz and for a certain type of Brazilian music called “bosa nova.” My playlist in ITunes has hundreds of songs.

Second, I love a variety of Christian music as well. I would say that at the top of the list, just because I grew up with them and find them easiest to sing on a congregational level, are hymns. I bet you could tell that if you read this blog.

However, I love just about all types of Christian music except rap. Jim has helped me develop a keen interest in Southern gospel. I like the fact that you want to tap your toe when you hear it and the message is good.

Honestly, I do like contemporary Christian music, but I just don’t listen to it all that much. But again, it isn’t because I don’t like it. It is just because, in casual settings or as I am driving along, I prefer to listen to other types of music.

Third, I’ve always loved to sing. I’ve been in choirs through high school and college and seminary. I joined a Single adult choir at Travis Avenue Baptist Church toward the end of my seminary career. We traveled to a Christian Singles’ convention in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a blast. Bill Pearson, long-time worship leader at Travis, directed our choir. I learned a lot from him. He was an excellent leader who was extremely precise. He didn’t put up with any nonsense.

Well, I still remember the night it was our turn as a choir to sing. And, I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant (I certainly had nothing to do with it, except I just didn’t want to mess up), we hit the ball out of the ballpark that night. It was the first and last time I have ever been a part of something like that. It was incredible.

We got to sing at a couple of other churches in Nashville over that weekend. Again, it was so much fun.

Well, anyway, I just wanted to share all of that because I want you to know where I am coming from.

Yesterday, I received an email from a brother named George. I have alluded to him often in this blog. He is a retired pastor who is a friend of Calla’s and who has been attending our fellowship when he can. He has written two very nice articles about our church in his column in the Northglenn Enterprise and in fact, wrote one plugging my book. I value his friendship greatly.

Anyway, he wrote me and made a comment about a concert he attended recently.

As I was responding to him, I felt something well up inside of me, and before I knew it, I had written A LOT about the state of church music in the American church.

Here is some of my response to George that I ended up NOT sending him. It isn’t HIS FAULT. Ha. I hope you hear my heart here. Some of this is tongue in cheek. Other parts come from the heart.

“Music is quickly becoming a hot button with me.  I'm just about ready to convert to Church of Christ.  How about that?

I'm sick of trying to "compete" with the mega churches of the world and everyone else that uses it as a litmus test.  Nothing else matters, especially the preaching and teaching of God's Word.  Very few care about it.  

Friendliness--doesn't matter.  A church with folks who genuinely care about and minister to one another--doesn't matter.  None of that matters.  Just music.  And even then, it has to be the right kind of music or you run off half the church.  And for those who come, if you "perform" their favorite kind of music then it has to be "performed" well or they will leave anyway.”

How about that for a vent? I edited it a little bit from what I originally wrote to George.

Please understand: I do NOT really believe that we should eliminate music as a part of worship. I do believe it is vitally important. However, what I am arguing here is that it is NOT more important than all other aspects of church life.

But the reality of it is that a church the size of the one I serve cannot compete with the mega-churches of this world.

And I have given up trying. I honestly have.

Don’t get me wrong. I think our new worship leader, Scott, is doing an excellent job. We have very dedicated people who serve in our worship ministry with some very good musicians and vocalists. I love and appreciate them very much. But it is not a “professional” sound and that is no knock. I like the fact that folks can be a part of the worship ministry of our church just because they want to make a “joyful noise” to the Lord.

But here is the reality. And it bothers me greatly. Church shoppers who visit make a decision as to whether or not they will come back in the first eleven minutes of their visit. What is that? It is friendliness to some degree. And I think we do an excellent job there.

But the main thing is music. And honestly, that bothers me when it becomes the only criterion upon which worship or a church is judged.

I think we have made it TOO IMPORTANT. I believe we have elevated it to the status of an idol and that is the reason why I made my “Church of Christ” statement.

Music is NOT worship. Music is a PART of the worship experience and a great part, but I make a mistake when I equate my worship of God to whether or not I LIKE the music. I’m tired of trying to keep people happy. I’m tired of musical preferences being some sort of litmus test that determines whether or not people had a good worship experience or whether or not they are going to come back to a church.

I just wonder what would happen if we just didn’t have music for a few Sundays. Take the sermon out of the loop as well. I don’t care. Could we still worship? Could a congregation of people who love Jesus still worship God without music? I’m not sure that people would tolerate it.

I know they wouldn’t because we have actually done it. A few years ago, we had a service with no music. It was awkward. Many complained that they didn’t like it and wondered why we did it in the first place. I guess they missed the point.

But honestly, I wonder how many people across the world, who worship in a hut or under a tree have “awesome” music. I have a picture a picture that I scanned years ago that typifies this. I will try to find it and attach it to my Facebook entry at some point. I can’t find it right now in my computer files but I will continue to look.

Here is the quote from the day from Hosea six. Hosea 6:6 is one of the most famous verses of the entire Old Testament. It encapsulates what worship should be all about.

"Oh, that we might know the Lord! Let us press on to know him. He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn or the coming of rains in early spring…. I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:3, 6, NLT).

Did you read anything there about music?

Lord, I can rail against it all I want in this blog, but I know it is not going to change. Help me with the realities of our American consumer church life.

I’m not going to give up, however. I’m going to continue to teach and preach (the sermon being another part, an equal part of worship). Show me how to teach people what worship really is.

I know a big part of that is doing it myself—living it, living worship every day of my life.

I love you, Jesus. Just you and me here in the silence. May my quiet heart exalt you. Amen.
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The Impact of Folks Who Have Left

There are four vivid images/metaphors in the passage I read this morning. But before I talk about them, I want to share a conversation I had with a couple in our church.

After the service, we had a meeting (nothing unusual about this), but it was with many of the folks who serve on ministry teams in our church. We were just trying to coordinate and get some meetings on the calendar.

We have a lot of committees. Some of them never meet over the course of the year. What I told everyone is, “Hey listen, I’m not trying to give you guys more to do, but if we have these teams, they need to meet OR, we ought to just eliminate them.” Oftentimes, the machinery of the church becomes cumbersome as we try to limp along this huge organization that is staffed by “the few, the brave, and the proud.”

Oops, I feel that I am beginning to chase a rabbit. Better not.

After that meeting about having meetings (it does get a little ridiculous, but it was a good planning session), I had a chance to visit with a couple in our church—Jim and Judy.

We had several things to talk about, but the conversation progressed to the subject of the folks who have left our church in recent days.

Jim said, “It hurts. It seems as if you develop relationships with folks, and all of a sudden, they are gone and you don’t know why.”

I jumped in, “I can really relate to what you are saying. I feel the same way. The thing is, though, that with a lot of these folks, there is a process. I have talked with some of them. Others don’t give me that opportunity. They just leave but some of them talk with me. I just don’t think it is appropriate to ‘air’ all of that, but it is confusing for folks. It is for me as well.”

I think Jim understood, but I could tell. It still didn’t lessen the pain. That’s how I would describe his demeanor as we talked about this—pain.

Then, Jim made another statement that I have been thinking about. “You know, it seems that you make friends with people, and then they leave. What it does is make you NOT want to expose yourself and be vulnerable to others because they will eventually leave anyway.”

Man oh man—can I ever relate to that!

In fact, I had made a similar comment to another couple on Friday. Lewis and Sharon were in town. They had been members of our fellowship years ago. They have two daughters—Kim and Candace. We spent a lot of time together when they were in the church.

Sharon tried to teach me how to cook. Lewis was in a men’s prayer group that met in my apartment each week. We were very open and vulnerable with each other. The couple served in a lot of different areas in our fellowship.

But the Lord led them to move to Florida a few years ago. It is interesting that the Lord has called Lewis to serve the church they attend as a bi-vocational pastor. So, we get to “talk shop” every once in a while. He actually asks my advice on stuff.

I appreciate this, but it causes me to chuckle a bit. This is an honest statement. I say this to Lewis all the time: the longer I go as a pastor, the less I know about it.

But as we were visiting, I looked this couple in the eye and said, “I’m very different than I was when you guys were in this church. It is much more difficult for me to have the kind of relationship I had with you guys. In fact, it seems that the closer I get with folks, they are the first ones out the door. I don’t know …”

This current church culture is extremely challenging when it comes to lasting and enduring relationships.

Some folks that have left the right way have said, “John, we are leaving this church but we still want to be friends.” I appreciate that. I aspire to that, but it is difficult to maintain the same level of relationship when they are not in the church.

This is no one’s fault. It is just reality.

Somehow, I know there is more to say about all of this, but I think I will leave it there.

Back to the passage—I wonder how God feels when folks leave Him? This is the pain, the heartbreak of adultery—this is the heart of the message of Hosea.

Let me stop and say one thing: I am NOT equating leaving a church with forsaking one’s relationship with the Lord, BUT, I do think there is more of a relation between those two entities than we would care to admit.

We like to separate our relationship with the Lord from that with others, but can we? Really?

I sometimes feel helpless and hopeless when it comes to this whole thing, but the Lord isn’t. He takes active steps to discipline/punish His people when they get out of line.

"I will destroy Israel as a moth consumes wool. I will make Judah as weak as rotten wood. “When Israel and Judah saw how sick they were, Israel turned to Assyria— to the great king there— but he could neither help nor cure them. I will be like a lion to Israel, like a strong young lion to Judah. I will tear them to pieces! I will carry them off, and no one will be left to rescue them” (Hosea 5:12-14, NLT). Did you notice the four metaphors in this passage?

God will destroy them as a moth eats wool.

God will let Judah rot like wood.

God will let His people experience the frustration of turning to someone else (Assyria) for medical help instead of Dr. Jesus.

God will tear His people apart and carry them away with no one to help.

This is drastic stuff. This is the extent of the love of God. This is how an estranged Husband (God Himself) deals with His prostitute wife (Israel and us).

Lord, I thank you for your relentless love that pursues us. Thank you that you don’t give up. I’m glad about this even though I know that my tendency to chase after idols breaks your heart.

The conversation I had with Jim and Judy showed me that I, like them, am hurting.

I lift Jim and Judy up. Heal them. Strengthen them. Thank you for them.

I also lift up Lewis and Sharon. Thank you for them as well. Help them as they minister in Florida.

God, I don’t know how to pray about this but I lift up the church of today. Something is wrong. Something is off, as people toss away relationships like the morning trash, usually (of course not always) over insignificant stuff.

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine” (BH 2008, 446). Amen.
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A Rage Incident

I’m still a little shaken because of something that happened to me yesterday. It brought back some memories of similar incidents. And the devil really used it to pull me down.

As I share about what happened exactly and as I mention these other incidents, I would like to say first of all that I am not without fault, particularly in what happened yesterday. It is just the over-the-top reaction that floors me.

Here is what happened: yesterday, I was in a hurry coming out of a store. I got to my truck as a lady was getting ready to open the passenger door on her van. We looked at each other. She waved me on to get in my truck. As she did that she said, “You must be in a hurry.” I laughed. “I always am.” But as I was in my car and started backing out, I noticed that she was continuing to talk. So, when I had pulled out, I rolled down my window.

“That was one of the rudest things I have ever seen,” she said. As I was about to respond, her husband jumped out of the car and came over to my window. He used a profanity that I will not quote here, but he was very angry, “Are you giving my wife trouble?”

“No sir,” I replied. “I was just trying to get into my car.”

“Do you have kids?” he yelled.

“No,” I answered.

“Then you don’t understand.” And he turned on his heels and walked away.

Well, by then, the situation had been so inflamed that I decided it was best just for me to leave. I wanted to stay to apologize and tell the woman that I would have been glad for her to go ahead and remove her child from the back seat, but because she waved me on, I just went ahead.

But anyway, even as I write this, it still bothers me. Of course, I was wrong to be in such a hurry. I need to be careful with that, and in similar situations in the past, I have been glad to wait as a family unloads a child. No problem. But I just went ahead….

It is funny how things like yesterday get in your head. I pondered how I could have done things differently and then I fought being angry myself and what I could have said to that guy … but I’m glad I didn’t.

For the rest of the afternoon, memories of “similar incidents” came flooding into my mind.

I remembered a lady and her venomous words at an airport in Iowa as I was coming back from a ministry opportunity with my friend Roger a couple of years ago.

I remembered a man who pulled up beside me on the 20th Street bridge over I-25 a few years ago. He was yelling and screaming that I had cut him off. He was egging me on to roll down my window. It was quite frightening, actually.

Then, I recall driving (too fast) through an Albertson’s grocery store parking lot several years ago, as a guy was exiting the store. I barely missed hitting him. He stopped, turned around, and started screaming profanities. I stopped my car, rolled down the window, and said, “Man, I am sorry about that.” He didn’t hear a word. He was screaming and yelling profanities at the top of his lungs. He was livid. I got back in my car and drove off.

This memory came to mind as well. I remember yelling at a guy at the airport who got in front of me in a line. I had just returned from a trip. I was tired (no excuse), and I had just learned that the airlines had lost a piece of my luggage. The guy I yelled at looked at me with horror and just walked away. I wish I could have that one back.

Oh, and one more thing, I was driving too fast back to my house one day (is there a theme here?). This is when I lived on Monaco Way—my first house in Brighton. And I passed one of my neighbors who was watching his young son play in front yard. As I sped by, he jumped up and started yelling profanities at me. Basically, he was saying I was going too fast. He was right.

I stopped my truck and opened the door. By then, this man was coming my way. I think he was expecting a fight. I’m glad the Lord restrained me. I just said, “Sir, I’m very sorry. It won’t happen again.” When I got home, I pulled in my garage, but not far enough because when I tried to lower my garage door with my remote, the door came down on top of my truck causing some damage. Great.

Well, I think that is enough. You get the idea. I’m praying that the Lord will help me learn from all these stories. I have to watch myself when I get in a hurry. That is lesson number one.

Second, it is amazing how “on the edge” many folks are in our culture—how one little thing can set off a rage incident and something harmless can escalate very quickly. It is actually very scary. Scary with others could do. Scary what I could do. And all of a sudden, you are sitting in prison. It could all happen that quickly.

As you can see in the stories I have told, (again I say), I am not without fault, but I am glad that the Holy Spirit has kept my mouth shut on some occasions at least.

I just have that couple in mind this morning. The bottom line is that I was NOT a good witness to them. I wish I could get that back.

Oh, well, I just need to turn it over to Jesus. This is the type of thing that Satan uses to get in my head.

Well, here is the verse for today. "Though you, Israel, are a prostitute, may Judah avoid such guilt. Do not join the false worship at Gilgal or Beth-aven, even though they take oaths there in the Lord ’s name" (Hosea 4:15 NLT). I was intrigued by the two references—to Gilgal and to Beth-aven.

It is interesting that scholars aren’t exactly sure where these places are. They are not definitive as to exactly what the Lord is referring to here.

What we can say is that this is a warning about idolatry. It can happen anywhere, any time. Even in a parking lot.

Lord, I thank you for taking care of me the way you have all these years. Thank you for those times when you kept my mouth shut.

For those times that I have been in a hurry or spoken out of turn, I acknowledge that I am wrong. Yesterday, I was wrong in spite of the wrong reaction. I am wrong.

Lord, help me. Fill me with your Spirit. Fill me so that I can slow down, first of all, but second, be more aware of opportunities you bring my way.

Clear my mind today, Jesus, so that I can serve you undistracted.

“I’ll say yes, Lord, yes to Your will and to Your way” (BH 2008, 445). Amen.
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Exchanging Glory for Shame

The essence of Old Testament worship revolves around the glory of God. Of course, there were no images or pictures. No one, except the High Priest could see God and even then, it really wasn’t God. It was Shekinah.

I remember the time that Moses wanted to see God as he was receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai. The Lord granted his request. Well, sort of. The Lord passed by and Moses was able to see His glory.

The truth is that no one could stand the unmediated presence of God. It would kill us.

But we can see the glory. And we did. In the person of Jesus. This is what John emphasizes in the first chapter of his gospel. “We saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NASB). What an incredible statement! We beheld his glory.

This is the case with every believer. Paul emphasizes this. In chapter three of 2 Corinthians, he contrasts the glory of the old covenant with that of the new. The final verse of this chapter states, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NASB).

When we have a relationship with God’s Son Jesus, we can actually share in God’s glory and (here is a great word) GLORIFY God.

The glory of God reflected on the face of Moses after he met the Lord. The glory of God has a far greater impact on those of us who know Jesus. It is transformative. It is radical. It—He—changes everything and He shows.

AND, as if all of that are not enough, we get to dwell in the presence of the glory of God forever!

My heart is overflowing as I think about the GLORY. It is the essence of worship in the Bible and the design of God for humans. He made us in the image of God to glorify Him.

All of this sets up the huge contrast in Hosea 4. As the Lord makes a case as a prosecuting attorney (this is the language of the first verse of Hosea 4) against His people, there is a word that comes out. "The more priests there are, the more they sin against me. They have exchanged the glory of God for the shame of idols. When the rulers of Israel finish their drinking, off they go to find some prostitutes. They love shame more than honor. So a mighty wind will sweep them away. Their sacrifices to idols will bring them shame" (Hosea 4:7, 18, 19 NLT).

When I fail to worship God and abandon the glory, what do I have left? The Bible word is “shame.”

This is a word that I heard yesterday from the uncle of the two brothers who are suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. The oldest brother is dead. The youngest is in the hospital. What did all the death and destruction they caused for a false cause get them? It is ridiculous. All for a false, no-god! How pitiful!

Actually, it makes me very angry. We just seem to be a sitting duck for these radicals that we invite into our country (graciously, I might add) and they turn around in hatred and bomb us and kill innocent people. That eight year-old boy!

But back to the uncle, he made the comment that the behaviors of those two boys has brought shame on the family and the nation from which they came.

Idolatry always ends up in shame. Paul emphasizes this as well. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Romans 1:16, 22, 23 NASB).

As believers, we have nothing to be ashamed of, particularly the gospel of the glory of God. But for others, like those two brothers, they have followed off an idol and the end of their lives is shame.

Lord, every day, even in the tragedy of this bombing in Boston, you display your glory. You are unique. You are different. In your glory, you are a life-giver, a life-transformer. And those who know you share in your glory.

May that be the case with me today.

Lord, I pray that you would eradicate this idolatry that sets off bombs that kill and maim innocent people. End it! Stop it.

“I surrender all to You, all to you” (BH 2008, 444). Amen.
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I Actually Asked for Help

There is an interesting phrase that leaps off the page in Hosea 4. I will talk about it in a moment.

But first, I need to share something that happened to me and what the Lord taught me. A friend of mine named Rudy called me the other day. He is a Realtor. He is helping a woman sell a townhouse just right down the street from where I live.

As this lady is moving out, she had a small roll top desk that she wanted to give away. Rudy asked me if I knew anyone who could use it. I replied, “Yes, I do. Me.” I am trying to fix up a study room at my mom’s house in her basement. That is another story I will have to tell at another time.

When I expressed interest, Rudy said, “Well, if you can move it out of the house—it is empty—then you are welcome to it.” He gave me the address and the lockbox information.

Okay, so let me stop right here. In the course of the twenty-four years I have served First Southern as pastor, in addition to moving into my first apartment in August of 1989, I have moved four times. And, in the course of those four moves, I only asked one person in the church to help me. His name was Mike, and he was our Youth Pastor. But in all those other times, I refused to ask anyone for help.

When I moved into my first apartment in Northglenn, it was only my mom and I. Yes, you read that right. She and I moved most of my stuff. At one point, we got stuck with a couch, and conscripted a couple of guys who were maintenance men at the complex to help us. They were glad to do so. Otherwise, that couch would still be stuck on a staircase at the Regiment Apartments in Northglenn.

I am still deeply convicted about not asking anyone to help me as I started a new ministry. That move nearly killed my mom and me. I shouldn’t have asked her to help. Oh, man. I still cringe when I think of it. Pride is painful. Literally. And it is very inconsiderate and selfish.

My second move was to another apartment across I-25 in Westminster. I rented a U Haul and got Mike to help on the smaller stuff, but with the furniture, I called a mover and paid them to haul it to my new apartment up the stairs to the second floor.

When I moved into my house in Brighton, I paid for a mover again. Same deal for my move from the house to the townhouse where I live now. I involved now one.

Why? Well, I do have a history with this. When I was in seminary and I was teaching that Singles Sunday School class at Travis Avenue Baptist Church, it seemed as if I was helping someone move just about every weekend. I was glad to do it, but it was a hassle and I injured myself on a couple of occasions—nothing serious—but I eventually realized that I just could not keep doing it.

Since I had set a personal boundary of not helping folks move, I didn’t feel comfortable asking others to help. Right or wrong, good or bad, that is/was my mindset. Still is to a great degree.

But back to the other day—when Rudy told me about the desk, I immediately thought about how I could hire someone to help me, and then the thought crossed my mind, “Ask someone to help, you idiot. It is just one piece of furniture after all.”

So, I did. I called J. B. at our church. He was a little hesitant at first, not because he was unwilling to help, but because he was suspicious that I was playing a practical joke on him. He has good reason. We kid each other all the time. It is a unique relationship. I feel totally comfortable with him to be able to do it. Thus, I don’t blame him for wondering. Ha.

But after multiple assurances, he consented. We met at a gas station near the house. He followed me over there and helped me put it in the back of my truck.

Then, yesterday, as my mom and I arrived back at her house, Brent and Holly drove into their driveway. We talked a bit. I asked Brent to help me. He was glad to do so. It was a little rough (especially on Brent; he took the heavy side; this desk is small but it is made of oak), but we got it into my mom’s basement.

I appreciate both of these guys so much. Thanks J. B. Thanks Brent, if either of you are reading this blog. I love you guys.

Hey, guys, please know I won’t make a habit of this!

It just taught me that I can, on occasion, ask someone for help in something like this.

I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but as I sit here this morning, I’m thankful for this lesson.

Back to the passage for today—let me cite three verses from chapter four: "They will eat and still be hungry. They will play the prostitute and gain nothing from it, for they have deserted the Lord to worship other gods. Wine has robbed my people of their understanding. They ask a piece of wood for advice! They think a stick can tell them the future! Longing after idols has made them foolish. They have played the prostitute, serving other gods and deserting their God" (Hosea 4:10-12, NLT).

This chapter is an indictment of the priests in Hosea’s day. They were “playing the prostitute.” And because they were leaders, their lifestyle of unfaithfulness to God was influencing others. Of course. That’s the way it works, right?

Putting things together today—I wonder if my hesitancy to ask others to help me has an influence in the church I serve? Humm. I think I know the answer to that question.

Lord, I thank for relationships in the body of Christ. I thank you for Rudy, J. B., and Brent. These three guys don’t know each other, but we are all connected in the body of Christ.

I confess the sin of selfishness and pride. Who am I NOT to ask for help on occasion? I tell others to do it. It is time to walk the talk.

Help me learn this lesson, Lord.

“Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me” (BH 2008, 443). Amen.
Comments

Weaned

What a graphic picture! This book never fails to amaze me with its picture of the love of God.

"So I bought her back for fifteen pieces of silver and five bushels of barley and a measure of wine. Then I said to her, ‘You must live in my house for many days and stop your prostitution. During this time, you will not have sexual relations with anyone, not even with me.’ This shows that Israel will go a long time without a king or prince, and without sacrifices, sacred pillars, priests, or even idols! But afterward the people will return and devote themselves to the Lord their God and to David’s descendant, their king. In the last days, they will tremble in awe of the Lord and of his goodness" (Hosea 3:2-5, NLT).
Hosea marries Gomer. She leaves him to return to a life of prostitution, her former profession. Plus, somehow, she also became a slave. He then goes back to the marketplace where slaves are sold, and he buys back his own wife!

And, looking at the description of what he paid for her, the purchase price was high! He paid a lot to buy back someone he had already married. Why didn’t she just come home?

Once, he brought her home, he told her that she was not to have any sexual relationship with any man, including Hosea. He was weaning her away from her lifestyle and teaching her how to be faithful to one man.

After those descriptions, the text indicates that all of this is a picture of the Lord’s ways with the nation of Israel, a nation bent on idolatry. For a period of time, the nation had no king, no sacrificial system, and no idols.

As I sit here this morning, I think, “When was this in the history of Israel?” The only thought that comes to mind is a period of time hundreds of years later than Hosea life and times—the Babylonian exile.

God took absolutely everything away from his people—including their homeland and put them hundreds of miles away in a desert—to rid them of idolatry for good. And the historical record bears this out. The nation of Israel never fell victim to idolatry ever again! Now, of course, the Messiah came, and they missed Him, but that is another story.

The Lord weaned his people off of idolatry. And it was hard.

It always is.

This is a perpetual struggle. I believe that we as Christians battle it our entire lives. It is just so easy to accumulate idols on the mantel of our hearts.

I know I have quoted this verse several times before in this blog, but I believe it bears re-quoting here. It is presented almost as an afterthought in this epistle, but its location in the book is very strategic: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21, NASB). How about that?

I must guard myself from idols so that the Lord doesn’t have to wean me away from them. And I will tell you from experience that it is just easier to avoid them in the first place rather than have to deal with the Lord prying them away.

It hurts just to type those words.

We canceled services last night because of a snowstorm, but I had prepared another study on the topic of worldview. Last week, we discussed the New Age movement and I mentioned one of its great proponents in our modern times—Oprah Winfrey. I gave the group the assignment to go to Google and find out what Oprah actually believes. It is certainly NOT Christian. That is for sure.

I found an interesting video on YouTube. I’m probably going to show it next week. But she is answering someone’s question. She tells about the fact that she grew up as a Baptist. One Sunday, as a young woman, she was attending a church where the pastor was preaching a sermon about God. At one point, he talked about God as a jealous God.

For some reason, and she tells this as she is answering a question, the fact that the God of the Bible was a jealous God was a major turn-off to her and pushed her into her New Age beliefs.

It is hard to fathom this.

For me, the fact that God is a jealous God—he tolerates no rivals or idols—is one of the greatest testaments to His “God-ness.”

Lord, I thank you for all the ways you demonstrate your agape love to us. Thank you for saving me in the first place. I’m married to you, Jesus. Thank you for your relentless and yes, JEALOUS love, that continues to wean me away from my tendency to follow off idols. You draw me back to yourself, over and over. I’m so glad.

Help me learn to be alert to idolatry and to guard myself in the first place so that I can stay away from them.

I pray the same thing for everyone who is reading this blog today.

Thank you for loving us “again,” and over and over.

“I give all my worship to you” (BH 2008, 442). Amen.
Comments

Raisin Cakes

How about this reference in the first verse of Hosea 3? "Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes’” (Hosea 3:1, NASB).

Before I get into this, just a quick word. Marilyn’s test came out very well yesterday. They did indeed find a couple of polyps, but the doctor was not too concerned about them. He did say that she is going to have to go back in for another colonoscopy in three to five years.

One statistic came out yesterday as they were talking with Marilyn about her family history. For “normal” people, six percent of the population gets colon cancer, but if you have a relative that had it and died young (my dad was 47), the chances of contracting the disease jump up to forty percent! Wow. I still can’t get over that.

I always thought that if I got cancer, I would get colon cancer … Oh, well.

But I’m glad for Marilyn. She gets rather impatient with all these tests. I don’t blame her. I’m worse, but at least there are avenues out there for early detection. I’m not sure my dad ever had a colonoscopy or if the technology existed back in the early 1970’s. Maybe it did. I wish he had been screened.

Anyway, thanks for your prayers. We really appreciate them.

Okay, so back to the passage. The people turned to other gods and “love the raisin cakes.” What is going on here?

Well, I had to check my previous study of this passage to confirm this. Somehow, these raisin cakes were a delicacy. They were served as folks had sex with cult prostitutes in the worship of Baal. Sort of a sensual cornucopia, of sorts, I guess.

Of course, Satan will use anything. If it is not illicit sexual behavior, it is cake! Seems rather innocent doesn’t it? But it contributed to the “whoredom” of the people of Israel as they turned away from their Husband to worship Baal, the god of fertility.

And it is a major way the enemy works in our day and time as well.

I was talking with a couple of brothers yesterday. We were discussing the mores and values of our current youth culture. And as we were doing this, a vivid memory came flooding back in my mind.

A few years ago, our last paid youth pastor and I were talking. Somehow, we got on the topic of the sexual behaviors of the students in our youth group. I made some comment about the fact that I was glad that a lot of our students seemed to be abstaining. He got this incredulous look on his face and said, “Are you kidding? All of them are sexual. ALL of them.”

It rocked my world. It still does.

Every year, we made a point of having a special series of classes on the biblical concepts of sex. We hammered the point that one should not have sexual relations outside of or prior to marriage. We have had folks go into our youth department and give very honest testimonies about the dangers of premarital sex. All of that … and still to hear that none of it sunk in is devastating.

But it is so current in our culture. Everyone is doing it. Of course, this does not make it right. I am NOT justifying it, but it just makes the challenge even greater.

I am more convinced than ever that strong moral values when it comes to sexual behavior must be taught and talked about and enforced in the home. It starts there.

But, I’m sad to say that some of the strongest Christian families I know have dealt with it as well.

So, who knows?

But this type of behavior is rampant, not just in our fellowship among teens but in all levels of society and culture, including nursing homes and among senior adults.

Betty and I were talking the other day about a senior couple in our church a few years ago—a widow and widower started dating and traveled together. They decided to stay in the same hotel room on one of their trips because it was “cheaper.”

I was born at night but not last night. (Actually, I was born early in the morning but it was dark--maybe! You get my idea).

I kid you not. I’m sure these comments don’t shock any of you. I guess that is a further indictment of where we are in our “raisin cake” culture.

Oh, Lord, none of us is beyond being tempted to the adultery of idolatry through the senses. The enemy started his temptation of your son that same way! His M. O. is still the same.

Keep us through temptation and deliver us from the lure of the “raisin cakes.”

Bring me back in line with a passionate and fervent love relationship with my dear Husband Jesus.

I love this hymn: “No matter the cost or what others do. I give all my worship to you” (BH 2008, 442). Amen.
Comments

Marilyn's Colonoscopy

Let me hasten to say that this procedure today is just a routine check-up for Marilyn. She has NEVER had a colonoscopy before. The doctor ordered it just to check her out.

Of course, with this test, you have to have someone drive you and take you home or they won’t allow you to have it. Thus, I am the “designated driver” today and glad to do it. My mom wants to go as well, so all of us are headed down to Swedish Hospital in a little while.

As more of a veteran with these kinds of things than Marilyn (I wish I weren’t), it is hard for me to remember how I felt before I had my first colonoscopy almost ten years ago. If I recall correctly, though, they found a suspicious looking polyp and biopsied it. That biopsy turned out okay. A lot of people were praying for me back then.

Please pray for Marilyn today.

She is doing a lot better than I did prior to my first colonoscopy. That is for sure, but I know she is a bit nervous and wants to get it over with—certainly understandable.

I don’t know … all these tests. It just seems that the older you get—you take tests. And somehow, I guess they get a little less scary over time. I guess. They have for me, but still, no matter how many you take, it is still stressful because there is always a thought in the back of your mind, “What if they find something?”

And, here is what I have learned about that question. There is absolutely no way to prepare for cancer or some other disease in advance—not until you actually hear a doctor tell you.

I put it in the same category as death. We all know that we are going to die someday, but still, one is never prepared. And I put the diagnosis of diseases in that category as well.

For example, back to my friend Rick again. He was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, but how on earth can anyone prepare for what he had to deal with only a few years later?

I will turn around and say, however, that the only way to be ready is a vibrant relationship with Jesus. This is certainly no panacea that eliminates bad things from happening, but the Lord is bedrock and foundation when you get hit with news. You get hit. But you don’t go into despair. There is Someone down there who holds you up. This is the only way I can explain it.

Without the Lord, you go crazy and freak out. I’ve certainly witnessed this more times than I wish to count, even from folks who have sat in worship services. Of course, there is the normal human reaction. I’m not talking about THAT. I’m talking long-term angst and despair. This is NOT a Christian reaction.

A “Christian reaction” is only possible through the indwelling Holy Spirit that marries us to Jesus so that we are ONE with Him. This is the type of relationship God designed us to have with Him from the very beginning.

Sin and idolatry pervert it, however. But when we act like whores (as Gomer did), he convicts us or disciplines us. This is what the Lord did with the remnant of Israel.

""At that time"—this is God's Message still— "you'll address me, 'Dear husband!' Never again will you address me, 'My slave-master!' I'll wash your mouth out with soap, get rid of all the dirty false-god names, not so much as a whisper of those names again. At the same time I'll make a peace treaty between you and wild animals and birds and reptiles, And get rid of all weapons of war. Think of it! Safe from beasts and bullies! And then I'll marry you for good—forever! I'll marry you true and proper, in love and tenderness. Yes, I'll marry you and neither leave you nor let you go. You'll know me, God, for who I really am" (Hosea 2:16-20, NLT).
Through God’s actions, he brought His people back into an intimate husband-wife relationship with Him. When I say “God’s actions,” I am referring to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes this. It starts out with the birth of Immanuel—God with us. And it ends with the Great Commission and this promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus came to provide a permanent marriage relationship with us. This is what Ephesians five is emphasizing as it talks about marriage. Paul adds that he is really talking about Christ and the church.

Oh, my Husband, please take care of Marilyn and her test this morning. Give her peace in her heart. Take care of all the details of this procedure this morning.

I feel privileged to be able to help her in some small way. You have used her to help me in HUGE WAYS. She is still doing it.

Give us a safe trip down to the hospital this morning. Who knows the condition of the roads after the snowstorm last night?

Thank you for the folks who are reading this and will pray.

“You gently call me into your presence
Guiding me by Your Holy Spirit” (BH 2008, 441). Amen.
Comments

The Valley of Achor A Door of Hope

After reading the passage today, I had to bone up on my biblical geography. I’m glad I did.

But before I get into that, I want to share a couple of things about yesterday. First, as I started to get into my day, I felt myself plummeting down in depression. It was weird. It was stark. I wondered how I was going to make it through the day.

Four guys came in for our men’s prayer meeting. This happens every Sunday morning at 8:30. Yesterday, it was Jim, Jim, James, and Bernard.

As we settled in, I felt compelled. I said, “Guys, before we start this morning, I just would like to ask that you pray for me. I’m really discouraged.” And I shared some of the reasons why.

I really appreciate the way those men responded. I did not get a lecture on why I should not be discouraged (something I have done often, to my shame). I did not get a put down, something like, “Well, boo hoo for you pastor. I bet my week was tougher.” Nope. Nothing remotely like that.

They all just nodded and when we started to pray, they took my request seriously and prayed for me.

Honestly, it felt as if the Lord put His hands in my armpits and literally lifted me up. I’m so grateful.

Dawn was there with her family. It was great to see her. She seems to be doing well, and they were so grateful for the “pounding” we gave her family. I heard that they received about six hundred dollars’ worth of gift cards alone. How about that, oh discouraged preacher?

Our church family stepped up and ministered to a family in our fellowship. I’ll take it. And run with it.

I don’t know. Again, the Lord has His ways but it is nothing new for our God.

I love the statements I read this morning. In fact, there is so much in the verses I am going to quote that it will take me a couple of days to comment. Here they are: "Therefore, behold, I will allure her, Bring her into the wilderness And speak kindly to her. Then I will give her vineyards from there, And the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt. ‘It will come about in that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘That you will call Me Ishi And will no longer call Me Baali’” (Hosea 2:14-16, NASB).

Where is the Valley of Achor and what is its significance? Well, the story is very interesting. Shortly after the battle of Jericho, Israel was overconfident and suffering a huge defeat in the land of Canaan. As the elders of the nation prayed about, the Lord revealed the sin of Achan. He had stolen and hidden some contraband. Well, the community identified Achan and his sin. The community stoned Achan and his family and burned their bodies. Sin eradicated. All of this happened in the Valley of Achor. What does that word mean?

Well, the NLT translates it properly. "But then I will win her back once again. I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there. I will return her vineyards to her and transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope. She will give herself to me there, as she did long ago when she was young, when I freed her from her captivity in Egypt. When that day comes,” says the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’ instead of ‘my master’” (Hosea 2:14-16, NLT).

The Valley of Trouble. Wow, are you kidding? It sure was.

But here is what our God is so good at. This incident and the story of Achan is probably one of the greatest defeats the nation ever suffered, arguably. It is certainly a black mark, if nothing else.

And, it was repeated in the days of Hosea. Different setting. Same basic sin.

However, the Lord is going to turn the adultery of the people in the Valley of Trouble into a door of hope. I love this imagery.

It is not a dead end. It is a doorway. It is not a terminal. It is a passage.

I believe the Lord is doing the same thing in my life and in the church today. And I’m confident that we will see it. I don’t know how, but I am expectant.

A bad sin with bad consequences turned around into hope.

Yep, that is what YOU DO, Lord. Thank you for the magnitude of forgiveness and restoration and hope you give.

I can confidently say that I have been in the Valley of Trouble. The church I serve is there, in some ways. Open a door. Provide a door. Lead us through. Begin with me.

“I know for sure all of my days are held in Your hand” (“The Potter’s Hand,” BH 2008, 441). Amen.
Comments

Better Off with the Lord

It is one thing to say that. It is another thing to experience it.

Most of the time we have to learn about this the hard way.

Yesterday, I cited the statement in Hosea two about being fenced in and blocked. The verse I quote today gives THE REASON for this. "When she runs after her lovers, she won’t be able to catch them. She will search for them but not find them. Then she will think, ‘I might as well return to my husband, for I was better off with him than I am now’” (Hosea 2:7, NLT).

As I read this statement, it reminded me of another in one of the most famous parables Jesus ever uttered. It is called the parable of the “Prodigal Son.” This is actually a misnomer of sorts because the story revolves around the oldest son who never left home but whose heart was further away from the Lord than the one who left … Well, anyway, you know the story.

But here is the youngest son. He leaves home with his inheritance and blows it, and as he is eating pig food, something happens. "When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant’” (Luke 15:17-19, NLT).

The literal language of verse seventeen in Luke fifteen is that he “came to himself.”

Somehow, this is what happened to Gomer as she tried to break out of her marriage and revert to her “former” life. She tried, but she kept running into walls and roadblocks and obstacles.

Again, why is it that we always have to learn the hard way? That is just human nature, I am afraid. That is just the way it is.

Try as I might, I can’t break out of that mold myself.

It has taken me almost twenty-five years as a pastor plus cancer—someone who should know better—to come to himself.

And, even as I write that phrase “come to himself,” I am not sure how one knows. I guess as long as there are any viable options remaining except “get the heck home,” then one has NOT come to his or her senses. Because, as long as there are “viable options” left out on the table, we will take them. Or, let me be more specific—I WILL TAKE THEM. This is my track record.

As I have said repeatedly over the past few days in this blog, I am struggling. Now, I am wrestling with what true, biblical surrender actually looks like.

It is not apathy. I know that. It is not getting to the point where you throw up your hands in disgust and say, “I don’t care what happens.” That kind of attitude certainly doesn’t please God.

And yet, true surrender comes close to that, I think. It isn’t that we don’t or shouldn’t care, but it all comes back to what we allow ourselves to focus on and strive for.

Therefore, for today, I am just going to church with no expectations except that I am going for the Lord, to please Him and serve Him and worship Him. Who is there or NOT is up to the Lord. Who tells me they are leaving the church today is up to God. How people respond to the music—whether they “like it or not” is up to them. Whatever. These issues and a myriad of others are outside the realm of responsibility the Lord has given me.

It is dawning on me that I should probably be more specific than just saying a “myriad of others.” I probably need to take the time to write down what I don’t need to get depressed over as it relates to church life—things I shouldn’t worry about. Then, I need to turn around and write down what I do need to “worry” about, not in the sinful sense but in the focus sense.

Father, I don’t know exactly what this looks like this morning as I process all of this, but show me. Teach me. Help me. I am better off with you.

“Better is one day in your courts, better is one day in your house, better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere, a thousand elsewhere.” Amen.
Comments

Fenced In and Blocked

How does God handle folks who tend to be wayward? There is a phrase in a hymn that comes to mind. I’ve cited it now and again in this blog. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.”

The Lord told Hosea to marry a prostitute. What did He expect? She was going to continue to act as she had prior to her marriage.

This coming Sunday, at Calla’s encouragement, I’m going to teach the boys and girls about baptism. I have searched far and wide for a good object lesson to help explain it to the kids. I finally found it online.

I can’t remember the website at this point, but a single man (I don’t know if he was a pastor or a layman) discovered a great way to teach about it. He asked the boys and girls, “Am I married?” They answered, “Of course not.” (Sounds a lot like how I think they will answer me tomorrow when I ask the question!). Then, he took what looked like a wedding ring and put it on his finger. He then asked another question, “Am I married now?” The boys and girls answered the same way, “No, sir. Of course not.”

He went on. So, just putting this wedding ring on my finger does not make me married, right? Nope.

However, if I am married, and I put this ring on my finger, it is a very important symbol of my relationship with my spouse.

This is baptism. You must first have a relationship with Jesus. If you do, and you follow Jesus in baptism, it is a very powerful symbol of that relationship. Great analogy, huh?

And believe you me: I am going to check this with the boys and girls. This is first and foremost. I’m going to talk about how to get saved and then try to visit with each child individually at some point. All of this must happen before any child gets baptized.

The class is new. I don’t think we have ever done one before. Calla has a good idea, but the individual conversations are not new. I have had those from the beginning of my ministry at the church. I do not adhere to the Constantine Model of Mass Christianity. Ha.

Anyway, here is my point: baptism does not make anyone a believer. Going to church does not make someone a Christian. Wearing a wedding ring does not mean someone is married. Standing in a garage does not make anyone a car.

Hosea and Gomer were “married” technically, but she did not act like it. She continued in the lifestyle and profession she had prior to her “marriage.”

So, what did the Lord do? He had to take drastic measures. "Their mother is a shameless prostitute and became pregnant in a shameful way. She said, ‘I’ll run after other lovers and sell myself to them for food and water, for clothing of wool and linen, and for olive oil and drinks.’ For this reason I will fence her in with thornbushes. I will block her path with a wall to make her lose her way" (Hosea 2:5-6, NLT).

The Lord fenced her in with thornbushes. Ouch. He blocked her so that she would be diverted and lose her way. Good thing because it was not the right way or a good way.

The Lord has to take drastic measures with us in order to get our attention, whether we are saved (and in this instance, it is called discipline) or not (and I am not sure of any technical term here. I guess I would call it conviction).

It feels as if this is where I am right now. The Lord has “grounded” me.

I want to thank all of you for praying yesterday. I could feel your prayers. Nothing has changed at the church, but I feel better. That has to be worth something, right? I believe it is worth a lot because it isn’t just a feeling. It is peace.

But through all of this, I have come to some conclusions AGAIN.

God has put me where I am. I’m going to continue to give it all I’ve got. I’m going to focus on prayer and the Word, as always. I’m going to stay in Ezekiel and continue to preach sermons from this awesome book as long as I have planned. No changes.

I’m going to pray for Revival. AND, just keep plugging and showing up. That’s about all I’ve got. Beyond that, the rest is up to the Lord. Isn’t it? Am I way off in left field? If I am, then I am pleading with the Lord to show me.

If I am the problem, then I need a very clear word from Him and I am gone.

I don’t think He is telling me that. So, … I am there and honored to be, by the way.

If He wants to allow our congregation to dwindle down and we close the doors, then I want to lock the door on the building as the last guy standing TO THE GLORY OF GOD!

Lord, I know less than ever. I’m tired of all my flesh plans and programs. I’m done with all of that. My “program” now is YOU. Maybe this is where you have wanted me to be all along. Humm.

“I will make their darkness bright” (“Here I Am, Lord,” BH 2008, 440). Amen.
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The Day of Jezreel

I need to be honest this morning. Please pray for my mom and sister and me. We are really struggling. I continue to see first hand how things that go on at church tend to affect a pastor’s family even more than the pastor himself.

What are the issues? They are several, but I don’t want to go into detail.

Please pray for us on an emotional level. Pray that I will know what to do (if anything). Pray for the church.

It is just a tough time. But I know we aren’t alone. After talking with Pastor James at North Metro, he confirmed that. Like all the rest of us, this congregation is dealing with its issues as well. It is everywhere with some exceptions, I am sure.

Somehow, however, the fact that many churches are struggling does not give me a lot of comfort, but at least it confirms that this is a nation-wide, world-wide struggle. We are not alone.

But why? Why this tough time for the church? What is going on? Well, I am sure that my answer at this point is tempered by the fact that I have been studying the final chapters of Ezekiel. This is an amazing section of that prophecy, by the way. And it is subject to multiple interpretations depending upon one’s view of the millennium.

I’m going to steer away from all of THAT and just say that I espouse, as one commentator I was reading the other day called it, the “eschatological approach,” to those chapters. In other words, the bottom line is that they describe what will be going on in the final days.

It is clear that evil will come to head. It will culminate in a huge, end-all, be-all battle with Gog as the leader.

I won’t re-preach my sermon from last week, but I believe that Ezekiel 38 and 39 (as well as some references in chapters sixteen, nineteen, and twenty of the book of Revelation) describe the Battle of Armageddon. It will be the epitome of good versus evil in a final conflict.

But as the enemy is poised against God’s people—poof! The Lord will take care of it with the snap of his fingers as he creates an earthquake and rains down fire and brimstone on the enemy. They will be wiped out for God. And the huge meal that will follow will be a feast of the dead, enemy army.

As I preached last Sunday, (and I guess I am preaching this message to myself again, and I need to) if we believe that the Lord will ultimately win out over Satan and the forces of evil … Let me stop. Jesus defeated the devil through the cross and resurrection. He is RIGHT NOW defeated. The Battle of Armageddon is the final nail in his coffin.

But if all of that is true, and it is, then I need to navigate these rough waters with confident faith and trust in the Lord. What else is there?

I’m at the point with the church where I am more confident than ever that if He doesn’t do a turn-around, we are cooked. But isn’t that the truth for any size church?

I mean do any of us have the luxury of believing that with the manpower or horsepower we have, we can keep things afloat on our own? I believe this bottom-line reality gets masked when you consider larger churches.

I’m trusting God and asking Him for revival—a turn of events—like the Lord talks about in Hosea 1.

Remember, Hosea and Gomer’s first child is Jezreel. The Lord commanded this couple to give him that name. What is going on here?

Well, my investigation into all of this has pointed out what appears to be a contradiction. In 2 Kings 10:30, the Lord commends Jehu for massacring the royal family in the valley of Jezreel. In the first chapter of Hosea, in the naming of Hosea’s oldest son, he appears to condemn it. What is the deal?

I don’t think there are any contradictions in God’s Word—just places where we don’t fully understand, but I think that this is just a contrast between the slaughter that occurred in that valley and what the Lord is ultimately going to do in the future.

Here is the last verse of Hosea 1: "Then the people of Judah and Israel will unite together. They will choose one leader for themselves, and they will return from exile together. What a day that will be—the day of Jezreel —when God will again plant his people in his land" (Hosea 1:11, NLT).

On the very spot where mass killings occurred, God is going to turn things around and plant His people in their land RIGHT ON THAT SPOT.

A place of killing and death becomes a place of life. How about that?

This is the Lord’s specialty—out of death, He creates new life. He has the ability to take seemingly hopeless situations and turn them around for His glory.

The Day of Jezreel—do it again, do it now—in my heart, in my family, in the church I serve, and the church here in America.

Lord, we are way past gimmicks and programs and flesh-“fixes”—way beyond all of that nonsense.

I am here at your feet crying out. You are all I’ve got. This is the way it has always been, even in the so-called “good times.” Thank you for the bad times that remind me where things REALLY ARE.

“Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come” (BH 2008, 439). Amen.
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Not Horsepower or Manpower But Godpower

I think I just coined a word there. I like it. Somehow it resonates with the message from the Lord this morning.

On the heels of telling the prophet to name his first two children after sins (sins in Israel), he has a message for the southern kingdom of Judah. Here it is:

"Gomer got pregnant again. This time she had a daughter. God told Hosea: "Name this one No-Mercy. I'm fed up with Israel. I've run out of mercy. There's no more forgiveness. Judah's another story. I'll continue having mercy on them. I'll save them. It will be their God who saves them, Not their armaments and armies, not their horsepower and manpower” (Hosea 1:6-7, MSG).

The salvation of the nation of Judah will not consist in four things: armaments, armies, horsepower, or manpower but “by my power as the Lord their God” (Hosea 1:7, NLT).

The perennial temptation for nations is the same as that for churches—to judge success by numbers. I fell prey to that again last night.

Let me back up a bit. Yesterday afternoon, Jim and I drove down to Littleton to visit with Pastor Rick who serves Ken Caryl Baptist Church. As we pulled into the parking lot of the church, a lot of memories came flooding into my mind, memories of thirty years ago—1983. I was a summer missionary helping Roger plant a church in the Morrison area. The sponsoring church for this work was Ken Caryl Baptist Church. Until we got Sunday services going at an elementary school, I attended Ken Caryl on Sundays and got to know a lot of folks there.

It is a great church.

Fast forward thirty years—Rick is now the pastor. I first met him as I was teaching preaching at the seminary extension of Golden Gate seminary here in Denver. At the time, he was an associate at one of the larger SBC churches in town—Riverside. He has since moved to serve Ken Caryl as pastor. Interestingly enough, he is also a trustee with the International Mission Board (IMB) and has a heart for overseas missions.

Jim and I came to visit with him to discuss the Embrace challenge of adopting an Unreached, Unengaged People Group.

As we sat down to visit in the foyer of the church, Rick told us that the IMB is focusing its global efforts on unreached, unengaged people groups. This focus makes the Embrace challenge even more crucial.

We had a great time talking with Rick about India because we feel the Lord is focusing our efforts there.

We had a really good talk with Rick. He shared some great stories and insights with us. I’ll have to tell you some of those stories at a later time. Jim and I both were encouraged as we drove away.

As we headed north on E-470, I reiterated a point to Jim I had made earlier in our conversation. “Jim, no wonder that it seems as if we are under attack as a church (with people leaving). I believe that Satan does not want us to reach people—whether they live in Northglenn or southern India. And he is doing everything he can to discourage us and stop us.”

I went on. “The perennial temptation for churches—especially those in our boat—is just to pull in and focus on taking care of ourselves. Somehow people have the mistaken notion that ‘taking care of ourselves’ means NOT doing evangelism or missions. Really, evangelism and missions is one of the greatest expressions of strength there is.”

I tell you. If I hear just one more person say, “John, what are we doing talking about Federal Heights or India or ________ (whatever it might be)? We need to take care of ourselves first,” I will vomit on the floor right in front of them. Please forgive me for being crass and crude. But that is how I feel.

However, I wish I could have maintained this perspective the rest of the night.

There were very few folks at church last night—very few. We had a good discussion in the adult study, but we were down in attendance. Plus, we only had a few children and one youth last night.

And I know what I keep saying about this false dichotomy of numbers and success, but it sure doesn’t feel as if the church is affirming our Wednesday night ministries. To be honest, I left discouraged.

But it was one night after a snowstorm, and it was freezing cold last night. I guess I am trying to find reasons why folks didn’t come. Who knows?

Anyway, I’m sure that the conventional wisdom of success for nations (it still holds true today) is that the size of the army (numbers) and resources (horsepower and manpower. In church life this means a lot of millionaires and talented folks in your church) determines the strength of that nation.

The lack thereof leads to the opposite conclusion. This is what worldly wisdom says.

But God told the prophet that He was not going to save Judah with any of those things—just His power.

Okay, so if that is our main resource—FSBCN is in a primo position for the Lord to work. We don’t have “horsepower or manpower.” That is for sure. So, I am going to cast my lot for GODPOWER.

Oh, Lord, this is what I believe in my head. Please let my heart catch up. Thank you for our global responsibility and it is not manpower contingent. It is Godpower-based.

Thank you for Rick. I pray that you would bless him and the ministry of Ken Caryl Baptist Church.

God, we are looking to you and dependent TOTALLY on you.

“Perish ev’ry fond ambition,
All I’ve sought or hoped or known”

(“Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken,” BH 438). Amen.
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Two Kids with Sin Names

First, I want to thank the Lord for a Sabbath yesterday. Late Monday afternoon and on into the morning yesterday, I thought I was getting the flu. I felt terrible and ached all over.

Prior to cancer, I would have just forged ahead anyway. Suck it up.

But early yesterday morning, I made the decision to cancel all my appointments and take a day of rest. People were very understanding. I so appreciate this. And, I just did some sermon work and sat there. Funny, the longer I rested the better I felt. Last night, I sensed that I had a lot of energy. So, I praise God for this.

I’m ready to go with a full day today, and it should be easier to get around since the promised “blizzard with a foot of snow” did not materialize as the forecasters had promised. Again, thank you Jesus.

I will have to say, however, that my burden for the church is overwhelming. There is a big part of me that wants to take “the bull by the horns” (as the expression goes) and do something, anything. As I sit here and pray, the dominant thought of the morning is that the preferable option is that the Lord do something. Only he change human hearts and motivate people.

When the Lord does it, it is real and genuine. I may be able to stir the pot a bit, but it would probably cause more damage, and make things worse.

I don’t know …

But it is funny how things come back on you. As a young man in seminary, I remember hearing about a church in Fort Worth that had plateaued and was declining in attendance, and my thought was, “What is wrong with that pastor? He must be lazy. How can he just sit there and watch this happen? Why doesn’t he do something?”

Well, sometimes, in spite of great effort and diligence, things happen. That is just all there is to it. People make decisions to come to churches and people make decisions to leave, and there is such a fine line of separation between those two courses of action. It is a Job thing: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” I can echo that part, but the next statement is more difficult: “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” That affirmation is hard on the “the Lord takes away” part.

So, I feel led to persist in prayer and enlist prayer. That is what I am going to do today. I am going to ask everyone who is reading this blog to stop RIGHT now and pray for First Southern Baptist Church of Northglenn. Pray for revival. Pray for me (I am not ashamed to ask). Pray for brokenness. Pray for a sense of urgency. Pray that the Lord would intervene and turn things around, for His glory.

I said this to my mom and sister the other day. I’m really struggling with it. “I just can’t understand how or why a church that closes its doors would honor the Lord. Why would He allow it?” But it happens all the time. And it isn’t laziness (all the time). It happens in the face of great effort and sacrifice.

I would imagine that Hosea must have felt some of these feelings as he looked at the nation of Israel in the eighth century B. C. The capitol city of Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 722 B. C. Hosea ministered in the years just prior to the death of the nation. He could see the corruption. He could see the idolatry. He could see the indifference.

I’m speculating here, of course, but I would imagine that he agonized in prayer about it.

Like many of us, I’m sure He assumed that, if the Lord were going to do something, it would happen “outside” of him. “Lord, turn the kings and priests and all these sorry folks around.”

But the Lord’s message was not “outside” Hosea’s life. It touched him in significant ways. Think about it. It involved his marriage. The Lord told him to marry a prostitute and as if that weren’t tough enough, he gave them the names of his first two children.

"And the Lord said, “Name the child Jezreel, for I am about to punish King Jehu’s dynasty to avenge the murders he committed at Jezreel. In fact, I will bring an end to Israel’s independence. Soon Gomer became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter. And the Lord said to Hosea, “Name your daughter Lo-ruhamah—‘Not loved’—for I will no longer show love to the people of Israel or forgive them" (Hosea 1:4, 6 NLT).

In other words, Hosea’s life was his message. His sermon was not first of all in words. It was who he married and what he named his kids, so that every time he or Gomer called out the names of their children, they were both preaching a message.

When the Lord wanted to intervene in the life of the nation of Israel (and He took the initiative in that regard), he touched one man and gave him a message.

What I am observing in the church I serve is not unusual. It is happening all across the United States. Churches are in decline. Our nation is drifting away from God. Christians are dropping out. It is happening right before our eyes and sometimes not so gradually.

Of course there are exceptions that prove this rule (of course), but most churches these days are not growing. They are simply adding disgruntled Christians who left the church they used to be in.

So, as you pray for FSBCN and me (and thanks for doing this), pray for our nation and for your church. Pray for a spiritual awakening in our nation and revival in the church.

Oh, Lord, thank you for bringing me to the book of Hosea. Thank you for this man of God. He married a prostitute and named his two kids after sins. Sin names. These were not his choices. They were yours.

Lord, as I pray, I am realizing that my number one priority is FOR ME to be available to you just as Hosea was. I want you to do something in the lives of others. Help me to be ready for you to do something with me and in me.

“It may be through the shadows dim,
Or, o’er the stormy sea,
I’ll take my cross and follow Him,
Wherever He leadeth me”

(BH 2008, 437). Amen.
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My First Girlfriend

Well, she didn’t know she was! Ha.

Even though I will be talking about a serious subject again—death—the post for today is a little more light-hearted.

I have to be. I’m not sure I can sink much lower than where I got yesterday afternoon. I think there are some physical things going on as well that contributed to it.

But again, the timing of the Lord is perfect. I got a call from a couple of brothers—Rob and James. Both calls lifted my spirits. I love you guys!

Both affirmed that people leaving churches for any and every type of reason (of course, there are legitimate reasons to leave a church; I’m not sure I got that said yesterday). This is just the way it is these days. The church James serves, North Metro, has a lot more people in their congregation than we do at than First Southern, but from what he shared yesterday, it sounds as if the percentages are just about the same. Less people or more—whatever—people leave churches.

Rob has had that experience as well.

What do we do about it? I’m not sure there is anything. It is just a symptom of our consumer culture.

Not too many months ago, I had a bad experience a store where I shop, and so I decided to “leave” the store. I’m never going back there, and I told a salesman. I honestly don’t think he cared all that much. They won’t miss my business. That’s fine. But that is what I did.

I think many folks in our day and time (I’m making a blanket statement here—NOT EVERYONE, of course) have that same view of church. No matter how long they have been there and oftentimes, how much investment in the church they have made in terms of relationships, one thing happens they don’t like and poof—gone!

One thing I can do—this coming Sunday, we have a membership class. I’m going to talk a lot more about “this issue” than I have ever done. Bottom line: church membership is a commitment to God issue.

Well, enough of that.

Back to my first girlfriend. Yesterday, Annette Funicello died. One of my very first memories is seeing her as a Mouseketeer on the original “Mickey Mouse Club” black and white television program. I could not have been much older than four years old.

The reason I know that is that I remember watching this program on our black and white television in the first house I lived in on South University Boulevard. We moved out of that house when I was four to the house my mom and sis still live in. So, I was four when Annette was my girlfriend.

Man, does that date me? Or what?

But I watched that TV program as a kid and I liked Annette Funicello and have since followed her career. She was in some “beach” movies with Frankie Avalon (I believe that is his name). She apparently suffered from MS and this is the disease that took her life.

Isn’t it weird, what you remember? Especially your first memories as a human being?

Somehow, some way, even though it was sad to hear of her death, the Lord used these memories to encourage me a bit. They gave me a little broader perspective of things, strangely enough.

You mean there was a time when I was not a pastor and not dealing with “church issues”? Yep. Right. I was four, watching “The Mickey Mouse Club” because I was stuck on Annette Funicello. Ha.

Oh, well, whatever. The Lord is amazing. He can use anything or anyone (and now I am making a transition here), even a prostitute.

Having finished Ephesians, I am back in the Old Testament—the book of Hosea. How about this command to a prophet?

"When the Lord first began speaking to Israel through Hosea, he said to him, “Go and marry a prostitute, so that some of her children will be conceived in prostitution. This will illustrate how Israel has acted like a prostitute by turning against the Lord and worshiping other gods” (Hosea 1:2, NLT).

What an amazing thing to tell a man of God to do?

More to say about this, but I will leave it today with that question.

Lord, thank you for all the things you use and all the people you use to encourage us when we need it the most. Thank you for my family and the home I grew up in. Thank you for reminding me of this yesterday.

Thank you for Rob and James—these two brothers and friends. I pray that you would encourage both of them yesterday as you used them to encourage me.

“I can hear the Savior calling,
‘Take thy cross and follow, follow me’” (“Where He Leads Me,” BH 2008, 436). Amen.
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Bring it On!

Before I get into this, I want to ask all of you to pray for Jonann and Will Byargeon as Rick’s funeral is today at 2:00. I can’t imagine the crowds at Temple Baptist Church in Ruston today.

Yesterday, a dear sister in our fellowship, Patti, sent me an email. She said she was praying for me in the loss of my friend and offered a hymn that the Lord gave her as a help in the death of her mom recently.

As she cited it, I already know that it is going to be a “heart song” for me for the next few days. The second phrase is “all our sins and GRIEFS to bear” (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” BH 2008, 154). Amen.

We talk a lot about the way Jesus bears sin (and well we should), but we don’t talk as much about how he bears grief. I am becoming well acquainted with it these past few days. One of the emotions I am feeling is that everything seems heavier, harder, and more difficult. It is as if I am walking around with a hundred pound weight on my shoulders.

All of a sudden, a vivid memory of something Rick and I did comes to mind. Yesterday, I remember the Sunday Rick preached at FSBCN years ago. I remember sitting next to him on the front pew of the church.

Oh, well. Thanks, Patti. I appreciate the thought and the prayers and this hymn.

Back to yesterday … I don’t want to get too detailed here because I believe that a lot of this is in process, but after the service, a brother came up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “My family and I are leaving the church. We won’t be back.”

Huh? What?

First of all, let me say that it felt as if someone had kicked me in the stomach.

Second, as I sit here this morning, I have to say that the way this brother handled it is very unusual, and I know this sounds weird, but in a certain way, I commend him for it.

Most of the time, people leave who leave a church (and I believe I am an expert on this topic—dubious distinction, I know) slink out the back door without telling anyone. And you try to reach them to find out what is going on, and they just don’t answer the phone any longer. I want to call this category of folks the “Slinkers.”

Or, they “kick the cat” on the way out the door. In other words, they bash the church to all their friends and tell others outside the church as well. Instead of confronting the problem or trying to resolve it, they just gossip and leave. Let me see. Let’s give a name to these folks. They are the Michael Vicks of church life. They don’t abuse dogs; they kick cats—the “Vickers.”

Or, some folks threaten to leave and take four months to figure it out before they actually do it. They talk to a lot of people and spread a lot of discontentment before they leave. And by the time they finally slide into it, you are just ready for them to go. These are the “Oozers.”

I’m sorry. This sounds corny, I know. I’m trying to make a partial joke out of it to keep from crying. Names and faces and people are coming to mind, flooding my mind, and it is painful. It hurts. It is more than that: it breaks my heart.

But this brother handled it differently, at least. He looked me in the face as a man and told me why. We talked a bit. It was a spirited conversation, and we left it that we would talk again. So, all of that is encouraging.

But still … it ruined my day, and I shared it with my mom and sister, and if possible, it wounded them even more.

Again, let me stop right here. I’m not accusing this brother of intentionally trying to hurt my family or me. Please understand.

But this is one of the unintended consequences of this type of thing, and believe me, it hurts. And not just me. But everyone who knows the folks who leave.

And I am not alone in this. I talk to other pastors. We share this in common.

And, I’m not whining. It just goes with the gig—especially in our contemporary church culture. Oh, man, don’t get me started.

But the bottom line in all of this is that the more we challenge each other to reach people, the more I talk about this and champion it—the exact opposite seems to be occurring.

People are leaving, and over the past few months, there have been some significant leaders leave.

How do you cope with that? Can someone please help me? I really am crying out. How do you deal with that as a pastor without wanting to quit?

Now, I hasten to say: I AM NOT GOING TO QUIT. I’d rather die.

In fact, as I write this, I don’t want to crawl up in the fetal position. I want to fight. Fight for the church. Fight for community. Yell and scream and jump up and down!

A thought occurs to me. Someday, and it might be soon (even though I am not wont to preach topical messages), I think I ought to preach a sermon on “How to Leave a Church.” Maybe the sequel ought to be “Why to Leave a Church.”

In the meantime, I want to say to everyone in the congregation who is reading this. Please resist the temptation to try to figure out who this is because he and his family may not leave. I still hold out hope here.

Instead, and I say this with all serious and even a bit of anger (and I hope it is the righteous kind), examine your own motives as to why you are in the church and make sure that it is because God wants you there!

If you aren’t there for that reason, go ahead and leave now. Because you will, eventually, anyway.

I’d rather have Gideon’s three hundred than a crowd anyway. Let’s just boil this thing down to who is really serious and who isn’t.

Right now, I am looking Satan in the face. Bring it on! You are cooked anyway. You are not going to defeat me and the gates of hell will not prevail against your church. Get away from me! Amen.
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Rick Warren's Son

My mom first heard it on the news yesterday afternoon. Later in the day, Bob sent out an email to everyone in the Mile High Association. He attached an article that tells the story.

Rick Warren’s 27-year old son committed suicide. He had been suffering from mental illness and depression.

But still … Unbelievable.

As Bob intimated in his message, there would be fewer things in life that would be more difficult. Nothing could prepare you for that.

So, think about what folks will be dealing with today at Temple Baptist Church in Ruston and Saddleback Valley Community Church in … wherever it is in Orange County, California.

Here are the verses for today from Ephesians six:

"Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should” (Ephesians 6:18-20, NLT).

That is exactly what I spent some time doing yesterday, especially late in the day after hearing of Rick Warren’s son’s death.

Please understand: I know that all believers have it rough these days for various reasons, but Pastors seem to be under attack, more than ever.

This is reinforced every time I talk to one. And I had the chance to visit with two young guys this week. Both are facing challenges. One has been serving a church that reaches young folks primarily, and the church has grown significantly since last we talked, but with that growth, he faces more challenges. He has a growing family as well. The church has not been able to pay him adequately (since the young folks in his church don’t give as generously as older generations) so he has had to take on a couple more jobs just to feed His family.

The other guy is in the beginning stages of planting a new congregation in Thornton. He has a full-time job while trying to work this church plant in around the edges. It is tough.

The point I am trying to make is that for all these reasons—it is tougher than it has ever been.

Yesterday, as I was praying for the Byargeons, all of this came to me.

Paul urges prayer in the Spirit for all people at all times. Has that admonition been any more crucial than it is right now? This command, in my opinion, has absolutely nothing to do with speaking in tongues. It has everything to do with allowing the Holy Spirit who fills us (5:18 sets the tone for the remainder of the book) to empower us to pray and stay at it.

I’ll tell you: nothing is more important and nothing is more difficult. Just schedule a prayer meeting and see who shows up. It won’t be a crowd. I’ll tell you that.

Paul says we ought to pray for everyone at all times.

Then, in a rather unusual twist, he asks the folks to pray for him, and you think, “He is going to ask them to pray that he could get out of prison.” That would certainly be understandable. No one would fault him on that. Think about all the pastors like Saeed Abedini who are in prison this morning.

Getting out of trouble? The Byargeons and the Warrens don’t have a lot of choice. I guess Paul and Saeed didn’t either, but that is NOT what Paul prays or asks prayer for. Nope. Paul is a determined “talking head.” He asks them to pray that he keep right on preaching as he always has, wherever he is.

And that is exactly what we need to do—keep on keeping on. By the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Lord, it is hard to keep hearing about this stuff happening to pastors.

I pray for the Warrens this morning. I can’t believe how hard it would be to go through what they are facing.

I lift up Jonann and Will today. It is going to be hard and tomorrow will be difficult.

Lord, I pray for the pastors I know right now, and this segues me into prayers for others, many others, not just pastors, but all believers.

Holy Spirit, re-energize my intercessory prayer life. Fill me and enable me to continue to preach with boldness from the whole Bible (even Ezekiel) until my last breath. Amen.
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Strategic Protection

Rick’s funeral service is Monday at 2:00 in Ruston. I had sort of thought about going, and I was hoping that the service would be toward the middle of next week, but, for several reasons now, I don’t think I can swing it. I am still considering it, but like Ted Williams, I’m 80/20 not going.

It is hard to get Rick off my mind. I think about our last conversation. He was so emotional, and so was I. I just don’t think I was much help when I talked to Rick and Jonann.

I keep thinking about what the services at Temple are going to be like tomorrow—very hard. Sure, this is a little different—different circumstances and yet the same bottom line. I wonder what the services were like in Jerusalem after Stephen was stoned and James (the pastor) was martyred.

Somehow, some way, God’s work must go on.

Hard.

Oh, well, I am really thankful that the intersection of biblical text in my daily reading and circumstance has landed me in Ephesians six—the spiritual warfare passage. I’m seeing this precious and valuable portion of God’s Word in a totally different light.

Let me see if I can pull this together.

Affirmation One: God is in control of absolutely everything, including and especially the devil. God and Satan are not peers! Sometimes, in pop Christian culture, they are portrayed that way, but God is far superior to anything or anyone in creation, especially our enemy. He is limited. God is not.

Affirmation Two: Satan tempts, but God tests. God allows every situation that comes along—whether it is the temptation to rob a gas station or the death of a close friend. Our sovereign God allows everything. He brings these things across our path. We are then faced with the responsibility of proper response.

Marilyn hates it when I quote her in this blog, making her sound like a holier-than-thou or spiritual giant. She is not and never has been holier-than-thou, but she is a spiritual giant. That is for sure.

The other night, as my mom and sis and I were talking about Rick’s death, she said, “Well, I am not going to let this pull me in the pit.”

Honestly, I think Rick’s death has the potential for that with me.

Why? Well, I’m sure there is a lot of selfishness in my reasons. I also think that I will miss Rick a lot. He has been the best friend I had from my PhD days, and somehow, I feel that one of my main connections to my latter days in Fort Worth has been lost.

I don’t know … Even as I try to probe this, I feel that I am sinking a bit. And, sitting here this morning, I know I can’t do that. Marilyn is right.

But here is my point: temptation or test—it all fits within the purview of this passage, and I have never noticed that before.

Affirmation Three: If God is in charge and if God allows temptations or tests, then certainly, He provides the resources for us to endure and end up standing on our feet when all the dust settles.

What are those resources? Well, it is our spiritual armor! Truth, like a belt, holds everything together. God’s righteousness is our heart protection—our breastplate. It keeps our mind, will, and emotions (the definition of “heart” in the Word) in check.

The peace of God provides stability and traction—shoes are vital. Our faith in God is sort of a second line of defense, warding off all the flaming missiles the devil shoots at us. Salvation gives us hope.

And, last but not least, our only offensive weapon is the Sword of the Spirit.

Weird to say, but a verse that the Lord has been bringing to mind these days since Rick’s death is John 3:16 in KJV and this phrase, “whosoever believeth in Him has everlasting life.” But this gives me a lot of comfort.

"Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:14-17 NLT).

Lord, I love you for your provisions in time of testing or temptation.

Sustain Jonann and Will and all the folks in Rustin and all Rick’s family and friends.

Keep me standing up, Lord. “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand” Amen.
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Rick Died

It is hard to write those words. We saw the message on Facebook last night. Rob sent me a text informing me also.

I think I’m kind of in shock. This is the first thing I will say. All these memories of my times with Rick and Jonann keep flooding my mind. Things come up I haven’t thought about in years.

I have an acute sense of loss, and I miss Rick already. Over the past few years, he and I didn’t talk all that much, but I’ve made two trips down to Ruston—once before I got cancer and once after—to preach at Temple Baptist Church in July during their Marvelous Monday services. This is essentially a revival service that lasts for a month with different preachers.

I always stayed with the Byargeons. They have what is essentially a garage apartment. You climb these stairs …

But the main part of the trip is the times of fellowship we were able to share. We did what we usually have done in the course of our friendship since seminary—sit around, drink coffee (and I am not a coffee drinker except when I was with Rick and Jonann), and shoot the breeze.

I don’t know … much more to share, but I won’t at this point.

A couple of things to say. First, I am not sorry that Rick died. That sounds rather callous in some ways, I am sure. But if you stop for a moment and think about him—all the suffering he endured over the past several months with cancer—you can’t wish that this situation should be prolonged.

The Lord answered prayer, in fact. I prayed that his suffering would not be prolonged.

And so, honestly, among all the other feelings and emotions I have, one of the main ones is relief. I’m relieved that Rick isn’t suffering in this body any longer and is with Jesus.

Second, I really struggled with what to do yesterday. I knew that I wanted to call the Byargeons, but I also knew that everyone in the world was doing that.

Here is one thing I have learned through my cancer experience:
I have learned a lot about the inconsiderate things I did with folks in my ministry as pastor.

A case in point for yesterday: I wanted personal time with them. I wanted to be able to talk with both Rick and Jonann and say a lot of things, but these were the final hours of Rick’s life. They needed time together.

Again, I knew I wanted to talk sometime, and still do—with Jonann, but I just decided against pushing it yesterday. So, I wrote a note. I told them I loved them and we were praying. I also let them know that our church was praying. Marilyn and my mom signed the note as well and we mailed it.

Third, and maybe this is the most important thing of all—I wanted to be able to say goodbye. I wanted to tell Rick how much he meant to me, and to tell him that I look forward to seeing him in heaven someday. As it turns out, I didn’t get to do it.

But I learned something. It is hard to do this. Very hard.

I find myself wanting to say to people who are dying: I’m still praying that you will have a miraculous recovery. You never know what the Lord will do. But somehow, again, those kinds of statements (and I hear them all the time in the face of terminal illness and of course, God can do anything, of course) are more for the one making the statement. It is something we do to make ourselves feel better.

I don’t think it is good, however. As Christians we of all people should be REAL. We have the resources to look death in the face. And we should. Of course, it is difficult. Of course there are emotions involved. I’m not talking about being callous. But still …

So, I didn’t get a chance to talk with my friend. I’m going to do it here.

Rick, you were a great friend. One of the best ever. Good-bye. See you soon. Love you.

In the meantime, “In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other's spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out” (Ephesians 6:18, MSG).

Lord, I lift up Jonann and Will, their son, right now. I also pray for Temple Baptist Church. I can’t imagine what folks in this church are going through.

Lord, help us all as we grieve. Amen.
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My Friend Rick

“Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You'll need them throughout your life” (Ephesians 6:14-17a, MSG).

This is one of those times.

Marilyn sent me a text last night. I got it when I got home. A post on Facebook about my friend Rick who has cancer. It hit me like a ton of bricks. My heart is heavy.

That doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel.

His wife Jonann posted this:

“Dear Church Family
I wanted you to know that Rick is moving closer to “the life that lasts forever.” He is now spending his last days in our home surrounded by people who love him. His plan was to continue to shepherd you but that will soon end. But know he felt your love and prayers each day. Thank you for loving him so deeply.
Jonann Byargeon”

Lord, I lift Rick up to you right now. I want to ask you to heal him, but somehow that seems like a selfish prayer right now. I pray that his suffering would not be prolonged. I lift up Jonann and Rick and Jonann’s son Will. I also pray for their church family at Temple Baptist Church in Ruston, Louisiana, and everyone who received this message.

I pray for my friend Donnie—a deacon in this fellowship--who has helped me so much in my cancer journey.

Oh, Lord, all those words aren’t just words. Amen.
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All Over But the Shouting--Still Standing

What a graphic picture the Holy Spirit paints in the spiritual warfare passage in Ephesians 6. And Eugene Peterson brings it out beautifully.

"Be prepared. You're up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it's all over but the shouting you'll still be on your feet” (Ephesians 6:13, MSG).

There are several things about this key verse that stand out to me as I sit here this morning. First, the key to spiritual warfare, as it is in life as a whole, is preparation. If I am prepared all the time, then I am ready at the moment the enemy attacks.

I am reminded of how I need to prepare for Sunday mornings. And this is confirmed just about every week. I have to get everything ready on Saturday night, or the likelihood is that I will forget. I’m even to the point where I have to lay out everything I am going to wear, or I tend to forget.

Maybe this is a little too detailed to share, but I am going to. One week, I actually forgot my belt. And, well, it was a little awkward because with all the weight I have lost, my pants tended to want to slide downward. Is that delicate enough? I think your imagination can take it from there. Not a good sight for a pastor.

I felt like Arnold Palmer for most of the day. One of his signature idiosyncrasies was hitching up his pants.

Well, anyway, you get the idea. Preparation is key. A belt is crucial, especially for a Roman soldier. But I will get into that later.

Second, God has made resources available. We are foolish if we don’t use them. That is all there is to it.

If I try to play football, and I don’t have a helmet, I’m going to be at a severe disadvantage. That is for sure.

It is the same with a soldier. Everything at his disposal plays a crucial role in his defense and ability to fight. For soldiers, their equipment is often “field-tested.” I don’t know how they do this exactly, but others actually use equipment before the military decides to issue it to all the soldiers. It either works and helps or it is just dead weight. And that is the last thing a soldiers needs—anything extraneous.

It is the same in spiritual warfare and Paul knows from personal experience. He is not speaking as an armchair quarterback. He has been in the trenches doing battle with the enemy and he speaks from experience.

While I am in that neighborhood, I’m glad that our Savior, as our King and our High Priest, had the same experience. He did battle with Satan. One of those battles is described in Matthew four and Luke four. But it was certainly not the only one, by a long shot.

I love the final verse at the end of the temptation story in Luke four. “That completed the testing. The Devil retreated temporarily, lying in wait for another opportunity” (Luke 4:13, MSG).

Jesus has “been there, done that” and took that experience in his humanity back to the throne of God, and He knows how to help us in our time of need. The writer to Hebrews reminds us of that.

Third, and this is the most significant thing about verse thirteen—we don’t even have to fight. Over and over in this passage, Paul reminds us that our responsibility is to hold ground and STAND. Stand our ground. Stand His ground. Stand.

Jesus has already won the victory as Resurrection Weekend has reminded us. It is our job just to stand.

What does that mean for me today? Well, I just need to make sure that as I head out today, I am totally prepared for a tooth and nail battle with the enemy. Our enemy is determined to destroy our lives and families, one way or another. He is not an independent agent, however. He is not a peer or equal with God. He is under the Lord’s authority, but he is a real threat nonetheless.

But, believing that God is still in control, even of temptation, gives me some comfort because as, I Corinthians 10:13 reminds me, He will not ever allow me to be tempted beyond what He is has already enabled me to endure, but He will help me bear up under temptation.

Somehow, it dawns on me as I write this morning that the intersection of this passage with this day is just God’s way of getting me ready for something. And, it also occurs to me that someone else in the body of Christ I serve may be facing temptation today.

The model prayer gives us guidance here: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Oh, Lord, I do cry out to you today. Thank you for the victory you forged through your sinless life (tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin), through your death on the cross, and through your awesome resurrection. You won the war.

But we still have battles to fight by standing.

God, help me never to ruin my testimony or that of the church I serve. I’m weak. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” I trust you, Commander and Chief and General. I’m ready for my orders for the day. Amen.
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No Afternoon 'Walk in the Park'

This is a slight modification of the words I read this morning in Ephesians 6:10-12. After looking at several versions of these verses, I landed on the Message: "And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no afternoon athletic contest that we'll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels."

Now remember the context. Again, I think that Ephesians 5:18—be ye being filled with the Holy Spirit dominates these final verses of the book.

The Holy Spirit permeates (or should) absolutely everything—our hearts, our family, our job, and finally our response to the devil in spiritual warfare.

If I could diagram the last couple of chapter of Ephesians, I would draw building blocks, each successive arena in which the Holy Spirit dwells in our lives as the foundation to the next. Of course, what goes on in our hearts is bedrock. Once that is right—then our relationships have the potential to be right.

And of course, the fundamental human relationship is marriage. This is why I believe that it is under attack in so many ways.

I just have to stop here and comment about something.

My mom has received Time magazine for years. Her comment about it is: “I can’t remember ever paying for a subscription but it just keeps on coming.” In fact, she has tried to cancel it but somehow they just keep sending it.

On the cover of a recent issue is the picture of two women kissing.

It makes me sick. It is over the top. Why do I have to see a picture of that?

Somehow, this gay agenda is just becoming so “in your face.” Pun intended. These radicals are attempting to redefine what God has established as a pillar of society. And again, this is a minority in our country, I believe, who advocate and push this kind of lifestyle, but their voices are prevailing, and little by little, the whole concept of “civil unions” is gaining prominence.

“Civil unions”? Give me a break.

How do we as Christians respond? Well, among the many opportunities, I think one is that we must make sure, whether we are married or not, to uphold the standard and make sure that our marriages are strong. One of the biggest indictments of the contemporary Christian scene is that the divorce rate is the same in the church as it is outside of it.

I want to go back to a comment I made above. I am single. How can I uphold the standard of marriage?

A brother made this comment to me years ago. He said, “John, even though you aren’t married, you are called to be faithful to your ‘invisible’ wife.” Invisible wife? Who is that?

He went on, “You just haven’t met her yet, but you are called to be faithful to her even so.”

Oh, right. Good comment. Faithfulness begins before one is married.

But I will carry it further. I am called to be faithful to MY HUSBAND, the Lord Jesus Christ, as part of His bride, the church, even if I NEVER get married to someone here on this planet.

Well, anyway, faithfulness in regard to marriage is a key component. The next block is family, followed by a proper work ethic.

These are building blocks under the whole realm of spiritual warfare. If there is a crack in the armor in any of those relationships, I cannot even get to first base in spiritual warfare. The ship has a hole in it. It is going to sink!

But Paul’s point in verses ten through twelve (and Peterson brings this out beautifully) is that spiritual warfare is serious business. It is no afternoon athletic contest or walk in the park. It is life and death. Our enemy is seeking to destroy us. And, like gay activists, he is constantly on the job.

We must be as vigilant and alert and ready to mix it up.

Oh, Lord, I praise you today for the filling and the power of the Holy Spirit. Thank you for your victory over death and the grave and the one who seeks to put us all there.

Jesus, I choose to be alert to his activities today and resist him at every turn. Strengthen me for this life and death struggle.

Win through me and through your church today.

“He will give me grace and glory” (“Where He Leads Me,” BH 2008, 436). Amen.
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The Challenge of Follow-Up

First, I just have to say that I think the service yesterday went great. We did indeed (in spite of all my comments to the contrary yesterday in this blog aside—so much for my jaded wisdom. I just need to keep my mouth shut) have a lot of guests yesterday.

Mother and Marilyn and I were discussing it late yesterday afternoon. There was just a different “feel” in the service—a lot more buzz, a lot more electricity. We had a lot of children. That is a major part of it, and it just seemed that everyone was more excited.

Of course, in all these comments, at the top of the list, I just think that the Lord answered prayer! He did it, did it all. To Him be the Glory!

Now, I am praying that whatever “it” was yesterday, we could begin to see “it” on a weekly basis.

There is just something about a church that sparks something when you visit that makes you say, “Wow, this is a happening place. I want to be a part of this.” I honestly don’t think it has a lot to do with music or the sermon (I’m not discounting either one of those), but it is the LIFE of God. That’s the short and succinct way of saying it. LIFE.

But there I go again, trying to quantify and define things. Maybe the better way of saying it is “Him.”

Anyway, I am so thankful for this past weekend and what the Lord did.

Now, the real work of follow-up begins. I want to write a note to everyone who made the effort to invite a friend yesterday. Some (like Chuck and Belle and I) invited folks who did not attend. Oh, well. No problem there, either. That is all we can do. The rest is up to the Lord and to the folks who have the opportunity.

I also want to make some sort of contact with the others who visited with us. How to do that? That is the question. Of course, I prefer face to face, but that is more difficult than it has ever been.

I remember that we used to have a formal “visitation program.” It was usually on Monday nights. We would usually have twenty or so folks who showed up on good nights, at least six to ten on the other times. We had an elaborate system of cards and maps. We sent people out to visit folks who had come. For a while, we had Ray delivering cookies even before we did this. So, we had a couple of contacts right off the bat.

What happened to all of that? Things just shifted. That’s my only answer. As time progressed, we found less and less people at home. So, we started to call and ask for appointments. I bet you can guess how that went. For a while, we shifted and just went back to showing up at people’s houses without advanced notice. That didn’t go much better, especially in the middle of the winter. I can’t tell you how many times I stood on a porch talking to folks when it was freezing cold.

But I don’t blame folks. If you show up unannounced and the house is a mess, they don’t want you to come in.

I don’t know … as I think about all of that history, I just get tired. We worked really hard at “visitation.” Now, I rarely visit people in their homes unless I am invited. Now, it is just phone calls or notes or emails. These types of contacts are more effective and save a lot of time and effort and gasoline. Plus, one more thing: sometimes, the teams we sent out could not find the homes they were looking for, having driven around for an hour. It was very discouraging for those groups.

Oh, well. How did I get into all of that?

By the way, we still have a “visitation program.” You know what it is? It is each member of our congregation taking personal responsibility to share Jesus in his/her Concentric Circles (to use Oscar Thompson’s term).

Anyway, I’m excited to see what the Lord is going to do from this point forward. I have a new challenge to church. I’ll share more about this later.

I love the verses for today. They remind me of what my parents taught me about the kind of employee I needed to be when I was a child. Unfortunately, this kind of ethic is rarely seen these days.

As Paul continues his discussion of Spirit-filling living as it is demonstrated in relationships, he talks about the employer/employee relationship: "Try to please them (your master or boss) all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart. Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people" (Ephesians 6:6, 7 NLT, my parentheses).

This is the way I look at my “job.” The Lord is my direct supervisor. As I am sitting at a desk today working on my sermon and then later talking with potential Youth Pastor candidates, no one sees me except Him. I am just as responsible to be a good worker, as I would be standing before the congregation in a worship service. But this is what Paul is saying.

All of us, whether we work in church or not, are working for God.

Lord, thank you for yesterday. Thank you for this past weekend. Thank you for what you did on Friday night and on Sunday. It is all you, Lord. You are the explanation. “Him.”

Lord, I pray that you give us wisdom as we seek to follow-up those who worshiped with us. I place that in your hands.

Again, Lord, you are in charge of Your church. Lead us. Guide us. I continue to pray for revival.

Scott sang this yesterday as the invitation.

“Just as I am,
Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse relieve” (BH 2008, 435). I always think of Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows when we sing this hymn. I lift up Billy and Franklin and Samaritan’s Purse to you, today. Amen.
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