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A Stroll At Leisure With God

Night and Day

Last night, I was sitting on the front pew of the church, and I wanted to cry. And it wasn’t even a worship service!

For the past couple of weeks, a company we have paid has been installing a new sound system in our church. They finished their work last yesterday afternoon, but the owner (his name is Roland) asked that all the churches who use the auditorium come for a training session last night.

I was up to bat first. He told me how to use my wireless microphone. Okay, no one has ever done that! Then, as I stood up on the platform, he told me just to start speaking as if I were preaching a sermon. And all of a sudden, sound filled the room. There were some folks in the back of the auditorium. They perked up immediately. Wow.

After he finished with me, George came up to the platform. He is preaching for me this Sunday. Roland asked him to do the same thing.

After George and me, it was the English-speaking church’s turn. By then, Jorge and Vida along with several members of our choir had arrived. Roland started the meticulous work of setting the sound level for each instrumentalist in our team. The first person was Vida on the drums, then Tom on his guitar, Helen on the piano, and finally Jorge with his guitar. He worked with each one individually and then asked them to play together.

Gradually, starting with Jorge, he added voices. Every person in our choir had a microphone, and Roland stopped the proceedings to tell them how to hold it and how to use it.

As all of this was going on, I was sitting in the front row observing. At one point, Bill came and sat in the pew behind me, “Wow, this system makes a huge difference.”

My response? “Night and day, Bill. Night and day. I’ve never heard our piano sound this good, and we are getting rid of it! I’ll tell you: a bad sound system makes even a good musician sound bad.” Amen.

I have served this congregation now almost twenty-three years. In the course of that time, we have had many individuals “work” on our sound system, adding components and speakers here and there over the years. Please understand: I am not criticizing those folks. They just wanted to help. But, things have just gotten progressively worse each week.

We always have issues—it is every Sunday. Lately, it has been the fact that we pick up a radio station in our system, and it comes through the microphone. That is just one thing.

I said this to someone yesterday, but there is nothing that makes a church look more like Gomer Pyle than sound system issues. No matter how well a pastor or worship team prepares, it makes everyone look bad. And, besides that, it is a huge distraction. Satan sees to that. It never fails that at a crucial point in the sermon or the service, we would invariably have some type of “issue” and I could just see it. It was tangible and palpable. People were distracted, and the moment was lost.

Even in the best of circumstances, it doesn’t take much.

Plus, adding to the challenge of all of this is the fact that we have two other congregations who use the space. The Hispanic church—Encuentro Con Dios—worships after our service concludes. Their service starts about 12:30. Then, later in the afternoon, at 5:00, the Brazilians have their service.

This means that multiple hands have been touching the system and using it. Understand: I am not complaining. This is the vision the Lord is working out in our church. I love it. It is just another factor in the loop of things that means that things were constantly changing and needing to be readjusted when each congregation came to worship.

All of this, I think finally came to the point where everyone in the church saw the need for a fresh start and a new system. In the business meeting we had a few weeks ago, no one blinked when the Vision Team presented this to the church along with the price tag of $45,000. That is a LOT of money for any church, no matter what the size, but especially for us. But it was time.

Part of the appeal of the new system is a digital board that allows multiple “scenes” to be preset. Each congregation can set their sound levels and record them. Thus, when it comes time for the service, some soundboard operator presses a button and bang! The board automatically adjusts the settings!

Glory be to God!

The other appealing feature of this for me is that we can set “scenes” for weddings and funerals as well. I can’t tell you how stressful it has been to be worrying about the sound system as I am trying to minister to a family in grief. Now, I can just push a button, and things are set, whether there is someone physically back there to run it or not.

Have I died and gone to heaven?

Some of you who are reading this may be thinking, “Wow, he is making such a big deal out of this? All of this stuff is just commonplace in our church.”

It may very well be, but it hasn’t been for us.

All of this is crucial for a couple of additional reasons. First, going back to Gomer, (by the way, he is one of the few remaining cast members of The Andy Griffith show who are still alive) I am thankful that we are minimizing the potential of embarrassing incidents that could distract folks.

Second, I am praying that this system will turn the focus away from “okay, what is going to go wrong this week?” to where it needs to be—on the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is significant to me that, in heaven, there will be no need for any microphones or sound systems or overhead projectors. Everything we will need to see and hear for eternity will be before us as if we are the only people in the “room.” How about that?

The description of the four living beings in the first chapter of Ezekiel is similar to that in Revelation 4. I invited you to compare the two accounts. Here is the Revelation description: "Each of these living beings had six wings, and their wings were covered all over with eyes, inside and out. Day after day and night after night they keep on saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty— the one who always was, who is, and who is still to come.’ Whenever the living beings give glory and honor and thanks to the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever)" (Revelation 4:8, 9 NLT).

Clearly, as fascinating and interesting as these beings are, the main focus in Revelation and in Ezekiel is NOT on them. Who are these four living creatures? I think they are probably just an order of angel, spirit beings of some sort.

Let me just say right here that, over the years, I have learned that folks are fascinated with the study of angels. Nothing wrong with that, per se, I guess. But I wish we were just as intrigued with the study of GOD ON HIS THRONE. That is what Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 are all about.

At the end of Ezekiel 1, notice these words: "Above this surface was something that looked like a throne made of blue lapis lazuli. And on this throne high above was a figure whose appearance resembled a man. From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendor. All around him was a glowing halo, like a rainbow shining in the clouds on a rainy day. This is what the glory of the LORD looked like to me. When I saw it, I fell face down on the ground, and I heard someone’s voice speaking to me" (Ezekiel 1:26-28 NLT).

Lord, this morning, I fall on my face before in worship and praise and adoration. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty. You are awesome.

Thank you for allowing us to have the finances to purchase this new system. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. May it enhance the worship of God and draw more attention to your Son, Jesus.

“Crown You now with many crowns,
You reign victorious.
High and lifted up.
Jesus, Son of God” (“Worthy is the Lamb,” BH 2008, 264). Amen and amen.
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Visiting

Last night, I was able to do something that I had not done in quite that way in a long time at night.

Before I go into this, let me back up. I was talking with Andy on the phone the other day, and I was reminded about my two summers of working with him on staff at Calvary Baptist Church of Englewood. In both of those summers, we made A LOT, I mean A LOT of visits. We would go see people during the day, but mainly, we went at night. Some of these visits were evangelistic in nature but most of them were pastoral—just visiting with people in the church.

To be honest, I grew a little impatient with it—at first. I wanted to knock on doors and witness to folks more than we did.

When Andy went, he was never in a hurry. We would sit with people in their homes for an hour or two. Andy had a way of finding out about people—where they were from and where they were coming from, and he was able to retain all that information in infinite detail.

The more we visited those two summers, the more I realized how important and vital it was to pastoral ministry.

These memories were firmly in my mind as I started my first pastorate back in 1989. I remember “chomping at the bit” to get to church on Saturdays so that I could visit folks. My initial plan was to visit in the home of every member of the church. I don’t think I have ever quite reached that goal. I need to think about it. Humm. There are a few people in the church with whom I have never visited in their home—not many.

But I loved to visit back then. I still do, as a matter of fact. This love quickly transitioned into a full-blown “visitation program.” Over the years, we did it on just about every night of the week except Friday and Saturday, but we also did it during the day on Saturday.

Most of the time, we just divided up into groups and went out, showing up at people’s front doors without an appointment. Some times, we received favorable responses, but as the years passed, it tended to become more and more unfavorable, particularly during the winter months. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to carry on a conversation standing on someone’s front porch when it was 15 degrees, and all the while, I was thinking, “Would you please let us come in? Please!”

Several years ago, we decided to shift gears a bit and call folks on the phone, asking for an appointment. This became even more discouraging because people with an opportunity to visit with us or not, usually chose option B—NOT.

One of the other issues that arose was the fact that gas prices kept going up and up and up. Couple this with the fact that it is oftentimes very difficult to locate where people live—especially during the winter months when it gets dark so early. It can take a lot of time and one can consume a lot of gasoline just driving around looking, and often not ever finding, where someone lives. And then, to go through all that effort and energy, and not find them home, became more and more discouraging.

Where do you think all of this led?

Well, you probably guessed it. We scrapped the whole notion of an organized visitation program where people come to the church, get a name or two, and go out to visit in someone’s home. It just didn’t seem to be practical or effective to do any longer.

What do we do now? We use the telephone. We talk to people and present the opportunity for a visit (most of the time). If someone wants a visit, we go ahead and arrange it.

For the past couple of years, I seem to have more visits in the form of appointments in my office than I did in folks’ homes.

Even with all of that history and all the challenges involved in this day and time of even finding anyone at home, I still have missed it.

Last night, I asked Jim to go with me because I just had a couple of families on my heart. We jumped in my truck last night and went.

The first family I wanted to visit was two young men who had been attending our church fairly regularly for a few weeks. All of a sudden, they stopped. I tried to call them, but the number I had for them was disconnected. Somehow, however, I felt compelled to check up on them.

After driving around a bit in an apartment complex off of Washington Street and 82nd, we found their place, knocked on the door, and Robert opened it. He seemed rather shocked and surprised to see us. We stood at the door and visited a bit. He did not let us in. At one point in the conversation, his mom came to the door. I’m not sure she speaks English, but she seemed happy to meet us.

All in all, we made a good contact, and Robert said, “Thanks for coming. We will be back to church sometime.” Okay. Good.

Off we went to a second visit. Sam had been on my mind for several months. Recently, he had made a commitment to Jesus, and had told me he wanted to talk about it, but we could never seem to make a connection. I just decided to try to go by his home and try to catch him there.

Using my GPS, we found the general area where Sam lived but we drove around at least a half an hour until we discovered the apartment complex. Once we found it, Jim said, “Just to make we find him, why don’t you call him.” Good idea.

Sam answered. I told him we were in the area (actually outside his front door) and wanted to stop by for a visit. He said, “Pastor, I’m not home. I’m at work, but you can come by here if you want. I work at the KIA dealer on 104th.”

Jim and I headed that way, and sure enough there was Sam, standing in the parking lot of this auto dealer. I did not know that he was a car salesman. He was glad to see us. We visited a little bit. Sam indicated that, recently, he had embraced Jesus as his Lord and Savior. We were glad to hear this. He wants to follow Jesus in baptism and join the fellowship! Hooray!

Therefore, all in all, I felt that we had a couple of productive contacts last night. It felt like old times.

This morning, I am shifting back to the Old Testament after finishing 2 Corinthians. The book I am now reading is Ezekiel. Honestly, I think this is one of the toughest and most neglected books in the Canon. And, even as you begin the first chapter, you can see why. Immediately, after a brief historical introduction, Zeke (as I going to call him in this blog) starts out with a vivid description of “four living creatures.”

These creatures are unlike anything anyone has ever seen. I think I need to spend some time with this chapter. What is going on here? As I read this chapter, I was reminded about a description of similar spirit beings in Revelation. I’ll have to check that out as well.

But there was a phrase in this chapter that was repeated three times, more or less. Can you pick it up? Describing these creatures, Zeke says, "And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went… Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels" (Ezekiel 1:12, 20, 21 ESV).

These creatures were moved and motivated from within—where the spirit moved them, that is where they went. Spirit is used here with a small s. But I wonder what this means. Whatever it is, it was on the move, as confirmed by the vivid description of the wheels in this chapter.

These spiritual creatures motivated by the spirit were moving and were on the move.

Somehow, this morning, I think we as Christians operate best, find our most fulfillment, when we are on the move as well.

Lord, I want to thank you for the pure joy of fellowship with Jim and the privilege of moving, of actually physically going out of the church building to minister to these two families.

I lift up Oscar and Robert and their mom as well as Sam. It is obvious that you are at work on both situations.

Thank you for Jim. Thank you for letting us be involved as well.

“The Treasure of heaven crucified,
Worthy is the Lamb” (“Worthy is the Lamb,” BH 2008, 264). Amen.
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"What do you want me to learn, Lord?"

I had intended to do it for a couple of weeks, but yesterday, I finally got around to it. I called my former pastor, Andy, to find out how he was doing.

I think I wrote about his situation in this blog. Whether I did or not, I want to tell you what happened. A few months ago, he went in for a heart ablation. In this procedure, the doctor goes in through the groin to address the problem with the heart. Well, in Andy’s case, the doctor made a mistake and punctured a vein.

Andy had huge issues with this, as one could imagine. He had to go back in for follow-up surgery, and things went well. But he has a lot of bandages and wrapping in that area and his movement is very restricted. This was where I had left his situation several weeks ago.

Yesterday, I called him to find out how he was doing. We missed each other at first, but later in the day, at the office, he called me back.

He told me that he seems to be doing better but the progress is slow. The dressing on the surgery needs to be changed three times a week. Plus, the doctors have given him a little vacuum or “vac” as Andy called it. He has to carry this around wherever he goes. This helps him keep the wound clean and prevents infection (if my memory serves me correctly about what Andy said).

One of the side effects of the surgery is that he has had trouble walking and moving around. Why? Well, the doctors told him that he had nerve damage in one leg. This continues to be an issue for him, but they have informed him that once the vein heals, this nerve damage will get better as well.

The best-case scenario for recovery from all of this will be a couple of months—hopefully.

As Andy and I were talking about this, he said something else that took our conversation in another direction. Andy confided, “John, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Jesus about all of this. First, the fact that the doctor made a mistake in my case is still on my mind. Second, I’m just asking Him to tell me what He wants me to learn through this. I’m not complaining. I’m not asking why. The truth is I don’t deserve anything from the Lord. If I deserve anything, it is hell. But it is hard to figure out what the Lord is up to. Prior to this, JoAnn and I were helping with disaster relief with the state convention here in Utah and then I was helping a carpenter with work at the church. I was just helping him, and we worked full days. Now, I am just incapacitated and it just doesn’t make sense.”

This is not an exact quote, but it is the gist of what he was saying.

I can’t tell you how much I resonate with what he said.

First of all, this is still something I struggle with when I sit down to pray. I’m more of a complainer than Andy. I still wonder why the Lord allowed me to get cancer. Even though I feel that some in our church have decided that it is time for me to be “over it,” I’m still not.

I told Andy about my burden for Federal Heights, and the time I spent in prayer in that community. I shared about the ministry there, but all of that has radically changed since I got cancer. I still love the community and have a burden to see a church planted there, but for various reasons, it is just not the same. And I wonder, “Lord, why would you take someone out of the loop of ministry in a place that desperately needs it?” It is not that I am indispensable. I’m not saying that, but I just don’t get it.

And the Lord has pulled another sister in the Lord out of the loop of ministry in this community as well as she has had to deal with some challenges herself. Often, in our conversations, we commiserate about this. What is going on?

Second, I feel that way about the ministry the Lord has given me as pastor. I know I was way out of whack in many ways as I look back on how I did things, and again, as I have often said, I thank God for cancer as one of the greatest gifts that the Lord has ever given me. But I still wonder.

I mean—people who are available to serve God are few and far between. Why would he allow people who are doing it to be on the sideline?

As we talked, I was reminded of my dad. Here was a man who got radically saved and jumped into the loop of serving Jesus. He emerged as a leader at University Hills Baptist Church and a huge supporter of Brother Herb, our pastor. And then, he dies at the age of 47! I think this was the most difficult thing we struggled with about my dad’s death. Why would the Lord take someone out of the game who is a young man in the prime of life?

Had I been Brother Herb, I would have struggled with this. And I know Herb did. Men like my dad are few and far between in the contemporary American church. As pastors, like the Marine Corps, we are looking for a few good men. I’ve only had a few in the course of 23 years. I’m not talking about acquaintances. I’m talking about men of integrity who are supporters not out of some false sense of allegiance. None of us wants that. But because they were advocates for the truth and saw that supporting their pastor is very important and biblical, by the way. Look at Hebrews 13.

My dad was one of those men, and the Lord took him out at 47. What is going on?

Here is Andy now. He doesn’t preach all that much any more. But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to serve God, and this “accident” happens and now he is incapacitated. And he is not griping or getting angry at God. He is just asking, “Lord, what do you want me to learn from this?”

I put this prayer on the opposite end of the spectrum from what the writer in Proverbs describes: "When they cry for help, I will not answer. Though they anxiously search for me, they will not find me. For they hated knowledge and chose not to fear the LORD. They rejected my advice and paid no attention when I corrected them. Therefore, they must eat the bitter fruit of living their own way, choking on their own schemes. For simpletons turn away from me—to death. Fools are destroyed by their own complacency. But all who listen to me will live in peace, untroubled by fear of harm” (Proverbs 1:28-33 NLT).

I am confident that the Lord hears the prayers of His people and He WILL answer.

Oh, Lord, I thank you that we can come to you with the tough questions, the tough struggles. You are in charge of this universe and Andy and me.

Show Andy what you want him to learn from all of this. I pray that you would heal him and restore him to health so that he can serve you.

Show me what you want me to learn through cancer and through the issues I am continuing to deal with.

Lord, I want to say this to you: I want to serve you as long as I have breath. Someday, when I can’t preach any longer and/or no one asks me to preach, I want to serve you to the day I die. I want to be a senior adult in a church someday with no agenda but to support my pastor and do whatever the church needs to reach the next generation for Jesus. And then, when I don’t have the strength to do physical labor, I will continue to pray. I want to be talking with you as I take my last breath and enter into eternity.

Make it so, Lord, as long as I have breath.

Amen.
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The Trinity at Work in Relationships

The final verse of 2 Corinthians is significant. Most of the time, I just “speed read” over the benedictions in Paul’s letters. I know I should not do this, but unfortunately, I do.

This morning, however, the Holy Spirit forced my attention to the last verse in the final chapter of the book. Here it is: "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14 NLT).

Nowhere in the Bible is the word “trinity” used, per se, but this verse (among others in scripture) makes this doctrine explicit. It alludes to God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. There you have it: all three, three in One.

But I think it is also interesting to see the words attached to each member of the Trinity in light of what has gone on in the book.

Grace is a very prominent concept, especially as it relates to the offering for the saints in Jerusalem. It is a word that appears often in chapters eight and nine.

This is where I am in my preaching through the book of 2 Corinthians and the assertion I am making over and over (because I firmly believe it is a cardinal biblical principle) is that when one is talking about money, the key issue is NOT money in terms of dollars and cents and church budgets and pastor’s salaries and so forth. It is about one’s relationship with God. And for believers, the foundation of that relationship is about grace.

Grace, often defined as God’s unmerited favor, is something that makes possible our new birth into God’s family in the first place, but it is much more than that. It is God’s enablement to live the Christian life. It empowers obedience that overflows to others and blesses them as well.

As I was preparing for my sermon on September 9th, I read a comment from C. K. Barrett’s commentary on 2 Corinthians. I will paraphrase it here: God never intended grace to terminate in the life of one who has received it. How about that?

We tend to define grace in terms of what God has done for us and how much we enjoy it. 2 Corinthians, however, will have none of that narrow, individualized distinction. Grace is pointedly relational. If I have received God’s grace, my little life cannot contain it. It bubbles over and overflows in blessings to others and thanksgivings to God.

Well, I could go on at this point, but I don’t want to preach my sermon here. (Well, I do, but I won’t!)

Therefore, this grace is associated in the final verse of 2 Corinthians with the Lord Jesus Christ, emphasis on Lord.

The second term—love—is linked to God. This concept is easier for us to see as it relates to our relationship with God on a vertical level and our relations to others on a human level. The Great Commandment of Matthew 22:37-39 reinforces this.

Finally, Paul mentions “fellowship” and links this concept with the Holy Spirit. Of course, the whole idea of fellowship is a crucial point of concern with the church in Corinth. One can see this quite clearly as he/she reads through both 1 and 2 Corinthians, but fellowship, in the truest sense of that word, is only possible as the Holy Spirit empowers it in the lives of believers.

I’m frankly very concerned about this at First Southern. Over the past few weeks in particular, I feel that there is a lid on that in our fellowship. I wish people could just stand up and share things in dead level honesty. This is something that I told a group of guys not long ago: you have to be discerning when you share with people. There are some things that are not appropriate to be shared on a congregational level. You have to be careful. But it is still important to be able to share.

As I pray about this and struggle with it on a church-wide level, I recognize that I am hindered somewhat in what I can share as a pastor. I think hard experience has caused me, over the years, to be much more hesitant and guarded than I have been in even the recent past.

Yesterday, I had a great opportunity to visit with Bob, our Director of Missions for the Mile High Association. I was sharing about the fact that I needed prayer. I asked, “How does one keep from becoming embittered because of the way some folks handle relationships in the body of Christ?”

Before I get to Bob’s answer, I want to say that I have observed that oftentimes, pastors I have met become rather hardened and cynical and bitter when it comes to people. Many have been wounded and hurt in their ministries. I know that pastors are not alone in this regard. How often do you talk with people that have sworn off church altogether and refuse to step foot in any church EVER AGAIN because of this?

To be honest, I am sensing this hardness, this edge, this hand up in front of people lifestyle that does not allow myself to get close to the folks I serve. Where I am right now, I don’t know if this is good or not. But it is where I am.

What was Bob’s answer? He replied, “John, you have to recognize that in church, there are many who view themselves as a majority of one. It is just a reality. And the main pronouns they use are ‘we’ and ‘you.’”

As he said this, I replied, “Of course, because they don’t have the courage to speak for themselves. They have to be speaking for a larger group or at least think they are in order to justify their issue and so that they can point a finger and feel justified.”

As I have pondered that conversation yesterday, I realized that this is exactly what Paul was dealing with in the church at Corinth—a recalcitrant minority who vaulted themselves up against Paul in order to discredit his ministry. And what was Paul’s response? I want to use a phrase from another commentator, David Garland. Paul’s response was “exceptional candor.” I love that phrase. Amen! In light of being slapped in the face by the very folks he loved, Paul’s heart got softer!

How is this possible? Certainly not with human effort. That is where the Trinity comes in. It is only possible through the grace, love, and fellowship of the Trinity.

Here’s the thing that hits me as I think about all of this. For Paul, God, the Three-in-One, is not some abstract theological ivory tower concept. God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is essentially RELATIONAL. This is how we know Him. This is how we experience the Trinity—not on an intellectual level as we seek to “understand it.” Are you kidding? Understanding the Trinity? If anyone reading this has the Trinity figured out, write a book and I will buy it.

I don’t “understand” God that way. I experience God as He works in the lives of people in the nitty-gritty details of relationships.

Lord, I acknowledge you today and love you as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I thank you for grace, love, and fellowship. I thank you that they are not abstract concepts, but they are living, enduring empowerments. Today, I need you, and I need all three and beyond that, the congregation I serve needs large and generous helpings of grace, love, and fellowship.

In other words, Lord, Three-In-One, revive us again!

“Revive us again; fill each heart with Thy love;
May each soul be rekindled with fire from above” (“Revive Us Again,” BH 2008, 493). Amen.
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The House of Laughter

First of all, I would like to correct a reference I made. My friend Jack has pointed this out. Yesterday I said that Sergeant Schultz (of “Hogan’s Heroes” fame) made the comment, “Very interesting.”

I was wrong about that. It was actually Arte Johnson, who played a German soldier in Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In.” Jack reminded me (and even sent me a picture of Sergeant Schultz, played by John Banner, and Arte Johnson) that “he would often be seen smoking a cigarette, peering out from behind the leaves of a tree, and, in a thick German accent, would say things like, ‘Verrrrrry interesting... but stupid.’” Yes, right!

Is that enough television trivia for you? Of course, I love it. I liked both shows. Both were hilarious.

This leads me into the topic for today.

Yesterday, after church, I went over to Helen’s house. She had invited me to come over for a meal and to play a game with her family. As I entered her home, I declared, “I’m in the House of Laughter!” And I truly believe that.

Helen, her daughter Cindy, her son-in-law Paul, and I visited for a while. Soon, other people started to arrive. Bill from FSBCN showed up. Gino arrived. It turns out that he was saved and baptized at First Southern. He told me that he had served at the first mission congregation we started years ago. Michelle, Cindy’s best friend, along her mom arrived. Finally, Carol, Helen’s sister, and her granddaughter Brooke, showed up.

We went into Helen’s kitchen and filled our plates with food. We then sat at her table and visited for a while.

When all of us had finished (a great meal, by the way), Cindy brought in the game. I believe the name of it is “Apples to Apples.” Here is how you play: you draw seven cards. Each of these cards has a word or name on it. These cards are red. Then, one person draws a green card. It has some descriptive term on it like “manly, whimsical, or dainty.” The rest of the people must lay down one of their cards that they think the person who drew the green card will think is closest to fitting the description on the green card.

It is a relatively simple game. I say that because I was able to pick it up and understand it relatively quickly.

But it was hilarious. Here we all were, sitting around a table, eating and sharing fellowship and laughing, A LOT. I honestly can’t remember the last time I did this.

Is that sad or what?

Here is one of the burdens I have with the contemporary church, and more specifically with the one I serve. And this is no one’s fault. It is just the “routine.”

Oftentimes, it just feels as if we are all rats in a cage. We come, we go through the motions of what we normally do, and we get in our cars and we go home. Right or wrong, good or bad, we seldom get a chance to sit around a table, look at each other, share stories, and here is the main point—LAUGH OR CRY together.

Seriously, if I had to design a church building, it would just be one big room with a kitchen off to the side. I’m tired of specialization and compartmentalization. Don’t we get enough of that in our culture? I understand the needs that each age group has. Children have different learning needs than senior adults and so forth. I get that.

But it seems that we have gone WAY overboard in that with all of our rooms (compartments) and classes (specialization). I like Sunday school. I really do, but I’m kind of tired of it.

I wish we could be less formal and stilted. I wish we could just come together, grab something to eat, sit around a table with all of us together facing each other, and play a game where all of us could share stories and laugh. Sometimes, I think that would do people more good than a hundred sermons or lessons or seminars.

I wonder what would happen if we just did this and then made a very subtle shift into worship with a sermon. Let me be clear: I’m not trying to do away with teaching. Of course, I like it and think it is important. I just think we have shoved fellowship, true fellowship, into a corner with an imbalanced perspective.

One of the greatest resources in the body of Christ is other Christians. We can minister to one another. We can share a good laugh. We can also share burdens. But when and where does that happen on a congregational level?

We try to address this need at First Southern with what we call “koinonia” (the Greek word for fellowship). We all meet together in the fellowship hall for food and a time of sharing. Then, we migrate upstairs to the auditorium for a worship service.

I like it, but I still see people sitting a various tables with folks in their age group. I guess this is natural that this occurs, but I wish there were a way to replicate on a church-wide level what happened at Helen’s yesterday.

I wonder if someone will invent a table that seats a hundred and fifty folks! Ha. I don’t think we could get that size of table into the building!

Anyway, I think this was Paul’s goal for the church at Corinth. Before the final greetings of this monumental letter, Paul gives five commands in shotgun fashion. I’m going to quote this one verse in two versions: "Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you" (2 Corinthians 13:11 NASB) and "Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (ESV).

As I read those words, I was reminded of my time at Helen’s yesterday. Here is how I would paraphrase this verse: “have a good laugh together, come together, make each other feel at home, live in total agreement with each other, and let peace rule among you, and you will experience God’s love and God’s peace.” How about that?

These were his final words to a church divided and compartmentalized for all the wrong reasons.

Lord, I thank you for the overwhelming blessing of true Christian fellowship. I thank you for making us as humans with emotions. We aren’t just intellectual creatures growing in knowledge—hopefully. We are emotional. You made us this way. We have feelings. Thank you for laughter. Thank you for the opportunity to laugh yesterday. Thank you also for tears. Give us the freedom to cry.

Thank you for Helen and Paul and Cindy and the House of Laughter. Thank you for Jean, Michelle, Gino, Carol, Brooke, and Bill. Bless their socks off. Bless them as they blessed me.

Make First Southern more of a place where we can share true Christian fellowship with one another.

“Crown Him, crown Him,
Worthy is the Lamb.
Praise Him, praise Him,
Heav’n and earth resound” (“Behold the Lamb,” BH 2008, 262). Amen.
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The Sinner's Prayer

Yesterday, in the course of my work, I came across a new book. It is called The Sinner’s Prayer: Its Origins and Dangers. The author’s name is David Malcolm Bennett. Very interesting, as Sergeant Schultz would say.

I have just started this book, but it is very clear that the author is NOT a proponent of this prayer. So far, as I am reading, I think he is making a very convincing case. It does not take him long to put his conclusion out there. Note this statement: “The Bible clearly does not teach the use of the Sinner’s Prayer. Indeed, as Ross Farley puts it, ‘Reducing conversion to a formula is quite foreign to NT evangelism’” (location 509 [I am reading a Kindle version of this book]).

Going back to the topic of discussion in this blog yesterday, I wonder if this “sinner’s prayer” approach may be the reason for the existence of lost people in the church or a worse situation, people going around “out there” who, if asked about their relationship with the Lord, would say, “Oh, yeah. I made a decision a few years ago. I’m good. I just don’t need church.”

I say this is a worse situation because the lost man or woman who continues to go to church at least is in a better position for the Holy Spirit to work—as he or she is exposed to the teaching and preaching of the Word.

But back to this book. The writer starts out by citing numerous sources—whether it is books or gospel tracts—that advocate and often spell out in very specific language what someone needs to pray in order to get saved. He does stress the fact that most of these instructions contain the proviso about sincerity. It isn’t about simply parroting language. It is about being truthful and meaning what one prays to God.

Then, he asserts that many Christians use John 1:12 and Revelation 3:20 as the biblical basis for this practice—the whole idea of receiving Jesus and inviting Him in as He stands at the door of a person’s heart and knocks.

Bennett makes the claim that to use these two verses as the biblical foundation for instruction to lost people as to how to get saved is a misuse of scripture.

Let me jump in right here. I think he is right about the passage in Revelation. Certainly, 3:20 is an injunction to believers in the church.

As far as the other passage is concerned, I’m not quite so sure. His arguments about the John 1:12 are not convincing to me.

But anyway—this is very provocative. I’m going to continue to read this book.

I’m sure you might be asking, as I was, “Well, then, what does a sinner do who wants to get saved?” Good question.

Bennett goes on to assert that the biblical answer to that question is “repent and believe.” On that note, I totally agree, and I would carry things a little further. Maybe Bennett will say this in his book. I’ll see.

But here is what I believe. Even repentance and faith are not something that we as humans initiate. Even they are a GIFT from God!

I was explaining this to a brother not long ago. We have to be very careful as we share with folks that salvation is by grace through faith. And even our faith is not from us. It is a gift of God. This is what Ephesians 2:8-9 teach.

The story of the first sermon in Acts 2 confirms this. After Peter’s sermon, the Bible says, “They were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37, ESV). In other words, the convicting work of the Holy Spirit had already begun, and Peter instructed them to allow it to continue through repentance and faith AND baptism.

Now, I want to be careful here. I’m NOT saying that water baptism saves anyone!

But if we want some tangible visible evidence that someone has been saved—the New Testament way of professing that is NOT a prayer that someone prays. It is baptism. The Holy Spirit baptizes new believers and water baptism is the testimony of it.

But that is not to say that prayer could not be a part of that whole process for some individuals. Romans 10:13 comes to mind: “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (ESV).

Well, anyway, this is food for thought. As I sit here this morning, my mind does pan back over the past twenty plus years and one incident does come to mind. I was visiting a young man in his home. I was sharing the gospel with him. At one point, he said, “Pastor, I am in a little bit of a hurry.” My reply was, “Well, this won’t take long. I just want to share some points of the gospel with you so that we can make sure you understand them.”

I visited with him further and asked two questions I normally use after I have presented the gospel with folks. The first is: do you understand everything I have just said? This young man nodded his head. The second is: is there any reason why right now you cannot receive Jesus (there is that John 1:12 term) right now?

I could tell he was a bit flustered. To this day, I’m not sure what that was. But he said, “Well, I guess not.” We sat there, and I led him in the “sinner’s prayer.” Afterwards, he stood up and extended his hand. “Well, thanks for coming by. I have to go.”

I promptly left.

I never saw him again. He certainly never returned to church. My guess is that he did not get saved that day, but I truly hope I am wrong.

What could I have done differently? Well, I think I would not have pushed it and tried to lead him in a prayer. I think I would have just left it there with him and got up and left.

As I talk about all of this today, what I identify again is a desire to get to share the gospel. It has been way too long . . .

Here is the verse the Holy Spirit brought me to this morning. I’m going to quote it from two versions: "For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth" (2 Corinthians 13:8 ESV) and "For we cannot oppose the truth, but must always stand for the truth" (2 Corinthians 13:8 NLT).

I need to be careful at this point. I’m NOT saying that anything we do as we share Jesus is okay. I need to continue to read this book and evaluate our practices for sharing the gospel.

BUT, the bigger problem, in my opinion, is that many of us (yours truly is at the top of the list) don’t share anywhere near as much as we should. AND, I think we make too much of what we do and too little of what God does.

I’m convinced that most of the time, our efforts and methods are very faulty, but the truth is powerful. God is powerful. Nothing can stop Him.

Lord, I thank you for the truth. Thank you that is powerful. Thank you that nothing I do can diminish it. It is a constant. And the truth will win out.

I confess my failure to share. Give me an opportunity TODAY. Guide me in the way I share to be biblical in everything I do and teach others to do.

I commit this day and the services at church as well as the sermon to you.

“Your only Son, no sin to hide,
But you have sent Him from Your side
To walk upon this guilty sod,
And to become the Lamb of God” (“Lamb of God,” BH 2008, 261). Amen.
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Fifty Percent Lost

As I read the passage for this morning, something came to mind that I have cited quite often. “Billy Graham once said that fifty percent of the members in an average church are lost.”

I decided to go to Google this morning to try to verify that quote. What I discovered was very interesting.

First, some people quote Billy Graham as saying that the percent is up to eight-five percent! Whoa!

Second, one blog I discovered addressed this issue. Joe McKeever is the man’s name. This one particular post addresses the issue of accuracy (or inaccuracy) when it comes to preachers quoting others. He goes into detail about this supposed quote from Billy Graham.

He tells about putting the question of the source of this quote up on his Facebook page. He asked people to help him with this question, and a pastor from Alabama responded. This pastor had sent an inquiry to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association asking them when and where Billy Graham had made this assertion about lost people in the church. He received the following reply from them:

"We appreciate your inquiry concerning a quote attributed to Mr. Graham. Unfortunately, though we hear this question from time to time, we do not have any further information confirming that Mr. Graham ever claimed that a high percentage of church members (as much as 85%) are not saved."
"We would suppose that some denominations which stress the need for the new birth would have a much higher percentage of born again believers. A poll by the Barna Research Group several years ago may shed some light on this subject. They indicate that 'Protestant church attenders are two and a half times more likely than are Catholic attenders to be born-again Christians (60% to 23% respectively'" (www.joemckeever.com, accessed August 25, 2012).

Humm. So, I stand corrected. Somehow, I feel that I must tell my congregation this. McKeever makes an excellent point. We must be careful when we attribute a quote to someone. I should have learned this from my PhD days.

The more I think about this, the more I realize how much “ministry” has gone on under this delusion. Two vivid memories come to the fore.

I’m going to go ahead and name names at this point. When I was a child (my family had not been going to church that long and my parents had not been saved that long, either), our pastor invited an evangelist by the name of Mike Gilchrist to preach a revival. From the beginning, he emphasized salvation. That is all well and good, but his focus was on church members. He told stories of previous crusades where pastors and deacons and church leaders, who thought they were saved but really weren’t, professed faith in Jesus.

Sure enough, through the course of the week, I saw people come forward in invitations that were indeed leaders. One man I remember in particular. His name was Walter Noakes. He came forward during one invitation. He was weeping. He made the comment that he had never really been saved. Here was my thought as a youngster. Maybe we even discussed this in our family: “If Walter Noakes was not saved prior to that night and never had been, then we weren’t either.”

It was very unsettling to us all, but somehow, we just could not follow suit and go up front and get saved “again.” We just couldn’t.

That was the first experience. The second occurred while I was in seminary. Bailey Smith, the famous SBC evangelist, was preaching at the First Baptist Church of Euless. My friend Andy and I attended one night. His tactic was the same as that of Mike Gilchrist.

After his message, he held a long (I mean long) invitation. At one point, he stopped and said, “Now right now, I want you to turn to the people around you and look them in the eye and say, ‘I am saved and I know it beyond a shadow of a doubt.’” There was a young man standing in front of Andy and me. He looked us both in the eye and said this.

The invitation continued. I’m sure Bailey Smith doesn’t believe this, but his appeal bordered on, “If you have ever sinned, then you have never been saved in the first place.”

Well, at one point, Andy nudged me and pointed at the aisle of the church. That very same young man was going down front to profess faith in Jesus! I guess he got talked out of his salvation!

I don’t know. This type of thing doesn’t sit right with me. I never want to be guilty of talking someone who is saved out of his/her salvation.

BUT, and this may seem contradictory to everything I have just said, I don’t want anyone who sits in a pew at our church week after year after decade to delude themselves that they are saved, when in fact they are not.

I do believe that it is important to challenge people to think about this on occasion without trying to engender doubt. I mean, really, if someone is saved, this only affirms his/her salvation, but if not, how much is it worth to challenge someone to nail this down? It is worth a lot—people’s eternal destiny is at stake.

This is Paul’s tactic in 2 Corinthians 13. The end of chapter twelve and the beginning of this final chapter of the book are all about Paul going on the offensive. Up to this point, Paul has been speaking in the sight of God about his own ministry and motives, but in these verses, he turns the finger of accusation toward folks in the church.

Here is what he says:
"Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!" (2 Corinthians 13:5 ESV)

I think this is a crucial thing—to encourage folks to examine themselves, to test themselves. Here is the acid test: Jesus Christ is either resident within you (meaning you are saved) or NOT (meaning you are lost).

I do think that there are lost people in every church. They may even be leaders. And it is crucial that they get right with God, repenting of their sins and turning to Jesus in faith by the grace of God.

Oh, Lord, you are in charge of who is saved and who is not. I do know that you said that you will allow the wheat and the weeds to grow together. And judgment day will ultimately reveal who is what.

Having said that, however, does not mean that we cannot be discerning as we look at the fruit of people’s lives. You have called us to judge people inside the church (I Corinthians 5).

So, Lord, this morning, I pray that you would save everyone on the membership roll of the church I serve.

“Precious Lamb of glory,
Love’s most wondrous story,
Heart of God’s redemption of man—
Worship the Lamb of glory” (“Lamb of Glory,” BH 2008, 260). Amen.
Comments

In the Sight of God

First of all, this morning, I ask that you pray for my family. It seems that these days, more than ever, we feel under spiritual attack. That is just about the only way I can put it.

When we get discouraged, something that always seems to help us bounce back besides praying together is just the realization that something must be on the right track since Satan is attacking.

Jorge made this comment the other day as we were praying before the service. I may have mentioned it in this forum before, but he stated, “Why would the enemy attack someone or a church that was playing into his hands? But if you take a stand, you can count on his attacks.” In the Hispanic church, he and some of the leaders have decided that they are going to step up to the plate in some significant ways that involve reaching people, and they are prepared for the fall-out, whatever that may be.

As he was sharing this with me, my heart resonated with his comments. I believe that the church I serve is in exactly the same spot.

The other day, I was visiting with Mary Ann. She and Duane used to live in the neighborhood right around the church. A few years ago, they moved further east, across Highway 85 in Brighton. It still isn’t that far from the church.

But I asked her, “What do you think is the main need of this community?” And I pointed out my office window. She answered, “Well, it is definitely a blue collar community. More ethnically diverse than ever. It is also very transitional. People are moving in and moving out all the time. People are busy. They work a lot just to make ends meet. They are probably very suspicious of strangers. It takes a long time to earn their trust.” Good answer. B

But as she was sharing this information, I realized that the challenge is greater than ever. I honestly think it is “easier” (if I can use that word) to reach people in Federal Heights than it is right around the church, in our own community of Northglenn.

Families and kids in Federal Heights don’t have much. And as a result, they seem more open to ministry. Kids especially. With nothing to do, they will participate in VBS-type activities and after school programs and sports camp ministries.

But families in the “burbs” get their kids involved in football, baseball, cheer leading, et cetera. Their lives are full of activity, and as a result, I just see less opportunity to be involved with church activities.

Therefore, I am praying that the Lord would give us direction about ways that we can just be involved in the community, even to have contact with folks who do not know Jesus, and have an opportunity to build relationships that will give us inroads in people’s lives.

Going back to Wednesday night, as we were getting ready for our “chocolate wars,” four boys on bikes came into our parking lot. They seemed fascinated by the pile of sand at the back of our parking lot. Recently, we asked a construction company to level an area of our property so that we can put in a new playground. In the course of their work, they piled sand from our old volleyball pit to the side.

These boys loved riding their bikes up and down that pile of sand, but they soon realized that we were getting ready for a “church activity,” so they sped off.

Later in the evening, however, two of the boys returned. Chris came up to me and said, “Sir, I was wondering if we could get a drink of water.” Ricky was standing next to him. “Sure,” I answered.

As we were walking into the building and toward the kitchen, I asked both of them if they went to church anywhere. Chris said no. Ricky said yes, but he couldn’t tell me the name of his church. This means he doesn’t go anywhere either. I got each of these boys a big cup of water and invited them to come. They both said they would “try.” (This seems to be the new way of putting someone off: I will TRY to make it. Ha. This means I won’t be there.)

But here’s the point: at least we were able to make some type of contact with kids in the community.

One other thing I want to mention. Rita came again on Wednesday night and brought her son, Josh. Josh has been involved in our children’s ministry on and off for years, really. What is the deal with them? Well, they already have a church home. It is an evangelical church in our community, but Rita wants her son to be involved in some type of church ministry on Wednesday nights, but her church does not offer anything, so she brings him to First Southern.

How about that? I remember attending a George Barna conference several years ago. He mentioned that more and more people these days are taking advantage of ministries from more than one church. Humm.

Honestly, the longer I serve as a pastor, the less I know! I’m glad I don’t have to try to figure all of this out. I know Someone who can and does!

It is significant to me that, after everything that Paul has said about himself in the book of 2 Corinthians, he makes these statements at the end of chapter twelve:
"Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved. For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced" (2 Corinthians 12:19-21 ESV).

In other words, he is saying, “You think I have been defending myself as if it were all about me? Nope. I have been speaking IN THE SIGHT OF GOD.” This is the phrase that causes me pause this morning.

Nothing that is going on in my family or in the church or in the community escapes the notice of our God. He sees everything with penetrating insight, with those eyes that are “like a flame of fire” (Revelation 1:14, ESV).

I need to ponder that a bit this morning.

Lord, I can’t imagine it being any more difficult to minister in this day and time. Thank you, though, for your victory over the enemy and all his attacks.

I confess that I have no idea how to reach the community you have put us in, but this morning, I pray for Chris and Ricky and their families to get saved. I lift up Rita and Josh and their church. Bless its ministry in the community.

Help my mom and sister and I to stand firm.

“Worthy the Lamb that was slain.
Worthy the Lamb that was slain
To receive glory and honor,
Wisdom and power,
Worthy the Lamb that was slain” (“Worthy the Lamb That Was Slain,” BH 2008, 259). Amen.
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Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate

I have always liked chocolate, whatever kind it is—white, dark—whatever. TO EAT, that is. To wear …

We finished our adult Bible study last Wednesday night. I’ve learned over the years that these next few weeks, from the end of August well into the middle of September are just one of those periods in church (our church, at least) where one just treads water. Many families are on vacation before school starts, and after it starts they are “out of pocket” as they get adjusted to the school year.

This seems to be the case even with families who don’t have kids in school, in other words, seniors. This is just one of those vacation times of year like the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.

Well, anyway, since that study is not going on, I am glad that for the next few weeks, I get to “hang out” with the children and the youth. Last night, I chose to join Calla and boys and girls. On the slate for the children was “chocolate wars.” (I think that is what Calla called it).

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. Had I known for sure … well, I probably would have done it anyway.

The youth joined us last night.

All the games we played involved chocolate in one form or another. In the first game, my team in competition with the other group was instructed to stack Oreo cookies on one of our teammates. The team with the most stacks of cookies would win. Dayton, Calla’s son, laid on the parking lot as we stacked cookies on him! After a while, we realized that we weren’t going to win because all of us, including and especially Dayton, were laughing too hard.

In the next game, Calla told us to stack as many cookies as possible in one stack.

After that, Calla had put some water and cocoa in a large pale. At the bottom of the pale there were rocks and pennies. The game involved reaching down into this “chocolate-y” water and pulling out one penny. It ended up being more difficult than it at first appeared. All of us had chocolate arms!

After those two relatively tame games, we divided up into twos. Keanna, one of our youth students, and I were paired together. Each of us held out our hands cupped together as Calla poured a large portion of chocolate sauce into them. She then instructed us to “toss” the chocolate to the other person as if it were a balloon (this was a modified version of the infamous balloon toss).

Well, as you can probably guess, it didn’t take long before Keanna and I were literally covered from head to foot in chocolate sauce. Soon, it became a free-for-all as everyone was throwing or smearing chocolate sauce on everyone else.

That particular game was over when the chocolate sauce ran out. I was glad.

In the next game, Calla gave each one of us a small container of chocolate pudding, and you probably guessed it, the goal of the game was to throw pudding at any and every person.

I have to give Calla credit. I do believe that these games involved absolutely every kind of chocolate food in existence. To repeat, I love all these types of foods TO EAT. I had never quite “experienced” them all over me before!

The final game involved a big tub of “chocolate-y” water, long squirt guns, and small buckets. I can’t remember exactly how the game started (I think chocolate has seeped into my brain), but very quickly, we were dowsing each other with the squirt guns and the buckets. The continued until all the water in the tub was gone.

Well, by then, all of us were covered with chocolate from head to foot and we were soaking wet, but we were laughing as we looked at each other. Justin said, “This is the most fun night EVER!” There you go.

One of our parents, Jay, was standing on the sidelines looking at all of this. He had been adamant that he did not want to participate in this game. I looked at him and said, “Jay, I tell you what. You are a brother in Christ that I really appreciate. I love you, brother, and right now, I would like to express that love to you. I just want to give you a big hug!” The look on his face was priceless!

I kept at it. “Please don’t rob me of the blessing of expressing my love to a brother in Christ,” I replied, as Jay started to pull back and then run in the opposite direction! It was hilarious.

By then, Jorge had come out of the building to get something out of his car. (In yesterday’s post, I talked about my visit with Jorge and Vida in their home on Tuesday night). I looked at him and said the same thing. He answered, “That’s okay, Pastor. You told me last night!” We all laughed at that reply.

I have to tell you that it has been a long time since I have laughed as I did last night and had as much fun.

When I woke up this morning, I felt something strange on the back of my neck. Even though I had spent a long time in the shower last night, trying to wash away all the chocolate that covered me, I guess I didn’t stay in there long enough. There is a coating of crusted chocolate on the back of my neck right now!

Don’t care. Still had a blast.

Over the years, the times I have gotten “down and dirty” in games like this with the children or youth have been the best of times. I love being in a position for the students in our church to have a laugh at my expense. I love it.

Well, I’m grateful again to the Lord that He knows and allows to give and receive ministry in just the way we need it in the body of Christ. Last night, the boys and girls ministered to me. And I needed them to do so.

The Lord is great at this. He offers what we need whether it is in the form of chocolate sauce in your hair or a timely word. But it is our responsibility to receive it. As I start in Proverbs this morning, these words reflect that truth.

"Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you, when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices" (Proverbs 1:24-31 ESV).

After last night, I was reminded about the absolute necessity of just showing up to church. When we are going through tough times, (and I still can’t figure out how Satan can always pull this wool over our eyes), the first thing the enemy tells us is “don’t go to church.” When we make that decision, we are in effect removing ourselves from two very valuable resources the Lord uses to help us—the teaching of the Word of God and the ministry of the body of Christ.

When we pull away from the Lord and/or refuse to listen to His instruction, why are we surprised when calamity strikes and it seems as if the Lord is a million miles away? If we don’t serve Him or listen to Him or follow Him in good times, why should He jump through our hoop when we get into trouble?

And of course, when we call and He doesn’t answer in the way we want, this causes many to pull away even further, and this compounds the problem.

It is just a whole lot easier if we keep coming to church and keep listening to the Lord.

Lord, I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for the ministry of the boys and girls to me. Chocolate has taken on a whole new meaning as not only a comfort food for me but also a comfort covering. Covered with chocolate, I realize that I am covered with your love!

“O how I love Him, Savior and Friend,
How can my praises ever find end” (“Blessed Redeemer,” BH 2008, 258). Amen.
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My Limitations, Offered to God

Last night, I did something I have not done in a long time: I ate dinner at the home of a family in our church. Sounds rather strange to say that, doesn’t it?

It certainly does to me because, up until I was diagnosed with cancer a little over two years ago, I did this A LOT.

When I first started at the church back in 1989, I was doing it two, sometimes three nights a week. I really enjoyed it. I always ate very well. We have some very good cooks in our church. And, it always seemed to be a late night.

All of that is well and good, but I have always been an early riser so the next day after a late night was a challenge, and the main thing was not fatigue. That is not what I am talking about. It was my routine the next morning.

When things are a little different at night, then my time with Jesus is affected the next day in a big way. It is weird. It really is. Something that is a little off makes a big impact. And, after all these years, the effect seems to be even more profound.

Especially these days. I now am fully aware of the time I need to get going in the morning to have my best time with Jesus, but there is another added factor. In addition to that, I am writing now, and the same principle applies.

Well, anyway, this is no big deal but all of this came to mind as I sit here this morning.

But back to last night, I sat at Jorge and Vida’s kitchen table. This couple leads worship at our church. And I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate them, and the more I am with them, the more I feel this way.

It has been five years or so, but back then, we were once again in a situation of transition when it comes to worship leadership. And I think all of us were rather disillusioned with the “go out and get a high powered ‘music man’” philosophy. I know I was.

Therefore, we looked at the folks that were available in our congregation. And the Lord brought to mind this young couple. They were leading worship in the Hispanic church, but I approached them. At first, they were a little taken aback. Jorge said, “Well, Pastor John, we have never led worship in an English speaking church. And we don’t know a lot of the songs and hymns you sing, but we will pray about it.”

Last night, sitting at their table, we rehearsed all of this. And as we were talking, Jorge made this comment: “Pastor, when you asked us to pray about this position several years ago, we could not but help think that we were very unqualified. I don’t read music. I don’t know many of the songs in English. We felt limited in so many ways, but as we prayed about it, we felt the Lord leading us to serve in this way.”

Then, he went on to make a great statement: “But, this is what we have learned. It isn’t all about me offering my great talents to the Lord. It is about my offering my limitations to Him, and he takes it from there.”

My heart resonates with this philosophy. I realize that it is quite different from many churches. I know many places have auditions where people “try out” to be in the worship team. For one reason or another (and God is ultimately in charge of those reasons), we do not have that luxury. We are in a position where, if someone feels led to be involved, and their heart is in the right place (this is a crucial component because it is a leadership position in our congregation), then they can join the praise team.

What is the result of all of this? Well, on one hand, our group may not always sound the best, but on the other hand, they are serving God and making a “joyful noise” to the Lord. And isn’t that what it is all about?

The contemporary American church, I believe, focuses too much on “quality worship” (which for the most part means a professional sounding band) and too little on the heart.

Before I go on, please don’t hear me knocking this. I know some worship leaders in larger churches with a professional sounding bands who love Jesus and have hearts for God. I’m not making a blanket indictment here. I am only saying that I disagree with an over-emphasis on this to the total exclusion of the “heart.”

But I’m really struggling with this. I have to be honest today. I resist and rebel against any philosophy that says, “Oh, well, if you don’t have __________, then you can forget about your church growing.” Isn’t the Lord the key component to that formula? And if your congregation does not have a lot of musically gifted folks, do you just shut down and go home? Somehow that just doesn’t seem right to me. Something is off.

Here is another thing we are committed to doing: we are still trying to have a “blended” worship service. This term means different things to different people. I’m beginning to wonder if, bottom line, it means, “no one is happy.” Ha. I have to laugh to keep from crying!

For us, it means that we try to sing hymns as well as contemporary music. One of the challenges we had with this was that Jorge and Vida knew none of the hymns in the Baptist Hymnal—the book I quote from in this blog every day. They have had to learn these songs.

Plus, they also were unfamiliar with many of choruses we sing as well. But I believe they have done a great job of learning these songs and working with these diverse musical tastes and styles. When you add in the language component (and they both speak English very well but they didn’t know these songs in English), you realize that the Lord has enabled them to do a lot.

They met with a lot of resistance when they first started. We have had a ton of transition and change in our worship ministry. But they have proven themselves as caring SERVANT leaders. And, over the long haul, (I can testify here), when your goal is to honor Jesus, first of all, and then to love and serve, people see this and eventually you gain their confidence.

Anyway, as we were visiting last night, my thoughts went back to Paul and his answer to his critics in Corinth.

To frame this from a musical standpoint, the “super-apostles” were lauding their singing repertoire and accomplishments to the church. They loved to do this. It would be akin to someone coming to Jorge and Vida and saying, “I have sung in a large choir in such and such a church. I have a college degree in music. I’ve even sung in Carnegie Hall.” (Helen’s granddaughter has indeed done this recently. She and Cindy were there to witness it. Wow. It is quite an accomplishment. I am NOT downing this in her case. I’m just trying to make a point here).

And in Corinth, in the same breath, as these folks very blowing their own horn, they were saying, “But what about Paul? He can’t carry a tune to a bucket or in a bucket. And he claims to be an apostle? Are you kidding? Who is this guy?”

How does Paul answer this? Does he get all huffy and try to match “qualifications”? Nope. This whole book is Paul laying out his sufferings and weakness. He is even honest enough to tell about his thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan, and the fact that God did NOT answer his prayer in the way he wanted. For many, this would be an additional limitation that would not look good on a resume.

But Paul is unfazed and after the Lord assured him that “my grace is sufficient” and that “God’s power comes to full fruition in human weakness” then he arrives at this conclusion: "So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, catastrophes, persecutions, and in pressures, because of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10 HCSB).

The KJV word that I love in this verse is “exalt.” I exalt in weakness. In other words, my limitations are the best platform for the power of God to be evident. THAT is what matters.

THAT is my goal for First Southern. I want God’s power to pitch its tent over the congregation.

Lord, I thank you so much for the folks you have brought to the church I serve. Thank you for Jorge and Vida. Thank you for everyone who serves with love and diligence in our worship ministry. Thank you for the joyful noise they make to you. I pray that the heart of worship all of us offer to you would be pleasing in your sight.

We have many limitations, all of us, including and especially me. This church has a very limited pastor who is still being treated for cancer. How about that weakness at the top of the list?

Today, Lord, teach me what it means to exalt in weaknesses and insults and catastrophes and persecutions and pressures—all of those and more. Help me, Lord. Help me learn to affirm with Paul—“when I am weak, THEN I am strong.”

“You can search, you can buy and try ev’rything man-made,
But it cannot satisfy;
It is Christ, only Christ, who gives life more abundant,
And He calls from Calvary” (“Have You Been to Calvary,” BH 2008, 256). Amen.
Comments

Confronting Sin IN the Church

Later in September, we have planned to have a “Vision Sunday.” Over the nearly twenty-three years that I have served First Southern as pastor, we have had these Sundays now and again.

My perspective of “vision,” however, may differ a lot from what is customary. I certainly do not see vision as something that replaces God’s Word or in any competes with it as an additional revelation. I also resist the CEO model that seems to be rather prevalent among pastors these days, especially those who serve mega-churches. None of us is Steve Jobs.

No, that’s not what vision is, in my opinion.

I define vision in terms of Blackaby’s understanding of how one discerns the will of God. He speaks about this extensively in his now classic study, Experiencing God. One of the most profound things he talks about is the whole issue of spiritual markers. He asserts that if we want to know where things are headed in the future, we must do a good job of interpreting the past and the present.

What is God doing right NOW? THAT is THE issue. We discern this through prayer and the Word and circumstances and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Then, we are able to join Him.

As we line up what He is doing now, this gives us an indication of where He wants us to go in the future.

Vision, in my opinion is no crystal ball. It is crazy to think that anyone can predict the future. The Lord Jesus Himself didn’t even know the hour of His return! Come on!

I think that vision is a clear view of the present. And this is a critical role of leaders. Seeing the present, CLEARLY. How about that?

So, Vision Sunday will be a challenge to God’s people to pray and seek the Lord so that they can join Him in what He is doing.

But, here is my conviction: this can never happen if the people of God are not right with the Lord. He can’t and won’t bless sin.

Therefore, what I am challenging the church to do right now as we prepare for that Sunday a few weeks down the road is to spend time in self-evaluation and reflection. I am praying that people are doing this. I hope they are.

But I understand how difficult this is in our busy culture. This involves sitting down with the Lord for an extended time of silence with an open book and an open heart.

Looking back on my life prior to my cancer diagnosis, I did not do this that often, but cancer changed all of that for me. It forced me to have the leisure to take the time I needed to think, really think about what I was doing (or not) and to pray. I am committed to continuing that practice. And Mondays are a day for that these days (at least that is the plan).

Again, before I found out I had cancer, I just jumped into Mondays with both feet. I was concerned to get moving on the week, and I plowed ahead. For many years, we had an organized outreach program on Monday nights and a staff meeting on Tuesday early afternoon. That took time to prepare for in addition to my sermon work. As a result, I did not usually slow down until late afternoon on Tuesday. But no more.

I feel that I am a lot more productive now when I am alone with God praying than I was all those years with feverish activity.

Anyway, I’m challenging them to pray. And while we are praying, I feel led to preach about some things I believe are church issues. The first has to do with financial stewardship and it corresponds with where we are in the study in 2 Corinthians—chapters eight and nine. These two chapters are arguably the most extensive discussion about giving money to God in the whole New Testament.

Here is where I am struggling this morning: over the years, we have had stewardship study after sermon after challenge. In fact, we just had an extensive stewardship study early this year. Al taught all the adults for about twenty minutes each Sunday. Then, everyone went back to his/her Sunday school class. He taught a Dave Ramsey course. It was excellent.

Did it make much difference in the church? I don’t think so. Why? Well, most of the folks involved in the study (and the seniors told me this several times) were already giving to God. The people who needed it in our church were not there to hear it. Most of the younger folks in our church (and we don’t have a huge number anyway) do not come to Sunday school as a general rule.

Now, I am preaching from these two chapters in 2 Corinthians for the next couple of weeks. I know the Lord uses His Word to work on people, and we have a greater exposure to more folks than we do in Sunday school, but I’m not particularly hopeful that a lot is going to change long term.

What is the answer to all of this? Well, I think that unless people are personally confronted in their sin and beyond that, are open to having someone in the church give them personal ministry, nothing is going to change.

When it comes to money, though, this is a delicate issue. I have made a personal policy (and I say this to the church often) that I refuse to know what people give. Now, some people share their struggles with me, and if they do that, then I am able to get more specific in my ministry. But for most of the people in the church, I have no idea what they give. And I like it that way.

The positive side of that is that I can preach with freedom, and no one can say, “Hey, he is preaching to me because of our conversation the other day!”

The negative side, however (and this is dawning on me as a huge problem) is that most people don’t and won’t change.

How does a church confront sin, especially when it comes to folks’ financial stewardship, without driving them out of the church altogether?

Somehow, I believe that over the years, this crucial aspect of Christian fellowship—confronting sin—has been diminished if not totally lost in our politically correct culture. We just don’t do it any where near as often as we should—not just when it comes to money, but also as it applies to other things.

Years ago, a very sharp young couple started coming the church. They were very enthusiastic about the ministry. One day, they came to my office and said, “John, we have been dating a while. We feel it is time to get married. Would you officiate at the ceremony?”

I replied, “Yes, I would be glad to, but first, I want to ask you a question: are you living together?”

They looked rather bewildered. “Well, yes, we are.”

I went on, “Well, unless you separate, I will not perform your wedding. Separate from one another and be abstinent as a pledge of obedience to God and for your future together, and I will be glad to do your wedding.”

Well, as you could guess, they did not like that very much. They left my office. They were not happy. And I never saw them again.

I wonder what would happen if I did choose to look at everyone’s giving record, and after doing so, I called folks in, one by one, into my office to confront them about their disobedience. How do you think that would turn out?

Any openings at McDonald’s?

Now, let me hasten to say that I don’t feel led to do THAT. I was born at night but not last night. But tell me: what is the difference in God’s eyes between immorality and stealing?

This is the dilemma the church faces, our church faces.

Somehow, something has been lost in the contemporary church. Willimon and Haurwas point his out in their book, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. They mention the story of Ananias and Sapphira. It is the ultimate picture of confrontation, and by the way, it had to do with money. The writers argue, “The church was called to be a colony, an alternative community, a sign, a signal to the world that Christ had made possible a way of life together unlike anything the world had seen. Not to confront lies and deceit, greed and self-service among people like Ananias and Sapphira would be the death of the church” (page 131).

I pray that we are NOT already dead because we don’t confront sin as the early church did.

But, as in everything, we need to be careful that it is not something we attempt to do in the flesh. I believe that the Holy Spirit can convict people of sin a lot better than I could do if I tried to “take matters in my own hands.” That never works.

Paul desired to live in the power of God all the time, and He saw everything that went on in his life, including and especially the thorn in the flesh, as God’s way of making that possible.

"Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me" (2 Corinthians 12:9, NLT). Once again, the Amplified Bible brings out the true meaning of the last phrase of this verse:
"But He said to me, My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness. Therefore, I will all the more gladly glory in my weaknesses and infirmities, that the strength and power of Christ (the Messiah) may rest (yes, may pitch a tent over and dwell) upon me!" (2 Corinthians 12:9 AMP).

More than anything today, I pray that the power of Christ would “pitch a tent over and dwell” on me today.

Lord, I am grateful again today that you are in charge of your church and everyone in it, including and especially ME. I believe that you care more about your church than anyone could possibly care, and you know what is going on in each individual heart. I just pray for revival. Let it begin with me.

I confess my sin to you, Lord. And I realize that none of us wants to expose ourselves to confrontation. That is not pleasant for anyone, but Lord, help us to learn what it means to be the church, the real church.

I pray for my own financial stewardship. Show me, Father, what I need to change in that regard. Take care of this issue, church-wide, as well. We are in your very capable hands, as always.

“Thus might I hide my blushing face
While Calv’ry’s cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears” (“At the Cross,” BH 2008, 255). Amen.
Comments

Bearing Trouble Manfully

Whoa. Before I get into the passage for today, I checked my email. I received two messages in a row from guests to our service yesterday. Both are extremely encouraging.

When I finish writing this morning, I’m going to answer both of them and tell them I appreciate their words of encourage GREATLY.

We had a good day yesterday, but a lot of people were out—this is a vacation time for many in our church as Fall and the start of school is approaching. I understand this. I’m taking some time myself, but these are difficult Sundays to preach, even knowing all of that. I can’t exactly come to the reason why. Humm. Need to think and pray about that for a moment.

Selah.

Here is what comes to mind. Yesterday, I preached from 2 Corinthians 8. I believe that those two chapters—eight and nine—form the heart of the book. And they are all about an offering that Paul was collecting to help the saints out in the church in Jerusalem. I think I have mentioned this before in this blog.

Anyway, it is all about money, and I believe that this is a huge challenge for our church to deal with. I don’t believe that we are unusual in that regard. In most churches, here is the rule of thumb: ten percent of the people give ninety percent of the money. I believe this is true for us.

But, hey, just because that is the norm, it does NOT mean it is right.

This whole issue came to my attention in a BIG WAY not long ago. In a conversation, a person in our church said, “Look, I can’t afford to give right now. But I think we ought to be careful how we talk about money around here. We could offend people very easily. I think if people can give something, anything, we (I think he was speaking directly to me) ought to be happy about it. I mean something is better than nothing, right?”

When he said that, I was speechless. I was honestly in shock. I didn’t say anything. Maybe that was best because his comment made me angry.

In retrospect, if I could have answered him and done it in love, I would have replied, “No, nothing is better than something. I would rather just have people keep their money rather than flatter themselves that they are actually doing God a favor by tossing a couple of bucks in the plate.” Just keep it. We don’t need your tip. And God certainly doesn’t.

I believe that what this man said is a very prevalent attitude in the church today. It is a “me first” philosophy that spends money on any and everything FOR ME and then at the end of the month when they are at the end of the money (often well before the end of the month), they can’t afford to give to God.

My point is: this is a message the whole church needed to hear (including this man) but many folks (including this man) were not there yesterday.

Before I go further, I want to be clear on another point: I don’t preach messages to particular individuals to “stick it to them.” That is NOT my practice, but as I progress through books of the Bible, I come to passages that I realize the church needs to hear and I preach them accordingly.

It is too often the case that I feel something a particular passage has to say applies to certain individuals and could really help them or challenge them or correct some erroneous theology, and I look up on a Sunday morning, and they aren’t there, for one reason or another. It is discouraging at times, but again, I affirm that the Lord is in control of all of this.

Well, anyway, I could say a whole lot more about all of this, but I won’t now.

Back to the passage for today. Paul prayed three times (and probably a lot more than that) that the Lord would remove the thorn and the messenger from Satan who was harassing him day and night. What happened with that prayer?

The Lord did indeed answer, but it was probably, at least at first, something that Paul didn’t want to hear. I’m quoting this morning from the Amplified Bible: "But He said to me, My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness. Therefore, I will all the more gladly glory in my weaknesses and infirmities, that the strength and power of Christ (the Messiah) may rest (yes, may pitch a tent over and dwell) upon me!" (2 Corinthians 12:9 AMP).

“My grace is sufficient for you.” That was God’s answer, and the Amplified Bible “amplifies” that statement in a couple of ways, one of which is my grace “enables you to bear the trouble manfully.” Wow. What a statement!

Bearing up manfully. Take it like a man. Stand in and deal with things as a man would deal with them.

Yesterday, at the conclusion of the United States Amateur golf match here in town, the young man who lost, Michael Weaver, threw his club at his golf bag and the picture in the paper shows him crying.

Somehow, to me, this diminishes him. This is not appropriate.

Sure, he gave away a two-up lead with two holes to play in a thirty-six-hole match and lost on the first hole of sudden death. It was heart-breaking. No one would like to lose THAT WAY, but still, his behavior was not appropriate. Stand up there. Shake your opponents hand. Be gracious. Cry and throw your clubs in private when you get home.

The spiritual application of this is that Paul had a lot more reason to cry and throw a tantrum than Michael Weaver. After all, he had given his life to the work of the Lord and served Jesus all over the world as a missionary. Shouldn’t that merit some special treatment from God and a break? Come on!

But God said, “No.” I’m not going to take away the thorn or its messenger, but I’m going to give you something better: I’m going to give you my grace. My grace, not relief, is what you need. “My strength comes into its own in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9, MSG).

Paul discovered that the way God wanted him to experience His strength was through the apostle’s weakness. This seems rather contradictory, but it was Paul’s point throughout this book. God’s strength, his true picture of it, is radically different than that of the world.

I will get to Paul’s conclusion through all of this tomorrow.

In the meantime, there is the grace of God. Grace, God’s unmerited favor, saves us in the first place, but these chapters (from eight on) show us that grace strengthens us and sustains us.

I love to give visible demonstrations of things. As I was talking about grace yesterday, I used a little object lesson. It involved a glass, a pale, and a pitcher. I said, “Most of us treat God this way.” I acted as if I drank a glass of water. Then, I turned the glass over, spilling a couple of drops of water into the pale. “This is how some of us are treating God today. We pay money for any and every thing we want and give God the couple of drops that are left over. This is not how grace works.”

Then, I took the pitcher. It was nearly full of water. And with a broad sweep, I poured it into the pale. The water sloshed in it and lopped over on the other side. “This is the grace of God. Never just a little. Always more, much more, than we need. And aren’t you glad? ‘Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound’ (Romans 5:20, KJV).”

Lord, I do praise you for your grace today. Grace that saves. Grace that strengthens. Grace that sustains through all kinds of difficulties and enables me to bear up like a man.

You are in charge of the true definition of a MAN, a man of God. THAT’S what I want to be, by your grace.

“Safe in the cross of Jesus!
There let my weary heart
Still rest in peace unshaken,
Till with Him, ne’er to part” (“I Saw the Cross of Jesus,” BH 2008, 253). Amen.
Comments

Can't Catch a Break

Maybe that isn’t quite the right way to put it. But Paul (or, as he put it, “I know a man”) was able to have visions that no one else has ever had.

This is a lot more than many of the contemporary stories about what people see as they nearly die.

Paul tells enough about his vision that as you read his testimony, you realize that what the Lord allowed him to see went FAR beyond those stories. He actually got to look at what was going on beyond the “pearly gates.” Words were not adequate to describe it, and even if they were, Paul was not allowed to tell.

That is one thing.

But in the verses I read this morning, the Lord carried it even a step further: "So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV).

As I read his comments, Paul was not allowed any opportunity to get the big head. In spite of the fact that he couldn’t tell what he saw, there was still a danger. It was a potential character issue, and the Lord could not allow it.

So, he has this off-the-charts vision. How long did it last? Who knows? Again, we don’t have many details, but let’s say it lasted an hour or longer. And then it was done, but God’s “fix” lasted the rest of Paul’s life.

God gave him a “thorn in the flesh.”

In the course of my study of 2 Corinthians over the years, I have read dozens of theories about what this was exactly. It makes good conversation, I guess, but the whole endeavor is pointless. Paul is intentionally vague.

The only thing he adds is the “messenger of Satan” part.

Whatever this was, Satan’s angel used it to harass Paul all the time—day in and day out. He could never escape this attack.

What occurs to me this morning is that all this speculation about what the thorn is misses the point. The MAIN point is the “messenger of Satan” part. Paul is saying that he lived under constant harassment from Satan. Constant. It never abated. It never let up.

He couldn’t even enjoy a “mountain top” experience.

This is the warning our youth leaders and I always give our students when they go away to camp. “Camp is great. Enjoy it, but realize that you have to come back home and live for Jesus for the rest of your life.” THAT’S the hard part—the live for Jesus afterward.

As Paul is sharing this testimony, we have to realize that, again, he is answering his critics. It is quite easy to stand up in front of a congregation or in front of a television screen and brag about your spiritual experiences, but the acid test, where the rubber hits the road, is how you live the rest of the time.

Paul was faithful to the Lord in spite of all his physical sufferings (they is a partial list in chapter eleven), in spite of the constant anguish he experienced as a pastor (ditto—the toughest burden of all. This must be the case because it is last in the list—the epitome, the climax), and as if that weren’t enough, in spite of constant, never ending harassment from Satan.

Add to all of this that Paul prayed and asked the Lord to take it away. So it must not be pansy stuff that he is talking about here. Paul asked three times. I believe this was his way of saying (and the language indicates it here) that he pleaded with the Lord many, many times to take this torment out of this life, but the Lord refused.

This is another element that made life difficult for Paul, I am sure. The Lord answered his prayers for the folks he prayed for. You can see miraculous answers stated and implied all the way through Paul’s letters in the New Testament, but on this crucial issue in his own life—God did not grant his request.

A lesser man would have grown bitter with the Lord over THAT issue.

I’ll tell you: the further you go in this book, the more you realize what this man dealt with, this man that God used to touch the world for Jesus.

And I complain about the little things I have to deal with …

Lord, today, I thank you for the opportunity to see you do great and marvelous things. This is another opportunity. Do a great work in the church today. Somewhere, somehow. And if you choose to do something in the church I serve—and we do need REVIVAL desperately—help me to be ready with whatever comes with that.

I confess that I am easily discouraged when I face difficulty or opposition or sin or failure or physical pain or severe attacks from Satan.

Teach me what you taught Paul.

I pray for the Luna children. I am picking them up on my way to church this morning. I pray that each of these kids follows you for the rest of their lives. I pray for their parents—Pablo and Maria.

May you be honored and glorified in the services today. I also pray for other pastors and preachers I know who are serving you today (and dealing with “thorns” also).

“In ev-ry fear and conflict, I more than conqueror am;
Living, I’m safe, or dying,
Thro’ Christ, the risen Lamb” (“I Saw the Cross of Jesus,” BH 2008, 253). Amen.
Comments

I Know a Man

At every turn, I continue to be amazed at the way Paul talks about himself in 2 Corinthians. Everything he does is an “anti-boast.” He is setting himself up as a polar opposite of the so-called “super apostles” who had infiltrated the church in Corinth. They were all about touting themselves, pushing themselves, and promoting themselves.

One of their main tactics, I am sure, was telling about visions they had received from the Lord. I’m always a little hesitant when I hear some television preacher tell about some “revelation” from the Lord. I am reminded what the writer to Hebrews says in the very first two verses of the book: "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe" (Hebrews 1:1, 2 NIV84).

I believe that, for the most part, visions and revelations fall in that category. With the incarnation of Jesus and the finishing of the canon of scripture, there is simply no need for them any longer. The full and final revelation eclipses all others.

I use the term “for the most part” because I can’t say the Lord has done away with them completely. The text for today is a case in point, although, the way Paul couches it is more in terms of a testimony about what happened than some vision he had. This fact makes it even more powerful.

Here is what he says at the beginning of chapter twelve: "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows– was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses" (2 Corinthians 12:2-5 NIV84).

My point this morning is the way he talks about this experience is remarkable. Four times he refers to “a man.” He doesn’t even allow himself to speak about himself in the first person.

And, here is another thing about this—the Lord doesn’t even allow him to tell what he saw and what he heard.

Had that been me—things would have been different.

While I was in seminary, I wrote a paper for one of my PhD seminars on my pastor at Travis Avenue Baptist Church, Joel Gregory. For this paper, I spoke to Joel on a couple of occasions. In additions to that, I interviewed several other people, including his wife Linda.

In the course of my conversation with her, she told me something about him and then said, “You know what. I think I would just prefer if you didn’t tell that.” I didn’t think it was anything all that weird or out there or certainly not immoral.

Not too many days after my conversation with her, I was standing around talking with some buddies after the preaching seminar I was writing this paper for. Someone said, “How is your paper on Gregory going?” I replied, “Oh, great. I’ve been talking to people. Talked to his wife the other day. She shared something that she didn’t want me to write. It was . . . “ I was going to blurt it out!

One of my friends, Grant, held up his hand, “Don’t tell it!” He screamed.

Oh, yeah. It was supposed to be confidential. Right.

His rebuke has helped me with this type of thing to this very day.

Since those days in seminary, I have learned that confidential information is as juicy as gossip for folks. Warning people about confidentiality is just as certain to elicit someone letting the cat out of the bag, unfortunately.

It is the same for “spiritual” experiences. When something happens, we want to blab it to anyone who would listen.

Paul patently refuses to do two things. He refuses to talk about himself when it comes to things that might make someone think he is some sort of spiritual giant. And, he can’t talk about them anyway.

I have friends that just love to talk about themselves.

One of the things that my parents taught me about conversation was this: people love to talk about themselves! Just ask questions about them and you will never lack for anything to say. True, how true.

Nothing wrong with that, per se. This is a way we can get to know one another. I love talking about myself, too, by the way.

But there is a fine line between that and boasting.

Here is what 2 Corinthians is teaching me: how someone talks about himself/herself reveals a lot about where this person is with the Lord. The acid test is so-called great spiritual experiences. If I talk about them at all, how do I do it? Can the Lord entrust me with a “third heaven” experience? Will I brag about it?

Pastors are notorious for this. If the Lord starts to work in a church, the pastor talks about it as if he had a lot to do with it!

Here’s what I have decided: let’s say that tomorrow, hundreds of people show up at the service at First Southern, and a hundred folks get saved! The following week, someone shows up from the Rocky Mountain Baptist—our state convention paper. “John, please tell us what is going on here. Wow. What a great day!” I’ve already decided what I am going to do: I’m going to refuse an interview and tell whoever it is that I don’t want my name in such an article anywhere. I’d rather have someone else in the church answer the question.

Or, better yet, have everyone in the church refuse to talk about it. How about that?

I am convicted that we as Christians wrongly and too often take credit for what God does—just by the way we talk about things, our pious, pseudo-spiritual language notwithstanding.

Lord, I do pray for revival at First Southern and all the churches on the North Side of Denver and in the city as a whole and in the United States.

We are in desperate need of a work from you.

And, it is totally up to you whether you do it or not. You are sovereign.

If you choose to do it, and you allow me to be a part of it, help me, Lord, to talk about it in just the same way as Paul talked about this extraordinary experience you allowed “a man” to have.

If you choose not to, I’m choosing to serve you with humility anyway.

“May I be willing, Lord, to bear
Daily my cross for Thee;
Even Thy cup of grief to share,
Thou hast borne all for me” (“Lead Me to Calvary,” BH 2008, 251). Amen.
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A Cup of Cold Water, A Piece of Pizza, and a Big Basket

Yesterday was a good day of ministry. Why do I say that?

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, we saw God answer prayer. On Thursday night, a gal in our church, Kelley, had to go to the hospital. She had severe pain with some gall bladder issues. I got a text from Jorge, our worship leader, that they had moved her to ICU.

On my way to the office yesterday, I stopped in Aurora to visit her at University Hospital, but I could not get in because they were prepping her for surgery.

Therefore, I went on up to the church to do some work, and then headed over to Federal Heights Elementary School. It was back-to-school night and I wanted to help some folks from North Metro church. We volunteered to provide a meal for the parents and students.

Larry from North Metro made the “executive” decision (a very good one, I might add) that this year, we would just serve pizza along with water/lemonade to everyone. Estimates were that about 450 people would show up.

Now, before I go on with this story, I want to give a little background. Four years ago, when First Southern and North Metro entered into a partnership to do volunteer work at Federal Heights Elementary School, several of us met with the principal and many of the teachers. I will never forget that meeting.

We told this group of educators that we were there to serve and asked how we could help. At the beginning of the meeting, one of the teachers piped up, “I am not very comfortable with a couple of churches coming in here. What about the issue of the separation of church and state?” I am not sure that I have quoted here EXACTLY. But this is the gist of what she said.

Lucinda was there. I was in the meeting as well. I can’t remember who else was in attendance from our two churches. Anyway, we were speechless. It was a very awkward moment.

As we were contemplating a response, another teacher spoke up. She is actually related to a family in our church. Her name is Rhonda. She has since moved to teach at another school, but I still see her now and again. She said, “Well, I think we need to get over that. They are here to help, and I think we all agree that we can use all the help we can get.” Her response shut that other teacher up, and things opened up at that point.

The principal said, “Well, I can tell you one thing we need: a back-to-school party to get the school year started right.” This was at the end of school in 2008. We were looking at the Fall of 2008. Okay.

We planned and worked all summer to put this party together. We got hotdogs and a couple of huge grills. We added a bag of chips and a cookie along with a drink. I THINK I am right.

Whether I have the exact details of that meal right or not, what I remember is that it was a lot of work. We had people grilling. We had people putting the food on plates. I manned the condiment table where we had huge jugs of mustard and ketchup.

That was the first party. It was in the Fall of 2008. Several teachers came up to us. One, I remember, was very emotional. He said, “Thank you so much for doing this for us.” We were able to network a lot of new relationships. It got our ministry at that school off to a great start.

The next year, the Fall of 2009, we did a modified version of the same thing. Again, it was a lot of work.

I’m not sure about 2010. I don’t think we did anything that year.

I was talking with some folks last night. A couple of women from North Metro told me that they did do a back-to-school party last Fall, in 2011.

But this year . . . we didn’t even really know about the need for this ministry until a couple of weeks ago. There wasn’t much time to plan. Larry decided it would just be easier (not cheaper, by any means) of just buying pizzas and doing something simple.

That is what we did. We served pizza along with a cup of water/lemonade to well over 400 folks last night.

Back to my comment about it being a good ministry day yesterday—I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed putting pieces of pizza on paper plates and serving them to the folks at that school last night. The fellowship with the folks at North Metro was fantastic, but just that simple act of service was such a joy. I was careful (it wasn’t a chore) to look parents and children in the eye and smile at them. Most of them were Hispanic. The kids could speak English. Many of the parents could not.

The love of Jesus transcends all of that. No problemos (a little Spanglish for you there!).

The other thing about all of this was that it took me back to our last mission outreach in July of 2010. This is actually the first ministry activity I have been involved in since then. Back then, way back then, I was wondering, “What on earth is this bulge in my abdomen all about?” Those memories, those feelings, those fears all came back, rushing back, but along with them—deep gratitude to God.

It seemed like lifetimes ago. It seemed like yesterday. Both/and. Weird for sure, but good.

I loved serving WITH my brothers and sisters from this congregation. To a person, they asked how I was doing. They care. They love. And I know they prayed. I thanked them for doing it.

I wish I could hug everyone who has prayed and still is praying for me. I hope I get a chance here on earth, but I know I will in heaven. Here’s what I believe: at the feet of Jesus as we praise Him forever, we will also be sharing fellowship with every believer that has ever lived. This will be particularly sweet with those we have known and loved while on this earth. And, everything, absolutely every detail of ministry and its eternal significance will be fully known. We will see what happened to every prayer and every act of ministry we did. It will all be out there.

Wow, I can hardly wait. Come, Lord Jesus.

Anyway, when the pizza was nearly gone, I said my goodbyes to everyone, jumped in my truck, and headed back to University Hospital. By then, Kelley’s stepmom—her nickname is Gus—was in the waiting room. We hugged and visited a while. Another one of Kelley’s friends showed up.

Eventually, I got in to see Kelley. She looked great. It was evident that she was not in pain any longer. We visited, laughed, and prayed together. I thanked Dr. Jesus for another good job as He used the doctors and nurses to help Kelley. They had to remove a couple of gallstones, but she was doing great.

Now, to the passage for today. I love the rather curious end to Paul’s long litany of suffering in chapter eleven. Out of all his experiences (and won’t it be wonderful when we get to heaven to hear about and see firsthand everything the Lord let Paul do), he chose one. This story is also recorded in Acts 9. And it occurred not long after Paul’s public ministry began.

"When I was in Damascus, the governor under King Aretas kept guards at the city gates to catch me. I had to be lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall to escape from him" (2 Corinthians 11:32, 33 NLT).

His opponents in Damascus put guards at all the gates of the city, ostensibly so that they could nab Paul and do who-knows-what to him—probably kill him. This is probably the first time that Paul was in real danger in his ministry. How scary can anything be?


And yet, his brothers and sisters found a large basket, hid him in it, and lowered him over a wall. When that big basket hit the ground, Paul sneaked away unscathed. Free! Rescued! The first of many rescues and deliverances!

It probably stood out in his mind. This is where he began to learn that the same God who allows hardship—all the stuff he listed in the previous verse—is the same God who rescues us, not OUT of them, but THROUGH them.

This is exactly the way I felt last night as I handed a piece of pizza to a little Hispanic kid, as I stood at Kelley’s bedside—Rescued Through.

Lord, you are awesome. Thanks for taking care of Kelley yesterday. Thanks for the opportunity to serve at that school last night. Thank you for the fellowship with the folks at North Metro.

Thank you, again, from the bottom of my heart—for rescuing me through cancer.

“Glory to His name” (“Down at the Cross,” BH 2008, 252). Amen.
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Paul's Back

Before I get into the passage for today, I want to share a word about loneliness and isolation.

These concepts have come to my attention through two very powerful sources. First, Pastor Ilamarques and I were talking the other day. Out of that conversation, he pointed me to an article that he has written. You can see it in its entirety on his church’s website. The address is www.newgenbc.org. The title of the piece is “Isolation—A Demonic Strategy.” I think Pastor Ilamarques has done an excellent job of stating the dangers of being isolated. This was never God’s intent for His people.

And yet, when we are going through hard times, this is the temptation that Satan throws our way. I see this over and over. Recently, a young woman who has been attending our church for a couple of years (she never joined the fellowship) was diagnosed with cancer. Immediately, she dropped out—gone, poof! We have never seen her again.

One of the ladies in our church continues to express concern for her and has tried to minister to her but to no avail.

Why would she do this? I can’t understand. When I was diagnosed a couple of years ago, I wanted to share this with my church family. I wanted them to know it. And I wanted all the people in our church—every single one of them—to be praying for me. That sounds selfish, I know. But so be it. Why would anyone not take advantage of one of the greatest resources the church can offer—the corporate prayers of the body of Christ?

Ilamarques gives the answer in his article. It is a demonic strategy that makes us even more vulnerable to attack.

And what I have discovered about all of this is that, when one isolates himself or herself, it only compounds itself. Here is the way it goes: someone withdraws from church and refuses contact and then turns around and blames the church for not ministering to them adequately. “I knew nobody cares about me at that church.” It confirms their isolation and only makes them more isolated. “Well, if that is the way they feel, then I know I am never going back to church again.”

You get the idea. It is extremely dangerous.

But isolation is not limited to folks in the church. It is very prevalent among pastors. Willimon and Hauerwas discuss this in their book, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. I just keep plugging along in this book. It is very interesting. Chapter six transition to talking about the pastorate. Here are some of the comments the authors make: “But the loneliness of the contemporary ministry is peculiar because it is tied to the self-hate engendered by the ministry…. That is why we suspect that most clergy soon discover that their best friend is another clergyperson, usually in another denomination. They become friends because they recognize in each other the same hates and experiences” (Hauerwas and Willimon, page 124).

Oh, man. I can’t begin to tell you how true this is.

Not long ago, I was talking to a fellow pastor in the community (He happened to be from the same denomination). He said, “John, here is what I am learning. I really can’t afford to have any friends in the church. Have you discovered the same thing?” Unfortunately, yes.

When I first started at the church almost twenty-three years ago (gulp, has it really been that long?), I seemed to be able to make friends and share with folks in the church. Over the years, I have grown more and more hesitant with that practice (for multiple reasons). Now, as these authors describe, my main friends are pastors OUTSIDE the church.

It isn’t that I don’t have friends at First Southern. I want to be clear here. BUT, I am discovering that I am more and more hesitant to be vulnerable with folks in the congregation.

This is probably how Paul felt. He must have. This feeling of loneliness and isolation must have struck him as he faced criticism in the church at Corinth. That is why, I am convinced, that he shares his heart with this church as he does in no other book.

In spite of this endemic loneliness that ministry engenders, there is something within each one of us—whether we are pastors or not—that longs to be known, truly known, and understood. And to Paul’s credit, as he faced this criticism, instead of withdrawing, he opens up even more.

The list in 2 Corinthians 11 is his most personal in the whole book, I believe. Here it is: "Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?" (2 Corinthians 11:24-29 ESV).

Okay, as I read this list, I realize this morning that I have no idea what suffering truly is. I urge you to go to Google and enter this line in the search engine, “Forty lashes save one.” This is the first item on the list. I would think that many people would not survive one of these severe lashings. But Paul endured FIVE of them! FIVE.

Can you imagine what his back looked like? My imagination comes to its limit.

This is only the first in a long list of suffering. The rest of the things on that list are no cakewalk, either.

But here is the thing about this list. It comes to a climax. What is the epitome of suffering? “The daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” This was a weight that he carried on his back every moment of every day, this back ripped apart and deeply scarred by FIVE lashings. This was the heaviest load of all.

For folks that might be wondering how many hours their pastor works each week . . . I wonder how one factors in the fact that every pastor who is worth his salt carries with him EVERY MOMENT OF EVERY DAY the burdens of the church he serves. How do you count THAT when you are computing hours?

But, even as I write that, I realize that Paul did not just have one church he was burdened for, but many. One church keeps me plenty busy. Paul had many more.

Humm. As I write that, I wonder exactly how many?

The point is: this was high on his list of suffering.

Lord, I thank you today for the church. I am so grateful for the blessing and honor of the congregation you have called me to serve. It is indeed that. Thank you for the burden of ministry.

I confess my tendency toward isolation. Keep me through temptation and deliver me from evil.

I pray for the gal who has cancer and has withdrawn from the church at a time she needs the fellowship and prayers of Jesus’ church more than ever.

I thank you for my friends throughout the years—in the church and in the broader church community. I thank you for all my pastor friends on this north side of town and throughout the country.

“Lest I forget Gethsemane (a time when Jesus was alone, by the way);
Lest I forget Thine agony (another time; are you kidding?);
Lest I forget Thy love for me,
Lead me to Calvary” (“Lead Me to Calvary,” BH 2008, 251). Amen.
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Suffering Fools Gladly

The passage I read today is literally dripping with sarcasm as Paul continues to defend himself against his accusers in the church at Corinth.

One of the things that strikes me about his comments in this chapter and really through the book as a whole is that Paul does not try to go toe to toe with them. It is not about trying to “one up” his opponents. “Well, you claim to have done this. I have done more.” Not that type of thing.

Although, Paul could have done that. Try to match him on any level of achievement in Christian ministry, he would have come out on top.

But that is not Paul’s approach. Instead, he takes the tactic of using the same means—boasting—to put himself on the totally opposite end of the spectrum. We will get to the details of that in the latter portion of this chapter. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I want to come back to his sarcastic tone. I see this coming totally from a heart of love. Paul has just affirmed it (look at verse 12). He cares so deeply for this congregation that he is willing to go to any extreme to get them to see what they are doing.

This comes out in the following verses:
"Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face" (2 Corinthians 11:18-20 ESV).

As I read this passage today, something struck me—one of the most well known statements in the King James Version comes from this passage. I don’t know if I have ever realized it before. Here is verse nineteen in the KJV: "For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise." The expression is “suffering fools gladly.”

This is the essence of what the church was doing. How tragic!

Not only did they criticize their pastor (Paul), but also they tolerated—and did it gladly—fools who infiltrated the church and abused them! This is the essence of Paul’s description in verse twenty—Christian abuse! That seems to be a contradiction of terms, doesn’t it?

How can Christians abuse one another or worse, tolerate it? But the truth is that it occurs all the time.

As I sit here this morning and think about this, it dawns on me that this occurred in my own family. Years ago, back in the mid-1970’s, we discovered that my grandmother—her name was Belle—was actually giving money to Garner Ted Armstrong.

Do you know that name? I encourage everyone reading this blog to go to Google and look up his name. His father founded the World Wide Church of God. Garner Ted had a radio program where he shared his views of “prophecy.” It was out there in left field, for sure.

But I still remember the day we discovered that my grandmother had been sending him money for years! He seemed to be very adept at getting money out of folks. And Belle fell for it. It is still hard to believe. She didn’t have that much. She gave sacrificially to the church, but she gave money also to Garner Ted. Wow.

Have you ever stopped to think about how many folks are preaching and ministering on the radio and television that are good at getting people to give them money? Of course. It costs a lot to have a radio program. I actually looked into it a few years ago because someone at church asked me to do it. Yikes!

You have to have a fairly substantial “cash flow” or it simply is not feasible.

I think it would be shocking to know how many people in churches actually give money to some teacher or preacher or evangelist or so-called Christian organization, and they don’t really know that they are supporting false doctrine.

This is one way in today’s church we “suffer fools gladly.” But I can think of another way.

It seems that people are very ready and eager to listen to gossip and promote division in the body of Christ. What is it about gossip? It is appealing. It is “juicy,” just like a Palisade peach. It drips off the tongue and out of our mouths.

And actually, it is one of the most damaging things a church can EVER do. The only analogy I can think of is that it is similar to someone taking a baseball bat and swinging away at anything he can find—bashing windows and pianos and walls and doors.

Whoa, if someone were doing that, people would call the police. Such a person would be prosecuted. No doubt about it.

Instead, those who spread it and those who tolerate it (equally as guilty) sit by while someone bashed the church!

This is the language Paul is using in 2 Corinthians 11. Whether it comes from the outside in the form of false teaching or from the inside in the form of gossip (and of course false teachers infiltrate the church as well), it is serious business.

AND, rather than “suffering fools gladly,” we ought to rise up in arms to defend God’s church. I’m praying for that type of person, a whole group of them, to emerge.

Lord, it is no wonder that the church is under attack, especially if she is moving in the right direction.

I pray that you would protect the flock at First Southern. I pray for the other churches on the north side of Denver. Protect your people from anyone—inside or outside the church—who, under the cloak of Christian ministry—is actually doing damage to Jesus’ church.

I pray that I would NEVER “suffer fools gladly.” NEVER.

“No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus and all in Him is mine!” (“And Can It Be,” BH 2008, 250). Amen.
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Why did God Arrive Late?

As I was looking over the Denver Post for the past couple of days, my eyes landed on a front page article in Sunday’s version. The title of the article is “Aurora shooting inspires various perspectives on God and belief.”

The article alludes to the testimony of many victims of the shooting. It really is incredible how many believers were there that night and involved in some way.

The writer of the article goes on to chronicle that “Ninety-five percent of Americans believe in God . . . But what kind of God?” She goes on to refer to the testimony of Pierce O’Farrell, a believer who attends a Baptist church. This young man asserts that God Himself entered that theater and that’s when the gunman stopped shooting.

I love that testimony, but I certainly can see how someone that does not know Jesus could misinterpret it. The newspaper writer does. She says, “God jammed his gun, many have since asserted. Yet a skeptic would ask why God arrived late” (emphasis mine).

Here is my initial response to these comments, an answer to this skeptic (the writer herself): God wasn’t late. He is early, VERY EARLY.

This Denver Post writer, Electa Draper, is not exploring new territory here. She is simply reflecting a debate that has been going on for hundreds of years. The basic question is: why does a good and loving God allow evil and suffering in the world?

She certainly doesn’t solve this dilemma in her article.

It is interesting, however, that she goes on to refer to a book written by a couple of Baylor University professors, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader. The title of their book is America’s Four Gods. This book presents the results of a survey in which Americans share their views of God. These views can be summed up in four categories, according to Froese and Bader: God as Authoritative (involved in the details of life), God as Benevolent (not always meting out justice and involved in some but not all events), and God as Distant (not involved in daily minutiae), and God as Critical (God not engaged at all in day to day events of any kind).

Humm. Interesting. There is obviously some type of sliding scale here in these views from God being very involved in daily stuff—God or bad—to not being involved at all. The final view of God sounds a lot like Deism. Many of the founders of our nation held this view of God. It argues that God is like a giant watchmaker. He just winds the clock and then stands on the balcony and watches it all play out as a distant and remote God.

Where does all of this lead? The same place it always does when we try to “figure” God out. We end up with a lot of unanswered questions and mystery.

Therefore, what do we do?

Well, all of this takes me back to Sunday. Before I made my “statement,” the one I alluded to yesterday, God was already laying the groundwork. Two people responded to the invitation. Kathy came forward to admit that she was angry and she needed the church to pray for her. Mitch also responded. He shared with me that he was dealing with pride and hatred.

Now, let me stop right there. The more I reflect on those two responses, the more I am amazed at how much courage it took for Kathy and Mitch to admit that to a congregation of people.

I am praying that this is only the beginning of bringing sin out in the open and dealing with it, to go back to the Peterson’s introduction to the book of James. This is the only hope any of us.

Our current pop and politically correct culture tells us to hide these emotions, to keep them to ourselves. We are taught to keep our mouths shut, to “buck up” and get through the tough times. This is worldly and bogus. But I wonder how many in the church are right there. They are struggling at a significant level and they can’t even share it with their church family.

Before I say too much more, I have to be careful. I am probably in the same boat. Do I as a pastor get dead level honest when I am deeply hurt or wounded or angry? I would be less than truthful if I didn’t say that I hesitate greatly.

Why? Well, I need to pray about it. Stay tuned.

But back to Sunday—after the service, I talked further with Kathy. Here is the gist of what I told her: “Kathy, we will be praying for you in your anger. But here is my counsel to you: get in the Word every day of your life. Let the Lord speak to you through His Word and then take time to speak to Him through prayer. Remember, Christianity is a relationship. You can’t have a relationship with anyone with whom you never speak. Get back to that, every day.”

I believe this with all my heart. Without a daily relationship with the Lord in the Word and in prayer, life degenerates down to feelings and emotions and perspectives that very quickly take us places we don’t want to go.

Everyone has an opinion about God. These opinions are shaped by a number of factors from our upbringing to the tragedies we have gone through.

But where do I go for the TRUTH? Where do I go for the truth about God and His character? Of course—the Word.

Today, I came to Psalm 150. I want to quote a couple of verses from the final Psalm. I will do it in a moment. But first, let me say this. God is not a person to be scrutinized as if we can figure Him out. Good luck on that effort. It will take you down to the pit.

He is not a person to be “figured out” as if we can. How arrogant! He is a person to be praised! When I focus on praise, my questions and inquiries and formulas fall away and don’t matter.

"Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!" (Psalm 150:1, 2 ESV). This reference to the heavens or literally, to the “expanse” takes us back to the creation narrative of Genesis 1. "And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day" (Genesis 1:6-8 ESV).

What on earth is this all about? I have no idea, but I know God and I choose just to love on Him this morning.

Father, you are awesome. I praise you in your sanctuary. I praise you in the heavens, the expanse above (whatever that is). I praise you for your mighty deeds. Thank you for creation. Thank you for redemption. Thank you for saving a wretch like me. Thank you for the gift of cancer. Thank you for bringing me to this point today. I exalt you. I lift you up. I shout here this morning your excellent greatness!

I continue to pray for the victims and the families of that terrible tragedy. As long we live, none of us will be able to figure it out.

But we can praise you. I choose to do so today.

“Strength and honor give to His holy name!” (“Praise Him! Praise Him!” BH 2008, 149). Amen.
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Satan's Disguise

I want to get into the passage for today, and I will in a moment, but first I have to tell you a little about what is going on—a little.

This past week, a “situation” arose at church. I am not going to give you all the nitty-gritty details because I don’t think it is appropriate, but I have to say that it is one of the more difficult situations I have faced for a long time.

And one of the biggest problems with it was that I could not even allude to it in this forum. I wasn’t emotionally ready.

But I will have to say that it made posting daily entries in this blog extremely difficult, because, what this has developed into for me is a place where I am can be totally “transparent” and to share exactly what is going on with me.

I guess another thing is I really do wonder how many folks in the church take the time to read this any more. Some do. A brother commented on this blog yesterday, and I really appreciated his encouragement.

But probably, not a lot of people read it, not a big number, and that is okay. What started out as something I felt I needed to do for the congregation now has taken on a larger purpose. I’m now writing to the broader church as a whole and I will leave who reads it up to God.

This is the same mentality the Lord has helped me with in my weekly preaching ministry. I’m going to continue to study and prepare and pay the price to do that, and the rest is up to the Lord and the people who decide to show up for church on Sunday.

But back to the story—it has been a tremendously difficult week, not only for me, but also for my family. I’m realizing, even though I am not married, how much things at church affect wives and kids. I’m getting more insight into why pastor’s kids (PK’s) often rebel and at a certain point in their pilgrimage, decide they never want to step foot in a church again. I can understand it. It is still very tragic.

Anyway, yesterday, it was hard to avoid the irony as I sat there. It was just about two years ago right now that we had a packed out service. It seems like yesterday, in some ways. I had just sent out a letter the week before telling people about my cancer diagnosis. All of them—I mean everyone—were at church that next week.

The feelings of love and concern were palpable. I could see the way people were looking at me that Sunday. They were genuinely uncertain that I was even going to make it. It began a two-year process where I felt that the church as a whole was totally behind me, totally supportive, and totally “in my corner,” so to speak.

And, I will be honest. I think that feeling and that reality has gone a long way to help me in my recovery to this point. Had I not felt that, I think I would have been anxious and worried all the time.

I did have one “friend” come by my office to talk with me after the diagnosis. Looking back, I guess he was trying to help me. He said, “Well, John. You have to know when this diagnosis came down the pike, there are folks who are saying, ‘Great, what are we going to do now?’”

In other words, he gave me the impression that people in the church were thinking that my cancer was a huge inconvenience and was going to hurt the church and it put people in an awkward place as to how they “were going to deal with me.”

Of course, this was as far from the truth as anything. It really reflected what HE thought. It was certainly NOT anywhere near what the folks at First Southern thought or the vast majority still think, for that matter.

All of that, and more, came back to me yesterday in the service. The diagnosis. That conversation. That service after I let the “cat out of the bag.” All of it. And more. That was two years ago. In some ways, it feels as if it were lifetimes ago. In other ways, it seems as if it were yesterday.

I don’t even talk about cancer from the pulpit any longer. I don’t want to, really. But it is still something that I deal with one way or another every day of my life. Of course. Every person with cancer understands it. And of course, I am still getting treatment. And it is still affecting me.

Anyway, I say all of that as background for a statement that I made toward the end of the service. I will give it to you here.

Before I do, I want to make it clear that I have no agenda at this point. I’m not trying to do anything but simply continue to chronicle what is really going on with me in this cancer pilgrimage, a journey that involves an entire congregation of people since I am a pastor.

I will lay this quote out and then I am going to move on. Here is what I said: “This past week, it has come to my attention that some people have questions about my weekly schedule. I’ve been asked to communicate and be transparent. Glad to do it. Since my cancer diagnosis, I have modified a practice that I have been engaged in for the past ten plus years. When I am not in the office, I am either out visiting or I am working from home. These days, for many reasons, I have set aside Mondays and Thursdays, for the most part, to work at home. That is what I am doing. I spend 20 hours per week in study and sermon preparation. That is all I am going to say. One more thing: if anyone has any questions about anything I am doing—no matter what it is—I would really appreciate it if you would take the biblical approach and come to me personally.”

Yesterday, as I preached from 2 Corinthians 7, it dawned on me that churches as a whole have “issues” that need to be addressed. I’ve been praying that the Holy Spirit would show me what “issues” our congregation has, and this past week has shown me a lot. We have a lot of spiritual work to do. Please pray for First Southern.

I know we aren’t alone in having “issues.” For crying out loud, get two people together and there will be “issues.” But here is what separates the church from an organization like Penn State, for example. The church brings things out in the open and deals with them.

How about this quote from the Introduction to James in the Message version? I cited it in the sermon yesterday: “When Christian believers gather in churches, everything that can go wrong sooner or later does.  Outsiders, on observing this, conclude that there is nothing to the religion business except, perhaps, business – and dishonest business at that.  Insiders see it differently.  Just as a hospital collects the sick under one roof and labels them as such, the church collects sinners.  Many of the people outside the hospital are every bit as sick as the ones inside, but their illnesses are either undiagnosed or disguised.  It’s similar with sinners outside the church. So Christian churches are not, as a rule, model communities of good behavior.  They are, rather, places where human misbehavior is brought out in the open, faced and dealt with.”

This is why Satan operates on a totally opposite level. He works in secret, behind the scenes in whispers and gossip and innuendo. In fact, he uses disguises!
"And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:12-14 ESV).

Paul is trying to expose the false teachers in this church! He is saying, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light”! Wow. The ultimate deception!

We have to be more diligent than ever to walk in the light of God’s truth and expose error whenever we see it.

This is crucial for God’s church.

Lord, I thank you for getting me through this past week. Thank you for the way you bring issues to light.

I open myself up to you today. I pray that you would shine the light on all the dark places in my heart. I am ready to do serious business with you.

I also pray that you would do this on a congregational level in the church as a whole—church issues. I have an idea of what some of them are!

I’m grateful that you are in charge of the church and of me.

“I hear the Savior say,
“Thy strength indeed is small,
Child of weakness, watch and pray,
Find in Me thine all in all” (“Jesus Paid It All,” BH 2008, 249). Amen.
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Simple Love for Jesus

Whoa, as I look at the time, it is very short. This blog entry is going to have to be shorter than usual.

I felt the need to spend some extra time in prayer this morning. This day seems very crucial to me for a couple of reasons, and I just felt the need to talk to Jesus about it.

It is funny that everything seems to come together on Sundays to make them the busiest days of the week.

Of course, they are a workday for me. This goes without saying. This is unavoidable. But I wish there were a way for me to deal with the work aspects of the pastorate and still be able to enter the day and go through it with a mind that is focused on Jesus.

If some pastor somewhere figures out a way to do this, I wish he would write a book and tell all the rest of us!

This leads me into the passage the Holy Spirit gave me for today. I am quoting it this morning from the New American Standard Bible. "But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:3 NASB).

In the first few verses of chapter eleven, Paul likens his relationship to the congregation at Corinth to a marriage. He asserts that he performed a wedding ceremony. He married that church to Jesus and to Him alone in an exclusive relationship.

He goes on in the verse above to express his concern that somehow, they are in danger of diverting from that. And he goes back to the very first “diversion.” Satan likes to twist things. He likes to make the very simple and straightforward complicated.

So, here are Adam and Eve and the serpent says, “Come on. Did God really say not to eat THAT fruit? The reason God did that is that He doesn’t want you to be as smart as He is. Go ahead. Eat it.” This is my paraphrase of the story in Genesis.

Do you see how he twists things? Before they listened to the snake, life was very simple in the Garden of Eden. It was the man and the woman and God. They had the freedom to eat the fruit from any tree except one. Come on!

And Satan got in there and introduced complications, and the rest, as they say, is history.

If I weren’t a descendent of that original couple with intimate knowledge of my own tendency to let Satan in to “complicate things,” then I would have to say that this was absolutely ludicrous. How could “the first couple” let this happen?

But we do, over and over.

How does one prevent this “complification” (ha, how about that for a new word?) of the Christian life? Well, I believe that it starts with time with Jesus in the Word and in prayer EVERY DAY. Then, it continues with a radical focus on Jesus throughout the day. He is the only one I need to please.

Lord, I love you, my Beloved Husband. Thank you for the time we could spend together this morning. I choose to focus on you and you alone today. I choose to love you more than anyone or anything else.

“My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou are mine” (“My Jesus, I Love Thee,” BH 2008, 552). Amen.
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The Lord's Pleasure

I want to get into this, but first I would like to mention something else.

The other day, I had the opportunity to visit with a guy. As we got to talking about spiritual matters, he referred me to a website. I would encourage you to take a look at it: www.denverspiritualcommunity.org. It is a fascinating read from several different standpoints.

One of the main things that stands out is the multiple references to scripture. At the top of the page, front and center is: “Let There Be Light.” Underneath it, there is this phrase, “The Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” This is a verbatim quote from John 1:9 and is a direct reference to Jesus, of course, but his name is not mentioned in conjunction with this citation.

Further down the first page, under a picture of the city of Denver, is another scripture quote from 2 Chronicles 7:14.

On the second page, one of the links takes you to a “Metaphysical Bible Interpretation” of the Pentateuch.

On this same page, there is a section entitled “A Thought for the Month.” I would like to quote from this piece. “It is written that when the Nazarene’s disciples turned their gaze away from earth and toward heaven they were able to see the Divine vision and hear a voice proclaiming: ‘Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken from you into heaven, shall to [sic] come in like manner, as ye have seen Him go into Heaven. We must ‘look upward,’ that is, we must raise or elevate our thoughts and desires. In this way we will lift ourselves up; That is, we will thereby regenerate our entire being” (www.denverspiritualcommunity.org, accessed August 11, 2012).

I think you get the idea. Still, no mention of the name of Jesus—not anywhere on this site that I can see.

And, this interpretation of the account of the ascension of Jesus in Acts 1 is rather curious as well. Whoever wrote this is totally misinterpreting the passage and applying it to us and our need to “raise or elevate our thoughts and desires.”

Wow.

There is nothing more dangerous than partial truth. And this is where I believe people get sucked in. It looks like a duck. It quacks like a duck. It must be a duck.

But it isn’t.

I was talking to the class I have been teaching on Wednesday nights this summer. We were discussing the whole issue of denominations. It has been a fascinating study and we had a good discussion.

The whole issue of the basis of authority is key. One of the key elements in the Reformation was the radical shift from papal to scriptural authority. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses are a plea to go to the Bible as the touchstone for faith and practice.

By the way, I challenge you to go to Google and search for a modern English translation of that radical document. It makes an interesting read.

Anyway, all of this points out that my challenge as a pastor is more crucial than ever. I must continue accurately to explain and apply the biblical text AND train people in the congregation to do so as well.

Please pray for me as I have another conversation with the person who directed me to this website. Pray for this person’s salvation.

Back to the passage for today. Here is the verse that stood out to me: "For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation" (Psalm 149:4 ESV). As I read it, something seemed to click just from yesterday. Psalm 149:4 is the second time this type of reference is made.

Here is the first: "But the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love" (Psalm 147:11 ESV).

Not long ago, I was sitting in my dentist’s office waiting to have my teeth cleaned. On the other side of the waiting room, I noticed a man sitting beside his daughter. She was probably five or six. He looked at her, and right out of the blue, pulled his hand back, and punched her in the shoulder.

This gal looked up at him and stood up in her chair. She clenched her little fist and with great bravado returned the favor. Her dad winced as he looked at her. But it wasn’t long before both of them—father and daughter—were laughing and punching each other multiple times.

What was that? It was a father taking pleasure in his daughter. And as a result, the daughter returned his pleasure with more pleasure.

I can’t tell you how much I needed to see that and to read these verses. I need to know that on a much more significant spiritual level—this is the way the Lord feels about me. He takes pleasure in me just because of JESUS (I’m glad to use that name, the name above all names).

Daddy, I relish an opportunity to sit in your lap. Thank you for taking pleasure in me. I want to hug you back. You are awesome.

I pray that you would deliver this person I have mentioned from error. Help me to preach the truth and live the truth. Equip your saints to do the same.

“Jesus, name above all names, beautiful Savior, glorious Lord.
Emmanuel, God is with us, blessed Redeemer, Living Word” (“Jesus, Name Above All Names,” BH 2008, 320). Amen.
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Don't Toot Your Own Horn

This is a saying in my family. I’m not sure where it comes from—probably somewhere in central Kansas. But Marilyn and I heard it often as kids. It came to mind as I read these two verses in 2 Corinthians 10: "’Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends" (2 Corinthians 10:17, 18 ESV).

The bottom line is that Paul faced opposition from folks who were experts at promoting themselves. Why is it that Christian ministry is so full of folks with this motivation and expertise?

It certainly doesn’t occur as often as it used to, but as a pastor, I get calls all the time from individuals and groups who want to come to our church to “perform.” That is really the best word I can use to describe it. And, in order to commend themselves, they say things like, “In the last place where we ministered, 400 people came to Christ” or “We had an average attendance of 10,000 people per night.”

Every time I hear such commendations, I have to chuckle. Most of the time, these people focus on things that only God can do. If even one person gets saved in a service anywhere at any time, isn’t it because God did it? If even one person shows up at church, isn’t it because God brought them? How dare anyone take credit for anything like that?

But they have to say something. They have to make those sorts of connections in order to promote themselves.

In response to self-promoters, Paul does exactly the opposite. In fact, this whole book is an answer to those who boast about themselves. In contrast to loaded resumes listing “accomplishments” in ministry, Paul touts his sufferings and hardships. He refuses to promote himself at all. He just brags on Jesus, and lets the commendations take care of themselves.

Here is a worthy goal. I keep coming up with these as I read this powerful book. I want to minister in such a way that the Lord commends what I am doing.

The commendation of the Lord—I wonder what that looks like.

Well, as I sit here this morning and think and pray about it, it could look like less and less people.

As I scan the scriptures and think about the ministries of “successful” (in God’s terms) folks, this is often the case. Jeremiah faithfully preached God’s message and there is not one record of any “converts” in his ministry. Adoniram Judson, the first Baptist missionary, who served in India, ministered for seven years before he witnessed the first person saved. Seven years!

This is certainly not the type of stuff you would see on a brochure sent to pastors to promote someone’s ministry. “Invite Jeremiah to preach a five day revival at your church and have no converts!” Or, how about this, “invite Jeremiah to preach in your church and you can be assured that you will have less people in your church when he finishes, than when he started.” Yeah, right. I’m sure the line would be long to sign up for that!

But I turn around and say with confidence that these two men and their ministries had the commendation of the Lord.

Another element of this is that those who are commended by the Lord may not see any tangible or visible “results” here, but someday, as they stand before God, they will get their just reward.

Well, this is food for thought.

Here is the way the Psalmist puts it: "His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love" (Psalm 147:10, 11 ESV).

Lord, I want to toot your horn today. I want to brag about you today to anyone who will listen.

I refuse to promote myself EVER. I pray that you would fill me with the Holy Spirit so that I can serve you in such a way that you will commend me.

I rejoice in the fact that you take pleasure in me today, not because of anything I do or don’t do. It is only because of your Son and my Savior, Jesus.

“I believe in a hill called Mount Calvary—I’ll believe what ever the cost;
And when time has surrendered and earth is no more, I’ll still cling to the old rugged cross” (“I Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary,” BH 2008, 246). Amen.
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The Death Trap of Comparison

Is that a strong enough statement? I hope so. I’ll get to the discussion in a moment.

On Tuesday night, I slept a total of one hour and thirteen minutes! Strange to say, I know. But I remember looking at the clock at midnight and then when I woke up, I looked at it again. It said, “1:13.”

I know I sound like a broken record, but it is the steroids that they give you in cancer treatments that are one of the reasons why they are so difficult.

I made this comment to Betty the other day, “I feel as if my engine is revved up to the max, but the car is still in the driveway.” This churned up, speeded up feeling is very exhausting, and yet it is difficult to sleep.

I’m thankful that I slept better last night, but this is the normal deal: it usually takes a few days for things to level out.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit two gentlemen in care centers. The first man’s name is Harold. He is the husband of a dear sister in our church named Fran.

The first time I visit with Harold (at that time, he was in a facility in Aurora), he was rather “out of it.” He was receiving a lot of medications.

I talked to Fran on the phone yesterday before I went to see Harold. She was concerned that they were giving him too much medicine. The night before, Harold had a serious fall.

Well, anyway, yesterday, as I entered his room, Harold perked up. He remembered me and seemed glad to see me. We visited for a good long while as Harold and I conversed about a broad range of subjects. When a couple of attendants from the Care Center entered the room, I felt it was my time to go. I looked at Harold and thanked him for the visit. He thanked me in return.

After that, I drove downtown to visit one of our members, Bill, who is in another care center. His wife Donna felt the need to put Bill in such a place because of the seriousness of his health concerns.

When I arrived at Bill’s room, he was finishing up getting dressed for the day. He said, “Pastor, I don’t want to be in this place.” We visited for rather a long time as well. I prayed with him (as I had done with Harold) and left.

I’ll tell you: it is rather sobering to think that someday, if the Lord allows me to live longer, I may end up in a facility like this. Marilyn and I joke that we will be roommates someday!

Most people have a negative view of them, and I realize some “nursing homes” do not do a good job of care, but I think, in both of these instances, Fran and Donna have made very good decisions. In both instances, they simply could not care for their husbands on their own. I can see this clearly.

I asked Harold and Bill, “Are they taking good care of you here?” Both answered with vehemence, “Oh, yes. Excellent care.” Bill went on, “They treat me like a king in here. I get to eat all I want. And the food is good, really good.” I was glad to hear this.

It still doesn’t make this process any easier—either from the spouse’s standpoint or that of the patient. Please pray for both couples.

Back to the text for today: here is the verse that stands out in 2 Corinthians 10:
"Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding" (2 Corinthians 10:12 ESV).

Oh, boy, this verse ought to be written on the forehead of every pastor in the world.

The challenge with this starts in seminary. Who were the models that were put before “the preacher boys” as they prepared for ministry? Of course. You guessed it—mega-church pastors. They are “successful” and so they get to preach all the important sermons at conventions and in seminary chapels.

I’ve often wondered why the “powers that be” don’t invite some lowly country preacher, who serves faithfully out in the sticks somewhere in a church with an average attendance of six.

What makes that kind of man less qualified than a guy who serves a church with thousands of members and a television ministry? I would argue that it is a lot more difficult to serve Jesus in the small setting rather than the large. But these guys are not esteemed for the most part.

Something is wrong.

All of us get fed the idea that the goal is to grow a mega-church. Guys graduate and head into the field with this mentality, and when Saddleback or Willow Creek doesn’t occur in six to nine months, they move on to another place.

Getting over this for me was extremely difficult because my standard of comparison was North Phoenix Baptist Church. Growing up, on Spring Break, we would always head to Arizona. We found North Phoenix and made a point of going there every year on vacation.

The services were unique, to say the least. Every service began with at least twenty baptisms. Thousands filled the auditorium. It was always difficult to find a seat. One year, we came in and sat down just as Sunday School was being dismissed. The doors of the auditorium opened and people rushed in as if they had been released in a candy store. All of a sudden, a group of seniors descended on us. It was awkward because we were sitting in their usual places. So, we moved!

But Richard Jackson was the bombastic and charismatic (I do not use that term in the theological but personality sense). He preached evangelistic messages, powerful appeals for Jesus. I still have many of his sermons on cassette tape (this dates me right there!). When he gave the invitation to his sermons, the front of the church literally flooded with people making professions of faith.

It was an incredible church.

This was my model, especially when I started at First Southern back in 1989. As you could probably tell, it did not take me long to get frustrated.

Since I started, it has been a breaking process over the years, often a very painful one. Here are two conclusions the Lord brought to me. First, the church I serve, First Southern, is NOT and never will be North Phoenix. Second, John Talbert is not and never will be Richard Jackson. (Profound, huh?).

Oh, plus, I just don’t think our auditorium is big enough to fit a television camera in it!

When I am thinking right, my goal is for me to be the best pastor that the Lord called John Talbert to be (there is only one of him. Many would rejoice at that fact!) and the same is true for First Southern. We are unique in the world and history. The goal is for us to be the best we can be, by God’s power.

So, here is what I believe: comparison is futile and narrow and sinful. It is a waste of time. Paul refused to get in that game. I pray that He gives me grace to avoid it as well, at all costs.

Lord, I’m thankful for the unique person you have made me. Thank you for First Southern. I can certainly vouch for the fact that there is no other church like it. Praise your Holy Name!

Take care of Harold and Fran as well as Bill and Donna.

Let me seek today to serve you and please YOU and you alone.

“But the things that matter the most in this world,
They can never be held in your hand” (“I Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary,” BH 2008, 246). Amen.
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On the Offensive

Part three of 2 Corinthians strikes a radically different tone. Every time I read this remarkable book, it seems more pronounced.

Before I go further, I have to say something at this point. Even the Apostle Paul—arguably the greatest preacher, pastor, and missionary who ever lived—had to defend his ministry against detractors. Even Paul.

It is hard to believe, really, but this whole book is a defense of his ministry and the longer it goes, it appears that he was being criticized for some pretty flimsy reasons.

Chapter ten cites a couple more. Verse one reminds us that people accused Paul of being a wimp in person. They said that his letters have a lot of bite, but in person he is a pussycat. This particular accusation is cited in verse ten.

So, how does he respond? Well the first few verses of chapter ten are very insightful. "I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete" (2 Corinthians 10:2-6 ESV).

“Them’s fightin’ words.”

Paul is acknowledging that he is in a battle. And every battle requires soldiers and weaponry. And the Apostle makes it clear that his weapons are not human and worldly weapons. Instead, they “have divine power to destroy strongholds.”

In other words, Paul’s battle is a spiritual battle and requires spiritual weapons that operate in the spiritual realm.

Paul was being attacked on a human and fleshly and outward level, but he chose not to respond in kind. He chose to operate and function in this realm.

Over the years, I have wondered exactly what Paul is referring to when he talks about weapons.

My mind goes first of all to the list of armor in Ephesians 6. But technically, as you read Paul’s descriptions there, he is not really talking about weapons. Well, he does mention one—the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). A sword is indeed a weapon.

Several years ago, in a seminary class, I remember someone asked Dr. Bruce Corley about this passage. This student said, “Dr. Corley, what is he talking about here?” This was Dr. Corley’s reply: “I think he is talking about the Word of God and prayer. These are Paul’s two weapons that he wields.”

He went on to say, “And these are pretty powerful and I think he has already used them in this church. Back in I Corinthians 5, as he was speaking about the immoral man, Paul told the church to ‘deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord’ (I Corinthians 5:5, ESV). I believe that this man dropped dead at that point just like Ananias and Sapphira did in Acts 5.”

Gulp.

That is pretty powerful stuff.

Who knows if that is exactly what happened to this man in I Corinthians 5? But whatever it was, I would not want to be him. I can tell you that much.

Anyway, I have to be reminded that the resources that the Lord makes available are extremely powerful. He puts them at the disposal of every believer, but I think the main context in which they operate is the church.

And I want to encourage everyone who is reading this blog today to pray for their church and to pray that the Lord would destroy strongholds and everything that raises itself up against the knowledge of God. The ultimate goal in all of this is to defeat the enemy and to take his soldiers captive. This is what the power of God can do.

I trust the Lord to accomplish this today.

I had a good talk with Kathy, Richard’s daughter. She is grieving the loss of her dad, as all of us are, but she said something on the phone that I really appreciate, and it goes back to something I have said in this forum in the past couple of days. “Pastor John, I miss my dad, but I am so glad that he is not suffering any longer. On Sunday, one of our friends came as all of us gathered around his bed. And this friend sang some of the old hymns and they put a smile on his face. When we all left to go eat lunch, my dad went home to be with the Lord.”

Amen. That’s the way I want to go: with a smile on my face and a song in my heart—on into eternity.

Richard fought the battle well and now He is in the presence of Jesus enjoying the eternal spoils of victory.

Lord, I do acknowledge today the spiritual battle we all face. But I am thankful for the weapons you make available to me and to every believer.

I pray for the destruction of strongholds at First Southern. I ask you to clear the decks of anything in me or in the church that stands against you.

Take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ. Let that spiritual work begin with me today.

“Now I’ve giv’n to Jesus everything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King” (“At Calvary,” BH 2008, 245). Amen.
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Thank You for Jesus, Period

The final verse of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 says it all. Paul sums things up with a very pithy statement that silences all arguments and excuses when it comes to giving money to God.

"Now thanks be to God for His Gift, [precious] beyond telling [His indescribable, inexpressible, free Gift]!" (2 Corinthians 9:15 AMP)

As I read this, today, this chorus came to mind:

“Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul,
Thank you, Lord, for making me whole;
Thank you, Lord, for giving to me
Thy great salvation so rich and free” (“Thank you, Lord,” BH 2008, 582).

I am singing this chorus, and I thank the Lord today for Jesus, but I find myself very quickly moving away from Him to thank Him for other things . . .

The Holy Spirit stopped me. Stay on Jesus.

Lord, without the gift of Jesus, none of the other things I so quickly move on to thank you for would be in my life. None of them. Thank you for the gift of your Son who came to this earth. Thank you for His sinless life. Thank you for His sacrificial death. Thank you for His resurrection. Thank you for His ascension. Thank you for the sending of the Holy Spirit because of the gift of Jesus’ ascension. Thank you that right now, your gift to us, is pleading my case as King Priest at your right hand. The One who saved me keeps me saved.

Selah.

Yesterday’s treatment went well. I finished a little earlier than normal and found myself feeling rather energetic well into the afternoon. It was strange, but then the bottom fell out, and I could barely get off the couch for the rest of the day. I even tried to get continue to get some work done, but I just had no impetus for it.

As the evening progressed and my mom and sister and I were getting ready to go to bed, somehow we got into a conversation about the church.

I’m not married, but I get to see through them what pastor’s families go through when it comes to the ministry. They take things in and absorb more than pastors do.

Last Sunday, as I have indicated before, attendance was way down. There were a lot of empty spaces. My mom said, “Where on earth was everyone Sunday?” I said, “Well, some were out of town, and some of the others … I don’t know.” Someone said, “What is August usually like?” I replied, “Well, it is usually a month where people are trying to get in their last vacations and time away before school starts.”

This is true. August is one of those times where we just keep the doors open and have services and try to minister as best we can.

I know this in my head, but my heart still, after all these years, has a hard time keeping up.

I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I have grave concerns about the church. As always, the urgent necessity is for us to keep reaching people or the reality is that we won’t be around that much longer.

Don’t get me wrong. I think a lot of things are going extremely well right now. The Special Business Meeting of a couple of Sundays ago is a case in point. We are moving forward, but I was reminded Sunday, though, that things are hard, very hard, for a lot of folks.

Sharon’s grandson Sam was there. This boy has faced a lot of physical challenges in his short life. He has stomach problems and the doctors are trying to figure out what is going on. Catherine had knee surgery and is recovering from it. As she was headed out the door, Ginger shook her head, “It was a tough week.” These are the people who were there!

What about Debbie who awaits the results of a biopsy that the doctors say is very serious? Why can’t they just tell her over the phone? No. She has to wait in agony until Wednesday. Are you kidding me?

As the evening wore on, the more we talked, the more this question came to mind, “Why does it have to be so hard?” This is the title I have adopted for my sermon series in 2 Corinthians, and right now, here today, as I sit here, do you want to know my very profound theological answer to that question is (an answer that the book of 2 Corinthians bears out, by the way)?

Ready? Drum roll please! Because it has to be hard. It absolutely has to be.

Even as I type those words, I am very dissatisfied. What? That doesn’t make me feel better.

Finally, we just stopped our conversation and prayed. We prayed for everything and everyone we could think of, whether they were in church Sunday or not.

When we finished, my mom said, “Well, as long as I have breath and can walk well enough to get there, I’m going to be sitting in that pew on Sunday morning. Nothing is going to keep me away.”

Marilyn added, “You know as you think about how hard things are it really does make me think that I am going to stick things out and see things through.”

Of course, the temptation in all of this is to bail out. That is the easy road. And this “bail out” can take many forms. You can be sitting in a pew and still be a “bail out.” But at least, there, you have opportunity for the Lord to do a work in your life through corporate worship, the fellowship of the saints, and the power of the Word of God.

After we talked and prayed, I felt the same way. We probed the bottom of the barrel and found that down there, through the power of the Holy Spirit, He causes us to rebound, to bounce.

Boiiiinggggg!!!!

Some might call this revival.

This is now what I am renewing my commitment to pray for.

O, Indescribable Gift, do that bouncy, rubbery kind of work in our lives when it is hard, when we hit bottom. Amen.
Comments

Surpassing Grace and Another Maintenance Treatment

First of all, I must share the sad news that Kathy, Richard’s daughter, left me a message yesterday afternoon—Richard went home to be with Jesus. I have to say that I felt relief when I heard this news.

Before I go on, I must share something that happened to me a few years ago. On a Sunday morning, I stood up to tell the congregation about another death. I can’t remember who it was, but I made a similar comment to the one above. I said something like, “I’m glad he/she is gone and is now home with the Lord.” After the service, someone approached me, “I can’t believe you just said that you were glad someone died!” Whoever it was who approached me was outraged.

I don’t know what I said at that point, but after praying about my comment, I came to the point of believing that I am not going to worry about it. And I am going to make similar comments in the future. Come on! Do we really want someone to continue to suffer in a deathbed? Do we want that to be prolonged? Should I be sad when a Christian gets to go home?

Sure, I will miss Richard. I am grieving over his death. I know his family is doing the same. Grief is sad.

BUT, when we remove ourselves from the picture and just think about Richard, I cannot be sad FOR HIM at this point. His suffering is over and right now, he is in the presence of God and there is a huge celebration going on in heaven as he is now with the Lord. I am relieved FOR HIM and glad FOR HIM.

Enough said on that point.

More about yesterday—it was very evident that August had arrived. As I stood up to preach yesterday, I noticed large areas of empty spaces in our auditorium. A lot of people are out. I struggle with it every year, but it is typical of the month of August. For one reason or another, people are out of town or not in church, as they get ready for another school year.

This is why I always try to take some vacation in the month of August or in early September. It is just one of those slow times of the year.

But I have to say that it was hard to preach yesterday. My mom and sister always ask me how things went. They were there of course, but what they are asking is, “How did you feel about the way things went at church today?” I responded, “It was just one of those days when I felt as if I were slogging through a mud puddle. It was hard to get the words out. I felt as if I were straining.”

Maybe others felt the same way. At one point in the service, Johnathon, who serves in our sound booth, turned down my microphone. It was very noticeable. In fact, I even made a comment to him during my sermon. Afterwards, he told me that some folks asked him to turn the volume down. Okay.

After the service, some of us headed over to the main park in Northglenn. It is called E. B. Rains Park in order to participate in an outreach event in our community called “RevivalFest.” If that name sounds familiar, it is because I wrote about our participation in a similar event in June. Anh Le, the evangelist from our sister church, North Metro, fired up this outreach again.

We had a good turnout from folks at church. Bill coordinated the set-up of our tent and booth. When I arrived with a couple of cases of water, he already had things ready to go. John and Lettie and James and Anne were there as well. Anne had gone to Subway. She bought all of us a sandwich. I really appreciated this ministry (Anne and James have servant hearts. They always think about stuff like that).

All of us visited and shared fellowship as the other churches and ministries arrived to set up. I got to visit with some friends from North Metro who stopped by. At one point, I ventured over to the COFU (Community of Faith United, the organization that uses space in God’s building). Several others joined us. We prayed for the day and for the event.

Things started with a guy and then a group doing Christian rap. When it started, Bill looked at me. He knew what I was thinking. I knew what he wanted to say as well. Of course, I was the one who broke the silence, “Certainly not my cup of tea. I don’t even think it qualifies as music, but if it appeals to someone here who listens to the words, then it is good.”

In the course of the afternoon, a couple of Jewish brothers stopped by to visit with us. One brother, Johanon, is the Rabbi of a Messianic congregation off of 44th and Sheridan. Adrian, who told me that the Lord has called him to be an evangelist, was with him. These two brothers were on fire for Jesus. It was a delight to meet them. They shared the Word with us. We exchanged information. I hope to see both of them again.

I tell you: among the many things I so appreciate about this outreach is the opportunity to meet other believers in the body of Christ and to be exposed to all the ways and means there are to get the message out. It was another wonderful affirmation of the need for multiple denominations and churches that believe in Jesus and affirm the truth of God’s Word. We need this diversity. It is not a negative. It is a huge positive.

At about 3:00, I realized it was time for me to go. I had planned to go to Aurora to visit with some former church members and dear friends who were in town. I’ll tell more about THAT visit later on.

It was obviously a very full day and I did not want to get too tired because of the maintenance treatment today.

These two chapters in 2 Corinthians—chapters eight and nine—have a very clear and unmistakable theme—the grace of God. It is interesting to observe the progression of allusions to this grace. The Holy Spirit through the pen of Paul is very intentional in this, of course (this goes without saying for every passage in every book of the Word). But things build to a crescendo.

I’m going to list these references:

--The Grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 8:1.
--The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8:9
--And God is able to make all grace abound to you, 9:8.

And then, here is the verse I came to in my reading today: "while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you" (2 Corinthians 9:14 ESV. All references above come from the ESV).

Surpassing grace! This is one of those instances when language is just not adequate. How do you improve on “the grace of our Lord Jesus” and “all grace”? The only words that Paul can use are “surpassing grace.” It is just beyond our ability to comprehend and conceive.

Whatever this is—and language can’t describe and words cannot contain it—I want get in on it.

Lord, I’m grateful that you are so much bigger than my perspectives and the church I serve. Thank you for the broader church community including Christian rappers and Messianic Jews. Thank you for grace, more grace, grace of Jesus, all grace, and surpassing grace.

Grace is awesome as it is, but with you, it always overflows. It is always abundant. You are never calculating or stingy with grace. Thank you.

I pray for Richard’s family as they grieve. I miss him, Lord. I’m sad for me, but glad for him.

Thank you for RevivalFest and the folks who were exposed to the gospel yesterday. Thank you for all the brothers and sister in Christ who were there yesterday, especially folks from First Southern.

I pray that you would help me through this treatment today.

Oh, and I want to lift up Debbie and Ellen, two sisters who are facing uncertainties of biopsies and results.

“My guilt and despair
Jesus took on Him there,
And Calvary covers it all” (“Calvary Covers It All, BH 2008, 244). Amen.
Comments

Hearts Open and Going Out

So many things get in motion when Christians do the right thing, when they act like Jesus.

This ninth chapter of 2 Corinthians is an awesome view of that. It is as if Paul steps back, way back, and gives the folks in the church a birds-eye view of things.

He tells them about what will happen in the relationships of Jew and Gentile. We tend to discount this a bit because we are far removed from the part of the world in which this continues to be an on-going issue. All you have to do is watch the news. Not long ago, and I can’t remember exactly where this was in the Middle East, someone blew up a bus full of people, mostly Israelis. This interpersonal conflict is still going on.

The second aspect of this, something I explored yesterday, has to do with the God part. As Creator and Redeemer, God initiates things, and when we cooperate and get out of His way through biblical generosity, then all the honor and glory and praise cycles right back to Him.

But there is another dimension to all of this, and I am not quite sure of how to put it. I’m preaching today from the sixth chapter of 2 Corinthians, and there is a verse from that chapter that the Holy Spirit reminded me of as I came to a verse today in the ninth chapter. I will quote the verse from chapter nine first and then the verse from chapter six.

"And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you" (2 Corinthians 9:14 NIV84).

"As a fair exchange–I speak as to my children–open wide your hearts also" (2 Corinthians 6:13 NIV84).

In response to his opponents, Paul urges a heart response to him, to his ministry, and ultimately to the truth. It isn’t about cold calculations of competency. Paul answers his critics by citing what it cost him in blood, sweat, and tears to serve. He just lists hardships and difficulties. There you go. That’s it.

He has poured out his life. He has opened his heart. That’s what this book is all about. The Apostle is baring his heart. It is out there for everyone to see.

As a result, he challenges the church at Corinth to do the same—open their hearts. This is an interesting expression. The more I study it, the less I think I have it figured out. Maybe it is not something you can explain. I suspect that it is something that you feel. Maybe the better word is “discern.” You can tell when someone is in it for the wrong reason, and conversely, you can discern genuineness.

Yesterday, I got a message from Kathy, Richard’s daughter, that the folks at the hospice were telling them that he wouldn’t live through the day. I felt that I needed to go be with them. So I drove up to Lafayette. As I was walking into the hospice, Kathy yelled out. She had been attending to her dog that was in her car in the parking lot.

Our visit carried us into a waiting room were we talked about how Richard was doing and about what he wanted for his funeral.

Then, Kathy said, “Well, are you ready to go see him? He doesn’t look like he did even a couple of days ago. They have increased his morphine. He is non-responsive.”

She was right.

When we got to the room, I walked up to the bed and patted him on the shoulder and said, “Hey Richard!” His daughter-in-law, Tanya, who was sitting next to the bed, interjected, “He can’t hear you.” I was hoping she was wrong.

In a little bit, Richard’s son Ken entered the room. We shook hands. I had met him a few years ago.

There we were in that room, the four of us—and Richard. He was asleep, his head turned to the side at an awkward angle.

I was in no hurry. I enjoyed visiting with Kathy, Tanya, and Ken.

At one point, Tanya said, “Well, I’m sure you know this, but Richard is a very generous person. He gives to a lot of charities.” I did know that.

She continued, “One of them called the other day. I guess they were wondering why they had not received any money from him. I just told them that he was in hospice and that they should just take him off the list. Well, the lady on the other end of the line said, ‘Ma’am, we can’t do that. Only the executor of his estate can do it. Let me give you Richard’s membership number and we need to hear from the executor.’ Isn’t that unbelievable?”

Yes, it is.

She went on, “Here I am as a family member concerned about and focused on Richard, and all they care about it is not severing a relationship that has the potential to get them money.”

I replied, “Right. When you told her to take his name off the list, the lady from the charity should have done it right then and there and told you she was praying for Richard and then she should have hung up.”

Back to my point: it really isn’t that difficult to discern the difference between “heartless” and open hearts.

But here is the point in 2 Corinthians 9—when a generous believer or church opens their hearts, then others tend to do the same in return. It is just another one of the blessings Paul talks about as he urges the church in Corinth to get off the dime (no pun intended) and participate in this offering.

I’m not using myself here as any kind of example. Let me say that.

But I need to tell you what else happened yesterday. As I discerned that it was time for me to leave, Kathy, Ken, Tanya, and I gathered around Richard’s bed and prayed for him. Toward the end of my prayer, I felt myself getting a little emotional.

I shook Ken’s hand, hugged Tanya, and walked out of the room with Kathy. As we were standing in the hall, she looked me in the eye and said, “Pastor John, are you okay?”

I was there to “minister” to them, and she asked me how I was doing! Like father, like daughter.

All I could muster up at that moment in response was, “I’m okay. I just love your dad.” I told her I was praying for her. We hugged. I left.

Richard is not expected to make it through this day. I’m just waiting to hear from Kathy.

Lord, I thank you for the work you do on hearts. Yours is truly “heart work.”

I lift up Richard. I pray that his suffering would not be prolonged. Help him to be able to go home today, as hard as that is from a selfish standpoint to pray. I pray for Kathy and Ken and Tanya and the rest of Richard’s family. Comfort them. They know. We all know where he is headed.

Open hearts today in the service at First Southern. Begin this work by opening up my heart.

I pray for RevivalFest at the park today. Give us an opportunity to share Jesus with some folks. I pray that many would be saved. I pray for Anh and Kathleen Le who are coordinating this event. I place it in your hands. Do more “heart work” today, Jesus.

“’Man of sorrows!’ what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!” (“Hallelujah, What a Savior,” BH 2008, 242). Amen.
Comments

The Cycle is Complete

As I am sitting here this morning, it dawns on me that the Lord has given me a new goal for my life.

Kind of crazy to say, isn’t it?

Let me see if I can explain. The middle part of 2 Corinthians, these two chapters, chapter eight and nine, are all about an offering that Paul was pulling together. It was an offering to help the famine stricken churches in Judea in general and Jerusalem in particular. This offering is a very prominent ministry in the career of Paul. It was very important to him.

Why? Because I believe he saw it as a way to pull Jew and Gentile believers together. Here was a chance for all these congregations he had started in Asia Minor to show gratitude to the “first church” for their beginning in the first place. I mean, if the church in Jerusalem had not sent out missionaries (albeit rather forced because of persecution) none of these congregations would exist.

As a result of the impetus of the Holy Spirit, the church in Jerusalem started the ball rolling and it was a huge blessing—many people got saved and experienced the joy of knowing and serving Jesus.

Through this gift, there was an opportunity for this rolling ball, this huge blessing, to come back to the folks who got it started.

It was Paul’s desire and prayer that in this process, Jew and Gentile believers would come closer to each other, the bond between these two groups, would cement itself more than ever.

Well, all of this describes what happens on a horizontal level when folks serve God and are generous: someone always gets blessed. Those who serve Jesus get blessed simply because they serve. Those who receive the service get blessed. Those who see it from afar get blessed also.

Well, you get the idea.

In the verses the Holy Spirit brought me to this morning, Paul introduces another crucial dimension into the discussion—an aspect of all of this that goes back to what I cited from Hauerwas and Willimon’s book yesterday—the God dimension.

God is the Starter of everything. He is the Divine Initiator. In the beginning, God. That’s all we need to know. As the One who has always been, He has always been there. And the first chapter of Genesis tells us that He simply spoke and all the universe began. In a large sense, God got the ball rolling.

But all of us can say this about our lives and particularly, our money, as well. Back in 1967, Jesus walked into my life, and got me started on a journey of adventure. This is another concept that Hauerwas and Willimon use as the talk about the church as a “colony.” It is not a static entity. It moves. WE MOVE, just as the disciples did when the followed Jesus.

Therefore, all of us move with Jesus from the moment we get saved, and as we progress, we realize that we are living and operating in a plan that started from the foundation of the world. Our conversion is a beginning. It is crucial. Don’t get me wrong, but in another sense, it is not a beginning. It is a continuation of God’s plan that started at creation as well. Paul refers to “the foundation of the world” as He refers to Jesus.

Co-existent with the Father from the beginning, Jesus was active at creation as well.

Anyway, back to us in the here and now—everything I have comes from God. He has given it to me.

Well, what Paul is advocating in the following verses is the completion of that cycle: "You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God" (2 Corinthians 9:11, 12 NIV84).

The Lord provides riches for me (I am not referring to monetary amounts, but riches in the broader biblical sense of the blessings of God. The fact is, though, that most Americans are very rich when it comes to the standards of other folks in the world), not so that I can line my own pockets. Nope. Paul is very clear. He provides riches so that I might be generous to others. There is the horizontal level.

But here is the vertical level: when I am generous, it results in thanksgivings to God. And he reiterates this in verse 12. My generosity meets the needs of God’s people but it overflows “in many expressions of thanks to God.”

Wow. Okay, so here is my new life’s goal: I want to be so generous with the salvation the Lord has given me that other folks, all over the place, thank God.

How about that?

So much of what we do, especially preachers, is so that folks will thank us. And I do not diminish the role of gratitude on an interpersonal level. All of us have a need to be loved and appreciated. I think it is very important to thank people for what they have done. (Oops, this reminds me to send Bernard and Gladys a thank you note for four Palisade peaches they gave me on Sunday—the best peaches EVER).

BUT, along with that, and more important, is that people thank God.

When this occurs, the cycle is complete. God got everything started and when it is all said and done, He gets the glory. This is the way it should be in the here and now.

But it is also what is going to take eternity to complete. I believe the Bible is clear that a huge part of our eternity in heaven is that it is going to take that long to praise and thank the Lord for everything.

Jesus, I want to start right now, today. My heart is full. I praise you for being a generous God. Thank you for creating me. Thank you for saving me. Thank you for everything you have given me in grace and for everything you have provided on a material level.

I confess the sin of being so selfish and stingy and narrow and focused on myself and my problems.

I pray for an opportunity to be generous, not just any kind of generous, but generous to the extent that someone seeing it or receiving it or witnessing it, will actually thank you.

“Oh, the wonder of it all, the wonder of it all—
Just to think that God loves me” (“The Wonder of It All,” BH 2008, 108). Amen.
Comments

Effectiveness Vs. Faithfulness

It seems that I am always on the lookout for something, anything to give me the right perspective of my work as a pastor and what is going on at First Southern.

Lately, I’ve just been praying for some sort of break-through—whether it is in the church itself or just in my life personally.

The reason for this is that I am learning that it is very easy to live in some sort of delusion, and there are two different ways we can delude ourselves. On the one hand, we can be deluded that everything is going well based on our opinions and perspectives. In church work, this usually boils down to the 4 B’s: bodies, baptisms, budgets, and buildings.

For most pastors, if any or all of those categories are going up, that usually means we are “successful” and get asked to preach on big occasions as “experts” or get to climb the SBC ladder—get to move to a church with even bigger numbers in the 4 B’s.

On the other hand, most of the guys I know right now along with myself, fit in a polar opposite category. This one is all about a state of being in church in which all the 4 B’s are going in the opposite direction—down, down, down.

This past Sunday at First Southern was a case in point. For some reason, we were very low in numbers for Sunday school and worship. When we started the service, it didn’t seem as if anyone was there. Folks trickled in eventually. It ended up that the attendance was really that low, but it wasn’t great, either.

If someone, however, was to ask me what I thought about last Sunday, I would have said this, “It was one of the greatest days we have ever had. Our Business Meeting went extremely well. Everyone is on board and ready to move forward.”

Do you get the idea? This evaluation process is tricky at best, and to be honest, even though it is such a temptation to do it, I’ve pretty much decided that I am out of the evaluation business as far as external categories are concerned.

I mean, if two people show up, and the Lord does some amazing work in their lives as a result of the ministry of the church on a particular day, isn’t that “success”?

Back to my prayer life regarding my ministry and the church—all of this verbiage is why I need the Lord’s perspective and wisdom. Otherwise, I would crumble in depression and go sell hamburgers at McDonalds (even though I am not quite sure I am qualified for that job!).

This brings me to a statement I read the other day that I honestly believe the Lord brought me to that has redefined some things.

The other day, I mentioned a book I came across as I was reading a commentary on 2 Corinthians in the chemo room. This title of the book is Resident Alien: Life in the Christian Colony. The authors are Hauerwas and Willimon. They are discussing the three types of churches.

The first type is the “activist” church. Its focus is on attempting to build a better society through involvement in seeking to improve the culture.

The second type of church, on the polar opposite end of a theological perspective, is the “conversionist” church. This congregation believes that individual conversion, not social and political action, is the key to transforming culture.

Let me stop right here for a moment. As I read these descriptions, and looked back over the twenty plus years I have served First Southern as pastor, I think our church has morphed from a conversionist to an activist perspective. Through our partnership with Community of Faith United and involved in Federal Heights, I would say that this is currently our focus, in spite of the fact that, if you pushed many of the people in our church and me in a corner, we would say that we believe that salvation is still the best hope for transforming our culture.

I would say that we are activists precisely because we are conversionists. Our involvement in seeking to meet the needs of folks has a goal—it is to lead people to faith in Jesus.

Anyway, back to the book. Hauerwas and Willimon present a third alternative. They do not put it forward as some sort of middle ground or synthesis of the above two perspectives, but rather, they advocate it as a radically new approach. They call it the “confessing” church. Here is the quote that captured my imagination: “the confessing church finds its main political task to lie, not in personal transformation of individual hearts or the modification of society, but rather in the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things. We might be tempted to say that faithfulness rather than effectiveness is the goal of the confessing church” (page 45).

I can’t tell you how that last sentence has impacted me!

If one adopts one of the first two philosophies of church—the activist or the conversionist—then it puts you in the perpetual position of having to evaluate effectiveness based on some type of objective or subjective criteria. How do you know you are “successful”? You count noses or dollars or bricks. Or, you try to gauge how “things are going” based on the number (again numbers) of folks who come in the door to get help or how many show up at Federal Heights Elementary School for some type of outreach activity. Whatever.

But in this new model—all of that goes out the window. All of that is up to God. And what we are left with is my daily walk with Jesus and making sure that as a Christian and as a pastor, I am faithful to Him in everything TODAY. That’s it. Period.

I am thankful for a new category. I needed one. The old standards of evaluation are about to kill me.

How ridiculous and narrow and shortsighted! How arrogant is it to think that I or any pastor or church leader or individual Christian can presume to make an evaluation of “how the church is going.” Only God can do that!

This is the same God who is more powerful than anyone or anything. I will show you how powerful He is. Notice this verse I read today: "For He has strengthened and made hard the bars of your gates, and He has blessed your children within you" (Psalm 147:13 AMP).

Our God can make the steel he allows us to forge in the first place HARDER.

Father, thank you for liberating me from the 4 B’s. This is a work you have been performing in my life since I was diagnosed with cancer.

I confess that I don’t have the energy to push the first two models. I confess the sin of thinking I could EVER do it or should.

Today, I just lean back in your arms. I choose today (as a brother who attended our church years ago admonished) to be AVAILABLE and FAITHFUL to you.

“Oh, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms” (“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, BH 2008, 453). Amen.
Comments

Serendipity

This morning, as I read this one verse in 2 Corinthians nine, the Holy Spirit stopped me dead in my tracks. I am overwhelmed as I think about the GENEROSITY OF OUR GOD.

“Jesus Christ, I think upon Your sacrifice.
You became nothing, poured out to death.
Many times I’ve wondered at Your gift of life,
And I’m in that place once again” (“Once Again,” BH 2008, 241). Amen.

This hymn—I first came to it yesterday—has been on my heart since yesterday morning. The words, the tune, over and over, like waves hitting a beach. “Once again, I thank you. Once again, I pour out my life.”

Everything, absolutely everything the Lord does is abundantly generous. He never skimps. He is no cheapskate. He lavishes his gifts on his undeserving kids—I am a primo case in point. The most lavish thing He ever did was the gift of His One and Only Son for me. He gave the best He had to save me.

I am convicted this morning that I spend more time thinking about what I don’t have instead of thanking Him and deeply appreciating all that I have.

This impacted me in a couple of ways yesterday. The first occurred as I drove up to Louisville to visit Richard.

When I got in his room, I stood at the end of his bed. He was asleep, but he woke up, rather startled. I just looked him in the eye and smiled. And he smiled back! I think that he must be very sedated because he seemed to drift in and out as I pulled up a chair and sat next to his bed.

Somehow, I did not feel in any kind of hurry. I just wanted to be there. I tried to have a conversation with him, but again, he just didn’t seem to be up to it. Eventually, I just gave up and sat there with him in silence.

I don’t know how long I did this. But then, I remembered the note on his door. It says something like, “Please limit your visit to ten minutes.” I don’t think anyone, first and foremost Richard, is keeping tabs on the time, but I felt at that moment that I needed to leave.

I picked up the chair I had been sitting in, put it back in the corner of the room, and went to the other side of Richard’s bed—where I could get closer to him. And, then, it came out. “Thank you for being a great friend and brother to me. I know the Lord brought you to the church and to me at just the right time. Thank you for writing in my blog and for encouraging me when I was diagnosed with cancer. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. I love you, Richard.”

I don’t know how much of that he heard of digested. That’s okay. I needed to voice that to him in the presence of God in that room.

I prayed for him and then left. That may be the last time I see him alive . . . this side of glory. I miss him already.

Richard fits in that category of God’s abundant generosity. Out of the blue, the Lord just brought this wonderful brother to our church and into my life.

Isn’t the Lord amazing in the way He does THAT? All of a sudden, you meet someone and it becomes a significant relationship in your life. Serendipity!

I’ve used that word before in this blog. I first heard this word when I was in college. This is the name given to the mid-week worship service sponsored by the Baptist Student Union at Baylor. When I heard that name as a freshman, I remember thinking, “Huh?” But it is a wonderful word--an appropriate word that describes God’s generosity. It means “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for” (“Serendipity,” www.merriam-webster.com, accessed August 2, 2012).

That was the first serendipity. The second occurred at dinnertime. I went to Chick Fil-A, and I am not ashamed to say it. As I drove up to their restaurant near the corner of 120th Avenue and Washington, I had originally planned just to go through the drive through, but I quickly realized that I did not have time for that. The cars were wrapped all the way around the restaurant and into the street.

Seeing that, I diverted over to an adjacent parking lot and made my way into the restaurant. It was very crowded even at 4:30. I heard someone calling out my name, “John, John!” I looked over and noticed Freida standing there! She and her husband Jim already had a table! I said, “Frieda, I will be glad to join you and Jim.” I waited in line for a rather long time. When I finally got my food, I made my way over to their table.

“Fancy seeing both of you here,” I said.

“I was kind of thinking that we would see more people from church here today,” Jim replied.

Me too.

We had a great visit. It has been a while since I’ve had an extended opportunity to visit with Jim and Frieda. We had a good long talk about each other’s families. Jim and Frieda’s oldest son, Tim, is my age. He and I became friends just about the time he and another gal in our church, Becky, got married and moved away.

We’ve had many other shared experiences over the years. Many of those memories came back, washing over me, as I ate my meal with them. I enjoyed my time with them last night.

As we were talking, Frieda said, “Wow, look!” It was literally pouring rain, and yet, the restaurant seemed to get more and more crowded. There were so many people in there that I could not even move my chair at the table. At one point, as we were talking, I think all of us realized that it was time to go.

As I left, my heart was full. And it still is.

Before we left, I took a picture of them. I will post it on my Facebook page and hopefully my website as well.

Lord, I thank you for the greatest gift of all—the gift of your Son, Jesus. Thank you for allowing me to live in the United States of America. Thank you for free speech in our country. Thank you that there are still a lot of folks who support biblical values and came to that restaurant to affirm that.

Thank you for my church family and for Jim and Frieda’s family, in particular. Thank you for Richard.

Fill me with the Holy Spirit today that I might have an opportunity to show someone how generous you are.

"As the Scriptures say, ‘They share freely and give generously to the poor. Their good deeds will be remembered forever’” (2 Corinthians 9:9 NLT). This quote comes from Psalm 112. This Psalm lists several characteristics of God’s people.

"Such people will not be overcome by evil. Those who are righteous will be long remembered. They do not fear bad news; they confidently trust the LORD to care for them. They are confident and fearless and can face their foes triumphantly. They share freely and give generously to those in need. Their good deeds will be remembered forever. They will have influence and honor" (Psalm 112:6-9 NLT).

Make these statements true in my life today. Amen.
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A Heart Decision

First off this morning, I want to clear up something that has caused some confusion to some people. Yesterday, I mentioned going to the chemo room at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center. As a result, some have asked me if I am taking chemotherapy again.

No.

All types of cancer treatment, whether it is chemo or not, are conducted in the “chemo room.” They do not have any place for it.

But again, I am not reverting back to chemo. Thank the Lord. Although, sometimes, it certainly feels as if I am.

I had a slow start yesterday. Afterwards, I went to the office for a little while, but after two hours, I started to get a headache and my energy level dropped. So, I left for the day. It was rather frustrating because I had a lot to do, but it will be waiting on me today.

I am realizing that I am growing weary of this long process of treatment. I’m thankful for it. Don’t get me wrong, but I am tired of this regimen of treatment, sleepiness, “amped-upness,” fatigue, et cetera. It affects me for several days, and just about the time I feel I’m getting back to normal (whatever THAT is), I go in for the second treatment, and it takes longer the second time to recover.

But, there is light at the end of this tunnel. I only have two more rounds to go. It will take another six months. When I conclude the maintenance treatments, I will have to have a PET scan, and then the next phase of this cancer process will begin—whatever that is.

I do know, as I have said many times before (maybe I am repeating so I will make sure I follow-through), whatever is ahead, it will NOT be back to the way I was living and working and ministering before.

One other thing to mention: please continue to pray for Richard. Betty said his daughter called to tell us that he is declining, and he is just waiting for that “golden chariot” as he calls it, to take him home to heaven. I hope to get a chance to visit him today. Pray that his suffering is not prolonged.

Well, the passage I read today is one of my favorites in the book of 2 Corinthians. These two chapters—chapters 8 and 9 are a fascinating study of how a preacher handles the delicate subject of money.

Chapter eight begins with the challenge of grace as it is exemplified in three ways: the churches in Macedonia, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the people of Israel in the wilderness.

Then, at the end of chapter eight and the beginning of chapter nine, he talks about administrative matters—always important. Any integrity leaks when it comes to the handling of money can cause big problems and should. In the life of the church, we are not dealing with our own money. It is God’s money. People are voluntarily giving it. It is huge.

After the “administrative section,” Paul returns in 9:6 to the spiritual challenge at hand.

These verses fly in the face of contemporary teachings of the “health, wealth, and prosperity” gospel. I won’t name names here, but one guy I happened to see on the television when I was in seminary told his television audience, “If you sow a seed of $100.00 you can be sure that God will give it to you. One lady in our audience wrote to tell us this very thing. The Lord told her to give $100.00. The next day, she went to her mailbox and opened a note with a check to her of $100.00. You can count on this if you give to our ministry.”

Unbelievable.

On the opposite side of THAT teaching, I heard a pastor say this, “Here is what I can promise you if you tithe your income to God: you will have ten percent less than when you started!”

I love it! Yes! Amen.

But here is the deal with what Paul is teaching in 2 Corinthians 9. He does use the seed analogy, but it is not about me giving money to get money in return. It is about me planting a seed (giving money) and the Lord blessing me on a much broader scale that goes far beyond simply the tit for tat of getting money in return. I get a generous crop.

Then, he makes these assertions:
"You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others" (2 Corinthians 9:7, 8 NLT).

It is interesting that in the New Living Translation, there is a footnote after verse seven that refers to Proverbs 22:8. When I went to that passage this morning, there was another note that indicated that the Greek version of the Old Testament (the technical name for it is the Septuagint) adds another verse in the text. Here it is: “God blesses a man who gives cheerfully, but his worthless deeds will come to an end.” Humm. Interesting. I’m going to have to do some research today to find out more about this. I never realized this connection before.

Anyway, it is not about giving so that I will get money back. It is about giving because it is right. It begins with a “heart decision.” What is this all about?

Well, I think it means that you step out in faith and obedience after praying about it and you give God the first and the best off the top. AND, here is another thing: I believe a “heart decision” is a matter of conviction. You take this step and you don’t go back, no matter what. You stick with it, even when money gets tight.

I believe cheerful giving is a choice. I choose to get happy about giving to God, and as I choose to do it, I get happy!

And when I do, there is a promise that kicks in, but it is NOT about getting money back in return. It is all about the provision of God for my needs for a specific purpose—so that I can be generous to give to others.

Al said it as he taught the stewardship class a couple of months ago. He said, “Here is what I have learned: if I am obedient to God in giving, he takes care of me in other areas. I’d rather have less money and the blessing of God, than more money and live in disobedience.” Amen.

This has certainly been the case for me personally and for my family. It is amazing to see how the Lord has taken care of us. I see it every day.

This was especially true in the scary days after my dad died. In the midst of a lot of uncertainty as to how we were going to make it, my mom made a heart decision to continue to give to God. In fact, she felt that it was important to honor my dad’s pledge to give to a building program at church even though my dad had died. And it was amazing to see how the Lord took care of a widow and her two kids. And still does.

To this very moment.

And this care is much more comprehensive—a generous crop—than just a check in the mail for the same amount! How narrow and small! God is bigger and more comprehensive than that! Come on!

Hey, how about this? How about getting an unexpected check in the mail and giving it right back to God? Now, THAT would be impressive.

Lord, thank you for the adventure and joy of giving. Thank you for providing the seed in the first place. Thank you for all the ways you are right now blessing my family and me. Thank you for the privilege of “hilarious” giving.

I lift up Richard today. Please comfort him right now.

Thank you for another day for me to get to see how you are going to take care of every one of my needs. Help me to be generous to share with others.

“I’m humbled by your mercy and I’m broken inside.
Once again I thank You;
Once again I pour out my life” (“Once Again,” BH 2008, 241). Amen.
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